The Man Behind the Numbers: RGV Vipers Coach Nevada Smith

The RGV Vipers have been called the Houston Rockets’ basketball experiment. Meet the man who came from nowhere to run the lab.

L
ong before Nevada Smith was handed the controls to the Houston Rockets’ new-age basketball machine, he was a three-point shooter trapped in the Princeton offense.

It was the 1999-2000 season. As defensive slugfests took hold of the NBA, Smith, a college sophomore, hoped better days lay ahead for the Bethany (W.V.) Bison, his Division-III team that had lost 20 of 25 games the previous year. The traditional offense and the gunslinging guard were no match. “He hated it,” recalls then-teammate and roommate Todd McGuiness. It crushed the kid inside him that McGuiness knew growing up in the outskirts of Western Pennsylvania -- the fiery, swaggering kid with the automatic jump shot whose stepfather used to get kicked out of their eighth- and ninth-grade games.

And so, during one of their countless basketball discussions, they made a vow. “My team will never play like this,” the future coaches agreed.

It was never intended to be anything more than that: a desire to set the game free rather than cage it. Smith didn’t have the imagination to dream up what would happen to him at the ripe age of 33, when his interpretation of the game attracted the attention of the NBA’s preeminent forward-thinking organization, 1,600 miles away from Pennsylvania and even further in the basketball world.

“Nevada’s an unconnected guy; he didn’t fall from under some big coaching tree,” says Dickinson College head basketball coach Al Seretti, one of a handful of D-III coaches in Smith’s tight-knit circle of friends. “It was 100 percent about how he thought the game should be played and how it matched with what the Rockets do.”

It’s carried him here, to NBA All-Star Weekend in New Orleans, where he’ll patrol the sideline at the NBA D-League All-Star Game 24 hours before LeBron James, Kevin Durant and the big leaguers put on the main event. Smith now coaches minor-league basketball’s best team, the 23-8 RGV Vipers, an offensive juggernaut built in his image. They shoot 45 three-pointers per game. They average 124 points and 108 possessions -- 24 more points and 12 more possessions than the average NBA team.

If the Rockets are treating the NBA D-League as experimental ground, they’ve found the perfect scientist to oversee their lab. “When you’re playing any sport, it signifies the best of who you are,” says Seretti. “How Rio Grande Valley plays is Nevada.”

Part I: Materials

T
he coach of pro basketball’s brashest team grew up idolizing Reggie Miller. From his Vandergrift, Pa., home about 30 miles outside of Pittsburgh, Smith tracked Pacers games in newspaper box scores and savored any chance to watch them on TV. He loved the way Miller talked trash, the “supreme confidence” he gave off, the way this bony, goofy-looking misfit built himself into the baddest man on the planet when he stepped on the court. And he wanted to do the same.

Smith’s transformation began at a basketball court two blocks from his house, where he went every day after middle school. “I had to get there at 4 because the older kids came to play 5-on-5 at 6,” he says. That gave him two hours to shoot by himself -- enough time for a shy kid to build bravado.

Life off the court had humbled Nevada, named after a literal gunslinger from his mother’s favorite book, “The Carpetbaggers.” Ryta Smith was a speech teacher while her husband, Nick, worked on the railroads before he died of cancer in 1989. Nevada’s only memories of his father take place in hospitals. “The last six months he was just there with the nurse,” he recalls. Basketball, he says, was his “getaway time,” and shooting his natural calling.

“Shooters are a different breed,” he says. “They’re delicate; they have to be treated differently. Being a shooter, you have to be arrogant. That’s how I modeled my game.”

It helped to have his stepdad, boisterous by nature, in the stands. Steve Pearce married Ryta Smith in 1990 and got divorced five years later. But Pearce, a devout basketball fan with “no inside voice,” as Nevada puts it, remained in his stepson’s corner.

By high school he was the kid everyone hated playing against, the one wearing Miller’s No. 31, showboating after every killer three and making sure everyone in the gym knew how good he was. “If he was open it was in every time,” says McGuiness, whose Gateway High School played against Smith’s Kiski Area High.

"Shooters are a different breed. They're delicate; they have to be treated differently. Being a shooter, you have to be arrogant. That's how I modeled my game."
- Nevada Smith
“My favorite thing to do pregame was find the other team’s coach,” says Smith. “Wherever the coach was I’d stand in front of him and just shoot. I’d make every shot and if he’d move to the other end of the bench, I’d move with him.

“At the time I thought it was funny. I look back now like, ‘What an a--hole.’”

Tears to both ACLs -- the left one as a sophomore and the right as a junior -- eliminated the slashing ability he’d had, as well as his slim chance of getting a Division-I scholarship. Instead, at 5-foot-11, 145 pounds, he had to mold a game out of one premium piece.

By college he was the best shooter in all of Division III, unleashed by the run-and-gun offense Bethany installed after a 9-16 1999-2000 season. As a junior he led the nation in three-pointers made per game (3.9). As a senior he helped the Bison complete their dramatic turnaround with 21 wins and the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance in 20 years, finishing first in school history and 13th in D-III history with 313 threes. Even more impressive than Smith’s scoring ability was his efficiency and creativity.

“He was very, very smart, which he had to be, because as he evolved as a player his reputation as being a great shooter got out,” says Rob Clune, who coached Bethany from 1995-2002 after abruptly leaving his career as a Wall Street insurance broker. “Teams would scheme to take him away, and he became very good at knowing how to move, get shots and take advantage of certain things.”

It made him a coaching natural. Even before coaching stints at St. Lawrence (N.Y.), SUNY Canton (junior college), Allegheny (Pa.) under Clune, Ithaca (N.Y.), and finally Keystone, he already understood how to use ball and body movement to create space, how to use pressure defense to speed up the game, how to accentuate strengths and mask weaknesses. All he had to do was orchestrate it all from outside rather than inside the lines. “It evolved basically through a trial-and-error process,” Smith says.

Part II: Methods

Rockets GM Daryl Morey and his front-office team turned to math to find their next coach to groom.

W
hen they first discovered him during the offseason, the Rockets knew no more about Smith than what the numbers on their computer screens told them. To them he was 87 points per game. He was 1,571 threes (28.6 per game). He was 91.4 possessions per 48 minutes. These were some of the numbers -- at least the ones Houston personnel scout/RGV Director of Scouting Jim Paulis was willing to divulge -- that popped up alongside Keystone College during their statistical search through the ranks of D-II and D-III basketball.

“We have some guys in our organization that have been involved with small college basketball so we wanted to explore that area,” Paulis explains. “Being a very statistically geared organization, we were able to pick out a few guys that we thought stood out statistically in the way their teams played and some of the numbers that they produced.”

KEYSTONE COLLEGE STATISTICS
2011-122012-13
Record21-518-10
PPG90.183.6
3PA/G27.530.7
3PFG%34.133.3
FG%47.645.5
eFG%54.752.9
But to find their next pet coaching project -- both of the previous Vipers head coaches, Chris Finch and Nick Nurse, won an NBA D-League championship before being hired as NBA assistants (Finch with the Rockets, Nurse with the Raptors) -- they needed to do more than simply follow the number trail. They needed to determine whether the man at the end of it had the mind to match the math.

Buried in Northeastern Pennsylvania farm country, in a town of less than 1,500 people called Factoryville, Smith had created a “nightmare” of a team, as Seretti described the Keystone Giants. They used five-guard lineups for 25 minutes per game. They rarely turned the ball over on offense, and forced opponents into turnovers with traps and double teams on the defense. Above all, they always dictated the terms of the game. “They were willing to trade threes for twos. It comes down to math,” says Seretti.

Yet Smith had only dipped his toes in the analytics movement that’s swept through the NBA over the last decade. The numbers that led to his discovery and eventual emergence from a pool of about 30 interviewed candidates “didn’t drive his style of play,” Seretti says. “It was the reverse.” It’s the ultimate irony in a turn of events that seemed backwards all along.

From the day Paulis called him about the job to his hiring less than three weeks later, Smith’s path from the game’s depths to a step away from its peak played out in a series of surreal, sometimes absurd steps:

Friday, Oct. 11 -- Smith returns to Keystone to the first message on his office answering machine that he can ever remember receiving. It’s Paulis calling in regards to the Houston Rockets’ NBA D-League affiliate. Smith thinks of two possible explanations: 1) They’re checking on one of his former players who had expressed interest in the NBA D-League or 2) it’s one of his coaching buddies pulling another prank.

Sunday, Oct. 13 -- With the Rockets back from their preseason trip to Taiwan, Paulis emails Smith to ask for his resume. Smith scrambles to update it; he hasn’t needed to in three years.

Wednesday, Oct. 16 -- After a successful phone interview on Monday -- featuring “very general interview questions that we would ask pretty much any candidate,” according to Paulis -- Smith calls McGuiness, head coach at Hartwick College (N.Y.). “I might not be at the ’Stone anymore,” he tells him. “Oh my god, what did you do?” replies McGuinness. “Did you get arrested?”

Friday, Oct. 18 -- The Rockets fly Smith to Houston and put him through the gauntlet of an NBA interview. Along with Rockets GM Daryl Morey and Rockets Director of Player Personnel/Vipers GM Gianluca Pascucci, eight staff members from the scouting and analytics departments are involved in the process, according to Paulis. They grill him with a full day of philosophical basketball questions, peppering him with potential on- and off-the-court situations in the office, over lunch, and then back at the office.

He passes every test simply by telling them what he believes. What he can’t believe is that NBA executives are taking him seriously. “I think I might get the job. It’s insane,” he tells McGuinness, who soon becomes the go-to guy for everyone who can’t get a hold of Smith with the questions of their own: Is this serious? Where did this come from?

Saturday, Oct. 19 -- By 11 a.m. ET the next morning, Smith is at the wheel of a convertible with the mayor of Factoryville in the back seat. It’s the annual Keystone Homecoming parade. Students from 20 different college groups, including the varsity basketball team, travel on hand-decorated floats along College Avenue on the quarter-mile stretch from the Lackawanna Trail Elementary Center to campus. Judges from the Factoryville Women’s Civic League select the most outstanding floats. Kids line up along the route to try to catch candy from the mayor. Smith is instructed not to drive more than 15 miles per hour. “This is perfect. This is exactly Keystone,” he thinks.

Two days later, he is hired as a professional basketball coach.

F
or many, the minor leagues represent a demotion, a feeling reinforced with every coach flight taken, every light paycheck received and every cheap hotel slept in. For Smith, the NBA D-League has been a major upgrade. “Nevada’s used to lowering the hoops and mopping the floor,” says Seretti.

The Division-III lifestyle has a way of grounding even the most self-assured men. With no restrictions on recruiting, coaches are free to recruit year-round. When the recruiting budget runs out, they dig into their own pockets. It’s akin to thrift shopping, once you’ve accepted that the large-scale department stores are out of your price range.

“At the D-III level, they look like D-I players, but they don’t have a certain skill,” says Seretti. “If a guy’s a good shooter, then I need a good shooter -- I don’t care if he’s 5-8.”

The Vipers have taken 85% of their shots from either beyond the arc or at the rim.

“You’re constantly on the road looking for that key kid, that one kid that can change your program, … that diamond-in-the-rough that everyone’s overlooked,” says Clune. “You’re looking at the fourth- or fifth-best kid on a team, or maybe a bench player.”

It all sounds similar to assembling an NBA D-League team, in which Smith played a larger role than he expected. Like most teams in the league, the Vipers’ stars are NBA hand-me-downs acquired after the final summer league and preseason cuts: Speedy point guard Isaiah Canaan and stretch-power forward Robert Covington assigned by the Rockets, do-it-all wing Chris Johnson cut by the Nets and four-year NBA vet James Johnson selected second overall in the NBA D-League Draft. The hard part -- the part that appealed to the recruiting junkie inside of Smith -- comes in rounding out the roster on draft day.

And that’s where someone who’s now seen both sides can tell you that the NBA D-League is like shopping on Fifth Avenue compared to D-III. “It’s a little different than going to a gym with two bad teams playing and you’re looking at one guy,” Smith says. "And then all the time he gets in foul trouble, or you get there late and they're already up 30 so he won't play the rest of the game."

To Smith, sitting in the Vipers’ draft room on his 11th day on the job, discussing players from schools like Arizona and VCU, or even Coppin State and Albany, felt like playing fantasy basketball. “I’ve always wanted to put teams together with a bunch of guys with one elite skill,” he says. "I was just kind of pinching myself all day."

And so in the first round came Dario Hunt from the University of Nevada, an ultra-athletic rebounding specialist. In the second came Tony Bishop from Texas State, an undersized power forward with rare touch for a big man. In the fourth came Gary Talton from the University of Illinois-Chicago, a combo guard with supreme court vision.

When the inevitable roster shuffling occurred -- with Canaan and Covington shuttled between RGV and Houston, and both Johnsons called up to NBA teams -- the system had cast-offs playing like NBA prospects. After posting 49 assists and just four turnovers in his first three games filling in for Canaan, including one with 21 assists, Talton is now the league leader in both assist percentage (36.4) and ratio (39.4). Bishop (15.9 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 1.8 bpg, 56.9 TS%) nearly duplicated Covington’s production (21.4 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 1.3 bpg, 54.6 TS%) in his absence.

In all, 15 players have appeared in the team’s first 31 games this season. Nine are in their first year of pro basketball. Five played at a major college program. And all are better than the best player Smith had previously coached.

“Now,” Clune says, “he’s coaching the kids that you watch but you don’t talk to.”


From left: Canaan, Covington, Bishop and Chris Johnson; Johnson, Daniels and Canaan celebrate another three-pointer from the bench; State Farm Arena; the Vipers' 2012-13 and 2009-10 championship squads.

Part III: Data

T
he Vipers players' hardly knew how to react to the new boss telling them to shoot 50 threes a game. Small forward Chris Johnson, one of two holdovers from the 2012-13 champions (along with center Tim Ohlbrecht), thought he was joking. Then the season started and the Vipers’ scoring outputs looked more like bowling scores: 124, 140, 105, 145, 153, 139, 133.

From the first practice of training camp to the fourth game of the season -- ironically a game that opened with eight missed threes out of 12 first-quarter attempts -- it took the team 25 days to develop its swagger. In the second quarter of that Dec. 2 meeting with the Texas Legends, opposing head coach Eduardo Najera, a dirty-work player during his 12 years in the NBA, began taunting the Vipers when they caught the ball behind the arc. They responded with swishes -- seven straight threes in the next two minutes and 33 seconds, to be exact -- glares and smirks toward the Legends’ bench. In the middle of the outburst, Johnson received a technical foul for telling off Najera, who’d interfered with his trot back to the defensive end.

“He was talking mess, trying to get into our heads, but we fed off that,” Johnson told the local RGV newspaper, The Monitor, after the Vipers’ 145-116 victory, in which they broke the NBA D-League record for three-pointers in a game with 24 on 50 attempts. (The Los Angeles D-Fenders later surpassed that total with 26 on Feb. 5.)

They went on to win their first nine games by an average margin of 14.2 points, extending the franchise’s overall winning streak to 26. The players rave about the freedom the system gives them, how they (for the most part) don’t have to worry about looking over their shoulder after a rushed shot. Several of them say they could feel themselves getting into the best shape of their lives as the uptempo practices piled upon uptempo games, and sense their opponents wearing down as the relentless pace took control.

Like the Rockets, RGV runs a ball-screen-heavy halfcourt offense, even borrowing some sets from the parent club. All of the terminology they use to call different actions (dribble handoffs, pindowns, defensive switches, etc.) is identical to the Rockets’. But for the most part they simply push the ball up the court as fast as they can, with trust from the coaching staff to make the most basic, instinctual decision in basketball: shoot or drive. “If you have a little bit of space, you feel like that’s disrespectful; I’m gonna take the shot,” explains shooting guard Troy Daniels, who broke the single-season league record for threes made (previously 152) with the 50-game season barely halfway complete. “If [the defender’s] on me, I’m gonna go by him and try to make a play.”

And they haven’t just ambushed teams; they’ve puffed their chests while doing it. As Smith calmly watches the chaos unfold in front of him, RGV’s reserves accompany every three party with the typical soundtrack from the bench:

“Knockdown!”

“Bang-bang!”

“Aaaaayyyyy!”

By now the theatrical celebrations that Smith says he was doing 16 years ago -- the classic three-finger salute, the three-goggles, the gun-in-holsters mime act -- have also become ubiquitous. The Vipers aren’t unique in their celebrations; they just get to celebrate more often than anyone else.

“We’ve got a lot of shooters so we feel like a three is like a layup for us,” says point guard Isaiah Canaan.

“I feel like I’m the best shooter in the D-League,” says Daniels.

The only person who can knock them down a few pegs, it seems, is their head coach. Smith's end-of-practice shooting contests with players quickly dug into their wallets. “I was like, ‘Alright, let me get this guy’s money,’” says rookie shooting guard Kevin Parrom. “And then we had a little halfcourt bet and he made the three like it was nothing.”

Informed about Smith’s college career, Parrom shakes his head. “He didn’t tell anybody that,” he says. “It makes sense though.”

“He still thinks he’s the best shooter in the gym,” says Seretti.

Part IV: Conclusions

T
he headlines started coming after the 461st three-pointer. “The future of the NBA lies in Texas. Not in Dallas, Houston or San Antonio ... but farther south in Hidalgo,” ESPN.com wrote 21 days and 10 games into the NBA D-League season. “The most innovative pro basketball team you’ve never seen,” Grantland called RGV three days later. After the NBA D-League Showcase in January, Smith landed on the sports section of USA Today -- the leading member of “a coaching circle that is finding its way to the big-time more than ever before,” the article read.

The text messages started coming, too, in a never-ending thread consisting of Smith’s real coaching circle: Seretti, McGuiness, Regis College (N.Y.) head coach Nate Hager, Loyola (Md.) assistant Josh Loeffler and Elmira College (N.Y.) head coach Randie Torgalski, who fired as many shots at Smith after watching every game as his team did during them:

“When you’re playing any sport, it signifies the best of who you are. How Rio Grande Valley plays is Nevada.”
- Dickinson coach Al Seretti
“Oh my god, look at his hair. He looks like Sean Miller.”

“The HD doesn’t do him well.”

“I wake up and I have to see your ugly mug on the front of USA Today?”

“They got your good side. Either they were far enough away or they darkened you out.”

It’s their way of shortening the distance that’s come between them, of reminding Smith where he came from while also living vicariously through his suddenly blossoming career. The reminders come in other forms, too: When he finds himself thinking back to the old court two blocks from home; when the University of Texas Pan-American's Sam Williams Court is unavailable, so the Vipers have to practice in a high school gym; when, a week before he coaches in the All-Star Game, he finishes up another interview with Grantland -- this time for a “30 for 30” short -- heads to Church’s Chicken for lunch and walks back laughing.

In early December, before word got around about the so-called "Vip3rs," he made sure to take one other trip back in time. Before those days in his old coach’s Princeton offense become a distant memory, he called Clune, who’s now coaching Division-III women’s basketball at Allegheny.

“Coach,” Smith told Clune, “You’ll love the way my team plays.”