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Mike Brown Coaches by Feel, Not Numbers

img_0421Near the end of Coach Mike Brown’s pregame standup before Cleveland’s 99-89 win over Miami on Saturday, I asked him several questions relating to game plan preparation and his thoughts about various basketball statistics. Here is that interview in its entirety:

Friedman: “Even though you are not a big stat guy, are there one or two key stats that you might look at either after a game or after a series of games in order to track your team’s progress?”

Brown: “Opponent’s field goal percentage, first, and then opponent’s points, second, but the opponent’s field goal percentage is a big thing for me.”

Friedman: “Total opponent’s points or point differential?”

Brown: “No, no, no—total points. I look at the field goal percentage first because it could be a high possession game and sometimes you get in a high possession game but still play good defense and there will be a lot of points because it is a high possession game. So, opponent’s field goal percentage is something that I Iook at. I will take a peek at points in the paint and I will look at free throw attempts, because the points can be deceiving even if the field goal percentage is low because we may have fouled on every other possession. We have to be a physical defensive team without fouling. I look at that also.”

Friedman: “What are your targets for defensive field goal percentage and points allowed? I know that you could have a high possession game but in general what are your goals in those two categories?”

Brown: “I like anything below 40 (for opponent’s field goal percentage). That looks beautiful to me. For free throw attempts, if you can keep them below 20 that is pretty good.”

Friedman: “What about points allowed?”

Brown: “Again, it depends on the flow of the game—in a high possession game, if they score 98 points, then great. If not, if we keep our opponent in the 80s then I am excited about that. Those are three areas where if we can keep our opponents limited to those numbers then I am real excited about our game.”

Friedman: “So, points in the 80s, field goal percentage below 40 and free throw attempts 20 or below for your opponent.”

Brown: “Those are high numbers.”

Friedman: “Right. I know–of course.”

Brown: “Those are not realistic numbers to have every game and if you are doing that you probably are the best defensive team in the business—but those are beautiful numbers to me.”

Friedman: “Is that something that you learned from your San Antonio experience with Gregg Popovich? I know that he is a big defensive field goal percentage guy.”

Brown: “It’s kind of funny, because Pop’s not a stat guy either. I remember one of the assistant coaches was P.J. (Carlesimo), who is a stat guy—Pop’s not. P.J., the first time he was with us in one of the games early in the season, gave a stat sheet to Pop during a timeout, and Pop was like, ‘I don’t need to look at this to know if we’re not rebounding!’ I’m the same way. I’m a ‘by feel’ guy. Obviously, you do look at opponent’s rebounds every once in a while, whether it’s offense or defense, but I don’t dwell on it. I think that a lot of times what you do with stats is if you have a point that you want to show and prove to the team then you break out the stats and throw those out there.”

Friedman: “So, you feel like you watched the game, you don’t need numbers to tell you—you watched, so you know if your team is boxing out, if they are rebounding, if they are defending.”

Brown: “Yeah, you have a general feel. Also, that is part of the reason that nowadays you have what—16 assistant coaches? (laughs) So, they need something to do, too. So they should let you know if we are doing something right or something wrong.”

Friedman: “Did you see the New York Times article by Michael Lewis (you can find my take on Lewis’ piece here)?”

Brown: “No.”

Friedman: “The article discusses how Houston General Manager Daryl Morey uses stats. The Rockets look at certain tendencies for Kobe Bryant and then give this real detailed scouting report to Shane Battier about how to guard him, to try to force him to certain areas. As you know, you can’t shut down a great player but you can try to force him to lower percentage areas. Do you not believe in using stats in that kind of way? Do you just go more by feel because you have some idea of the tendencies of Kobe or Wade or whoever the case may be on a given night? Do you look at any of that stuff, like if he takes a one dribble pullup to the left he is shooting this percentage but if he does the same move to the right he is shooting this percentage, so we are going to steer him to his lower percentage area?”

Brown: “Two things. Not to knock that, because I think it is great to use if you have some solid information, but how many championships has that gotten them?”

At first I thought that this was a rhetorical question, but after Brown paused for a beat I answered him.

Friedman: “They haven’t won any, obviously.”

Brown: “So, not to say that’s right or to say that’s wrong but stats in my opinion are not the tell tale for everything. I think they are good to use.

Again, I was with Pop for three years and he’s not a stat guy. In a 10 year span, he’s won four NBA championships. I know that every game, he doesn’t go up to Bruce (Bowen) and say, ‘Kobe shoots 22% from the right corner and 35% from the left corner’ or whatever. It’s a thing that, yes, if you use it the right way it can be helpful, but if you try to use stats too much I don’t know if it’s going to bring you a championship, at least from what I’ve experienced. We didn’t need those types of detailed stats to win a championship in San Antonio.”

Friedman: “Your idea is that you have general principles that you believe in—holding teams to a low field goal percentage and the other things that you listed before—and if your team adheres to those principles then you believe that forms the foundation for building a championship level defense and ultimately winning a championship. Is that a correct understanding of what you are saying?”

Brown: “That’s my opinion. On the flip side, I don’t know Pat Riley well but I know that when he was the head coach in Miami he was a big stat guy. They have plenty of interns breaking down stats from every angle in every way. They won a championship. It’s just basically what you feel and who you are. I know, for me, my philosophical approach is (modeled) more (on) Pop’s than anything else.”

If you read Coach Brown’s comments with an understanding and appreciation for how high level basketball should be coached and played, then it is no mystery why he has already led the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals once and why he currently has them on target to post the best record in the Eastern Conference this season—even though other teams are considered more fun to watch and despite the amount of attention that has been focused on the kind of basketball statistical analysis that Popovich and Brown do not use. The Popovich approach has worked very well for the Spurs, so Cavs fans should be very happy that Coach Brown is essentially constructing San Antonio East in Cleveland.

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David Friedman is a freelance writer specializing in professional basketball. His work has been published in several magazines, including Hoop, Lindy's Pro Basketball, Basketball Times and Basketball Digest. He has also contributed to NBCSports.com, HoopsHype.com and ProBasketballNews.com and his articles are frequently reprinted at Legends of Basketball, the official website of the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA). Friedman wrote the chapter about the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog: 20 Second Timeout

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4 Responses to “Mike Brown Coaches by Feel, Not Numbers”

  1. jkads says:

    Great interview. Thanks David!

  2. barry says:

    maybe coach brown will feel a little differently about stats if everyone starts copying how houston shut down lebron last week. i’m sure morey’s stats played a large part in that.

    but i understand that if coach’s defensive system is geared towards consistency in forcing all opponents into certain areas and zones, it would be disruptive to have specific individuals play certain players differently even though using the static approach actually plays into certain individual’s strengths.

  3. Barry:

    With all due respect to Houston–and to LeBron–sophisticated statistics are not necessary to devise the appropriate game plan to guard LeBron; LeBron shoots close to 70% in the paint but has a below average field goal percentage from most other areas of the court, even the midrange areas just outside of the paint, so the correct strategy is to clog the paint and try to force LeBron to either shoot jumpers or else make passes against a defense that has backed off of him (by going “under” screens to concede him the jump shot) and may be able to get some deflections/steals. This is what the Spurs did in the 2007 Finals and what the Celtics did in last year’s playoffs and the results were reflected in LeBron’s low field goal percentages and high turnover rates in those series.

    Of course, it is easier to explain that strategy than it is to execute it for most teams because it requires commitment by all five defensive players to be in the right places. It also requires discipline on offense (by the Cavs’ opponent) because bad shots or turnovers can lead to open court opportunities for LeBron, when it is virtually impossible to stop the “L Train” from getting into the paint.

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