Brett Brown, the South Portland native, 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 the reason the Spurs have sustained such success.
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 D-League before landing 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, leading international teams on the biggest of stages at the London Olympics.
Brown, whose father, Bob Brown, retired last season after a legendary high school and college coaching career, guided 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 an even greater desire to run their own NBA teams 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 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 and draw up plays late in games. They’ve done those things before in previous head coaching jobs, but never with so much attention on them.
Even though the international game varies greatly from the NBA version, Brown and Finch said they were able to bring some ideas home. 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 he got over there doing that is great for him,” Popovich said. “It’s certainly added something to our program. There are things he did in the Olympics that we’ve added to our offense. It’s been a real plus.”
The Spurs 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.
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.
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 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.”