"I couldn't do it. I'd last about a month."
Those were the words of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich on how he'd fare if he had to switch jobs. No, he wasn't asked about being a color commentator alongside Kevin Harlan and Reggie Miller on TNT broadcasts or filling in the analyst seat alongside Jalen Rose on ESPN's Countdown show.
He was speaking about something far more in line with his skill-set, another NBA coaching job. More specifically he was explaining why former Spurs assistant and current 76ers coach Brett Brown is the perfect person to be leading a massive long-term rebuilding project in Philadelphia.
It's well documented that Popovich and Brown are very close. They worked side-by-side in San Antonio for a dozen years and enjoyed tremendous success together. Brown also has extensive experience coaching internationally, having led the Australian men's national team to three Olympic Games. He had built up enough of a resume by 2014 that he didn't necessarily have to pick the Philadelphia job. He could've waited around for a better gig.
"I have not one regret taking the Philadelphia job," responded Brown, with disarming earnestness and his trademark thick Bostonian accent that turns "River Walk" into "river wok" and "sharp" into "shop."
Coaching, especially at the top level, is a close-knit fraternity. Everybody knows everybody and while they try to kill one another on the court, there are inevitable pangs of guilt practically as soon as the buzzer sounds. Every win for you means a loss for the other guy. It's a results-oriented vocation --"a very volatile business" is how Popovich would term it a few days later-- where even someone like Kevin McHale, who took the Rockets to the Western Conference Finals last season, can be dismissed without mass outrage and riots on his behalf after a 4-7 start.
If there's one trait that Popovich has consistently exhibited, besides having little patience for bad questions, it's that he always shows respect for an opposing coaches and players. He's also been, in recent years, pretty consistent in telling people that he doesn't watch tape of the opponent until the stretch run of the season, preferring to just watch film of his own team and trusting his assistants and scouts to do their jobs.
So it was most interesting then, and truly indicative of his deep loyalty and respect for Brown, that Popovich diverted from his comfort zones and spoke with such passion about Brown's plight. He was eloquent in describing his friend's tactical acumen, his "out-of-the-box" thinking, his sense of humor and work ethic, but there was clearly one quality above all that made Brown, in Pop's considered opinion, the ideal person to oversee what looks from the outside to be an impossible dream.
Essentially Brown's the right for the job because he's got the patience of Job.
He's the most positive individual that I know," Popovich said of Brown. "I honestly don't know who else could be in Philadelphia doing what he's doing... He, honest to God, loves coaching that team. He actually enjoys coaching those guys in an honest, sincere way. What he's all about is not skipping steps, setting standards, he knows the way to do things, he communicates great and it all shows in the way those guys play."
What's most surprising is that Pop broke two of his tropes. First, he allowed himself to be less than complimentary concerning the opposing team, describing the current Sixers as "not the most talented players in the world" and "not as skilled as players on some other teams." Second, he admitted that he's watched several of the Sixers' games. With just about any other coach, such revelations wouldn't raise any eyebrows. With Pop they amounted to massive concessions that spoke volumes about what Brown means to him.
Though the two coaches have made a point of spending a portion of their days together prior to past meetings of their teams, a back-to-back in the Sixers' schedule complicated matters this time around. No matter, as Brown explained, "We talk very, very regularly."
Popovichian mantras were sprinkled in Brown's soliloquy when discussing his mentor and memories.
"You think of him and you're reminded always about not skipping steps," Brown says. "Good days add up... I just have repeated what I've learned... I tell my guys all the time, you give me your attitude and your effort and I'm with them unconditionally. Anything goes south of that, I'm not. I love coaching these guys."
The 76ers are 0-12. Even with rookie Jahlil Okafor, who looks like a future star, they're dead last in offensive rating by a mile, last in turnover percentage, and 24th in defensive rating, all per NBA.com.
Here's a taste of how recent Sixers games have gone:
The #Sixers have the same number of turnovers as made field goals (30). Trail by 32 with 4:23 left.— Tom Moore (@tmoore76ers) November 19, 2015
Brown is currently 37-139 in two years and change with the Sixers. As we've seen with McHale, coaches are coldly shown the door with far less margin for error. Obviously the circumstances in Philadelphia are different. The organization knows how little talent they've given Brown to work with, and they've been far less patient with that talent than with the coach. 23 players suited up for the 2013-14 Sixers in Brown's first year in charge. One, Tony Wroten, remains on the roster, and he's missed the whole season so far recovering from an ACL tear. It'd be a stretch to label a shooting guard who's hit 23.4 percent of his career three-point attempts as a building block.
Brown remains positive just the same.
"I see daylight all the time," he says, with a caveat. "And it's hard lately, I concede that, in year three it's most definitely hard. But I see four [future] first-round draft picks, I see [Dario] Saric, I see [Joel] Embiid. I see Nerlens [Noel], Jahlil [Okafor], I see [Robert] Covington. I see what can be. What I'm reminded of, which is a little bit daunting, is that even with that type of talent, greatness and knocking on doors of what we're all doing this for, has an age limit, 26, 28, 30. Gold medalists, NBA Champions are men. They can be as good as they want, but it takes time. The higher level we're talking about are won by men. So that time frame is a little bit daunting, but true, but I would take this job all day every day. I love the city of Philadelphia, for whatever reason I feel connected to their people, it's real, it's blue-collar, you feel a responsibility to make something special and deliver something special for them, and I love coaching my 20-year-olds. So we take hits but life moves on and I truly see my job that way."
Brown admitted to feeling jealous at times of what Popovich and the Spurs have as he walked around the city and through the familiar halls of the AT&T Center. "You want what they have," he said. "What they have has taken time. The culture they have built is amazing."
His job is to build a something similar in Philadelphia, a culture and an ethos that will sustain long term, even though almost all the names and faces will change in the coming years. His duty is to not only develop the games of his few worthwhile players, but to do everything possible to make sure that all the losing doesn't sap their spirit. Okafor had the worst game of his young career at Oklahoma City battling against "lumberjacks" as Brown characterized Enes Kanter, Steven Adams and Serge Ibaka. And the very next night the green 19-year-old had to compete against a rested Tim Duncan, LaMarcus Aldridge, David West and Boris Diaw.
Brown described it as "another great opportunity," while setting up a pregame meeting between Okafor and his idol, Duncan. As it turned out, the coach was correct. Okafor finished with 21 and 12 and did so in a game that felt like he was playing merely so-so, an excellent omen for any prodigy.
The Sixers' skipper stressed over and over that as much as he's invested in the present and future, he cherishes the memories and lessons from his past.
"You get out and walk around, you just get great memories of a lot of things, obviously the basketball but also my family loved living here," Brown recalled. "I raised three kids here. And I truly enjoyed sort of the small-town mentality and the peacefulness of San Antonio. It's a real easy place to live. You're just flooded with memories of how special the city is and you add the basketball flavor on top, it was a fantastic experience for me."
Popovich will likely continue to watch Sixers games on off nights and will probably take the losses harder than Brown does. The two will keep sharing notes and theories on X's and O's and things far more important. Pop will keep praising his former bench-mate, regardless of the Philly's won-loss record.
"I think he's incredible," Popovich said. "I don't say that to make him look good or because he's my buddy or anything like that. It's really true. They're lucky to have him there."
Even though the Rockets sacked McHale, the Sixers should resist the temptation to follow suit. They're unlikely to find anyone better than who they already have ... as long as Popovich doesn't want to do it.