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Camp battles on NBA endangered list

With open roster spots scarce, coaches discuss impact of mostly secure positions during training camp

POSTED: Oct 2, 2015 12:57 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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Two-a-days, the grueling, double-practices of training camp, are an endangered species in the modern NBA. They still dotted the league's landscape here and there this week but largely have been done in by the collective bargaining agreement between the union and the owners, by players' tendency to come into camp in something more approximating game shape and by management's appreciation that these are vitally important assets -- expensive and fragile -- not to be trifled with.

It's a reversal on the phrase: You bought it, don't break it. Besides, a three-and-half hour restriction on court time doesn't divide so easily by two.

Kevin McHale, the Houston Rockets coach who arrived in the NBA 35 years ago as the No. 3 pick in 1980, remembered how different camps used to be.

"We had a guy come in and say he couldn't physically do two-a-days for a whole week," McHale said recently, during a break at the NBA coaches meeting in Chicago. "I started laughing. We had 19 straight [days of two-a-days] under Bill Fitch in Boston. And everybody made it. In fact, we won a championship that year. And I'm not talking 'Hey, are you having fun?' practices. I'm talking getting after it hard twice a day. No rules about no-contact, no nothing. It was crazy. We wouldn't even dream of doing that now.

"If you held even one old-fashioned day like that, these guys would be in total revolt. They'd think you lost your mind. And your GM would say, 'You can't do that. We won't have anbody left.' "

Another reason for the decline in two-a-days? The vanishing number of roster spots up for grabs in most NBA teams' camps. In fact, given the number of guaranteed contracts -- fully or partially -- on most of the 30 rosters, it's safe to say there are more instances of double workouts this preseason than there are available jobs.

The league's 30 teams began preparation for the 2015-16 season with 419 fully guaranteed contracts for a maximum of 450 roster spots. That left, on average, about one available job per team to be snagged in the preseason by surprise and hard work, some off-the-radar player showing enough unexpected talent or tenacity to earn a shot at a $525,093 minimum salary.

Some teams such as Detroit (17), Boston (16), Minnesota (16) and Philadelphia (16) had more guaranteed contracts than roster spots. Brooklyn and the L.A. Lakers, with a dozen each, represented the low end.

So going the way of the Dodo bird, to a large degree as well, are the intense, sometimes nasty training-camp battles for survival that used to be part of every NBA October.

"When I first got in the league," McHale said, "there were always four or five spots that weren't guaranteed and people were fighting for them. You'd have 10 guys for five spots. Fitch would come in and say, 'Well, guys, five of y'all aren't going to be here. Let's go practice.' No one needed much more motivation than that. They got after it pretty hard. Guys would get frustrated. Fights would break out. It was different."

There literally might be fist fights between players vying like two pit bulls over one raw steak. Other times, some camp invitee would show so much hunger and spirit, it would ignite the entire squad and spark an intensity that was contagious. That happened in Minnesota when McHale was that club's VP of basketball operations -- Lou Roe, a forward from Syracuse, lit up camp in 1999, four years after he'd been a second-round pick for Detroit. Even Kevin Garnett, who always runs hot, was impressed.

Said McHale: "If there was a veteran who played your spot, you'd look at him and say, 'C'mon, take it a little easy.' And he'd say, 'No, I've got to make the team.' You had to respect that. It made you go harder because even if you had a guaranteed contract, he didn't. And no one wants to look bad. So pretty soon your competitive juices are flowing and practice is better."

Here is a sampling of other NBA head coaches talking about the slow death of non-guaranteed deals, and how they cope with the impact that has on their camp and preseason energy:

Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics

"I don't worry about it, to be honest. I don't have any concern about whether you're going to have more or less intensity based on that factor. Because you're trying to accomplish other things: build chemistry, build team. Ours will be different because of the depth we have and the similarity of our players, specifically in our frontcourt. So they're competing for opportunities to play more minutes, or go from a bench role to a starter. I think that's the best of both worlds between competing and building a team. You want an intense camp but at the end you want to come together for one objective."

Steve Clifford, Charlotte Hornets

"In my time -- this is my 16th year -- I don't see a big change. What I notice from when I first started, guys do more in the summer. They come back in better shape. I have [longtime coach and player] Bob Weiss on my staff and he talked about last year, like when he played, the younger players usually were ahead. The veterans used camp to get into shape. Now usually it's the older guys who are ahead and it's the younger guys who haven't quite figured out what they need to do to play at this level. But since I've been around, guys have been pretty much guaranteed."

Lionel Hollins, Brooklyn Nets

"We're going to have eight new guys. So fitting those guys in with the ones we're bringing back, and trying to shift how we play to a more versatile game -- being able to play in the flow a little more, a little quicker -- those are the things that are going to decide who's going to play. You might have two or three guys where you say, 'OK, these guys are pretty much cut-and-dried,' but everybody else is earning time. And if you have a passion to compete and you love the game, it's going to be there whether you have a guarantee or not. Guarantees probably take away some incentive for certain guys to work hard and improve, and [allow them] to have the attitude that they've arrived and 'this is it.' But we're in a unique situation -- we have a lot of partial guarantees. So people who come in and do the job are going to get the jobs."

Dwane Casey, Toronto Raptors

"It has changed camp a little bit. You don't have the battles for three or four spots. We have one and a lot of teams try to keep one, maybe two, open. But still, training camp is the best time of year as far as guys being fresh and open-minded, and still competing. Going into camp, positions are pretty much sewn up but guys are coming in fighting for more playing time, fighting for more touches."

Terry Stotts, Portland Trail Blazers

"We've got a lot of good, young players who are hungry. They know they're going to have more of an opportunity this year than they had in the past. It's very rewarding to coach those type of teams. ... If you look at almost every player on the roster, they're on the same career arc as Damian [Lillard]."

Randy Wittman, Washington Wizards

"Sometimes it can be a good thing. We didn't change very much, we didn't need to. So the continuity of going with what we've done the last couple years, for our camp, it's a good thing. There's no distractions from what we need to do and how we need to get there. I've gone away from two-a-days partly because of that. You'd have two-a-days so you could get a look at all the guys you had so you could figure out who to keep. When you don't have open spots, it makes sense to cut back from the extra work."

Frank Vogel, Indiana Pacers

"It's not just about getting a job, it's about minutes and roles. We have a lot more position battles than we've had in the past, by a long stretch. Last year it was like, 'Hey, this is your starting five and this is your backup five.' We don't have that now and I'm happy to alter that. We have a lot of guys competing for their spots."

Mike Malone, Denver Nuggets

"We had seven rotation guys at our summer league. [And] the way this team has played, when you win 30 games, when there's been a coaching change, there's not a lot of guaranteed minutes. Guys shouldn't be thinking, 'This is my spot.' There's going to be a lot of competition, and that's healthy. Having guys who push each other and fight for jobs, to me that to me is exciting. Guys will be fighting for starting jobs, guys will be fighting for minutes, some guys will be fighting to make the roster. So wherever you look, there'll be some kind of competition going on."

George Karl, Sacramento Kings

"Five years ago, I don't think many teams carried 14, 15 guys but now I think most teams do. I can see camp being less intense than it was 10 years ago or 20 years ago because of what you're saying, but I think all the players understand there's an importance to building the foundation. I've never had a problem of not having enough intensity in training camp. There's always that one or two practices where your team is worn out and they give you a bad practice, but very seldom do we ever worry about the energy and the commitment."

Doc Rivers, Los Angeles Clippers

"It affects you but you still bring in enough. Before, when you had 10 guarantees, you'd have three to five guys trying out for those other two or three spots. Now you usually have 13 or 14 guarantees but you still bring in four or five guys and you want them to play well enough that you're willing to take the hit and eat a contract or a partial [guarantee]. It does make it far more difficult for the non-guaranteed guy, but if he clearly outplays someone and the contract's not that big, that guy is going to make the team."

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

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