Coaching in the NBA Bubble: Denver Nuggets coaches provide an inside look

Pay close attention to the Nuggets’ bench during games. It isn’t a coincidence that a player might change seats while on the sideline and waiting to return to the court. It is done by design.

“We have to pick where every player is going to sit throughout the game. We pick those seats before the game” Nuggets assistant coach Ryan Bowen told Nuggets.com in a July interview. “We have to be strategic for that…So like at the end of the game, we want to make sure that we have people in the front row rather than in the third row [to provide energy].”

Similar to a wedding, seating arrangements are carefully considered by head coach Michael Malone and his coaching staff in an effort to give the Nuggets a tactical edge. It’s a move that is designated to help the team replicate some of the energy and enthusiasm the team would typically feed off playing in front of 20,500 boisterous fans at Pepsi Center. It also shows the painstaking amount of detail coaches focus on in trying to gain an advantage over their opponents.

For coaches, in-game adjustments and logistics could be the difference between a seven-point win or a heartbreaking defeat. Coaches spend 16 to 18 hours a day, reviewing tape and findingunique nuances or details that can give their team the upper hand. Relocating to the infamous “bubble,” where 22 of the league’s 30 teams are housed for the NBA’s restart, doesn’t change that.

Since the opening of the “bubble” in Orlando, there has been an intense focus on the players’experience. Fans have been able to get intimate details, ranging from the restaurants and meals on offer to the DJs performing at each resort. Players, reportedly, also have access to round-the-clock pedicure and barbershop services. But what about the coaches?

Nuggets.com spoke with a few of the team’s assistants to learn about their time in Orlando and how they’re dealing with being away from their homes and families for months.

Here are some of their stories: 

Viral Malone

It was a video that was watched by almost 130,000 people on Instagram and even got a shoutout by a certain Hall-of-Fame NBA center.

During a Nuggets practice, Malone, all of 5-foot-11, received a pass just inside the arc. With the lanky 6-8 defensive stalwart Jerami Grant hovering him, the coach drained a midrange shot and appeared to confidently stare back at the basket. It was a moment that drew rave reviews from the Nuggets fan base and garnered praise by Dikembe Mutombo, who wrote in the comments, “I see coach"

“I didn’t know that Mutombo gave me a little bit of love, that’s great to hear,” Malone said with a grin. “That’s awesome that one of the greatest players in Nuggets history is following our team down here in Orlando.”

It was also a moment that was prompted by necessity.

“We’ve had so few bodies, I’ve had to jump in at times,” Malone said. “You guys have seen over the past four to five years, I’m a coach who loves to get involved and I think the players love it. It gets them a bit more hyped up to play in a drill when they see me out there.

The Nuggets arrived in Orlando with just eight players and didn’t have their full contingent in the bubble until their second scrimmage game on July 25. So at times, Malone had to step in as an almost defacto backup guard – even if he didn’t always practice what he preaches.

“As you saw, my shot over Jerami was a midrange shot, which is a shot we encourage our players not to take,” Malone said jokingly. “It was a poor analytical shot – even though it went in.”

Game time decisions in the bubble

The acoustics within the three arenas at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex is another factor that is taken into consideration when coaches prepare for games. Prior to the hiatus, coaches’ could yell plays or vent frustrations about officiating and they would largely be drowned out by the thousands of fans in attendance. 

“Right now if there’s a team that is barking all of the time, they’re going to be exposed because there’s nobody else [in the stands],” Nuggets assistant coach Jordi Fernandez explained to Nuggets.com. “We always have to be careful…especially in this setup.”

He added, “We just have to focus on playing and,for the officials, they have to deal with the same thing. The officials never want the game to be pointed at them.”

 Acoustics can also be a factor in calling games -- especially when you’re wearing a mask. While Malone and his lead assistants Dave Adelman, Wes Unseld Jr., and Fernandez don’t have to wear masks on the bench, other coaches do.

“When you’re trying to yell at a guy while you’re wearing a mask, it just doesn’t come across the same,” Bowen quipped.

One way the NBA has tried to counter that is through a “coach’s box” that is located courtside. It is a socially-distanced space where a coach and player can go over a specific play on a tablet while being separated by six feet. It looks similar to a hockey penalty box, with more room of course. Due to the need to get points across quickly, the Nuggets coaching staff has yet to use the coaching area. Some habits are hard to break.

“You can go and take the player to talk, but the reality is if I have to talk to a player in a timeout, you can pretty much do it [without the coaches’ box],” Fernandez said.

“We’re used to saying, ‘Go say something to so and so,’ and we’ll have a clip to show them,” Bowen added.

The logistics also change the way teams scout opponents.

“Normally you can see the other coach and see what they’re calling. Now they have this really big glass thing around that makes it difficult to hear and see what’s going on,” Bowen explained. “You have to pay more attention to the players as opposed to looking down at the coaching staff to see what the play call is.”

Timeouts, one of the fundamentally crucial moments in player-coach communication, has also changed due to trying to respect social distancing. Bowen compared to a pitstop at NASCAR or F1.

“Some guys are ready to sit down when we call a timeout and they have to wait 15-30 seconds for our chairs to get out [on the sideline],” Bowen said laughing. “We always say we’re going to put those guys on the clock like a pit crew team.”

He added, “I think for the most part they’ve done a great job of setting everything up.”

Having “fun” in the bubble

Fernandez has an apt comparison when trying to describe what staying in the bubble is like for a coach.

“It’s very similar to coaching with a national team, where you spend so many hours, so much time with the same people,” he explained. “You’re in a hotel [with the national team], where a lot of times, depending on the country, it’s not like you can go and walk around on your own because you’re not allowed to do it.”

While players and coaches are all making sacrifices, there are tons of amenities geared towards the players. The NBA has done an exemplary job of providing entertainment to the men who take the court. Although coaches aren’t necessarily prohibited from these activities, engaging with players in those areas would be akin to going out to a popular nightspot with parents or a boss. So coaches get creative in trying to find ways to enjoy themselves when there is time to do so.  

“In the bubble, where we are, there is a loop that is 1.6 miles, so I try to either run or walk to try to get five miles a day to stay healthy,” Fernandez explained.

Fernandez also said there are some solid tennis courts and golf courses to keep him and the rest of the coaching staff occupied. And then there are times when coaches find workarounds to enjoy areas designed for players.

“We don’t have the fancy players pool, but we’ve snuck over there a few times,” Bowen said with a laugh.

He added, “For the most part, [the time] that we’ve been here has gone really quickly,” Bowen said. “If we want to be entertained, there are a few things to do, but we all have work to do.”

While players will potentially be allowed to invite their families to Orlando after the first round of the playoffs, coaches, at the present moment, will not be allowed to do so. To a man, almost all coaches have publicly vented their frustrations about the policy, especially due to the high-pressure nature of their jobs. Family is often a sanctuary for the men and women who spend hours being consumed by the minute details that can alter the course of a game. That said, each coach understands what they’ve signed up for and have tried to make the most of a challenging situation.

“It’s the season, it’s your job,” Bowen said. “This is the plan in place, and this is what we have to do to finish this year.”

 “This bubble created here, it’s like the world the NBA designed to [help us] to able to do our jobs, entertain people and do it at a high level” Fernandez added. “You have to give the NBA a lot of credit.”