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Q&A With Kelvin Sampson

Rockets assistant coach dishes on defensive leap team hopes to make in 2013-14

HOUSTON - It’s a tradition. Every August and September we try to catch up with the team’s players and coaches to find out what they’ve been up to as they unwind from the season before while simultaneously ramping up for the campaign to come. Last month Rockets.com’s Jason Friedman went one-on-one with Jeremy Lin, provided an exclusive look at Dwight Howard’s workouts with Hakeem Olajuwon, and caught up with sharpshooting rookie Isaiah Canaan and assistant coach J.B. Bickerstaff. Last week found rookie Robert Covington and point guard Patrick Beverley in the spotlight.

Taking his turn in the hot seat today: assistant coach Kelvin Sampson.

JCF: You probably won’t be surprised to know that I want to talk to you about defense. That’s obviously the place where this team can most improve upon its performance from last year. Everybody knows this club will be able to put points on the board, but what needs to happen for it to take the next step toward becoming a championship-caliber defensive unit?

KS: Last year I thought we were really good at one thing and that was keeping the ball out of the paint. We were, I think, No. 3 in the league in the way we quantify that. I think the area for improvement this year is defending the 3-point line – we gave up way too many corner 3s last year. A lot of that was because of what we were trying to take away. You’re always going to give up something. In the NBA, defensively, no matter what coverage you’re in or what schemes you’re trying to run, you’ve got to decide what you’re willing to give up. Last year we were willing to give up slot 3s as long as they were contested. Where we got hurt last year was the extra pass to the corner – a lot of times our corner guy got caught in a stunt.

I thought our fourth quarter defense, especially the last six minutes of the game, was good overall – that’s one of the reasons we won so many games was because we would guard in the fourth quarter. I think some of that (not defending for the full 48 minutes) is because of maturity. Some of our guys had the mindset that if they had one foul, they didn’t want to pick up their second – if they got called for fouls early in the game, they didn’t want to take any chances picking up their third foul. That’s a maturity issue.

The other issue comes down to wanting to become better individual defenders; keeping your man in front of you. We’re going to make some significant changes this year in our pick-and-roll coverages, but I think having a rim protector like Dwight Howard allows us to get out on the floor, pressure more, extend our defense -- our pick-up point can be higher -- we can get out and challenge passes from the wing, we can get in the passing lanes and be more aggressive, and I think that will help us.

Patrick Beverley evolved into a really good defender at the point of attack last year. I think Jeremy Lin was a guy who was a better defender than people gave him credit for – Jeremy is a really good help defender, especially on the weak side because he’s so good at anticipating passes and getting in the lane and digging and coming up with loose balls. We feel good with Jeremy and Pat at the point of attack, turning them loose more to be more aggressive.

We might funnel the ball more to Dwight, rather than funneling the ball away from the basket with him being such a great rim protector. But we really want to improve upon our field goal percentage defense and generating loose balls, deflections and steals. Those are some of the main areas we really want to get better at. I think with Dwight protecting the basket we’ll have more blocked shots which is going to create more loose balls. When he blocks a shot, we’ve got to go get it and we’ve got to turn that into offense the other way.

We’ve talked as a coaching staff a lot about our coverages. I don’t really want to get too deep into that because we haven’t had this team together yet but I’m excited about the things we’re doing and we’re all excited about having a chance to be a much better defensive team this year.

JCF: I know you’re limited in how much you can say about the different pick-and-roll coverages you intend to employ, but I did find it interesting to hear you talk about funneling the ball toward Dwight on the defensive end since I know how much you emphasized keeping the ball out of the paint last year. It makes sense of course, and also should theoretically help the perimeter players stay closer to home to cut down on some of those wide-open 3s that were conceded a year ago.

KS: Right. But you know defense still comes down to guarding your man. San Antonio puts so much pressure on your defense with the way they execute their pick-and-roll game and the way they spread their shooters but, no matter what they get to in their offense, stopping them still comes down to the point of attack and being able to handle their pick-and-roll with two people instead of three people. If we can keep guys at home more and be able to handle pick-and-roll action without bringing a third guy, that would be big for us.

Dwight gives us an eraser. He corrects mistakes. I know a lot of times when we played the Lakers, especially in the fourth quarter, it’s hard to get in the paint and score over him because if he didn’t block the shot, he sure altered it. So allowing him to roam, being able to rebound behind him, and being able to defend the 3-point line, we’re excited about that. I’m excited for practice to start to see how this is going to come together.

JCF: You know what you have in Dwight and Omer – two of the best defensive bigs on the planet. With that in mind, do you envision that much of your teaching, at least in the early going, will be focused on helping your perimeter players take a step forward or two on the defensive end?

KS: Yeah, I think because of our pace on offense, a lot of times last year our guys used how hard we ran as an excuse to rest sometimes on defense. Then other times it just came down to diligence: getting beat on back doors when you’re watching the ball – we’ve got to eliminate those mistakes.

Most guys are geared toward offense. If you look at our roster, other than Omer last year, almost everybody else on our roster was in the league because of their offense. Pat Beverley and Omer were the only two guys on our team who hung their hat at the defensive end. ‘O’ is a great position defender, one of the best, and god knows he saved us so many times last year. Now we add Dwight and he’ll obviously give us a huge lift. But James [Harden] has to be more conscientious. Chandler [Parsons], defense has to be more important to him. Those are the guys that we’re going to challenge this year. Our perimeter defense has to be better.

There will be nights where we play Dwight and ‘O’ together. There will be games when our 4-man will be Terrence [Jones] or D-Mo – even though they’re still young, they have some notches on their belt now. Other guys will be in the mix as well, but I’m not sure yet who will make our final roster since we have so many moving parts. We think we’re going to be pretty good defensively up front. Where we’ve got to make our biggest improvement though, Jason, is at the one, two and three, especially the two and the three -- those were our biggest holes defensively.

JCF: What about transition defense? That got better as the year wore on, but early in the season it was a major bugaboo.

KS: Yeah, a lot of that is feel and familiarity. For example: when the shot is taken, basketball 101 is that the point guard gets back. But a lot of times in our attack Jeremy would be the guy who had the ball at the rim because he’s a slasher. So when he’s shooting the ball at the rim, our twos and threes have to get back. So we had to redefine who was going to the offensive boards. So as the year went on, the adjustment we made was to just send our fours and fives to the offensive boards, then we had everyone else get back.

Then a lot of times when James was attacking the rim, we had Jeremy and Chandler in the corners waiting for potential kick-outs when a shot attempt was going up. As a team, you have to be able to rapidly read those situations, know your role and responsibility, and understand the vulnerabilities at any given moment. We didn’t read those well early on. But as the season wore on and we got to know each other better, we improved a lot, especially when we defined who’s going to the offensive boards and who’s not.

JCF: I know how passionate you are about defense but I also know one of the ties that binds you and Coach McHale is that both of you place such a significant amount of value on pure effort and guys who tirelessly work. Do you feel like you have that with this group of players?

KS: You know I’ve been texting these guys all summer, talking to them about responsibility. The expectations are going to be different here now. Last year we were hoping to make the playoffs. That bar has been raised. Our goal is to get home court advantage and to do that you have to finish in the top-four. All of our guys have worked so hard this summer. They're going to be ready.

JCF: How has technology changed the way you coach?

KS: I carry an iPad everyday. The main purpose of my iPad is just to watch tape. I have John Cho, who is our video coordinator, put certain possessions on my iPad so I can sit down, look at it, study it, take notes and then go over those possessions with certain players.

And one thing I’ve come to appreciate here in Houston is the analytics part because there are so many things that we chart. I’ll give you a good example: challenging shots – we like to be around 70 percent shot challenges per game. I’ll get updated stats during the game about where we are in that category. Usually when you don't contest a shot they go in. When (Golden State head coach) Mark Jackson used to do games on TV, he would always say, ‘Hand down, man down.’ There’s a reason why you get a hand up. Well, we chart that. Another thing is our pick-and-roll coverages – we like to be at 80 percent efficiency. If they’re killing our side pick-and-roll, we want to know why.

So we break that down, edit it, show the team and specific individuals where they’re making their mistakes. They’re then able to look at it and visualize it. A lot of guys, you can put it on the board in X’s and O’s, but when they actually see it it can really help. Most guys are visual; they like to see their mistakes instead of hearing about them, so we’re able to use our film work and our analytics and combine those two things to make our guys better.

JCF: I know the vast majority of coaches have a passion for teaching and that often lies at the core of what they love about the job. But they also love to compete and to win, of course. With that in mind, how excited are you to have a legitimate opportunity to compete for a title this season, especially given that your first year with the Rockets started with a lockout and last year began amid a complete roster overhaul?

KS: Last year we had to hit the ground running and teach as we went along. We knew that was going to entail its fair share of ups and downs, especially when we started playing the really good teams. But this year, I think there’s two things I’m most excited about. One is that we have a good idea of who our top eight or nine guys are going to be. We don’t know who’s going to start yet but we know who our top guys are going to be. We’ll be able to have a solid seven days of training camp, then we play a game.

Then I think it’s going to be advantageous for us to get away with no distractions. We’ll get on a plane and fly to the Philippines and to Taiwan. I think we have four practices before we play a game once we get over to Manila. Being able to take our computers, edit things and watch some film with these guys and talk to them constantly and just be able to get a lot of work done – I don’t think it could be better. Staying here in Houston, obviously we like staying home as much as possible, but there’s also a lot of built-in distractions by staying here, too. We’ll have a lot of time to refine things while we’re in Asia.

And I also think it helps us playing against a really good team in the Pacers. That’s going to be one of the top two or three teams in the East. The way they defend, the way they play, I think that’s great preparation for us to play against a really good team like that. On paper right now, they’re probably ahead of us because they have everybody back. They have an established system, they’ve got their coaching staff and the same players from the last two or three years, and they’re to the point now where they know what it takes to compete for a championship. We’re to the point now where that’s our goal. But being able to be over there, play two games, and be able to have seven or eight days of practice with no distractions while going against a really good team, I think that helps prepare us for when we get back.

JCF: The Pacers were exceptional defensively last year, especially in terms of rim protection and defending corner 3s. In a lot of ways they’re the model for what you want to be. What can you take from that team and the principles they utilize which obviously begin around a terrific defensive big man in Roy Hibbert and an elite defensive wing in Paul George?

KS: Yeah, the thing they have is they have great individual defenders. George Hill, by himself with no help, can guard his man. Paul George, as you mentioned, is one of the elite defenders in the league. They have pieces that fit well into their scheme. For us, we’re still growing pieces. We don’t have an elite wing defender. We don’t have a Paul George. We have a superstar in James Harden offensively, but James is not a superstar at the other end yet. The challenge for James is being a two-way player. Chandler was a much better defensive player his rookie year and a much better offensive player his second year. This year we want him to be a better two-way player.

Last year we had a lot of guys who were one-way players – they were all offensive guys. We ran and ran and ran and ran, and with our pace we found that a lot of times our guys would rest up on defense. Championship teams don’t rest on defense. It has to be more important to Chandler Parsons this year to play both ends. James has got to be a two-way player. Jeremy Lin has got to be a better two-way player. Dwight will help some of that, but he was on the Lakers last year and they weren’t a great defensive team – just because you have Dwight doesn’t mean you’re going to be a good defensive team. For us, we’ll make that huge step up when our guys start taking defense more seriously and that’s our responsibility to help get them there.

JCF: From a point-per-possession defensive efficiency standpoint, what do you think is a realistic goal for where this team can rank this season?

KS: Last year we ranked 16th out of 30 teams. This year our goal is to finish inside the top-10. If we can get inside the top-10 in overall defensive efficiency, then I think we’ll be knocking on the door for all of our team goals. That's the challenge that lies before us. I can't wait to get started.