Philadelphia 76ers forward Mike Muscala sat in front of his cubby, preparing for his matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks. That’s when the name of a player who, at that moment, was nursing a sprained ankle almost 1,000 miles south in Atlanta’s State Farm Arena flashed across the screen he was studying. “DIRK” read the one of the words tucked beneath the clip. The play featured Bucks center Brook Lopez screening for point guard Eric Bledsoe and then scurrying out behind the three-point line.
Every NBA team fuses together clips of its upcoming opponent for players to study in the locker room before games. But it’s not often you see the name of a player from a different team appear on that film.
“It’s just a reference to an action,” Muscala said when asked why the name of a Dallas Mavericks star was repeatedly popping up on a wall in Fiserv Forum’s visitors locker room in Milwaukee about an hour before a Sixers-Bucks game in late October. “It’s a pick-and-pop, which, obviously, is Dirk [Nowitzki]’s trademark.” Sixers guard JJ Redick, who was tying the drawstring of his blue gym shorts a few lockers away, overheard the conversation.
“Your goal should be that five years after you finish playing, people are saying, ‘We’re going to Muscala this,'” Redick said.
“What’s that mean, double the post?” Muscala asked, poking fun at his occasional struggles with defending big men close to the hoop.
Redick laughed, but he was only half-kidding about the honor of having a skill set memorialized for years. “It’s something I joke about a lot—that if you get a cut or move named after you, or some coverage named after you, that’s how you know you made it,” he told me a few weeks later. His Sixers, under the direction of head coach Brett Brown, appear to be determined to fulfill dozens of such dreams.
When the Sixers want to double the post, they yell out “Gary Payton,” a reference to the 6’4″ Hall of Fame point guard. When they want to isolate two players on one side of the floor, it’s “Nellie,” the nickname of Don Nelson, the former offensive-minded coach of the Bucks, Knicks, Mavericks and Warriors. When they want a ball-handler to slither around consecutive screens from two different big men, Brown calls “Mash.” (The play is a reference to the set Shaquille O’Neal and Karl Malone would run in their one season together with the Lakers in which both would set screens before O’Neal would roll to the basket while Malone would pop out to the perimeter.)
There’s also Nash-ing around the baseline (in honor of former two-time MVP Steve Nash). And a Birdman Zone (for Chris “Birdman” Andersen) down near the basket. One Sixers assistant coach estimated about 300 actions in the team’s vocabulary were named after people.
Brown’s Sixers aren’t the only NBA team working off a playbook stuffed with names of both former and current players and coaches. Screen-setters across the league now employ the “Varejao,” a nod to former Cleveland Cavalier Anderson Varejao’s affinity for audibling, at the last second, the side of the defender where he’d set a screen (shown below).
“That’s probably the most prevalent example,” Atlanta Hawks guard Jeremy Lin said. Brooklyn Nets veteran Jared Dudley named a few others, such as Rip Hamilton curls (when a shooter dashes around off-ball screens: an action Richard Hamilton perfected while playing with the Detroit Pistons) and a Wade Cut, which, Dudley said, is when a player away from the ball darts from one corner straight down the baseline to the rim, a move utilized regularly by Dwyane Wade.
But as Wilson Chandler, who was traded to Philadelphia this summer after playing for five coaches in his previous 11 seasons, put it: “I don’t think anyone names things after guys as much as we do here. Coach is a real big basketball guy. He pays attention to a lot of teams and players, not just in the NBA but overseas too.”
A few weeks after that Redick and Muscala back-and-forth, Brown explained the reasoning behind his system during a morning practice in Indianapolis.
“It’s just when you can associate a name with anything, it allows you to communicate it to your players over time,” Brown told B/R. “I think that creating a vocabulary is as important as anything when you’re trying to grow your program.”
Brown couldn’t remember when he first began employing this tactic: “I’ve been doing it all my coaching days. So I guess some place in New Zealand.” That’s where Brown, back in 1987, received his first head coaching job before eventually becoming an assistant for the San Antonio Spurs.
“A lot of these have been stolen from Pop,” Brown said, referring to Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. “When you have continuity, I can talk about a Bazemore cut [shown below, a reference to Kent Bazemore, the veteran Hawks guard] or a Charlie Ward cut [when a guard passes the ball to a player in the post and then cuts in his direction] or an Eddie Jones, and it’s easy.”
The 57-year-old Brown, however, often dates himself with his references. Ward’s last game was in 2004-05; Jones’ was in 2007-08. The majority of Brown’s current players were still in elementary school the last time either player slipped on an NBA uniform. Do today’s Sixers recognize the names Brown cites?
“I always have to explain it,” Brown said. “The guys who have been here for a few years, guys like Cov [referring to the recently traded Robert Covington] and Joel [Embiid] would know, but Furkan [Korkmaz] probably doesn’t.
“Watch this,” Brown said as Korkmaz, a 21-year-old second-year player, walked past. “Hey, Furk, you know when we Payton the post? Do you know why I call it Payton?”
Korkmaz, who was born and raised in Turkey, picked up the ball he was dribbling. “It’s because of a player named Payton,” he said. He didn’t sound confident in his answer.
“Because of Gary Payton,” Brown said. “Did I ever explain that to you?”
“I think when I first got here,” Korkmaz said.
A few feet away, Sixers rookie Jonah Bolden, 22 and an Australia native, was doing jump shots.
“Jonah probably wouldn’t know,” Brown said. He called Bolden over and asked the same question. Bolden shook his head.
“So back in the day, Gary Payton would come flying up the court and start backing down, and we couldn’t guard him. He would beast Tony [Parker].” So the Spurs designed a response. They’d force Payton away from the middle of the floor and toward the baseline and send a second player over to help.
“That was ‘Payton,'” Brown said.
“It makes it easier for us to remember,” Korkmaz confirmed.
Brown was ready with another pop quiz. The Sixers, he said, have a play called Mash. He asked Bolden and Korkmaz if either knew the origin. Both players stood silently.
“Cov, what’s the verbiage Mash mean?” Brown called out to Covington, who had just completed his shooting routine.
“Karl Malone and Shaq?” Covington asked.
“That’s it,” Brown said.
Later that night, in the locker room before the Sixers’ game with the Pacers in early November, Bolden acknowledged that many of Brown’s references are too dated for him.
“Nellie was one I didn’t know,” he said. “We have a High-Nellie and Low-Nellie.” The play, he explained, calls for clearing out one side of the court for two offensive players. But, Bolden added, “I don’t really worry about where a play’s name comes from when Coach is talking.”
RICH PEDRONCELLI/Associated Press/Associated Press
But Bolden’s ambivalence puts him in the minority among his peers.
“That’s pretty awesome,” Bazemore said when informed that the 76ers have a cut named after him. “For what?” he asked. I explained to him as it was explained to me: That when the Sixers inbound the ball from a sideline in the frontcourt, one of their guards will sometimes cut from the three-point line down toward the hoop off a screen from a big man. It’s a move that traditionally had been attributed to UCLA’s legendary coach, John Wooden, and is known in most playbooks as a UCLA Cut.
How does Bazemore feel about usurping the Hall of Fame coach?
“It’s really cool,” he said. “You’re always looking for ways to leave legacies. Who knows? Maybe that’s something that’s around for a long time.”