Mike Brown has the Sacramento Kings dreaming bigger than just the playoffs — Andscape
SACRAMENTO – Since 2007, the Sacramento Kings have been spectators while their fellow NBA teams have played in the postseason. Among the NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB, no franchise has a current postseason absence longer than Sacramento. Today’s surprising Kings, however, are realistically talking playoffs as the NBA regular season enters its final stretch.
The city of Sacramento has first-year Kings head coach Mike Brown to thank for playing a key role in putting the franchise in reach of the elusive playoffs. But until the Kings’ playoff dream is a reality, he would prefer all invested take the “marathon” mentality.
“Sometimes I’ve got to be careful because the passion and hunger is so strong here,” Brown told Andscape. “You can get caught up in it as well if you’re not careful. And I keep preaching not only to our guys, but to the media and to the fans, it’s a marathon. We’re going to have our ups, we’re going to have our downs. But as hard as our guys have worked and as locked in as they’ve been from day one – and I’m talking before training camp, I’m talking in the summertime, even when I was still coaching in the playoffs with the [Golden State] Warriors – they’re trying to do the right things and get better.
“But because of that, if you stay the course, it will work its way out the right way eventually. And we may win five in a row, we may lose five in a row. But neither time is a time to get too excited or too down, because it’s a long season. But you understand that as a fan that’s been thirsty for playoff basketball here for many years, to try to tone that excitement down. You don’t want to kill it too much because they’ve definitely earned that right and you appreciate it. But in the same breath, you have to be a little careful.”
Sacramento has stunned the NBA with its 35-25 record and its third place position in the Western Conference with just 22 games remaining. The Kings entered the season with play-in tournament expectations, but now the stakes are a true playoff berth. The Kings are here because of their talented roster with two 2023 NBA All-Stars in De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis, one of the league’s top rookies in Keegan Murray, and three talented veterans in Harrison Barnes, Kevin Huerter and Malik Monk.
Leading the charge is Brown, who has already connected with the Kings players with communication, structure, discipline, education and lighthearted fun at the right moments.
“He just demands greatness,” Fox said. “He demands everything to be to the T. If there is a little slippage in a game or practice, he is going to say something. Having that kind of accountability has been great for us … He’s a military guy, too. But he has that joy and uplifts everybody. If he has to run to do something or show someone how to do a boxout, he will jump in the drill and do it. Having someone who is very strict and strategic but could come in and do it with a smile is great and someone everyone wants in a coach.”
Said Barnes: “There is a level of structure and accountability that we have that we’ve been missing from what we have had from this group before. When you come in with a new group, there are a lot of challenges that you’ve had. But he has done a great job getting guys to buy in, especially on the fly. As the league is changing and getting a lot younger, connecting with players is the most important thing a coach can do. He’s done a great job bridging the gap between the varying ages of the guys. It’s been great to see.”
Brown has been an NBA coach before with the Cleveland Cavaliers (twice) and the Los Angeles Lakers. The former assistant for storied NBA head coaches Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs, Rick Carlisle with the Indiana Pacers and Bernie Bickerstaff with the Washington Wizards landed his first head coach job with the Cavaliers in 2005 with a young star named LeBron James on the roster. The 2009 NBA Coach of the Year led the Cavaliers to the 2007 NBA Finals and a 66-16 record during the 2008-09 season before being dismissed in 2010.
Brown had the tough job of replacing Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2011 with superstar Kobe Bryant on the roster. Under Brown, the Lakers went 41-25 in his first season in 2011-12, and he was fired after starting the next season 1-4. He returned to Cleveland during the 2012-13 season and had a 33-49 record before getting fired again after one season. Brown had a 347-216 record as a head coach before coming to the Kings.
Looking back, the 52-year-old Brown said the struggles during his first two NBA coaching jobs were “an age thing.”
“I got into the business at a real young age,” Brown said. “I got my first head job after only six years as an assistant. And before that, I was a video guy and a scout. I was 35 as a head coach, and even when I got into the business, I felt I was, at times, too young, no matter what my job was, for whatever my job was. I always wanted to portray myself as being older so I could be accepted. And part of that meant that I had to always bring a serious nature about the way I was doing my job. I didn’t want anybody to write or say that Mike’s too young a coach. ‘He’s loosey-goosey.’ He’s this, he’s that. And I felt that being more serious was the best way to get respect from the players and people that I worked with because I was really close to them in age.
“Some of them were even older than me. It was more that than anything else, just me being young and trying to, I don’t know, promote a different light in terms of maturity, on my maturity level. And now, I’ve been through personal stuff off the floor and a lot of things on the floor that I’ve grown a lot. I’m now 52 years old so I’ve been through life experiences, and I don’t give a crap. I’m going to be who I’m going to be. And if they like that, it’ll be great. If they don’t, great too, man.”
Next up for Brown was a move to the San Francisco Bay area, where he joined the Golden State Warriors as an associate head coach in July 2016. He played a major role in helping the Warriors improve defensively and replaced head coach Steve Kerr successfully when he missed games for health reasons. From 2016 to 2022, Golden State won two NBA championships and made three Finals appearances.
Brown learned from “a phenomenal messenger” in Kerr to communicate better with players.
“The way he messaged to the team, man, it blew me away,” Brown said. “I’m a guy that walked into that situation with 20-plus years of experience in the NBA on somebody’s staff. And every time he spoke, I tried to have a little piece of paper and a pen so I could take notes. I felt like I learned something new, just his body language, his tone, what he was saying during the moment, and all that stuff was phenomenal …
“I feel I’m pretty detailed and organized and all that stuff when it comes to practice and habits and teaching. And as a younger coach, sometimes you put a practice plan together, and you want to get through the whole thing because you want to try to cram everything in as soon as possible. It’s a long season. We don’t have to turn the page right now and you can do it gradually. So to be able to really understand the season being a marathon and trying to position it that way where you’ve got to read the team and read the moment and go by gut feel and not necessarily what your plan may have been going in was something that I learned from him as well.”
Brown had a comfortable associate head coach position with one of the most successful pro sports franchises and enjoyed living in the San Francisco Bay area. He interviewed for head coaching jobs with the Indiana Pacers, New York Knicks, the LA Clippers, and Washington Wizards in recent years, but wasn’t offered any of the jobs. Brown also became the head coach of the Nigerian men’s basketball national team in 2020, coached the team in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and led it to a historic exhibition victory over USA Basketball.
Seven years removed from his last NBA head coaching gig, Brown was itching to get another opportunity in the league.
“As time went on every year, I felt more inclined to want to get back in the first seat,” Brown said. “There was definitely a passion for it, a want for it, but I was around such great people, from Steph [Curry], to Draymond [Green], to Klay [Thompson] and Andre [Iguodala], on down the line; Steve Kerr being who he is … the staff that he put together, [Warriors general manager] Bob Myers, the fans.
“Hey, I had a big-, big-, big-time job in a great city and we were winning. That made it easier to deal with [not being a head coach]. But the passion, the hunger, and the want of trying to get, getting another opportunity was definitely there as the years went on.”
Brown became a finalist for the Kings’ head coach position while the Warriors were in the 2022 NBA playoffs. He was attracted to a roster that included Fox, Sabonis, veteran forward Barnes and the 2022 No. 4 pick that ended up being Murray. On May 9, 2022, Sacramento hired Brown to be its next head coach. Kerr, Curry, Thompson and Green sang Brown’s praises after he got the job.
The addition was a welcome one for Fox, who had three different head coaches previously in Sacramento.
“People I talked to were like, ‘Mike Brown would be great’ because of what I said in the past of what I wanted,” Fox told Andscape. “We needed someone who could hold guys accountable and who is strict. He fits that mold perfectly. The way we were run in the past, we felt we needed someone who would hold everyone from top to bottom accountable.”
While in the midst of a title run with the Warriors, Brown was working overtime with the Kings during his down time. Brown had dinner with Murray, the former Iowa star, in San Francisco before the Kings selected him with the fourth overall pick in the 2022 NBA draft. He flew to San Diego to meet with Fox. Brown also hired a staff and went to Sacramento to start putting things in place when he had time.
After the Warriors won the 2022 NBA title, Brown became fully immersed in his new job in Sacramento. He went to Europe to watch Sabonis and Alex Len play in Eurobasket competition for their native countries. He hosted a dinner in nearby Napa Valley for several players and coaches. He attended Fox’s wedding in Santa Barbara. The Kings entered training camp with great camaraderie, expectations and trust in their new coach.
After starting the season 0-4, the Kings quickly regrouped to go 10-6. Belief started rising when Sacramento entered 2023 with a 19-15 record. In what Brown called the “best win of the season” so far for the Kings, they went on the road to beat the LA Clippers 176-175 in double overtime Feb. 24 with stars Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and newcomer Russell Westbrook playing. Fox and Monk said with choice words after the game that Sacramento is not intimidated by anyone while Brown called it a “confidence boost.” The Kings now have 17 road wins, second-most in the Western Conference.
Kings owner Vivek Ranadive said Brown has dramatically changed the team’s culture in less than a season.
“He’s done this by demanding radical accountability from his players coupled with radical love and support for them at the same time,” Ranadive said. “I don’t believe there’s a harder working coach in the Association. He has a 24/7 obsession for excellence combined with a sense of urgency and attention to detail that can be seen in his practices, games, and off-court interactions with players and basketball staff.
“While we recognize our work is not done, there is no question in my mind that Mike has earned the right to be coach of the year.”
Brown had a message for the Kings when they were coming out of the recent NBA All-Star break.
“I said this last third of the season is going to be the hardest part of this season because we’re not hunted right now,” Brown said. “And again, most of our guys have not been in significant roles for playoff teams. Most of our guys hadn’t been in significant roles being the hunted this late in the year. To be able to adjust to what is coming game after game after game, because of the West being so bunched up in terms of guys bringing their ‘A’ game, teams aren’t going to rest anymore. These games matter.
“One of the possible greatest players of all time, LeBron, even said that these last 20 games for him are the most important regular-season games of his career. That should mean something to everybody else in the league. And I’ve been preaching to our guys how hard it’s going to be and how locked in we have to be as a group in order to finish this last part of the season strong.”
Playoff hopes are getting more believable by the day for Sacramento. But for anyone who loves the Kings, the veteran coach wants to temper their excitement until a playoff stamp is official.
Brown also wants to dream bigger.
“I didn’t just come here to make the playoffs,” Brown said. “We came here to win and win at the highest level that we can, and we’re trying to win a championship just like everybody else. We expect to be in the playoffs. That was a given. I’ve been saying from day one, I’m trying to prepare us for what the playoffs are going to be like long term.”