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Q&A With J.B. Bickerstaff

Rockets assistant coach talks strategy, small-ball, and the unique challenges of harnessing star power

HOUSTON - It’s a tradition. Every August and September we try to catch up with the team’s players 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. Earlier this month Rockets.com’s Jason Friedman went one-on-one with Jeremy Lin, and then provided an exclusive look at Dwight Howard’s workouts with Hakeem Olajuwon. Last week he caught up with sharpshooting rookie Isaiah Canaan.

Taking his turn in the hot seat today: Rockets assistant coach J.B. Bickerstaff.

JCF: I wanted to start by rewinding and asking you about one of my favorite things from last season: the decision to go uber small against Oklahoma City in Game 2 by starting Patrick Beverley alongside Jeremy Lin in the backcourt and sliding James Harden over to the power forward spot. Can you talk about the genesis of that decision and what the coaches’ meetings were like leading up to it?

JBB: That conversation came about after we realized the way they were guarding us in the first game. What we figured was that we had to put as much skill on the floor as we possibly could. That’s not a knock to our big guys, but (Oklahoma City) was just crowding the lane and living with our big guys having to catch and shoot and taking the ball out of James’, Chandler’s and all our playmakers’ hands.

So we figured the more spacing we could put on the floor, and the more guys who could catch the ball and then make plays from the perimeter – driving their bigs, making Ibaka have to guard a guy on the perimeter and have to slide his feet – that was what we were going to have to do to have success.

We had the debate about whether or not we should go with our traditional small lineup and put Carlos [Delfino] in at the four, or go really small so that at least we keep our bench intact and bring Carlos off the bench. So that’s what we ended up doing: just putting as much skill and as much spacing on the floor as we could. We thought that was our strength versus a weakness they had because they were going to continue to play their two bigs. So we had to figure out a way to find an advantage, and that was our advantage: skill and space.

JCF: Makes sense when you talk about and I think it made sense when you sat down to think about it at the time as well. But still, I don’t think that changes the fact that was, for lack of a better word, a very ballsy decision to go with a lineup in Game 2 of the playoffs that you really hadn’t thrown out there all season. You had a ton of success last year going small with Carlos at the four – it was probably the most effective lineup you had all year, in fact – but to go that small with that lineup against what at the time was probably the second-best team in the NBA – that takes some guts.

JBB: Well the debate stemmed from the fact that the only game we beat Oklahoma City during the regular season was the night we made the trade (prior to the Rockets-Thunder game February 20, Houston dealt Patrick Patterson, Cole Aldrich and Toney Douglas to Sacramento for Thomas Robinson, Francisco Garcia and Tyler Honeycutt, and also traded Marcus Morris to the Suns for a 2013 second round pick). We had no bigs left basically for that game so we played Carlos at the four and we just turned it into a shootout. That was the game we actually beat them, and that was the mindset we wanted to go into the rest of the series with.

So we’d already experimented with small a lot. Like you said, the lineup we used to start Game 2 we hadn’t used before, but we were in a position where nobody thought we were going to win anyway, we’d just lost the first game by 20-something points, so we had to do something different. And in this league you have to have the courage to do something different and hope you have some success at it, but you have to believe in it and we believed in our small ball – we had all year. So we had the courage to give it a shot and, to an extent, it worked for us. A play here, a play there and it’s a completely different series.

JCF: Is that a decision that’s easier to make when you’re the 8-seed and, like you said, nobody is expecting you to win?

JBB: To me, in that situation, you have to play to your strengths. Our strength was in our perimeter. We had (Asik) who is a great rim protector and we felt like he could protect all those small guys around him. We were confident going small was our strength.

Now if you’re the 2-seed and you’re used to play big, say you’re the Memphis Grizzlies, you have to play to your strengths and you’ve got to play big. We went back and ran the numbers, did the studies of our small lineups versus the elite teams and our small lineups were consistently more effective. So we were comfortable playing that style. And again, at this level you have to have the courage to do something that’s different if you believe in it.

JCF: Well going forward now, you have a roster that can go in so many different directions. Obviously the addition of Dwight is huge, as are all the possibilities he creates. He’s got a track record of great success when you’re able to surround him with shooters. You also have the possibility of dabbling with going supersized and playing him together with Asik. I know you and the rest of the coaching staff have ideas about what you’d like to do with this team – how does the process of translating those concepts from the whiteboard in August to the court in October play out between now and the start of the season?

JBB: It starts out as a vision. Then your vision begins to take shape and evolve in training camp as you find out the strengths of it and the holes in it, and then you have to find out which one outweighs which. We’ve got a roster of very talented people and, at the end of the day in this league, talent wins. So we have to do a great job of being creative and getting our best five players on the floor. If that ends up being (Asik) and Dwight more often than not, then so be it.

But I think when you look at the teams that win, they put talent on the floor. We can’t sit back and say, ‘Oh well, these guys are too big to play together.’ We have to be creative enough on both sides of the ball to put them in positions to succeed, and if it’s together then so be it.

JCF: How much do you care about the continuity that comes with having a static starting lineup that’s predominantly the same throughout the season versus a plan that mixes and matches based on the team you’re facing each night?

JBB: There’s 48 minutes in a ball game so that gives you enough of an opportunity to mix and match how you want as the game progresses. I think the consistency of your starting lineup is huge so that guys know where to go. And forget about the starting lineup – that consistency is just as important for your rotation as a whole.

During the regular season you don’t have the sort of time you do in the playoffs to prepare for people, so you’ve got to go to your strengths. If you look at the teams that mix and match their starting lineup a great deal, that sort of inconsistency frequently leads to inconsistency in performance. So what you’ve got to do is say, ‘Listen, no matter who we face, our strength has to beat them, and we have to be good enough at what we do that it doesn’t matter what they do.’

Through the regular season, if you get really good at what you do, teams will have a hard time adjusting to you. And I think we’re in that position now where we don’t have to be jumping around trying to adjust to the other teams. I think we’re in a position now where other teams are going to have to make tough decisions and see how they want to adjust to us.

JCF: Do you envision this team playing as fast and as up-tempo as it did a year ago?

JBB: We’re going to play up-tempo. If it’s going to be as fast as we played last year I don’t know. Obviously again: we’re going to play to our guys’ strengths. Our bigs have proven that they can run. Our smalls have proven that they can play fast. We still believe that things happen easier in the first part of the clock. So we’re going to try to get up and down, but we’re not going to do it to spite our strengths. We’ve got bigs who can get busy in the paint – if we need to hold for a second to get them down there, then we’re going to hold it for a second to get them down there.

The way the game balances out, the top teams still run less than half the time. So now you have the other 50 percent of the game where you can walk the ball up and get the ball into the bigs in the paint or run post-up plays. So there are ways where you can make everybody happy; we just have to have the creativity to do it and I think this coaching staff does.

JCF: Last year at this time you were coming off a summer that saw the roster undergo a complete overhaul. So even though this summer has seen its share of change as well, it still offers much more continuity than last year. Do you envision being able to expand the playbook a little bit, or do you feel like with a read-and-react offense you don’t really need to have the encyclopedic playbook that a team like the Doc Rivers-led Celtics possessed?

JBB: I don’t think you have to have that sort of depth of the playbook with the way we play, but what we have are triggers and then the triggers lead to the read-and-react. We’re trying to create an advantage in the first five seconds of the shot clock if we can. Then it leads to the read-and-react on the back end of it. Even in the plays that we call and the sets that we run, very rarely do teams score out of that play. So we’re just keying or triggering the next part of our offense.

We will put in more stuff because we have more guys now who can do things in specific spots so we’ll make sure we get them the ball where they’re comfortable, but then that will lead to the rest of our read-and-react offense.

JCF: This is going to be your third year with this team. The first season began coming out of the lockout, the second arrived with the aforementioned massive roster turnover, and now you have a team that has some continuity and also legitimate aspirations to do really big things. It has to be pretty exciting to finally have an opportunity to keep building upon what you’ve already begun rather than starting over from scratch again.

JBB: Well the excitement of coaching comes from the challenge. Every year is a different challenge. Expectations may be different, but the challenge is still the same. The lockout year we obviously had the challenge of dealing with the trade that didn’t go through and only having a week-and-a-half until the games started. The next year we only had two guys back from the team before. So there’s always different challenges. Now the expectations are for us to win at a higher level, but there are still challenges to that. It’s our job as coaches to meet those challenges and get those guys to reach whatever the potential for that particular team is.

JCF: But you’ve got to be excited to have a team that, at least on paper right now from this vantage point in late August, has a chance to do something special.

JBB: Yeah, there’s no doubt about it. The ultimate goal in all of this is winning championships. You’ve got to give credit to the guys upstairs who did a great job putting this team together and putting us in position to do it. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be exciting. But again, paper doesn’t get it done. You’ve got to find the right chemistry, you’ve got to find the common goal, you’ve got to assemble this team in a way that allows it to reach its potential. Like I said, that’s what a coach’s job is: whatever you’re handed, you have to help it get to its potential.

JCF: So with that said, what do you see as the biggest challenges facing this coaching staff right now?

JBB: I think you’ve seen in the past that when you bring in elite players to play with other elite players, it takes a minute for them to adjust to one another. I was in Minnesota when they brought in Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell to play with Kevin Garnett. People don’t remember, but they struggled early in the season. They got off to a slow start. The Miami Heat, when they put all that together, they had to work really hard and put in a lot of time to figure each other out. So now it’s our responsibility to help our guys figure it out.

It’s not always easy. It could go seamlessly but you never know. Some guys, when they play with other elite players, they end up being too unselfish; or guys who are used to having the ball in their hands all the time, now they’re not as aggressive or as instinctive because they’re thinking too much out there. The game changes. There’s a transition process that has to take place and it doesn’t always go according to your timetable.

JCF: This is all still hypothetical of course, but do you think that process here will be aided by the fact that many of these pieces – again, theoretically – should mesh so well? One of the big challenges Miami faced was figuring out how to get the most out of two guys who were traditionally at their best with the ball in their hands. Here you’ve got a great pick-and-roll player in James Harden and another very good one in Jeremy Lin playing with an elite roll man in Dwight Howard. You have a ton of guys who can space the floor and play multiple positions. So the theoretical fit seems like it may at least expedite the process somewhat.

JBB: I agree. The pieces should go well together. If you were putting a puzzle together, the pieces should lay next to each other and complete the whole. I think it will be easier because of that. But again, until they get on the court together, until it happens, you just never know for sure.

And there are still certain things like timing that have to be worked out. Yeah, we play the pick-and-roll, but certain guys like to do different things in the pick-and-roll. Certain guys like to get the ball in certain spots in the pick-and-roll so until they figure those things out there may be some rough spots here and there. It’s going to take time and repetition and doing things over and over again.

The way we played the pick-and-roll with Omer last year may be different than the way we play pick-and-roll with Dwight so now James and Jeremy will have to get comfortable. The guys around them will need to get acclimated to ensure they’re in the right spots at the right time. If we are playing big with two bigs on the floor together, them playing off one another may take some time to sort out.

There’s a lot of little things that are going to take a while for us to get used to. Some things will come easier than others. But all of it, whether it comes easily or hard, requires time and repetition to master and perform at a championship level.