Staff Profile: Brian Hill
Mutual respect keeps bringing Frank, Hill together
The people who’ve been with Lawrence Frank the longest and know him best are convinced he would have fought his way to the highest levels of the coaching profession one way or another, but Brian Hill certainly helped Frank ascend a few rungs of the ladder quicker than he might have otherwise been able to do.
When Frank was at his first career crossroads – cool to the idea of following Kevin O’Neill from Tennessee to Northwestern in 1997, as he had followed him from Marquette to Tennessee three years earlier – it was Hill who cracked the door for Frank to the NBA. And it was Hill who made the unusual move, midway through the 1998-99 season, of taking Frank off the road as the team’s advance scout and making him a part of his immediate coaching staff, so impressed was Hill by Frank’s interaction with players on the occasions he got to work with them.
“I knew Kevin, but (the interview) was the first time I had ever met Lawrence,” Hill said. “So I knew who he was, but then he came in for an interview and I was impressed with everything he did and the way he handled the interview. The first year, he did all the advance scouting. Whenever he was in town, he was around the team and working with players. It got to the point I liked so much what he was doing with the players that I made a decision to keep him with the team all the time and do our advance scouting off of videotape and getting calls from other scouts. That’s how we started.”
Shortly into the following season, Hill and Frank’s third with the Vancouver Grizzlies, Hill was fired. Frank finished out the season in Vancouver, then latched on in his native New Jersey as part of Byron Scott’s staff going into the 2000-01 season. By the time Nets GM Rod Thorn decided a coaching change was in order midway through the 2003-04 season after Scott had taken New Jersey to the past two NBA Finals, Frank had again ascended the ladder, going from low man on Scott’s staff to No. 1 assistant – and Thorn’s choice to take over, at age 34.
To fill the opening on his staff Frank’s own promotion had created, he returned the favor, hiring Hill as an assistant. It was one of the few times in Hill’s long coaching career when he was available for hire after a season had begun, having been dismissed along with head coach Paul Silas and his New Orleans staff following the 2002-03 season.
“When I got the New Jersey job in the middle of the year,” Frank said, “the first guy I wanted to hire was Brian. I have great respect for Brian. He has great knowledge of the game. He has great enthusiasm. He’s got a toughness about him. He brings the experiences. The lessons learned are great sharing experiences for me, our coaching staff, our team. He’s somebody that will tell you the truth without reservation.”
Though unusual in the workplace at large to serve under a person who was once your superior, in the coaching world it’s fairly common. Both Frank and Hill say it never seemed awkward to swap roles.
“I knew Lawrence works incredibly hard at his craft,” Hill said. “He’s a very bright guy. I didn’t have a problem with that. I knew (New Jersey) was a good team. He had been there three, four years as an assistant, knew the players, and I knew the players knew him and respected him. And I really loved the way they were playing at the time with the whole Princeton offense. I just looked at it as another situation where I could learn a different facet of the game, especially offensively, that I had never been exposed to. And, of course, Lawrence made me feel comfortable by giving me a voice and the freedom to say what I wanted to say.”
“It’s not awkward at all,” Frank said. “The way I work, I’m very transparent. There is no ego system here. It’s about whatever is best for the team.”
Hill wound up going on to his third stint as a head coach, with the Orlando Magic, in 2005 for two seasons, then returned to Frank’s staff in New Jersey. He left to come to the Pistons in 2009-10 and spent the past two seasons here under John Kuester. Frank’s hiring accelerated Hill’s interest in remaining with the Pistons.
Frank has designated Hill to be his chief defensive assistant coach, an assignment that sits well with Hill.
“I like that role,” he said. “The defensive end of the floor is probably where I’ve always had the best comfort level as a coach. We all teach offense, but you kind of vacillate from year to year and team to team based on your personnel, what you’re going to run offensively. But your defensive philosophy is fairly consistent. I think that role will be relatively easy for me. It’s something I’m very comfortable with.”
And Hill is especially confident that the information he funnels to Frank will be well applied.
“He’s outstanding in situations,” Hill said of Frank. “Late-game situations, situations that come up during the game that maybe the average fan doesn’t even think about that happen in the first, second or third quarter that are ultimately responsible for the outcome of the game. He’s a great situation coach and I think it’s because of his preparation. He basically leaves no stone unturned and tries to think about every situation that could possibly happen during the course of a game and have a reaction to it.”
Fourteen years ago, there were clear signs of that type of preparedness and anticipation of every situation from Lawrence Frank in his first NBA job interview. It turned out to be a fruitful exercise for both parties.