Among the aspects of coaching I have found to be more important that orchestrating plays are situational coaching, recognizing players strengths and weaknesses and deciding my priorities for my situation (Not all situations are the same. What might be important in one situation may not be in another).
I believe I know a lot of basketball. I study the game more than I ever studied in school (not an endorsement, just a fact). It may have paid off because I was a college head coach at 29 years of age. When I took my Div. II head coaching jobs, I was one of the youngest coaches in the country. I was probably too young. As I look back, I studied basketball so much that I missed out on a lot of things that would have served me well.
Here are some of the people and things that I experienced and, as a young coach, I thought were crazy. After all, like most young coaches, I had all the answers. But, looking back on them, they were genius. I just didn’t recognize it.
“I DID IT FOR THE DEFENSE”
The late Chuck Daly was a Hall of Fame coach. He was the Head Coach of the original Dream Team that won the Gold Medal in the 1992 Olympics and guided the Detroit Piston “Bad Boys” to back to back NBA Championships.
When he took over the Pistons, they were not a very good team. Over the first couple of years he started to mold what has become one of the legendary NBA eras. Drafting Isaiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Joe Dumars, Vinnie Johnson, he showed a unique eye as to how to fill the parts of his team that would fit together and create a winning team.
Daly was always a defense first coach. His teams defended with tenacity as they started to climb the NBA ladder. While their offensive production remained largely the same, defensively they got better and better, often ranking in the top 5 in most NBA defensive stats. However, they just couldn’t get over the hump. They became a perennial playoff team, but not a championship contender. They did make it to the Finals, but got swept by the Lakers. After each playoff loss, he tweaked the roster, trying to find a move that would get them over the mountain.
Adrian Dantley, who was in the midst of his Hall-of-Fame career, was an integral part of their offense. Dantley was an 8-time All-Star and led the league in scoring twice. He was one of the elite players in the NBA.
Mark Aquirre was a great player at DePaul University, a 3 time All-America, one of the leading scorers in the country. He was a good NBA player. He was just under 6-7, very strong, good open shooter, averaged mid-double figures in scoring, but not in the class of Dantley. When the scheduled turned to February, the Pistons traded Dantley for Aquirre.
People were outraged. The Pistons were in the middle of another good year and how can they trade one of the premier players in the league for an average player. When asked, why did they make the trade, Daly said, “For defense.” People were aghast. While Dantley wasn’t a shut down defender, he scored enough to overcome his limitations. Aquirre was a middling scorer, to slow to defend on the perimeter and not big enough to defend in the lane. When pressed to explain his answer, Daly said, “You’ll see.”
Daly had sensed a weakness in his team. He feared they gave up too many points in transition. That is why they lost to the Lakers in the Finals the previous year and the Celtics the year before in the Conference playoffs.
After inserting Aquirre into the line up, the Pistons defensive points allowed went down. Their points allowed in transition sunk like a stone. Teams were no longer able to run against the Pistons, which made their half court defense more effective. At the same time, all of their offensive statistics went up. How did that happen?
Mark Aquirre, Daly felt, had a unique skill. He was very adept at getting fouled. With Aquirre continually going to the foul line, their opponent’s fast break opportunities shrunk to almost nothing. It is really tough to run against a team that is always shooting foul shots. Try it. Forcing teams to play half court offense allowed the Pistons’ defense to control the games.
In addition, Aquirre did not demand the ball as much as Dantley did. That allowed Isaiah Thomas and Joe Dumars to get more shots. As a result, their offense got better as well.
After the trade, the Pistons went 30-4 and then won the first of the back-to-back championships.
What I learned from this was to look beyond statistics and beyond tradition to solve my team’s issues. What do you do to improve your team’s defense? Slow the ball down, change defenses, or other traditional solutions? Or, do you look critically at the issue, find the cause and try to come up with another solution, which already be present. While, at most levels, you can’t trade for a player that will solve a particular need, but maybe the answer is already on your team, just change a role, add a responsibility or take one away. The answer might be right in front of you.
“GIVE THE BALL TO LUCAS”
My first Div. I job was as a graduate assistant at Hofstra University. I was working for a first year coach named Joe Harrington in his first head coaching position. Joe went on to great success at George Mason University, Long Beach State and then University of Colorado. He came to Hofstra after 10 years as an assistant at University of Maryland under Lefty Drisell.
Joe had played at the University of Maryland and then stayed on as an assistant as Drisell came on to built the “UCLA of the East.” He was primarily responsible for recruiting some of the best players, not only in the history of Maryland, but the best in college basketball history. Harrington recruited Hall-of Famer John Lucas, NBA players Brad Davis, Tom McMillan (later a Congressman), Albert King, Len Elmore (yes, the guy who has done college games on CBS forever) and many other great players of that era.
I was 23-years old so, naturally, I knew everything. We were in a pre-season meeting, discussing playbook, and Joe announced, “We need something for a press breaker.” A long discussion followed. There were 5 of us in the room so you can imagine what it was like when everyone expressed his opinion. However, no matter what was presented, Joe’s answer was, “I don’t like it.” It started to get pretty frustrating.
Eventually, I stood up and asked, “You were with Lefty for 10 years. What did you do at Maryland?”
He answered, “Mostly, we gave the ball to Lucas.” “Lucas,” was John Lucas, one of the greatest point guards in the history of the game. Not only was he a multi-time All-America in two sports (basketball and tennis) but he was the #1 pick in the NBA draft and is one of the few players to be in the Hall-of-Fame as a college and pro player.
My first thought was, “What an idiot. He doesn’t know any Xs and Os. Apparently anyone can be a head coach.” Remember I was 23 years old and knew everything. I asked him, “What did you run to get him open?” His answer was, “Nothing.” I asked, “What did you do if he wasn’t open?” “Lucas was always open,” he answered. I needed to take this further, so, I asked, “What would you do if Lucas wasn’t in the game?” His answer was, “We called time out and put him in.” That was not enough for me, so I asked, “What did you do if he fouled out?” Joe said, “He never fouled out.” “How about if he were hurt?” was my next question. He answered, “We lost.” He had to know some plays with all his experience, he had to know some Xs and Os, I had to move him off John Lucas. So, I asked, what did you run when Lucas graduated?” He looked at me incredulously and very calmly replied, “We threw the ball to Brad Davis.” Brad Davis, graduating after John Lucas, was a 1st round NBA pick and had a 15-year NBA career. In truth, part of his career at Maryland overlapped with Lucas’ so I think they had options other that losing if Lucas couldn’t play. Once again, I thought, “What a jerk.”
Now, after 30 years of coaching, I look back on that meeting and I have a different thought.
Not many of us have the opportunity to be lucky enough to be on a court with players the caliber of Lucas or Davis. But, we do have good players. As coaches, are we so enamored with our Xs and Os, with our plays, with our desire to control the play that we look past the special abilities and talents of some of our players? Would we have confined John Lucas and Brad Davis by insisting that the run inside a structure that would restrict their abilities? When I was younger, I would have. I would not have understood that by doing that, I would have robbed them of the situations that made them special players.
Is it our job as coaches to try to make players do what we want them to do, or is it to put players in a situation where the can do what they do best and allow them to flourish?
STEP IN THE LANE
Bert Kahn was the head coach at Quinnipiac University for over 30 years. So, naturally, when we played him in my 3rd game as a head coach, I knew I was innovative enough to be able to outcoach him.
Bert was a special coach. Even after 42 years, his passion for the game and the players he coached were the centerpiece of every game he coached. Later in his career, he has some serious health issues but that never stood in the way of his enthusiasm.
It was a great game. Very competitive, very physical, great plays being made on every trip. We come down the stretch and my player gets fouled on a drive to the basket. There was 0:01 on the clock and we were down 3 (by the way, this was before the 3-point shot came to college basketball) and on the foul line for 2 shots.
How were we going to win the game? I was sure that this was my chance to outcoach Burt. We were going to make the first shot, miss the second, get the rebound and score. Then go on to win it in overtime. This wouldn’t be a surprise. It had been done before. I was going to outcoach him in 2 areas.
First, we actually practiced this. We had 3 plays for offensive rebounds off the foul shot, miss left, miss right, miss long. So often we see teams in this situation and the shooter changes his shot and shoots it where they can’t rebound, or creates a violation. Rebounders consistently go into the lane early, create a violation and eliminate the possibility for a play. We weren’t going to do that, so we practiced it.
Second, and this is really where I had him, I was not going to call a time out to set it up. I did not want to tip him off that we were doing anything special. Burt had called a time out before the first shot to try and ice the shooter. That is when I called the play. I was sure that, if we made the first shot, he was sure I would call a time out before the second shot to set up the play. I was not going to do that. I knew I had him.
We stepped out onto the court for the foul shots. My player calmly sank the first shot. I glanced up the sideline to the other bench and I knew Bert was waiting for me to call the time out. The referee handed the shooter the ball. I knew I had him. The shooter missed left; we got the rebound and scored. Overtime!
Except it wasn’t. The referee blew the whistle and called a lane violation on them. We had to re-shoot the shot. Ok, let’s do it again. This time we’ll miss right. The referee handed the shooter the ball. As soon as the shooter took the ball, I watched as one of their players, very calmly, stepped into the lane with both feet and the, just as calmly, stepped out. I saw the referee extend his arm to the side, signifying a lane violation on a miss. We missed the shot, again got the rebound and scored and again, heard the referee’s whistle. Once again, it was a lane violation on them and we had to shoot it again. This happened 3 more times before we finally had to make the shot. We lost by 1 (why did we have to make the shot? That’s a complex answer, but suffice it to say we were in his gym, he had coached for 30 years, I was a rookie playing on the road).
For those of you who don’t know the rule, a lane violation on the shooting team is a violation when the action occurs and there is no shot. However, a lane violation on the non-shooting team is withheld until the result of the shot is known. If the shot goes in, there is no violation. If it misses, there is a violation and the shooter gets another chance.
I knew the rule, but he knew had to use it to his advantage. I had never seen that before. In fact, I haven’t seen it since. After the game, I shook Bert’s hand, totally in awe. I told him I had a new career objective. I wanted to coach long enough to have an opportunity to do that to someone else.
GUARD THE SHOOTER
As a younger coach, I was really a preparation freak. I still hate the thought of being unprepared. I would watch as much film as I could, scouted teams 3, 4, 5, 6 times to prepare my team to play. I also used to scout my team. I was interested in having people who could objectively watch my team to see if they were seeing the same things I was. I was interested in learning if my message was getting through to the players and translating into a game performance. I would pay a scouting service to scout my team 2 or 3 times every year. It is a practice I recommend to everyone. Scouting services have pretty much fallen by the wayside, but you can have other coaches or retired coaches do it. It is better to have someone who has no real ties to you, to insure objectivity. Asking friends might give you reports that are too sympathetic to your cause.
On some occasions, after a game, I would ask for a copy of their scouting report on us. Some, whom you don’t play regularly, might be very willing to give it up.
Dave Bike was a longtime coach at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Ct. They have since transitioned to Div. I, but with Dave as head coach they were consistently a national power in Div. II. They were a regular visitor to the NCAA Tournament and won a National Championship. At the time the made the move to Div. I, Dave had the highest winning percentage in the history of NCAA Div. II basketball and the fourth highest in all NCAA divisions. Playing his teams was both challenging and interesting.
His games were always interesting and usually the same. They would struggle a bit in the first half; halftime scores were usually pretty close. Then in the second half, they would just blow you away. It didn’t matter who they were playing, that’s what happened. Their seasons pretty much went the same way. They would go into the league season with a mediocre record and then blitz the league. It’s not like we played in a soft league. For 10 straight years our league was rated first in the NCAA rankings. In those 10 years, our league generated 10 straight regional championships, 8 Elite Eights, 6 Final Fours, 4 Championship Game appearances and 2 National Championships. We had multiple coaches in our league, back then, that are now in the NBA. As a matter of fact, at media day one year, one of the league coaches was asked for his prediction for the league that year. His response was, “Most positions are probably up for grabs. The only thing for certain is that Sacred Heart will start the year 9-8 and finish 28-9.”
After a few years of hard fought games and forging a friendship, I approached Dave, after another game where I thought we had a chance to beat them but really didn’t, and asked him if he would let me have one of his scouting reports on my team. He looked at me and said, “I would be happy to, except for one thing, I don’t scout.” Back then; Sacred Heart was a small, local school. As Div. II basketball grew in popularity among colleges, small schools were forced to become regional and then national. The league got bigger; recruiting became more demanding, as did the need for fund raising and academic support. In most cases, staffing and budgeting did not keep pace. Dave did not have the staff or the time to be able to take hours out of every day necessary to watch game film. He prioritized his time, staff and money to optimize what he needed for his team to get better.
I was amazed (remember I was a preparation freak, I must have watched 15 game films on them for that game. We lost). Here was a guy who has won a National Championship, has years of Top Ten rankings and he is telling me he didn’t scout his opponents. I asked him, “If you don’t scout, how do you prepare?” He told me that he gets a stat sheet before the game and gears his defense to play the 2 players who have taken the most shots. During the 1st half, he watches the game, makes adjustment at halftime for things that are giving them problems and then plays the second half. Again, as a young coach, I thought he was nuts. As I went along with my career I realized what it really was.
As we spoke over the years, I learned that he felt that teams hurt themselves by worrying too much over things they can’t control. Time taken on other teams was time taken away from his own team. He wanted his team to get better and pay attention to the things they needed to do so. That is why his teams got better as the season went along.
He felt that by taking shooters away from his opponent would force lesser players into roles they were not prepared for. As I look back on the games we played against him, and other games I had seen them play, it made sense. We couldn’t shake our scorers free in the first half, so we went to other things. Things that were available to us in the first half would disappear in the second half, as he made adjustments. Of course we would adjust too, but because he only concentrated on shooters in the first half it was difficult to anticipate the things he would do in the second half because we hadn’t seen any of it. Even on film. Every situation was different, so were his adjustments. Most times, because they couldn’t get the ball in the first half, your shooters were done for the game. If you spent halftime try to adjust to get your shooters open in the second half, you weren’t able to prepare for the others things they would do.
WHAT I LEARNED
These instances of genius have common threads running through them. First and foremost, they are simple. When faced with a problem, these coaches made it simpler, not more complex. They did not add complicated offenses or defenses, did not change systems and did not go along with the crowd. They identified their issue, looked in their gym and found an easy path to their solution.
The second common thread was my resistance to accepting things that weren’t traditional. I was young when I was exposed to these people, but I had all the answers. I run into that a lot now. I get asked for a lot of advice. When I answer with what I believe some think I’m nuts. Talk to somebody today about not scouting their opponent by watching hours and hours of game video and it will be like you are talking a foreign language. Give your scorer a reduced role and someone will certify you as crazy. But have you tried it?
Everybody is in a different situation. If you don’t have the staff or time to scout an opponent, find another way. If your players are underperforming, have them do something else. If you’re in a close game, don’t do what somebody else does (do you always call time out for a last shot?) just because they do it. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but finding simple solutions will give you more options.
We all have something in this game that we are afraid to try because it is not traditional. Maybe we are afraid of what others might say. I say, “Do it! It might turn out to be genius.