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Kings Coach Mike Brown Explains Sacramento’s Surprising Success

The Playmaker newsletter caught up with Brown following his team’s historically high-scoring win over the Clippers this weekend.

If you would have held a poll before the season to gauge which NBA team in California would have two All-Stars and the best record going into the break, a number of responses would have seemed appropriate.

The Warriors would have been a natural pick, as they were coming off their fourth title within the past decade and have a trio of future Hall of Famers alongside young star Jordan Poole. The Lakers, even with roster issues, had a pair of Top 75 players, in LeBron James and Anthony Davis, who won the championship together in 2020. The Clippers haven’t reached the Promised Land, but they also boast a star pairing in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. And many analysts, including this author, picked them as the preseason favorites to come out of the West.

Much further down most people’s lists you would have found the Kings; the team currently mired in a 16-year playoff drought—the longest in NBA history, and currently the longest-running postseason dry spell of any team in the four major American men’s pro leagues.

Yet as we prepare to head into the month of March, Sacramento is the NBA’s biggest surprise, sitting at 35–25. That’s good for third place in the West, ahead of each California counterpart. The club leads the NBA with historic levels of offensive efficiency with a scheme taking advantage of spacing. Its duo of All-Stars this season combines for one of the Association’s best inside-outside combos. Speedy guard De’Aaron Fox has scored 30 or more in nine of this past 10 games and leads the league in clutch scoring. No player has grabbed more rebounds this season than physical big man Domantas Sabonis, who also is the league leader in double doubles while ranking ninth in total assists.

For the moment, Kings coach Mike Brown looks to be one of the leaders for Coach of the Year. After his team beat the Clippers in one of the wildest games in recent NBA history, he was kind enough to talk with me about his season so far and the road ahead for a club almost no one expected to be contending for home-court advantage this late in the campaign.

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Sports Illustrated: What is it about this team—even in a wild, 176–175 barnburner that is the second-highest scoring game in NBA history—that allows you all to get stops when you all need them most?

Mike Brown: They have a belief that is uncanny for a group that has never played together before, nor have a lot of these guys had key roles on playoff teams as individuals in big situations. It’s extraordinary, and I don’t quite know how we do it. That belief is something we’ve talked about trying to instill since Day 1. Somehow it’s in them, and they’re competing because they believe.

SI: How much of that belief stems from accountability—specifically with De’Aaron Fox and the individual challenge you laid out for him to defend at a higher level this year?

MB: I told him that it’s still possible for him to be a great two-way player in this league. I coached him at the Adidas Nations [basketball camp] while he was in high school and I thought he was going to be a premier point guard defensively because of his quickness, athleticism and tenacity. His ability to guard the basketball was unbelievable. Couple that with his ability to do whatever he wants to do on the court whenever he wants to do it [offensively], and that’s an elite-level player—a first-, second- or third-team All-NBA player. I wanted him to push him to show that not just every night, but on every possession, on both ends of the floor.

SI: Sacramento’s record—and third-place standing in the West—is surprising to many folks. But I’m more surprised by how you all have gotten there: The league’s best top offense efficiency-wise, despite having two newcomers in the starting five and a sixth man who’s new, and a defense that ranks among the five worst in the Association. As someone with such a strong, defense-first mentality, has the shape of this Kings season surprised you?

MB: It does surprise me that we’re as good as we are offensively right now. Now, granted: I thought we had guys who have a great feel for the game, especially when it comes to spacing, cutting, passing and dribbling. We thought we had all those necessities covered, and it turns out we’re deep in that area. For them to be able to grasp the concepts as quickly as they did is a testament to the players.

But I would also have to credit my staff, which has done a fantastic job. Even last night: Everyone is patting me on the back for drawing up that play where Malik [Monk] hit the [game-tying three] to send the game to overtime. But Jay Triano is our offensive coordinator, and he’s the one that drew that play up. I had no clue what play he was going to draw up until we went into the huddle. That’s his responsibility as our offensive coordinator. Jordi Fernandez is our defensive coordinator. They have carte blanche as assistants to be creative, just like Steve Kerr gave me in Golden State, to do what they need to do to win on their side of the ball.

I do feel like there’s something exciting about the position we’re in right now: We can still grow tremendously on defense. I believe this group is more than capable of growing on that end of the floor. We’re working at it, and you see it from time to time. We just have to get to a point where we’re consistent with it in order for us to be great.

SI: Talk to me more a little more about the defense. You all allow a lot of points in the paint, and you’ve said a handful of times that you often cycle through which backup big you’re using in hopes of finding more defensive consistency from that spot. But there are also small, under-the-radar things you excel at on that end. For example: You limit transition possessions on D more than any other NBA club, which is fascinating because of the blistering pace the Kings play with on offense. Is that something you specifically emphasize to the group, even with other defensive struggles?

MB: Oh, for sure: We talk about transition defense all the time as the one thing we can’t afford to give up. So that’s emphasized repeatedly to these guys: We want to play fast—we excel at that, with [Fox’s] speed and [Sabonis’s] ability to go coast to coast—but we can’t get complacent on the other end and let it become a track meet.

The one thing I would say, if you look at our roster, is that it isn’t one that necessarily has a lot of defensive length or athleticism from top to bottom. I am a firm believer as a head coach that you have to find ways to play to your strengths. We as coaches tell our players all the time, “Do what you do best.” The great ones do. Look at Ben Wallace: He knew he wasn’t a great offensive player or a three-point shooter, but he made a boatload of money, became an NBA champion and made the Hall of Fame playing to his strengths.

SI: I hear that—that if you can score in bunches in transition, in theory, you should be able to get back on defense aggressively enough to stop the other team from doing the same. It’s certainly fun to watch. Let me ask you, though: Your club has quietly bottled up opponents, holding them to the lowest field goal percentage in the league when switching to zone defense. Is that meaningful to you, or is it more of a footnote? With how the team struggles on D, could you see utilizing zone more in key scenarios?

MB: I worry about using it too much because I’m a big possession guy, and I think [going] zone makes you too susceptible to giving up offensive rebounds. With zone, you’re kind of guarding an area on the floor, and with how quick and athletic guys are on the other side, you don’t have true, defined box-out responsibilities that are repeatable from possession to possession.

When we go to it during games, we do it not because we feel we’re so good at it or because the numbers say we’re good at it … we go to it because we’re trying to disrupt the rhythm of our opponent or because our man defense simply isn’t as good as it needs to be.

We have our staples defensively: communication, ball pressure and the fact that we want our help to come from the baseline side. So we don’t want to give up middle or blow-bys. Instead, we want to give multiple efforts on the contest at the rim because we aren’t a long team, and the league is just so spread out with skill players. And you’ve gotta do all those things without fouling. We’re trying to do all of that consistently, and I credit our guys for trying to get there.

SI: What have you learned most over your coaching career?

MB: If I’ve learned one thing over the years, it’s how important messaging is. Every time Steve [Kerr] addressed the [Warriors], I’d take a red pen and jot down notes in a notebook or piece of paper that I kept in my pocket. And it wasn’t just the things he said, but the way he said them. Messaging to a player or to your group is just as important as the the specific things you’re telling them about how to get better.

SI: As it continues to look more and more likely that Sacramento will snap the longest playoff drought in NBA history, how easy—or challenging—will it be to flip the switch from being happy or relieved to get there to feeling like you can make noise in the postseason? A team with a No. 3 seed is expected to win a first-round matchup.

MB: If you ask any of our guys, they’ll tell you: I’ve said since Day 1 that I did not come here to make the playoffs. I came here to compete at the highest level and chase a championship like everyone else. I feel like our group is convinced that we’re better than just making the playoffs. There is a lot of that talk around us, but again, that wasn’t my goal when I took this job. I’ve tried placing that in our guys’ heads all year, and I’m hoping that they feel that way now, too.

Meat and potatoes: Good reads from SI and elsewhere this past week

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard

• I wrote an analysis piece after Damian Lillard’s 71-point performance Sunday night, suggesting it probably won’t be much longer until Dame or someone else eclipses the late Kobe Bryant’s modern-day scoring mark of 81. Just in case you forgot, Cavs star Donovan Mitchell also had 71 in a game last month, and Lillard himself had a 60-point showing back in January.

• Yours truly also inked a separate column on Nikola Jokiić, who—between his triple-double average, career-best efficiency and Denver’s first-place standing—looks increasingly likely to take a third-consecutive Most Valuable Player award.

• Chris Mannix went to Phoenix and spoke with new Suns and Mercury owner Mat Ishbia about the inner workings of the trade for Kevin Durant, which took place one day after Ishbia officially replaced Robert Sarver.

• In case you missed it: Draft analyst Jeremy Woo wrote a wonderful cover story for us on Victor Wembanyama, the most-hyped NBA prospect since LeBron James. Woo spent time with the phenom in his native France for the piece.

• Elizabeth Swinton handicapped each of the NBA awards races for us.

• Pat Forde touched on the situation with Alabama’s men’s basketball team and the moral and ethical questions hanging over the program. Forde wrote about whether star forward and high-level NBA prospect Brandon Miller should still be playing after what’s come to light in the investigation into the death of a woman who was shot and killed near the school’s campus last month.

Specifically, Tuscaloosa police have said that Miller brought ex-teammate Darius Miles’s gun to him the evening of the fatal shooting after Miles texted him to ask for it. (Miller, who is controversially still playing for Alabama, hasn’t been charged with a crime. Miles and Michael Lynn Davis, who is unaffiliated with the program, have been charged with capital murder. Miles was removed from the team.)

• My good friend Nekias Duncan of Basketball News penned a longer takeout on the game-tying play by Kings guard Malik Monk, which sent the historically high-scoring game against the Clippers to OT. Few folks, if any, break down the nuances of the game like Nekias.

• John Hollinger of The Athletic wrote a good column summing up the Hawks’ hiring of Quin Snyder, who steps into a situation filled with looming questions.

• Dave McMenamin and Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported Monday night that the Lakers fear LeBron could miss several weeks following a right foot injury—certainly not the news Los Angeles wanted to hear as it tries to make up ground in hopes of qualifying for the play-in round.

LaMelo Ball suffered a right ankle fracture Monday night, potentially ending his season after he had three separate left ankle sprains during the campaign. This latest injury came one week after LaMelo’s brother, Bulls guard Lonzo Ball, was ruled out for the season and happened as the Hornets were in the process of winning their season-high fifth straight contest.