Getting to Know: Assistant Coach Paul Pressey
Byron Scott built his coaching staff for a reason, going to different men for different strengths that help make the best team in the coaches' office.
If assistant Jim Eyen plans to focus most on game preparation and implementing the defensive and offensive schemes, fellow assistant Paul Pressey's main concerns are "making sure I have B's (Scott's) back" and "putting out the little fires."
An 11-year NBA veteran as a player himself, Pressey has been in the NBA for 31 total seasons, and worked on Scott's bench in New Orleans (2007-10) and Cleveland (2010-13) after spending time on various staffs in Boston, Orlando, San Antonio and Golden State.
A native of Richmond, VA, Pressey was drafted with the 20th overall selection by Milwaukee in 1982, and spent his first eight seasons there before finishing his career in San Antonio (1990-92) and Golden State (1992-93). In 724 career games (420 starts), Pressey averaged 10.6 points, 5.1 assists, and 3.9 rebounds per game while shooting 48.5% from the field, and was a standout defender, even making the NBA's All-Defensive First Team in 1984 and '85 and the Second Team in 1986. Pressey's son Phil currently plays for the Celtics.
Below is a transcription of our conversation with Pressey:
MT: One of the first things I noticed about your playing and coaching resume is that defense seems to be part of your calling card. I know Byron Scott shares that intensity for defense. What is it about that relationship that you forged over the years playing against each other and coaching on his staff that led to you coming here?
Pressey: I was available (laughs). We had talked all year long just not knowing where opportunities were going to be. And as opportunities opened up and things got a little closer – the Laker job was the last one to be filled, and it just looked promising that that was going to be an opportunity for him to get a chance to come in and visit. So we’ve been talking off and on, and I told him, “Hey, I need to get back to work. So let’s go, man. Let’s get to work.” And from that point on, he just kept in touch with me, and said, “Press, if all this works out, I’ll be calling you.”
MT: Take me back to the 1980s when you played against Byron. What did you think of him as a player? Did you guys have kind of a typical relationship, where there’s a bit of a rivalry? Did you develop a friendship throughout that process at some point?
Pressey: No, because I was (playing in the) Midwest and he was West Coast, and we played each other twice. My thing was, I guarded Magic (Johnson). (Scott) was the kind of player that you just didn’t concern with not leaving him, because he’s a shooter and because of the pressure they put on you with Magic and (Michael Cooper) and (James) Worthy and Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar). All those guys cause problems throughout the floor, so (Scott) got his opportunities to get his shots up. Just on a competitive level, our relationship was there. But the first time I met B close up in the coaching business was with Sacramento. And I don’t know if he even remembers this, but I walked up to him, said, “Hey B, how you doing?” Because, by this time, I had already been probably four, five years coaching. And I said, “How do you like your coaching? Blah, blah, blah.” And he basically said, “Press, I love it. I’m looking forward to it.” He said, “Look, if I ever get a chance to be a head coach, I’d love for you to be a part of (my staff).” And that was pretty much it. Happened quick. And lo and behold, boom. Ten, 12 years later, we hooked up.
MT: Speaking of guarding Magic … He's such an exception to the rule, because at 6-9, he could hurt you in so many ways and not just with the pass. In today's game, can you scheme more effectively to deal with a point guard and take him out of games late, as even some of the best PG's – like Chris Paul or Derrick Rose – have found themselves limited by big wings at points of playoff series?
Pressey: Definitely. I think you can. I don’t think you do a steady diet of it, but I think you can do it and take advantage of mismatches. And, of course, when I first came in the league, that’s what we did. We took advantage of mismatches and made the defense make adjustments. And Magic was one of the premier big guards that probably ever played in this league, as far as size-wise. And he had the ability to take you in, take you out and make plays. And that was huge when you have a player like that. And LeBron (James) has that ability. So, yeah, I like to see more of that because I believe in versatility. Have guys that you can move around the floor, and that’ll make the opponent make other adjustments.
MT: Kobe Bryant can do a bit of everything, too, hurt you wherever he wants on offense. You can run the offense through him on the low post. He can take it out of the high post. He can use his footwork before the dribble. He can play point guard if he wants to. Fun for you to think about heading into a season, despite his age?
Pressey: Without a doubt, Mike. Kobe has done it for years. But to see him, this year, facilitate a little more and helping getting these young guys involved and showing them how to play, because he can do it with the ball or without the ball … that’s the beauty of having him is the fact that he can cause problems either way. The biggest thing for us is to get our young guys to adjust to the way he is accustomed to playing at such a high level. So these young players have to do a lot of work to get to that point where they can be in the right place at the right time when he’s making moves. And when he’s making moves off the ball, (knowing) where is he at all times, because he’s such a threat.
MT: When you started coaching with Byron for the first time, what did you notice about him and his style and how it worked with how you like to coach?
Pressey: I think the biggest thing is equal opportunity offensively, where he allowed all five guys (to) have a chance to be a part of the offense. And, of course, we had a point guard in Chris Paul, who (if) you’re open, you’re gonna get the ball. But you had to work to get there. And if you didn’t, you didn’t have as many opportunities as you would like. And of course defensively, I believe in aggressive defensive schemes, and (Scott’s) mindset is the same way. It’s defend first. We’ll get our defensive positions and everybody in their spots where they’re supposed to be, and that’s going to give us more opportunities to score. Scoring, everybody can shoot the ball. At least shoot it up there; whether it goes in or not is a different story. Everybody is excited about that, but the defensive part takes a little bit more work, a little bit more concentration. And I think if we can get our players to believe in that right off the bat and commit to that and trust each other, then our defense is going to be really solid for us.
MT: You mentioned aggressive defense. Does that mean blitzing more screen/rolls? Is it just more activity across the paint, more helping the helper? How do you like to put that into practice?
Pressey: The biggest thing is what we call “playing on a string.” If I’m guarding a guy and he beats me, the next guy’s got to be there. Whether from the top, whether from the baseline, and then the next guy’s got to cover him. So five guys got to play on string. If one guy moves, the next guy’s gotta move. And we’ll cover. And we’ll make (the opponent) have to adjust to us as opposed to us adjusting to them. So just being aggressive. I’ve always believed in the old theory: “Be the instigator, not the retaliator,” meaning that you hit first, you be aggressive, you get up front, you make them do something different and then they’ll react to you.
MT: When you look at the personnel without a true shot blocker on this roster, is it even more key to be that aggressive and to have that "string" operating?
Pressey: It’s going to be a committee. We’re gonna have to use different combinations and go to small lineups. Whatever works for us, we’re going to have to shake it up to make our opponent do something different if it’s causing a problem. And we don’t have that seven-footer, but we have some good 6-8, 6-10 guys that can play around the rim and also play above the rim. You don’t have to be a 7-footer, because I know some 7-footers play 6-5. So it ain’t how big you are, it’s how big you play.
MT: What's your most important role on Byron's coaching staff?
Pressey: To me, this is about coworkers working together. And I’m probably one of the oldest gurus on this staff. I have two responsibilities – probably more than that, but two of the main concerns is: making sure I got B’s back, putting out the little fires, if you will. And a little fire would be: players’ got issues among each other, and I would see it and I would say, “Hey, let’s sit down and talk. Let’s resolve this now. What is the issue?” If I can’t resolve it then, then I’ll take it to him. Those kind of things that he doesn’t need to be dealing with, because during the season there’s a lot of other issues that he’s gotta be concerned with. Two is being mentors to these young players. I’ve probably got more years behind they got in front of them all put together. So one of those responsibilities is to see them grow, see them have an opportunity to move up in the coaching rankings. Whether it be a position, whether it be a head coach – that’s part of my responsibilities, because I’ve seen things that they have not seen yet, and I want to be able to share my experience with them.
I’ve heard a wise comment from a TV talk show, and it was talking about mentorship. And they said, “Mentorship is wisdom without pain.” And I thought about it, and I go, “Hmm, mentorship is wisdom without pain.” So I thought about it and said, “Man, that’s just sharing your experience with younger people, so they don’t have to go through the pain that you’ve already been through.” And I said, “Wow, what a great way of sharing with young people to let them know, ‘Hey, do it this way because you don’t want to do it this way. Because I’ve been there and done that.’” So that’s part of my responsibility, and Coach Scott knows that I got his back. And that’s probably the biggest thing is the fact that you’ve got somebody you can trust.
MT: Do you like being part of the team like that? Being a unifier, making sure everybody else is feeling good and not necessarily thinking about yourself?
Pressey: No question. My first year, Don Nelson was my coach as a rookie in Milwaukee. And he just used to say, “Hey rook, you know what I need from you, don’t you?” And I go, “No, other than: I make plays, I handle the ball, I defend and I run the floor.” He said, “Exactly, I need you to get the ball to my players.” I said, “That’s easy. Done that all my life, even college.” I’m about winning, and I believe you try to win at all costs. You try to get it done. And Coach Scott knew I had that kind of mindset. He has it. Losing is horrible, leaves a nasty taste in your mouth. And when you have that nasty taste, you wanna get it out. So you try to find a way to get it out, and a lot of times there’s no secret to it. You just gotta go back to work and grind on the axe again. And you might not win the next game, but it ain’t because you have not tried to continue to get better.
MT: One interesting thing about the NBA or any pro sport is that any player or any coach has had to succeed at every level in their life in a big way just to get here. So you come into training camp in October and there’s this optimism almost everywhere because you’ve always been able to find a way to win. But this roster, on Day 1, isn't the same as OKC's or Cleveland's with three All-Stars. Does that affect the outlook?
Pressey: I think the biggest thing is growth. We need growth and a timing of our young players learning curve, if you will. How soon will they get it? And of course, health is a big thing for all teams in the league. We need to stay healthy for most of our players just to give ourselves a chance to be competitive every night. Injuries, as you already know from the past years here, have hampered this team to come up short. But, at the same time, if our young players continue to grow and the learning curve happens fairly quick, then they can improve and help this team to be better. And so we do have the back-to-backs and nights where you just say we’re gonna allow some of that youth to give us a shot in the arm, if you will, to get us to games where we’re close enough to have a chance to win. And I think that’s the biggest thing we want to try to accomplish this year is: If we can be in that position then we’ll let the wins and losses take care of themselves. We just want to give ourselves a chance every night.
MT: Going back to what you said about putting out little fires so Byron can focus on the bigger picture, what are some examples of stuff like that wouldn’t occur to people on the outside?
Pressey: One of the biggest things that you deal with is that a lot of players want more playing time. And some sulk, some turn it off and say, “Screw it. I’m not gonna practice hard.” And my job is to say, “Hey, what’s going on with you?” And then laying out their responsibilities. What Coach Scott would do, right at the beginning of the year, he’ll talk to every guy at some point (about) what he expects out of them. And my job, again, is to reinforce that and say, “Well, this is what we need you to do, and you gotta do it at a high level on a consistent basis. And if not, he’s not gonna play you.” And that’s one of those things that I have to do so he doesn’t have to deal with that, because he’s got 14, 15 players that he’s gotta deal with: How do these different combinations work? Who are we playing tonight? How are we gonna (rotate) guys in? All these things, he’s concentrating on. So all those things that I call “personal issues,” he doesn’t need to deal with right now. As I said before, if there are bigger issues that I can’t deal with, then I’ll go in and say, “Hey coach, this is what’s happening with this kid.” And we’ll talk about it. And he might come back in and say, “Hey Press, you handle it.” And he’ll tell me how to handle it, meaning that I might put my foot a little harder knowing that he’ll respond a different way. Because if we get to him, he might just say, “Hey, just put the fire out.”
MT: With that communication between you and Byron, do you sometimes just come in and decide, “I’m gonna deal with this just so he doesn’t even have to think about it”?
Pressey: Both ways, and I try to (not go to him) more times than not, especially when I know it’s a minute type of situation. It’s a concern but it’s not a concern, meaning that I could be bigger if you don’t take care of it now. And, as I said, there’s little, tiny fires, there’s medium-sized fires, there are big fires. Usually if it’s a big fire, he already knows it. So I try to deal with that middle and that lower end.
MT: With all of these issues that happen and the fact that you played, you can probably have some compassion for a guy that wants more minutes. Because it’s not that he’s necessarily trying to hurt the team. It’s that he is thinking, “Man, if I don’t get any playing time, I may not get another contract and I’m not going to be able to provide for my family.”
Pressey: I’ll share a story with you, Mike. My rookie year I’m the only rookie on the team. And we’re playing Seattle at home. We’re down 25, and I haven’t played in three or four games. And I’m going, “Down 25, man, this is a chance for me. I’m gonna get in tonight.” And it didn’t happen. Next day we’re at practice and I go to coach and I say, “Hey coach, can I speak to you?” He says, “Yeah rook, what’s up?” I said, “You know, last night I was a little disappointed. We’re down 25 going into the fourth (quarter). By the time we had six minutes left on the clock, we were still down like 20.” And I said, “I thought I would get in.” And I said, “But, when you call on me, I’ll be ready.” And that was it. I walked away. And from that point on, my time increased. Not that I complained about it. I just wanted him to know I wasn’t happy about it.
I share with all these young players all the time that, even veterans, you should get it. You’ve been around and there’s a couple things in your way right now. Your position is loaded and the timing’s just not there yet. But you just hang in there. Some opportunity’s gonna come. Young players, you gotta wait your turn. You got your practice time. If you work on your game and improve in practice and show the coach what you’re capable of doing every day and working and doing all the extra work, you know what, your time will come. When? I don’t know. I don’t have that magic ball, but I do know opportunities will come. And that’s what I share with them and let them know: You know what? It’s know a perfect world and it’s OK to be upset It’s OK to be disappointed. But at some point it’s gotta taper off. You gotta go, “You know what? I gotta go to work. I gotta do my job.” Your job is to get better each day, and sometimes you don’t get the chance to show that right away.
MT: Were there certain players on your past several teams that were in that situation where they didn’t play much at the beginning but got more time toward the end and were able to make a rise?
Pressey: There are a few things that normally happen. The ones that blow up and just get crazy and can’t stand it no more are usually the veterans who’ve been around and feel like they should be on the floor. You usually end up getting them out of (town). You usually trade them. Not always, but some of them get it. And then the younger players, those are the players that (you tell), “You know what, you just gotta keep working.” Those are the ones you let them know: “You are not entitled to this because we drafted you. You’re not entitled to this because we traded for you. This is a line of order, and that head coach is the guy that put guys in the starting lineup; who plays, who doesn’t go. And it ain’t because you ain’t doing what you’re supposed to do. You’re doing a heck of a job. You’re working your butt off. But there’s a line and you might be the seventh, eighth, 10th guy."
MT: It’s such a hard thing just to get to the NBA. Most of these guys haven’t done anything but start their whole lives, but I’m guessing that’s part of that mindset you have to try to work on with some young guys. Even if they know they aren’t starting at the 2 because Kobe’s there, they’re thinking, “I’m gonna find a way to get on the floor.”
Pressey: That’s the mindset you’ve gotta have. You gotta stay positive. Because I went through it; I went to San Antonio, played a little bit my first year there. All of a sudden they draft this kid that they wanted to play, and all of a sudden I don’t play anymore. And I was highly upset, disappointed. And I went in and said, “Hey, well then trade me, because I’m not helping the team and you guys aren’t helping me.” I always believed it should be a mutual agreement. Of course, it never happened, but I came to work every day. I did my job, and that was my last year there. So now (it’s) like: “Can he play anymore?” I didn’t play much. I actually played in the playoffs because guys got hurt. So now you start to play again, and of course that was short-lived, but I get it. I went through that. That’s what I was talking about the mentorship with the wisdom. I’ve been there, done that. That’s how I know how you feel. It’s not a happy feeling, but (there’s) something you gotta deal with and it’s called maturity. You’ve gotta learn how to grow. And I grew from that a lot.
MT: You look at this team, and there are a lot of guys on one-year contracts that could end up being helpful. They are guys with something to prove, like Carlos Boozer who got amnestied and Jeremy Lin who was traded attached with draft picks to clear space for a free agency push in Houston. Can you use that where you can get maybe a little something extra from them?
Pressey: No, I think that’s just business, how the GMs, CEOs, etc. handle things; put things in place to give us flexibility. And our jobs as coaches is to put the best team out there to help us win. So we don’t think about that. … That kind of thing doesn’t come into effect in our thinking. We’re just trying to win ballgames. “You’re a free agent coming up next? Hey, good luck to you. You’re gonna get a nice, fat paycheck. But at the end of the day you’re gonna have helped us to improve, gotten better and we hope that you’ve done that good of a job that we’re gonna keep you. We’re not gonna let you go out there and explore because we appreciate your hard work and commitment to us. So we’re gonna commit to you.” I just think most teams would respond that way.
MT: That makes me think of a rookie like Julius Randle. He isn’t guaranteed any kind of playing time, but he knows he’s got a contract for X amount of years. It is a little different for a second-round pick, right? The coaching staff is trying to win every game this year while management is thinking, “How do we build this team for the future to get back to the championship as soon as we can?” So how does that balance get struck between wanting to develop Julius and also having veterans at that spot?
Pressey: It always happens in practice. And you see, like I said, the learning curve. For example, if you see Julius’ learning curve turn fast, he’s got an opportunity to play. No question about it, just because he’s a skilled kid. But if it’s a slower process, then it’s going to be spotty minutes, because he’s going to be a player that I think you have to let grow into things. If all of a sudden, he jumps out of his skin and goes, “Hey, I’m ready now.” OK, well prove it. And that’s going to come in practice every day. And he’s going to go against veterans every day, and they’re the ones that make say, “OK, just because you’re a young player and this is your first year, age has nothing to do with it.” Which I’m a firm believer of; to me, age has nothing to do with it. Either you’re gonna man up and show what you can do against men or you’re gonna say, “You know what, I’m not ready yet.” And I think (Randle) has the physical presence to match up with a lot of them. He just doesn’t have the experience, yet, to be able to do that on a high level, and I think that’s gonna take some time.
MT: So part of that is, to Randle: “You want to start playing a lot right now. OK, then you’re going to have to outplay Boozer, Ed Davis and Jordan Hill in practice, and you’re gonna have to play defense"?
Pressey: Absolutely. And to me, that’s the best lesson, no question about it, that you can have. Because now you have proven to the veterans that you deserve some time or you don’t. And they’ll say, “Look, just hang in there. You’ll be alright.” That means (it’s) your waiting time. You’ve gotta wait. It just ain’t gonna happen. The good thing for (Randle)? He’s very skilled, and a skilled player usually can find some ways to be a part. With all these young guys on our team, I think it’s going to be a learning curve. The beauty of it is: We’re in the middle of all of this. As I said to Mitch (Kupchak) earlier, “I love the way he put this team together,” because he got some young players and he got guys that have been in the league four, five years, six years. Then he got guys that have been in 10-plus years. So you got a good mix of guys that can pass on the experience and the hard work and the commitment to this game, and hopefully our young guys grasp hold of it quick enough to where: Boom, we can surprise some teams this year. To where they can come in here and go, “You know what, they ain’t this, they ain’t that. But you know what, we’re gonna have our stuff together.”
MT: On the opposite end of the spectrum from Julius, you have Steve Nash. He’s 40 years old, been in the league forever. And just from the word around here, he’s looking pretty good again. It changes the way, to me, that you look at the team if you get that health out of Steve. Is it like with a rookie, where if he shows you he’s still Steve Nash, he’ll play?
Pressey: Best man on the floor. Like I said earlier, we’ll put the best team out there. We already know he’s one of the best ever, Hall of Fame player. Period. Kobe, same way. Those guys, as I’ve said before, are going to be mentors to these young guys. And being healthy this year is a huge thing for us. And not just those two guys, but just in general that we can take a load off of those guys to hopefully inject some of our younger guys with them, so they don’t have to carry a heavy load of minutes. And when back-to-backs come, can we play them with shorter minutes as opposed to trying to push another 30 on them, another 25 on them? So it’s important that our young guys follow leads and take over the responsibility to hold the fort down, if you will, till our veteran guys can get back in and then take us home.
MT: What do you think of how Steve looks?
Pressey: I love him. He looks good. He looks like the old Steve. And again, you said it earlier, this is a little different game, because when the real games happen, there’s better competition – bigger, stronger, faster players on the floor. But he not only has the skill level still, but he has the smarts. He knows what he can do, how much he can do, and he knows when to do it. So, to me, that part will help him get through this year.
MT: Guys really like to play with him, and, to me, that directly translates to wins. Is that still a tangible thing that you can see the way he plays kind of makes other guys pumped up?
Pressey: Yeah. He’s a leader, he’s a winner. And when you think about leadership, you think about guys doing whatever they can do to help their team win, and that’s what Steve is. And it translates into wins. And not all the time, but it does put you in the position, always, to win; meaning that he is facilitating. He is encouraging guys. “Hey, don’t worry about it. You missed the shot, but it was wide-open. That’s a shot I know you can make. Don’t worry about it. Just make the next one, ‘cause there’ll be another opportunity.” And that kind of encouraged me. From a guy who’s been there, done that – it’s gotta lift a young player up when they start looking up to the Nash's of the world and the Kobe's of the world. When they start looking to those guys that encourage them, who’ve already been there and experienced those things, that’s like, “Man, this guy pat me on the back. He told me it’s going to be alright.”
MT: A lot of people look at Kobe as a killer, fairly enough of course, but I’ve seen him have a different relationship with young players recently. He really has tried to take guys under his wing, and sometimes it’s tough love, but I think people will be surprised to see that side of him.
Pressey: I think Kobe’s statute is: “I expect you to play the way I play. Not necessarily you have the skills that I have. But I expect you to give whatever skill level you have to the highest.” And that’s what he expects guys to do every night. When you have those down and it’s not happening, he wants to know what’s wrong, why you’re not doing this. And it’s not pressure, because, in my opinion, it’s only pressure when you can’t do it. And it’s obvious that he’s seen younger players do certain things at times, and at times not. So (he) wants to know why you’re not doing it on a consistent basis, and yeah, tough love to me is good. It’s healthy because the same thing is: When I give you the tough love and I knock you down, I’m not gonna reach to pick you up, initially. I’m gonna see if you can get up on your own. Now, once you’ve figured out who you are and what you’re about, he needs help. Now: “Come on, let’s go. Because I know you’re better than that.” So to me, that’s what building team camaraderie is all about. It’s finding out what makes different guys tick, and we got enough guys on this team with leadership and experience that can do that form 1 through 5; from our small guys to our big guys. And I think that’s one of the strengths we’re gonna have with this team.
MT: Finally, anything about Byron from over the years that we don’t know about him that we need to know?
Pressey: He’s a golfer. … He’s a good golfer and we get to play a little bit.
MT: Are you better?
Pressey: No, no, no. Not even close. I’m a fisherman and a hunter. I told him, “(If) I’m gonna put a thing in water, it ain’t gonna be no golf ball. It’ll be a hook and line.”
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