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After last year's scramble, coaches embrace a full preseason

After last year's scramble, NBA coaches embrace a full preseason

POSTED: Sep 21, 2012 9:11 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


Pistons coach Lawrence Frank had to do a lot of his teaching on the fly last season.

Nearly three months of the calendar had been wiped clean because of the collective bargaining dispute between NBA owners and their players. An agreement reached over Thanksgiving weekend salvaged a 66-game schedule that started on Christmas Day. By the time T's were crossed, I's were dotted and attorneys were paid, everyone was deep into December. Veterans same as rookies, long-tenured coaches same as newbies.

Frank, a veteran of NBA wars, was taking over in Detroit for John Kuester. He had been in Boston the year before, after a seven-season run as New Jersey Nets coach. Some of the older Pistons knew of him. And he was familiar with Detroit's roster as an opponent. But in terms of working together, they had never seen each other nekkid the way the best teams do.

"I think there were six of us who were new to our teams," Frank said of the head coaches in similar post-lockout plights. "It wasn't so much the basketball part as it was, the first time you're really meeting these guys is on the court -- with no equity in the relationship. And you're getting after it.

"The view they're getting is a real small view initially of who you are. Look, you're getting to work but they're not quite seeing the whole picture. And you're not seeing the whole picture. Especially when you're a team where you're trying to change the culture and it hasn't been performing [well]."

Frank had hurried arranged individual confabs with each of the Pistons. From Tayshaun Prince and Rodney Stuckey to Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight, he gave them the talk, all about expectations and methods and communication. And still ...

"Trust takes time," Frank said. "All they got was the 'challenge! challenge! challenge!' They never really got the 'connect' part. This summer, we've been able to put that together. Until you really touch a guy, you don't know how he's going to respond. So you have your plan, you do all your work, and then you have to read your audience. You have to see what these guys can and cannot do."

At the annual meetings of NBA coaches in Chicago Thursday, 15 head coaches spoke with about that post-lockout scramble, from the quickie training camps and the two-and-done, mini-preseason to the rush through 66 regular-season games in a span of 124 days. And they talked with great anticipation about a big, fat return to normal.

Here are some of their thoughts:

Lawrence Frank, Detroit Pistons

"The first month, we were 4-20 and there was a lot of what I call 'test' because it was doing things in a different way. It may be harder. It may be longer. Regardless of wins or losses, we were staying the course because it was about a bigger picture. Once we had more 'buy-in' by guys, we started to play better basketball.

"Players' bodies are on a clock. September, they're used to being in a gym. Well, last year, there was no clock. When we started last December, guys were trying to get into shape. So you're trying to build new habits, with guys who aren't in condition, with a new system, new coach, new culture.

"The best thing about last year? Everything was condensed and you dealt with a lot of adversity. You really see people's characters during those times. Screws were tightened. "

Raptors coach Dwane Casey heads a squad looking to build on last year's defensive improvement.
Raptors coach Dwane Casey heads a squad looking to build on last year's defensive improvement.

Dwane Casey, Toronto Raptors

"This summer, I've had time to work individually with guys, get to know guys. Our talent level is higher than it was last year. Going into the season, guys know what the expectations are. They know what to do offensively, defensively. Just from working them this summer, it makes all the difference. Now they know the pace of practices, of games.

"Last season was almost like an adrenaline rush. We were rushing through training camp, rushing through the regular season. With two exhibition games, we had to correct things on the fly."

Terry Stotts, Portland Trail Blazers

"We've had so many players come in in September, I'm getting a feel for them. Not only am I new to them, we have a completely new staff and half our team is new -- we have five rookies. So this period has really been good for me to get to know them, but also for them to have a feel for what I'm looking for. I'm going to take full advantage of the whole preseason.

"Going through it [last year as an assistant with Dallas], we thought we would weather it a little better than some others. As it turned out, we didn't. It's one of those things where you really don't know until after the fact. I think it was case-by-case. I don't know that there was rhyme or reason for a team coming through that well or not. I know that with games coming so fast, you never felt as prepared as you wanted to be."

Tyrone Corbin, Utah Jazz

"You know your timing now. From the end of last season, you knew exactly how much time you had 'til the beginning of this year. Last year being what it was, you just didn't know when it was -- guys were ready for one date, then it wasn't, now they're trying to back off their workouts. As it went longer, it only got harder to be ready. This year it's all on a schedule.

"You just never got a chance to put everything [plays] in. You didn't get enough repetitions with combinations of different guys on the floor, where everybody could become used to each other. You'd get a guy hurt, now you didn't get repetitions with the guy replacing him. It was like that all year long. You had to adjust in some situations to what an opponent had done the day before or last week, to catch up from what they hadn't had time to do before.

"As far as injuries, I think the frequency of so many games in such a short amount of time, guys didn't have time for their bodies to recover. Maybe you're playing hurt and the pace of the game is so fast, and you try things when your body's not ready for it."

Lionel Hollins, Memphis Grizzlies

"You just didn't have the time to get better away from the game. We were spending games and shootarounds trying to get better. Normally you go to practice, you watch film, you have a lot of reps in the things you're trying to correct.

"If you got into bad habits, they just stayed -- we were going from one game right into the next.

"The players did like playing all the time, except that they did get worn down. I think, from the first two months of the season almost to the All-Star break, we did not have two consecutive days off. It was like Chinese water torture -- every day you're getting up, you're getting on a plane to go somewhere or you're going to shootaround to play that night. It got to be, 'When are we gonna get a break?' If I felt that way, I know the players felt that way.

"Our young players didn't get to play or do anything. There was no time for him to get better. He was lost, and he was going to be lost the whole season because there was no time for him to catch up.

"For the teams that had veterans, they could pace themselves and knew how to get through it. And the teams that weren't trying to start something new -- like us, we were fortunate we had been together for three years. The continuity was there for us to go out and do what we did. We didn't try to add anything. We rode that. We beat some teams that, maybe if they'd had more time, they'd have been a tougher out.

"I happen to be one of those who think there are too many preseason games. I think four preseason games -- and spreading them out -- would be better. But if we had less, the players would bellyache about that because that would mean more practice."

Year 2 of the Mark Jackson era starts in Oakland,
Year 2 of the Mark Jackson era starts in Oakland, where eyes are on the recovery of Andrew Bogut.

Mark Jackson, Golden State Warriors

"[A normal schedule] certainly puts you in a better position. We're a young team -- four rookies this year, three from last year. The great thing is, even now, it's all about guys in the gym. Working out, they're together, they've been there for a lot of time right now. It's great leadership with our veteran guys. And it's a much better situation trying to instill principles and have an identity when it does start up.

"We're a no-excuse basketball team. It was tough for everybody, whether they were putting in the same system or a brand-new system. We had some key injuries that set us back, but I don't think the shortened season had anything to do with them. It certainly makes it easier having a full schedule.

"Even though it was draining mentally and physically, for coaches and players, it went by quickly."

Larry Drew, Atlanta Hawks

"We tried to add things on the fly. We didn't have much of a choice. We had to put our basics in and get guys familiar with what we do. Once we did that, we kept adding and adding, but we couldn't do it too quick. Shootarounds were basically the same -- couldn't throw things at them then -- but on the days that we practiced, we made it a mental day, adding things and going over them. We couldn't wear guys out.

"Coming up this preseason, we're going to have time. We're going to be able to teach and, with all the new players, you can really get them acclimated to what you do. It's really night and day."

Monty Williams, New Orleans Hornets

"I think the older teams will probably be a little sharper this year, because they'll get that rest. Last year there was none. The younger teams will probably have a chance to learn more over the course of a month [of preseason]. You might not see as many mistakes.

"You don't understand how important camp is until you don't have it. I think players realized that, too, especially the veteran teams. You look at a team like Boston, they had seasoned veterans and then they had some young guys who didn't know anything. Camp would have allowed those young guys to grow, but they didn't have that.

"The [Chris Paul situation] could have been disruptive, but I always felt that my job wasn't going to change based on a guy not wanting to be there. I always look at this job as a privilege. Unfortunately we lost some really good players, but it forced me to grow up as a coach."

Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls

"It's better for the product now, too. The quality of play is going to be a lot better. It's not only the obvious, the time you can prepare in practice, but it will give the players more time for rest, so their performances will be better. It's better all around.

"There was no way to prepare for the lockout schedule. It was different from the one in '99. But you have to be ready to respond to whatever challenge is in front of you. For the most part, I thought our guys handled it well. You had to maximize the time that was available to you, whether that meant doing more at a shootaround, more film work, more walk-through.

"It was a benefit to have a team that had been together the previous year. The teams that had a lot of changes, there was a bigger adjustment. There wasn't as much time. But everyone was faced with the same circumstances. In the end, when you look back, I think it was a terrific season."

Nuggets coach George Karl (left) looks to regroup after heartbreaking playoff exit while Alvin Gentry (right) recovers from loss of Steve Nash.
Nuggets coach George Karl (left) looks to regroup from heartbreaking playoff exit while Alvin Gentry (right) seeks to recover from loss of Steve Nash.

George Karl, Denver Nuggets

"I like both ways. I've always felt that my experience coaching in the CBA is an advantage when chaos hits in the NBA. Because I don't think many NBA coaches have to do what CBA coaches had to do. In the CBA, during the season, you can trade eight guys and you've got a new team. And you don't have 28 days to get ready.

"The thing that lacked last year, I thought, was a foundation of fundamentals and the depth, maybe, of your packages. The depth of your defense and offense. Veteran teams had the opportunity to have a bigger playbook. But I thought we got the most out of our season that we could ever hope to. We had two or three opportunities to fall flat on our faces and we didn't do it, and I think that will make us stronger.

"During the season, you could see that teams were going to come back [to the pack] because you knew the schedule was going to get to them.

When we went [5-10] in February, it wasn't about record. The schedule said, 'All right, you maybe should have won six.

"I'm sure Commissioner Stern won't like this, but I think the product would be better if we shortened the season. When we start playing in late October, the people are thinking football. If you could just get us less fatigue [in a shorter season], I think you'd have a better product. When they started on Christmas Day, I thought, 'This is not a bad idea. This should be the start of NBA basketball ... Maybe start Dec. 1 and play 62 games, whatever number they'd come to."

Alvin Gentry, Phoenix Suns

"It was so unfair to all the rookies last year. They had to try to adjust to the NBA without a summer league. Without coming back early and transitioning into pickup basketball. And then not going through a whole training camp. Y'know, really, this is the first year for those guys who were rookies last year. You could have no contact at all with them. You didn't know what they were doing, what they were working on. It was tough. I think you'll see much better play because of that.

"In the end, the best team won. But it could have been a little more interesting -- in a full season, another team might have stepped up. But I think if you played the season over [with 82 games], Miami still would be the best."

Rick Carlisle, Dallas Mavericks

"The analytic information will tell you that shooting percentages were down, particularly early in the year and that makes sense because of short camps. Conditioning challenges. But all in all, I enjoyed it. It was something different. I made the conscious decision that I was going to enjoy the challenge of it. I knew there would be things to take away from it that would help in other years. Things from a preparation standpoint, where you had to go off the seat of your pants more than you would in a normal year.

"Communication became even more important because, with a lack of practice time, there were more breakfast meetings, film sessions. Players had to understand what you were communicating on film. The length of your film had to be right and your message had to be clear and concise.

"We're going to Germany and Spain so we'll have 31 days of training camp this year, where last year we had nine or 10. It's a massive difference. But it will be great."

Rockets coach Kevin McHale
Rockets coach Kevin McHale has a roster of new players to break in and a full training camp to do it.

Kevin McHale, Houston Rockets

"We've got something like 11 new players, so to have to go through that again, it'd be really hard. The guys have been in the last couple of weeks so we're able to at least get together. I think a big part of coaching is being able to get to know the guys and spending some time together. So the first time you jump their case, it's not, 'Gee, the coach doesn't like me.' It's 'He wants me to improve.' You have a relationship, which helps.

"Veteran teams could get into a routine where it was, 'Let's play. Take a day off or have a light shootaround. Come in and play again.' But we have probably the youngest team in the league. We're not on that schedule. We're on the work schedule."

Vinny Del Negro, Los Angeles Clippers

"We had a lot of change. Bringing in Chris [Paul], and DeAndre [Jordan] was a free agent, and then Chauncey [Billups, whose season ended with a torn Achilles tendon] -- a lot of moving pieces. But the mindset was, no one's going to feel sorry for you. Everyone you're playing against is probably happy, because you have the lack of time. It was like, hey, just try to improve every day. This is what we can get done today, let's get better at it and move forward.

We were very resilient. We added a lot of guys during the year, from Kenyon [Martin] and Reggie [Evans] to Nick Young and Bobby Simmons, just a lot of things with very little practice time. So you were doing things on the fly during games. But that was the situation for a lot of players, a lot of coaches, a lot of teams. You managed it the best you could."

Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City Thunder

"I've heard it said a lot that 'The lockout didn't hurt you. You made it to The Finals.' And I've thought a lot about that. I knew we'd been together for a few years. But I really believe having young legs wasn't important at all -- having good young legs was important. We had a good team and still should have one going into this season.

"The only good thing about the lockout season is that I love Halloween and I was able to trick-or-treat with my kids. This year, we're going to San Antonio so we will miss that."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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