Q&A: Warriors assistant Adams keeps champs' defense humming, relevant

Veteran coach still confident Golden State can get stops come playoff time

The Golden State Warriors practiced Sunday at Harvard, which gave coach Steve Kerr the chance to boast — after going over some strategies with the group out on the floor — that he now officially had “lectured” at the Ivy League school.

That setting seemed appropriate for Ron Adams, the Warriors’ defensive guru and one of the NBA’s most thoughtful interview subjects. Adams, 71, is a wholistic coach, a native Californian whose career instructing and imparting wisdom to players dates to 1969, when he started as an assistant at Fresno Pacific University (his alma mater).

His theories and concepts have been honed through stops at Fresno State and, starting in 1992, in the NBA at San Antonio, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Chicago, Oklahoma City, Boston and now Golden State. During his time as an assistant, Adams’ teams have reached the postseason 17 times, including four Finals and three championships in his time with Golden State.

Adams joined the Warriors in 2014 as much to mentor then-new coach Steve Kerr as to shape their defense. It was a merging of old school and new age that both men swiftly embraced.

NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner spoke with the veteran coach after the team’s practice in Cambridge.

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Steve Aschburner: So much attention has been paid to DeMarcus Cousins’ addition to your lineup, as far as giving you five dangerous scorers and no one that opponents comfortably can leave to double-team elsewhere. But I’m eager to learn about Cousins as a defender and what your team and he are facing on that side of the ball.

Ron Adams: There are some challenges. One of them is, he hasn’t played for a year, regardless of any of the skills you’re looking at. But we kind of anticipated what we thought he could do and build a system that works for him.

Having said that, I’ve been pleased with his defense in the four games that he’s played. He gives us a different look in the paint, obviously, but he’s a quick player. He’s got good feet. I don’t think defense has always been upper-most in his mind in the past. But he’s been quite good thus far.

He’s shown that he anticipates well and reads well. We do quite a bit of switching — he’s done a little bit of that lately, and he’s pretty good at it. But we’re trying to bring that aspect along with him. I think he’s shown good awareness and he’s played with good spirit, and really has been a pleasure to be around.

SA: You mention quick feet, but this is a guy recovering from Achilles tendon surgery.

RA: If you look at DeMarcus’ career, and he’d tell you this too, he’s been pretty oriented toward offense, toward rebounding the ball and defending in the paint. But he does have good feet — I don’t think the injury has hurt him at all. In fact, that Achilles is a lot stronger than the other one, I’m sure now. These rehabs are really intense and he put a lot of good work into it.

It’s more of a mentality with him. I think he’s bought in well. He wants to do well. And he’s shown good focus on the defensive end.

SA: How much does it help that he’s with a team that demands defense and has proven the value of it? As opposed to Cousins’ exuberance over this opportunity and wanting to be a good employee who doesn’t rock the boat?

RA: It’s a little bit of everything you’ve mentioned. But he’s a good basketball guy. He likes the game. He wants to get better. Certainly, the emphasis of the team has helped him, as far as wanting to be balanced offensively and defensively. If you want to win championships and you’re not playing great defense, that’s not going to happen for you.

But I’ve found him very open to what we’ve had to say. I see him working on things that are important to our program. I think he’s internalized those things so they’re important to him.

Steve’s philosophy for how a team should operate is, I think, spot-on for the modern age.”

Ron Adams, on Warriors coach Steve Kerr

SA: What role do the other players play in this, on court and off, in blending him into the team’s culture?

RA: Certainly the nature of our group has helped him. Our guys were so supportive of him after the first game, it was really gratifying to watch the response of our team. They want him to do well, as do our coaches. This might be a very short stay here, who knows? But to a man on our coaching staff, and Steve [Kerr] is so great at this, we really want him to get back on his feet and be the player he was — and some.

I think he understands that about us. Steve is so inclusive and so helpful to a player like DeMarcus. So we’re making progress. It’s going to be a while. He’s really helped us offensively already — he’s a great passer, he’s been a good quarterback for us too. The other part of his game is growing.

SA: Do you anticipate he’s going to be attacked on pick-and-rolls? He has been a target for that in the past.

RA: Teams had their strategies. But I don’t see that being a huge problem. In the orthodox coverages of the game I think he’s fine. In the new age, when people are coming off shooting threes and that pick is set at the 3-point line, that’s when you have to make some adjustments. I think he’s shown already he’ll be capable of doing that.

SA: You’ve mentioned Steve, a guy you have been mentoring as a coach. Five seasons in, what are your impressions?

RA: What you would expect just from the technical standpoint. He’s become a very good coach on both sides of the ball, and he really enjoys it. Keeps growing in that regard, which is to be expected. Steve is a very bright guy, knows the game well before becoming a coach. He’s such a measured person in how he looks at the game — he’s a very competitive guy — and what his long view is.

I mean, we all get better. I’m 71 years old and I’m learning every year. This league … even this year from last year, there’s changes in how the game is played. The mentality. Now we’re into a “not practice too much, make sure your guys are healthy” phase. It’s much more of an emphasis now. So you have stark changes and a lot of subtle ones.

Steve’s philosophy for how a team should operate is, I think, spot-on for the modern age. And I think this has been helpful for DeMarcus, by the way. We don’t want him changing his style as a player, but we do hope, as with all of our guys, that they play the game with joy. Enjoy themselves, enjoy each other, stay mindful of how fortunate they are.

SA: As a defensive-focused coach, you’ve been around from the days of hand-checking and intensely physical play to this new era of “freedom of movement” in which defenders dare not even breathe on an opponent.

RA: This year’s been a little frustrating at times. It just means you have to do certain things better. One thing is defensive transition, and even when you transition well, so many people are shooting early threes. We have teams with five 3-point shooters in their lineups and it’s putting a lot of stress on defensive transition. Your team aspects, your help aspects have to be good. How you handle the kinds of penetrations that the new rules are allowing for more. Seemingly the offensive player can do little wrong. We’ve got a lot of pushing off offensively on guys, which seems to be OK at the moment, perhaps until the playoffs come, I don’t know.

These changes, you can adjust to them through your help-side defense, your cell, the kinds of things every team teaches. But when something is taken away from you in a system, you have to put more emphasis on team play.

SA: Do you ever feel picked on, which so many changes favoring offense?

RA: I don’t feel picked on. I look at it as a challenge. It has its frustrations. But I think when all is said and done, the good defensive teams will be there at the end. Whatever the definition of that is. You adjust. The NBA is so fascinating — there are so many facets to it. … It taxes one but it also broadens one.

SA: You long have been a devotee of switching on defense, to maintain maximum pressure on the ball. Now so many teams do that — is it gratifying to see them adopt your methods?

RA: When a team is winning and does something, everyone looks at it. You look at the roster and say, “Well, maybe we should build our roster like Team A has.” I must say, some teams have emulated us and emulated us very well, because they’re very tough. [laughs] And they’re loaded with great depth and do things so well.

When the playoffs start, we really start focusing on our opponent and feel good about what the defense will do on any given game. … Last year’s team, when it came down to it, in certain moments was every bit as good as those other teams.”

Ron Adams, on Golden State’s defense

SA: Can you compare the Warriors’ defense from one year to the next? Or even rank them? Maybe it’s like ranking your kids. Or maybe the rules and personnel changes make that difficult.

RA: No, I can make some comparisons. We have been kind of up and down. Statistically, we’re a middle-of-the-pack team right now. Some stats are good, others aren’t. I’d like our field-goal defensive percentage to be a little better and our 3-point defensive percentage to be better. Early in the year, I think we were tops in 3-point defense. We kind of play up and down in the regular season.

But seldom do we not get the other team’s best game. Statistically, I allow for that. [Saturday] was a huge game for Boston — you get people’s best. When we let down, and it can be any team … Phoenix does not have a glossy record but they have talent and they’re tough to play. If we’re not ready on that given night, the evening can get long. That’s the fun thing about being a champion, that’s the thing you have to embrace and recognize. Steve goes a masterful job of understanding this. Working around it and not getting too distraught when things aren’t picture-perfect on the court. He helps me in that regard.

SA: So which edition of the Warriors was your best defensive team?

RA: I would say the first three teams were awfully, awfully good. Probably with more consistency in the regular season. But with us, we look at what we do when the second season starts. And we’ve been sterling.

That’s the confidence that we have. When the playoffs start, we really start focusing on our opponent and feel good about what the defense will do on any given game. That’s been pretty much the story the last four years. Last year’s team, when it came down to it, in certain moments was every bit as good as those other teams.

SA: You’re talking experience, muscle memory, confidence?

RA: We all know what we can do when we’re focused. When those times come in a game when we’re not as focused as we’d like, in a traditional coaching sense, we kind of understand our team. And again, Steve is so good in having foresight and believing in this team.

SA: Are you guys able to weigh the cumulative wear and tear of four extra-long seasons, going on five, against the accumulated knowledge and confidence of successfully handling it all?

RA: Once you win a championship, it changes your perspective — I’m talking about players. It’s not easy, very difficult to achieve, but the confidence that comes with it serves you well in critical periods of the games.

SA: So how are your players holding up from 100-plus games year after year?

RA: I keep going back to this, but Steve’s done a good job with that. Sometimes when our performance is up and down, there’s an understanding of that. It’s not college. You’re not going to beat your guys up in practice, but you want to be efficient. You want to stay organized. You want to reinforce all the good habits that allow us to do what we do. But there has to be a good formula with the end, the playoffs, being the thing you’re tailoring everything around.

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

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