Getting to know the newest members of the Houston Rockets' coaching staff
HOUSTON - Four men, four completely different backgrounds, but all united by the common thread that binds all basketball coaches together: each eats, sleeps and breathes the game on a daily basis.
The Rockets’ coaching staff is complete now, and has been gathered together in Houston this week to get to know each other better and to begin building the foundation of an all-encompassing game plan to help take this club to the next level.
Wednesday afternoon four of the newest members of the staff – lead assistant Kelvin Sampson, J.B. Bickerstaff, Chris Finch and the newly-promoted Brett Gunning – met with the Houston media, showing off the different aspects of their personalities while sharing insight into the still-forming philosophy that will serve as this team’s trademark going forward.
Each man was engaging and eager to get started, and I highly recommend checking out the four embedded videos in their entirety in order to get the best feel possible – at least at this early juncture – for who these guys are what they respectively bring to the table.
Here are the highlights from those interviews that really stood out to me:
The man needs know introduction. His college resume speaks for itself and he’s extremely highly-regarded in the coaching community at both the collegiate and professional level.
We all know the Rockets’ defense simply has to improve going forward and though making sure it does so will require a collective effort from the players, coaches and Basketball Operations department, Sampson’s credentials speak to his ability to have a significant impact. He’s worked extensively with Gregg Popvich and Scott Skiles, two of the best defensive coaches in the business, and there’s no question he intends to bring a similar attitude to the Houston Rockets.
“There’s no magic formula for defense,” Sampson said Wednesday. “Kevin and I have talked at length over the last few weeks about a lot of things, and defense has probably been the thing we’ve talked about the most.
“To me, defense starts with effort – there’s no secret there. But I also think that there’s a huge difference between guys that play hard versus guys that compete. We’re going to demand that these guys play hard and we’re going to start with it every day in practice. I think you are how you practice.
“We’re going to come in with a mentality that toughness is a factor. It’s hard to be a good defensive team if you don’t have a little mud in your blood. So that’s how we’re going to practice and that’s how we’re going to play.”
Finch brings with him a wealth of experience at the international level in addition to a highly-decorated two-year stint coaching the Rockets’ D-League affiliate in Rio Grande Valley, where the Vipers won a championship during his first season and fell one game short of repeating as titlists during his second.
His two years in the Valley teaching and coaching the Rockets’ system allowed him to become well-versed in the offensive schemes used by former Houston head coach Rick Adelman and Finch made no secret of the fact that the team intends to incorporate some of those same sets to ensure the Rockets offense loses none of its previous potency.
“It’s our intention to keep the high-level points of emphasis the same,” said Finch. “We want to get out, we want to play fairly up-tempo, we want to give our players a lot of freedom. We have really good basketball decision-makers with good feel and we want to encourage them.
“It’s also important that we emphasize the things that fit Coach McHale’s style of play, his personality as well as certainly what strengths our team may have. But we’re not going to try to reinvent the wheel here and we’re certainly not going to handcuff our guys.”
Then Finch delivered perhaps the best line of the day.
“I think on offense you give your players a lot of freedom. I think on defense you give them none.”
I loved that one.
Gunning is no stranger to Rockets fans as he’s been a key part of the club’s player development staff for the last three years. And while that will certainly still be part of his daily duties, he now gets to move to the front row, taking advantage of an opportunity to become a bigger part of the team’s brain trust.
One of the things that occurred to me while talking to these men, who are just now in the embryonic stages of getting to know each other as a group and forming their collective identity, is that chemistry among a coaching staff is surely just as important as the players having chemistry with each other on the floor.
These guys will be spending a ton of time together and it’s imperative for there to be a mutual respect between one another and that an atmosphere that encourages the free-flowing discussion of ideas is established right away. You don’t have to agree with each other all the time – in fact, it’s almost certainly best that you don’t – but it’s of vital importance that the airing and debate of opinions is both encouraged and fostered.
Gunning said head coach Kevin McHale made sure to hammer home that point right from the outset.
“Our first meeting, Coach McHale set the tone right away, saying ‘Hey guys, everybody in here has got a great knowledge of the game and I want your input. I don’t want somebody to be sitting back and being afraid to say something – I want to hear it. If I come up with and idea and you think it’s not a good idea, I want you to let me know.’
“I think he just set the tone. To think, you’re talking about a guy who’s got three NBA championship rings, he’s one of the top-50 players of all time, and yet he’s looking around the room and saying, ‘Hey guys, I want your input.’
“We’re all in this together. I think about the amount of time we’re going to be together; there’s got to be a chemistry because there’s a lot of ups and downs that go on through a season and there’s going to be times when you’re tired of being around each other and we’ve got to still be able to sit in a room and come up with a game plan or a practice plan – even when there’s some tough moments going on. So I think the fact that we’re going to be a staff where it seems like there’s going to be a great togetherness, I think that can only help.”
I saved my favorite segment of all the interviews for last. Bickerstaff is a basketball lifer in every sense of the word, the son of Bernie Bickerstaff, a man who has decades upon decades of experience as both a coach and executive at the NBA level.
Just 32 years-old, J.B. Bickerstaff is the youngest coach on the staff but since he’s literally been around the game since birth, it’s not surprising to find he approaches it with a maturity which belies his years. That much was clear when he discussed the synergy between Houston’s Basketball Operations department and its coaching staff, and the importance of ideally fusing the objective and subjective approaches to the game.
“If there’s a number to be found, they have it,” said Bickerstaff. “It’s impressive. It’s one of those things where, when you’re on the outside looking in and you don’t really understand it, you’re not sure of what it is. But we had a meeting yesterday and we sat down there, and you see how all those numbers affect the game and impact the game.
“The best part about it is you have an old school basketball guy like Kevin McHale, then you have this new statistical stuff and you blend them together to get the best from both sides of the basketball world, and I think that’s going to be an awesome situation for this group going forward.
“You look at it, and a lot of it is a validation, you hope, of things you see (on the floor). Just like those guys (in Basketball Operations) are putting in their time, (the coaches) are putting in our time watching games and studying different coaches, and those numbers do a great job of, hopefully, validating what you see. And if not, you need to go back and reevaluate what you’re doing because the numbers don’t lie.
“So it’s always helpful to have those to fall back on so you can chart the progress, see where you’re going, and if you’ve taken a step backwards, you’ve got the evidence and numbers in print right in front of you, so you can do something to change it and hopefully go in the right direction.”