Brett Brown previously served as a director of player development and assistant coach for the Spurs. (USA Today Images)
They went to dinner the other night -- shared stories, told jokes, reminisced. It was just like old times. They’ve had a lot of those together.
Brett Brown was an assistant under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio for years. They have been friends for so long that Popovich couldn’t recall when he knew Brown was ready to lead his own NBA team.
“I’ve known him for way too long to remember,” Popovich said. “He’s got a great personality, a great energy and exuberance about him. He has a love for the game and a love for people, and it shows in everything that he does. He’ll infect the players with that, and they will respond. And over time, you’ll all be very happy.”
Time. They talked a lot about that on Monday -- about all the time Popovich has put in with the Spurs and all the time Brown still has to put in with the Sixers. Popovich has been the head coach in San Antonio since the 1996-97 season. His first year, the Spurs won 17 games. The next year, they won 56.
Popovich’s teams have won 50 or more games in 15 of the last 17 seasons. They would have done it in 1998-99, too, except it was a strike shortened 50-game campaign. (The Spurs won 37 games that year.) They have won the NBA championship four times under Popovich. Brown was there for all of them.
The victories and the titles would be nice, but when Brown was asked what he would like to borrow from San Antonio and bring to Philadelphia, he didn’t hesitate.
“The opportunity to build a culture,” Brown said on a night when the Spurs smacked the Sixers, 109-85, at the Wells Fargo Center (see Instant Replay). “You look at that team, and I’m watching them play the New York Knicks [on Sunday], and they’re bringing Kawhi Leondard, Manu Ginobli and Tiago Splitter off the bench. Now, you’ve got some gold medalists in there. You’ve got future All-Stars in Kawhi. You’ve got a lot of talent just rolling in off the bench ... they’ve had the opportunity to build a culture.”
That last part was important. In case anyone was confused by his meaning -- or by the fact that the Sixers have surprised people by winning half of their games so far -- Brown explained.
“You don’t use the word culture without respect for what it really means,” he continued. “People kick around that word like it’s a word. It takes time. Never can you associate culture without applying longevity. There’s been a length of time that that group has been with each other. They’re veteran. They’re men. They’re Hall of Famers. They’re gold medalists. You’ve got a Hall of Fame coach. It’s just a machine. That thing just chugs along and moves along and they’ll bang out another 50 [wins] this year and be amongst the NBA’s best again and again.”
Unless the Sixers go from early-season surprise to late-season mind-blowers, they will not win 50 games or be among the NBA’s best this year. The Spurs are in the advanced stages of culture cultivation. The Sixers are in the embryonic phase. As Brown said, the Spurs have men and Hall of Famers and the Sixers are trying to develop youngsters like Michael Carter-Williams -- and whichever players they pluck with all those draft picks they’ve stockpiled.
It will take time. Luck too. The Spurs have been at it a while, but you don’t get to be at it a while -- you don’t get the longevity necessary to build a culture -- unless you’re fortunate enough to land quality talent.
“This is repetition a million times,” Popovich said. “What we did is, we didn’t screw it up. We’ve had a lot of good fortune. When you can have David [Robinson] in your program and you’re fortunate enough to draft Tim Duncan to follow him, you’re talking about a couple of decades of possible success, obviously, if you don’t screw it up. I try to leave it at that. We don’t know anything that other people don’t know. But with those guys as the base of an organization for 20 years, anybody would love to have that good fortune.”
It has been a good start for Carter-Williams, but the Sixers are a long way from knowing what sort of player he’ll be over his career. They’re even further from knowing about Nerlens Noel and whomever they end up drafting or adding next year and beyond. Time and luck. Building a culture with the Sixers was never going to be easy. Brown knew it all along.
“When you see that, the undercurrent behind the scenes [with the Spurs], is detail and pride for day-to-day work,” Brown said. “That’s in all areas. It’s not just what you do on a court. It’s how you act in all capacities and how you build a program -- from general managers to equipment managers to head coaches to trainers, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.”
And there, once more, just to fully explain himself, just to make sure there was no confusion about the heavy lifting ahead and all the backs it might break, Brown clarified.
“The program is looking for A’s,” Brown said, “not B-pluses.”