by Kevin Lipe
This weekend, ESPN Analyst Hubie Brown is calling Game 3 and 4 of the Grizzlies' playoff series against the Spurs on ESPN and ABC. But in Memphis, Brown is best known as the Grizzlies' head coach from 2002-2004, when he took them to the franchise's first 50-win season and first-ever playoff appearance, winning an NBA Coach of the Year award in the process. (It was the second time he'd won the award; the first was in 1977-78 with the Atlanta Hawks.)
Because of his legendary coaching career and his encyclopedic knowledge of the game of basketball, and his unique ties to the city of Memphis and the Grizzlies franchise, I thought it would be worthwhile to talk to Hubie about Grizzlies/Spurs, about the season the Grizzlies have had, how basketball has evolved, and how Memphis has evolved as an NBA city. He did not disappoint. You can see from the way that Hubie answered these questions that his love of the game runs deep, and he's always teaching. It's what makes him one of the best analysts on TV, and what made him such a great interview.
Beyond the Arc: You're calling the Grizzlies/Spurs game this weekend, and the Grizzlies are kind of in dire straits. What do you do as a coach when you're in a situation where it doesn't look like there's any way you can win a series? What's it like when the odds are that against you? As a coach, how do you motivate your guys in that situation?
Hubie Brown: Well, this is professional sports. Back in the older days of the league, if you went down 0-2 in the playoffs, you would come back and be positive about your preparation, talking to your team, that you were going to win the next two games.
It doesn't make a difference what they beat you by in San Antonio. The key now is for you to play a perfect game on Friday night. And you say, "Well..." Well, no. Forget about the guys who were injured, forget about the guys who were traded. You're playing with the guys that you have. And they, just a week ago, ten days ago, played a perfect game against Golden State, and unfortunately for them, they didn't get the call at the end of the game. So that should be encouragement enough that they could come home and play in front of the home crowd, with the enthusiasm of the people, and then hopefully play a perfect game once again. And then hopefully win the game.
But coaches in the NBA feel that you prepare to win every game. If they don't have that feeling, then they shouldn't be in the coaching profession. We're dealing with professional players, who can turn things around quickly even when the odds are greatly against them. All they have to do is just look at Dallas beating Oklahoma City in Oklahoma City after getting beat by close to 40 points. They came right back, and even though they were missing their key guys, and then Barea couldn't play, and then Williams who had a good first half couldn't play after that—so they were without their key guards. So look, that's how I feel.
Given that they do have to play a perfect game at home, what do you see as the biggest thing they need to do better?
Well, first of all, look, you can't shoot—look, whenever you get beat on the road by 30 and 26, and you start the first quarter by scoring 13 and 11 in the two games, well, you know immediately that you have to get off to a good start.
The second point is that they have to be able to create higher percentage shots for their main people. Now that sounds easy, but it's difficult to do when you're playing either the first or second best half-court defense in the league.
It seems like every time Zach Randolph touches the ball he's got four guys in Spurs jerseys in front of him. And he's great at finishing in those situations, but it's just such a low-percentage shot by that point.
Well, he's in a very difficult mismatch because he's giving away a lot of size to Aldridge, and then the fact that Aldridge has the physical strength, and then the double-teaming—because of the size that's double teaming him. He's not getting great looks at the basket. He's not getting a lot of calls either.
Now, will this change Friday night? We have no idea. But. They will continue to double him hard, and when he puts it on the floor, they're going to come at him until the perimeter people start making shots. And by that we mean Barnes, and Carter, and Farmar. Now, the three perimeter guys, the spacing must get better and the shooting percentage has got to rise. That will open up spacing for when they do go to Randolph in their different sets. Then he'll have more breathing room to make quick moves and force Aldridge to play him one-on-one.
So much of the situation the Grizzlies are in is because of injuries. It seems like their hands are tied in some ways with this stuff, because it's the limitations of the personnel they have available. It's a bad situation to be in for a playoff team, to be missing this many guys—
Look, it doesn't matter. I could give you a hundred different teams that have had these kinds of problems. You can't want to write a negative article—you want to look at it objectively and say, "OK, they're going to be a heavy underdog."
But. You're going to set a different tone by your three perimeter guys on that first unit. They're going to score the three ball. You're going to establish your post-up game with Zach Randolph. But unfortunately, Duncan is laying off Andersen because we know Andersen is not gonna shoot unless the clock is down. So they're playing him with one and a half big men—Aldridge as well as Duncan. Then it's Diaw and West. Because they're not honoring your center unless your center scores some points.
Now, this is coaching talk: look, when you go to the second unit, there is no reason why your second unit can't score. I know you're gonna say "Well, you know there's a lot of young people, blah blah blah." But. You do have people who have scored big, and especially scored big in the game against Golden State, and that's what you have to look at. You have to look at that and say that the second unit is gonna cause turnovers, hold their second unit to one shot, and get out in the open floor. Your second unit has quickness and should be able to get out the break and get easy baskets. Now. You're not gonna get out unless you play good defense and hold them to one shot.
But you do have quickness there that you do not have with the first unit. The first unit is primarily a slower group. You're not getting any extra points on the break with that first group, so everything is half-court. Well, when your unit is forced into half-court basketball, you've got to have spacing, and that comes off of plays, and making the midrange jumpshot, and the three ball. You make the midrange jumpshot and the three ball, and that will open things up for the first unit. Your second unit plays differently, but they've gotta rely on the defense with Allen and Green and Stephenson, and the kid Munford—you have quickness there. So hopefully you're going to be able to capitalize with that and get points.
A lot of people in Memphis are really excited about the future with JaMychal Green and Jarell Martin—the Grizzlies seem to have some young bigs coming up that are really talented. What have you seen from the young guys that you like as a coach?
Look, Green has had talent ever since he was... He and Martin have a lot of talent, but this is playoff time. It's easy to be athletic and scoring points during the season. But it's difficult for young players with no reputation to get the calls when you're playing in the playoffs—especially against one of the two top teams in the league. You have to understand that—that's the nature of the game since they started the NBA. So they have to play to their maximum potential here, and then we'll see if they can do it.
You gotta remember now—we can talk about Gasol and Conley. We understand that there are two outstanding players that are missing. You're also missing a proven guy who can get you double figures in the playoffs, and that's Chalmers. And nobody is talking about the fact that Wright is not available, and you made moves so that Wright would be a major contributor. Now, nobody talks about him, but you're missing four key guys. In the previous years, you had Koufos that could go score. And with Koufos and Jeff Green and Lee, you had three guys that could score.
Well, they're not here anymore. When you replace them with younger people, and then you take out your two big scorers in Gasol and Conley, and then a third very good scorer in Chalmers, you're putting incredible pressure on these young guys to play at a high, high level of play.
This team would look completely different with Wright out there. I thought that was a really good addition for them this summer, and it's disappointing that he hasn't been able to get out there.
Oh, absolutely. They've been dealt a bad hand all year. And unfortunately, no team in this league could lose four guys of that quality and still be able not to slide like they did. Look how long they were able to stay in the fifth spot! And unfortunately, when the rest of the guys went down, it made it extremely difficult. But let's face it. If the game would have ended differently against Golden State, I don't know if that would have solidified you at 5 or 6. Maybe you would go into Golden State for the last game and not slide to the 7.
There were a couple of games before that, too, that they let get away that you look back on—
Well, of course, when you look back (laughs)
But by the same token, they won some games on some last-second shots that if they hadn't made, half court shots, they might have missed the playoffs altogether. I think the bottom half of the West turned out to be a lot more compact than people expected it to be.
Talking about Wright gets me to the next thing I wanted to ask you about.
There's been a lot of talk this season that NBA has evolved past the kind of basketball that the Grizzlies play. Do you think it's true that because of the Warriors, and some of these other teams that shoot the three so well and space the floor so effectively, that the style of basketball that the Grizzlies play is becoming outdated?
No, no. Look, you play the way that the rules allow you to play. If we still had handchecking—the forearm on cutters from the opposite side of the floor, because that's where Golden State hurts you the most, when they're running something on one side of the floor, the opposite side of the floor benefits by backdooring and double screens and single screens and all of these other things that they do. That's why they're great.
Now. When you add the hard foul—the hard foul gives you a flagrant 1 or a flagrant 2. So what the league has done, it's allowed you a freeway to get to the rim. And by doing that... If you notice, when Golden State plays, how many baskets they score in the paint versus what they score outside on the three ball. Now I know they make the three and get that extra point on every three, but where they kill you is in the paint, and it's all on creative movement on curls, on backdoor moves, on double screens, et cetera. They have an excellent offense. Now. You put handchecking back, you put the forearm back on the cutters, straightening them up and not letting them get free, where it's no call with handchecking...
[There's] also the threat of the flagrant foul, you made it easy to get to the rim. Because the league wanted more scoring, just like the NFL by not allowing you to hit the flankers and slot guys any further than five yards down the field, because pro football wanted more scoring. Well? If that's the case, then you have to take advantage of it.
So people who are going with that other theory, well, you can play that way, and you can still win. But you gotta get the calls. And when you get the calls, you get to the foul line, and that's how you hurt those teams—but you have to get the calls when you play power basketball.
Now what's the problem? We've almost eliminated shotblocking on the rotation man. No handchecking, no forearm, and the threat of the flagrant foul, it forces the baseline defenders... if I run and try to block a shot from across the paint, if I get the ball but my hand or my arm gets a player in the shoulder, or up around the head because there's a collision, I might be getting a flagrant foul. Well, a flagrant foul's a lot of money! If it's a flagrant foul 2, I could get suspended for a game. So now all of a sudden, I'm getting fined by doing my job. Am I making sense?
Yeah, absolutely. People are paying attention to the fact that they shoot the three because that's what makes the highlights on ESPN, but their whole game is predicated on that movement.
Yeah, but don't underestimate their movement. There are other people out there trying to copy them but they can't do it, because they get tired. You gotta be in great shape to play the way they play. Because they turn around, and they defend you.
Just think about all the teams that aren't in the playoffs that are trying to do that, but can't defend. First of all, they can't shoot the three at that percentage—forty-two percent—and then they can't defend like they defend. The strength of that team is their defense. Not just the first unit, but when they go small when the game is on the line with six or seven mintues to go. Because they're all the same size, except for Curry, and they switch and they do all kinds of stuff, and they double team, and they play great position defense. So everyone's trying to copy that style, but no one is even close.
Now, the San Antonio game is a different type of a game. Their continuity is there, but they run a different type of a continuity. They run a continuity that is predicated on power basketball, as well as the three point game. Because they wouldn't have won those last two championships without the three ball. So... don't fall into that. That's an easy cry for people when they want to make excuses.
I felt that way too [that it's not necessarily outdated], but it's good to hear it from you.
What do you do as a coach? You coach the players the best way they can compete. And your best people, when you have Gasol and Randolph, are playing the way your'e playing. And that's how you've got to play, to take advantage of your best players. Your three top guys are gonna dictate how you can play.
Shifting gears a little bit, I have a question more about Memphis and the Grizzlies in general. I think there are probably a lot of fans who would take you back as the coach tomorrow, because of the time that you spent here in Memphis. You've been back over the years covering games. What do you think is the biggest difference in Memphis now as an NBA city and Memphis when you were the coach of the Grizzlies? What's changed?
Well, first of all, attendance (laughs). We had to prove that you could win. And there's still no better night in the history of sports in Memphis than that first home playoff game, Game 3, when we were down 0-2 to San Antonio. But we had just won 50 games, and there were only six or seven teams in the league that won 50. Well that was twenty-plus thousand people in the old arena, and that was a night of emotion, but it was a night of incredible fan enthusiasm. It was a fantastic night for ownership, Mr. Heisley, and then Jerry West who made a lot of key moves, and then the play of the team. It was a tremendous night. And to see it develop since that time through the different coaches... the enthusiasm is there.
Because I said this when I went in there when they were 0-8, and they never won more than 23 games in seven years. Memphis high school and college basketball is as good as any place over the years. And the development of the great high school players to play Division I... they can match any city in the country. The enthusiasm for college basketball is right at the top, and always has been. Memphis is a great basketball town. But you can't fool people who know the game, you understand what I'm saying?
Yeah. I think that's why you've seen attendance at Tigers games fall off lately—Memphis just doesn't really support a team that isn't winning.
Well, I can't make this statement, beause the three teams that sell out every game over 20,000 are Cleveland, Chicago, and Dallas. They have a history of success. And, you know, then you look at the teams that sell out at 18,000 and 19,000 every night. And then you step back and look and those teams, and talk about how many Fortune 500 companies to they have in their city? What's the population of the city? What is the TV and radio income for that city? Because that allows them to get and go over the cap. All of these things...
Well, now you look at Memphis. You talk about size, you talk about the money level within the community, and so forth... well, we know they love college basketball, and they love pro basketball now. But it's a compliment to the people that they accepted the game once the game started to win. Don't underestimate that. Because there are only so many people who have the money who can afford to go to the college games, and to the NBA games, and to the playoff games, et cetera, and so forth—nevermind supporting also the high schools.
It's a great city. Anybody who coaches at the college level, at the pro level, understands the incredible level of basketball IQ all throughout the city. And this goes all the way back. When I was an assistant coach at William & Mary and at Duke—I'm talking the late Sixties, early Seventies—Memphis was always a hotbed of talented players that could play Division I basketball. It was a place you had to go. And look at how well the college teams did at that time.
And the ABA teams at the time, not quite the same. The Grizzlies did the Sounds throwbacks this year, and it was a little bit of a reminder that Memphis' ABA past wasn't necessarily so glorious as the college past.
Well, you have to remember. I coached in the ABA, and we won the championship in Kentucky in '75, and then the league folded in '76. New York won it in '74, we won it in '75, and then New York won it in '76, and then we folded. But you have to remember now—we didn't have national television. You didn't have the income from television and radio like the NBA had. We were not national—we were local. And it was difficult to maintain a level of competing unless you had some certain advantages. But we can't get into that. That's a long time ago.
I really appreciate your time, and your patience. I had the questions about the injuries and stuff because that's kind of the mood of the city right now—people are down about it, and kinda just want it to be over. The mood of Grizzlies fans is pretty fatalistic.
Well, if they come out on Friday night, and the play to their maximum potential, and they get a win? Everyone will be back. Five minutes after the game. And the tickets for Sunday's game will be off the charts, because everyone will want to go.
That is the way it goes.
That's exactly right, and that's the same way it goes in any of the 29 other cities.