Brett Brown
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown doesn’t think “sign-stealing” is something NBA teams have to guard against.

Danny Small

NEW YORK, NY—The Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal is front and center in the public consciousness of all sports fans right now. As that drama unfolds, it begs the question: Could something similar happen in the NBA? Yes and no.

“There is nothing in our sport that you feel like you’re that vulnerable that somebody can come and steal it,” Philly head coach Brett Brown told reporters before the Sixers took the floor against the New York Knicks on Saturday night.

Well, Brown quickly clarified that there are very specific instances where teams could potentially cross a line.

“If you are in a shootaround in the morning and say I was going through a catch shot, need three play,” Brown continued. “We’re down three points and there’s two seconds left. This is the play we practice and this is the play we’re gonna run—and we do do this—and they film that, there’s an advantage.

“Short of being that dramatic, the league is so well scouted. People have people sitting right behind me and it’s all about that’s the job of an advanced scout: steal plays, get visual on the plays.”

This makes complete sense given the thoroughness of NBA scouting departments. The nature of the job is to find out exactly what everyone else is doing and figure out how to stop it—or better yet, steal the play for your own team. In fact, there are no language barriers when it comes to “stealing” play calls.

“That’s why when I’ve coached in three Olympic games, it’s the words. You’re not going to need to translate Spanish. The Americans can jump into Croatian or Spanish or whatever,” Brown laughed. “The visuals are the thing that get you. Ear tug is ear tug. … It’s a different sport.”

In basketball, knowing the play ahead of time isn’t enough to shut it down. It’s not so much “stealing” as it is “diagnosing.” And as a matter of fact, accurately diagnosing a play is no guarantee for success.

A defender can know that a flex cut is coming along the baseline and wiggle his way around the screener, only for the cutter to adjust his cut and flare out to the corner instead. Admittedly, that’s a generic example, but it’s clearly a much different scenario than simply knowing whether or not a curveball is coming. The entire world can know James Harden is shooting a stepback three, but that doesn’t mean his defender will be able to stop him.

In addition to the in-depth scouting that goes on in the league, the NBA’s coaching carousel leads to state secrets leaking out to other organizations as well. How many current NBA coaches have worked with San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich at one time or another?

Brett Brown just so happens to be one of Popovich’s disciples and once upon a time, Knicks interim head coach Mike Miller coached San Antonio’s G League squad, the Austin Toros. Most teams have a very good idea of what their opponents are running because there’s a decent chance they run some type of variation of it.

Don’t expect a major scandal like the one unfolding in Houston to envelop the basketball world anytime soon. The NBA has its fair share of problems and issues, but sign-stealing isn’t something on anyone’s radar.

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