NBA Preseason Allows Coaches to Show off a Few New Moves of Their Own

Jared Zwerling@JaredZwerlingNBA Senior WriterOctober 17, 2014

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One of the biggest storylines in every NBA training camp is what players did during the summer to prepare for the upcoming season.   

But what about those other guys on the bench—you know, the coaches? Think their offseason mostly entails light morning work and long golf afternoons, waiting for a majority of their players to return to the practice facility after Labor Day to get started? That couldn't be further from the truth.   

From May to September, a coach's schedule is much more calculated than many think, consisting of studying opponents, staff projects and retreats, NBA draft analysis, summer league, global camps and seminars, meetings with coaches in their sport and others, and self-improvement and reading for inspiration.

"It feels like you're always thinking about [the job], and you're always taking phone calls and you're always making phone calls. To get away from it, it's really, really difficult," Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. "Even when you're with your family, [the job] is always on your mind, and there are a few things here and there that you've got to address. You can't wait a week."

A coach's offseason starts right when his team's season ends. While players have exit interviews with their coaches a day after their last game, and then they're free to go wherever, coaches typically don't have final season meetings with their general managers. That's because their work quickly turns to the remaining playoff games in May and June. For instance, Denver Nuggets coach Brian Shaw took a couple of his assistants to some playoff games to evaluate "key things that their teams were doing that our team wasn't doing."

What did Shaw discover? "I just watched the difference in the energy level of the players when they played at home as opposed to away," he said. "[Teams for which] the pick-and-roll coverage was sharp usually got a win. The X's and O's cancel each other out, and a lot of times it comes down to the connection that the coach has with his players and the ability to push buttons to get what he needs out of them. Just little nuances like that."

Denver Nuggets coach Brian Shaw instructing Alonzo Gee during a preseason game.
Denver Nuggets coach Brian Shaw instructing Alonzo Gee during a preseason game.Rick Scuteri/Associated Press/Associated Press

For those teams out of the playoffs, May and June is a time for draft prep and developing the younger players already on the roster. It's also a time for staff projects. Most involve studying standout offensive and defensive systems from the previous season, and then discussing the findings when the coaching staff fully regroups in September.

"You watch what other teams do well and then try to determine if they're things that could help you," Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford said.

Clifford's staff analyzed the defenses of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Clippers. Offensively, they chopped up film of the Clippers, Hawks, Dallas Mavericks, Miami Heat, Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs. As predicted, the champion Spurs, who obliterated the Heat 4-1 in the NBA Finals, left the greatest impression on opposing coaches.

"San Antonio served for us a great example of how we want to play," said Terry Stotts, head coach of the Trail Blazers, who lost to the Spurs in last season's conference semifinals. "They passed the ball offensively, their bench came in and contributed and played with confidence, they won as a team even though they had stars and Hall of Fame players, and they were very solid defensively. And that's going to be fresh in our minds as far as what it takes to become a championship team."

Added Phoenix Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek: "We probably executed correctly 40 percent of the time [last season]. I believe the Spurs executed 80, 90 percent of the time, and that's where we need to grow to be one of these teams."

Other projects can be player-centric, like the one orchestrated by Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens: "I picked 50 or 60 players who have had really good success at one point or other, and my staff and I each took four or five guys. We broke their games down much further than we would on a typical scouting report the day before a game—just to get a better feel for how they do things and also to add to our individual work with our young guys."

Two other key initiatives for some coaches in the early part of the offseason include traveling abroad for the Euroleague Final Four in mid-May and the Adidas Eurocamp in early June.

"I love the general way that the European game is ball movement, player movement," Budenholzer said. "There's spacing and the reads. They really move you around, and they really move you with the pick-and-roll and things like that. We can learn from it and grow from it. Sometimes we don't move enough and the ball doesn't move enough. There are a lot of great coaches and a lot of great players in Europe that I've been able to learn from."

Once the Orlando and Las Vegas Summer Leagues roll around in July, coaches get creative while planning ahead for the following season, experimenting with new wrinkles they might have picked up from other teams. When those plays are executed during summer league—by an assistant or rookie head coach (like the New York Knicks' Derek Fisher) who is in charge to gain experience in a lead role—the league is on notice.

First-year head coach Derek Fisher in a New York Knicks huddle during Las Vegas Summer League.
First-year head coach Derek Fisher in a New York Knicks huddle during Las Vegas Summer League.Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

"You're always stealing [plays] from other people," said Memphis Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger. "There are a lot of good assistants in our league, and you see the things that they try to run in summer league that you can steal and tweak for what's best for your team. So that's always positive."

In general, most coaches, whenever they're watching a game—from high school to the NBA—have a notepad with them. "You're always doodling on some sort of piece of paper," Hornacek said. The key, though, is not to overdo the team's offense. Hornacek said while there's enough material to have a dozen main half-court sets, most coaches have four or five.

"Coaches all kind of run variations of the same set," he said. "You kind of simplify a little bit, narrow it down and try to figure out what works for your particular players."

The ideas never stop. As Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra noted, "Coaches constantly live in a state of being uncomfortable and self-evaluation. We're all extremely masochistic, where we just constantly second-guess and beat ourselves up. All coaches are supremely paranoid, so you're always studying your opponents, and there's always some level of occupational envy."

Thoughts even pop up in the dead of night.

"Sometimes you just can't sleep, or you think of things in the middle of the night," Budenholzer said. "There's stuff that comes to you then, and you write it down and you add it. Some of it's good and some of it you're like, 'What the hell was I thinking?'"

With free agency and summer league taking up most of July, August is the only time when coaches have a bit of flexibility. That's when coaches plan vacations, golf (like Hornacek and Stotts) and even go fishing, which is a Shaw family tradition.

"When I have an opportunity to get out on the water, I can just relax and let my mind just kind of breathe," Shaw said. "I think it's important to break away from [the job], so that you can recharge and not get burned out at the same time."

Before that getaway stretch of the summer, many coaches make a point of scheduling staff retreats or traveling to different cities to check on their players' training. Coaches also have several functions circled on their calendar before Labor Day.

The first week of August is headlined by the Adidas Nations, a top global high school basketball event organized in part by Toronto Raptors assistant Bill Bayno, who invites other assistants from around the league to work with the rising stars.

Toronto Raptors assistant coach Bill Bayno leads other NBA assistants at the Eurocamp and Adidas Nations global hoops events.
Toronto Raptors assistant coach Bill Bayno leads other NBA assistants at the Eurocamp and Adidas Nations global hoops events.David Sherman/Getty Images

For some, early August also brings a chance to absorb a few lessons while flying overseas with the NBA's Basketball Without Borders program.

"That was a great experience," said Shaw, who went to Johannesburg this summer with the Raptors' Dwane Casey and the Nets' Lionel Hollins. "I spent a lot of time with [Casey and Hollins] asking a lot of questions and bouncing ideas back and forth. The conversations were more about player management and things of that nature."

The second week in August is the most significant of the month for coaches. That's when Tim Grgurich, a former longtime NBA assistant who's known as the "godfather of player development," runs his annual summer basketball camp in Las Vegas, as he has for about the last 20 years. It's the second-largest event of the offseason in terms of coach and player participation, according to agent Warren LeGarie, who represents 50 coaches in the NBA and the NBA D-League.

Coaches such as Joerger, Budenholzer, Bernie Bickerstaff, Jim Boylan, Mike Brown, Rick Carlisle and George Karl all got their start there, as the invite-only camp enables about 35 young coaches (mostly assistants) to lead games and instruction for about 75 first- or second-year players in the NBA or ones on the borderline.

Also managed by the NBA's director of officials, Don Vaden, the camp is officiated by actual league referees, who help the younger coaches in attendance better understand the nuances in the rules. At one point this summer, longtime official Joey Crawford demonstrated defensive positioning with a coach so he could avoid a future violation.

"The Grgurich camp is the one that has become sort of the go-to [summer] event because you get a mix from all the teams, you get coaches interacting," LeGarie said. "So not only are [the coaches] getting a chance to see players, but they're also working on different coaching styles and different approaches. It gives a chance for a young guy to develop a voice and a presence that other people see and to develop a little bit of a network."

Tim Grgurich (left) at his summer basketball camp with NBA offiicals Joe Crawford and Monty McCutchen.
Tim Grgurich (left) at his summer basketball camp with NBA offiicals Joe Crawford and Monty McCutchen.Courtesy of Warren LeGarie

The month is rounded out by USA Basketball duties and University of Florida head coach Billy Donovan's popular clinic. Clifford, Spoelstra and Stotts have all been to Donovan's event, which, according to a school spokesperson, "has both on-court idea-sharing sessions led by various coaches and discussion sessions on relevant topics that all vary year to year."

Late summer provides a chance for younger coaches to connect with their mentors. Budenholzer "picks the brain" of Gregg Popovich over the Spurs coach's favorite pastime: drinking wine. Joerger asks Carlisle, Doug Collins and Flip Saunders about "how to handle different player situations." Stotts continues to learn "unique offensive perspective" from Karl, and Clifford does the same for defense from his former bosses Tom Thibodeau and Jeff and Stan Van Gundy. Hornacek simply turns to his father, John, a former high school hoops coach, for advice.

Coaches are also big on seeking input outside of their sport. This summer, Clifford met with Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera to discuss "team culture and leadership." Stevens has chatted with Boston's other professional coaches. Stotts has visited with former Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington, while Spoelstra has attended football practices to speak with the Seattle Seahawks' Pete Carroll, University of Tennessee head coach Butch Jones and the Philadelphia Eagles' Chip Kelly.

"They go through similar things in terms of motivation, planning, managing personalities, expectations," Spoelstra said. "I always have to get my yearly connection with Chip Kelly because he's so counterculture. He constantly asks why. He really is a true contrarian in that speaking with him just gets me to look at things differently, and he always makes me extremely uncomfortable. A yearly dose of Chip always keeps things in perspective for me."

In addition, there are moments of individual study. While Budenholzer has read books on New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, Stotts has turned to best-selling author and motivational speaker Jon Gordon. Recently, Stotts and Stevens read The Boys in the Boat, about the 1936 U.S. men's Olympic rowing team. And Spoelstra, who said "a book store for a coach is like a toy store for a kid," is currently reading Letters from Leaders: Personal Advice for Tomorrow's Leaders from the World's Most Influential People.

The summer syllabus is different for each coach. Although Clifford led the then-Bobcats to their first playoff appearance in four years, he came away from his rookie season as a head coach realizing, "I need to learn how to structure my days, so that I'm managing my time better and I can work more effectively. A lot more things pop up as a head coach, like a player wants to talk to you and there's more media demands."

Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer spent part of his summer soaking up lessons from former employer Gregg Popovich and some of it reading up on Bill Belichick.
Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer spent part of his summer soaking up lessons from former employer Gregg Popovich and some of it reading up on Bill Belichick.Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Shaw has a different way of finding motivation on his own time.

"I like to watch people give testimony," he said. "I'm very spiritual, so I watched a segment of Oprah's life class recently and Bishop T.D. Jakes did a segment on life skills, and it was really impactful to me. I immediately recorded it and I'm in the process now of chopping it up, so that I can let the team see it. I think it will do a lot for our guys as well."

September largely revolves around prepping up for the start of training camp, but it also brings two of the bigger off-court events on coaches' calendars. First is the annual coaches' meeting with NBA commissioner Adam Silver and the league's officials, where this summer the idea of a 44-minute game was broached. The other is the GM and Coaches' Clinic, which was co-founded by LeGarie and Carlisle during the 2011 lockout to help keep front offices occupied.

This summer, the clinic featured a wide-ranging look at newly developing issues as well as a few that have long been scrutinized—from the evolution of SportVU and the use of analytics as a tool to predict team chemistry, to former World Series champion manager Jim Leyland's describing his efforts leading teams and players, to Shaw, Hornacek and Milwaukee Bucks head coach Jason Kidd detailing the trials and tribulations of a first-year head coach. Also, there was a discussion on getting fired and finding new employment.

That last item sums up the pressures of the profession. Demands are high, expectations higher. And the job is year to year. But what's overlooked is the reality of the vast preparation that goes into the offseason. Most of it, like seeking out mentorship and showing up at different coaches' clinics, is off the clock.

"Coaches have a peace corps mentality," LeGarie said. "They're trying to make the coaching world better than they found it." 

Jared Zwerling covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.


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