Brett Brown has been on the San Antonio bench for 12 years now, coaching under Gregg Popovich during a run of organizational stability that is rare in this day and age, and perhaps one of the biggest reasons the Spurs have been able to sustain such a high level of success over the last decade and a half.
Chris Finch has been more of a nomad, bouncing from gig to gig on a journey that took him to England, Germany, Belgium and the NBA’s developmental league before he landed a job as an assistant on Kevin McHale’s staff with the Houston Rockets last year.
The two American coaches got a chance to step out of the considerable shadows cast by their famous head coaches last summer and lead international teams on the biggest of stages at the London Olympics. Brown was the head coach for Team Australia, where he spent 17 years coaching before joining the Spurs. Finch led Team Great Britain and helped raise the sport’s profile in the soccer-mad region.
Both were able to bring back strategies and information they are using to help their teams push for the playoffs in the Western Conference.
Both also brought back with them an even greater desire to run their own teams in the NBA one day.
“The excitement of running your own program again and being a head coach again was exciting because of the responsibility,” said Brown, who was a head coach in Australia’s National Basketball League before joining the Spurs in 2002. “You live a little bit quicker life. Things are a little bit more significant in your own eyes because you’re the person responsible.”
Finch had deep roots with his national team as well, starting as a player with the Sheffield Sharks in the British Basketball League. He eventually became coach of the Sharks in 1997, and spent the next dozen seasons working his way through low-profile overseas jobs until the Rockets brought him in to coach their D-league affiliate in 2009.
Getting a chance to be back in the lead chair for the biggest basketball event in the world in London was a welcome dose of pressure.
“Just to be involved with basketball at a high level, but from a different angle, was great,” Finch said. “The nature of the tournament and how intense it is, you play a lot of games in a short period of time. It was a great practical experience, as well as a great life experience.”
With the international influence on the NBA growing every year, success on the world stage perhaps could resonate even more with NBA general managers looking to fill ever-present vacancies. Both coaches acquitted themselves well in London.
Australia went 3-2 in group play, but had the misfortune of playing the mighty Americans in the opening of the knockout round, a 119-86 defeat.
Team GB was surprisingly feisty in a sport that gets very little publicity at home. Finch rode Chicago Bulls standout Luol Deng and Portland Trail Blazers forward Joel Freeland to a 1-4 record. Great Britain beat China and gave eventual silver medalist Spain all it could handle in a 79-78 loss.
The Olympics proved to be a crash course in managing a program at the highest level. Brown and Finch had to develop game plans on the fly, scout opponents for weaknesses and tendencies, and draw up plays late in games to get their teams a good shot. They’ve done those things before in previous head coaching jobs, but never with so much attention on them.
“I am an assistant coach here and was a head coach there, so that’s a whole different dynamic,” Finch said. “But the readiness to play so many different styles on top of each other is something we deal with here in the NBA. That’s similar. The more you coach, the more situations you’re in, the more familiar you become with everything that comes up down the road. That’s the biggest benefit.”
Even though the international game varies greatly from the NBA version, Brown and Finch said they were able to bring some ideas home to try with the Spurs and Rockets. The Spurs have long been leaders in incorporating international components into the domestic game, so they never hesitated when Brown was approached about leading the Australians.
“The experience that he got over there doing that is great for him,” Popovich said. “It’s certainly added something to our program. There are things we picked up that he did during the Olympics that we’ve added to our offense and that kind of thing. It’s been a real plus.”
The Spurs (45-13) have the best record in the NBA and have added two of Brown’s best players from the national team — point guard Patty Mills and big man Aron Baynes — to a roster teeming with worldly talent.
The Rockets (31-27) are in eighth place in the West and have been one of the surprises of the league this season, with Finch helping an accomplished staff get a roster with several new faces to mesh as quickly as possible. It’s a similar experience to what he did with Team GB, and one that he believes is preparing him to get a head coaching job one day.
“I’m very ambitious in wanting to be a head coach when my time comes,” he said.
Popovich is convinced that Brown is ready, though he thinks his loyal assistant was ready even before he took over Team Australia.
“He should get his own gig somewhere,” Popovich said. “That’s for sure.”
Sometimes it can be difficult for an assistant who has been in one place for as long as Brown has to get his resume to the top of the pile. Maybe his Olympic work is what he needed to push him over the top.
“It does whet your appetite,” Brown said. “You also realize that it’s two entirely different jobs, being an assistant coach and being a head coach. That’s the competitive edge, the competitive spirit, the pride of trying to do a good job and the challenge of putting a program together.”