The coaching game

Gregg Popovich

Forget about all the blathering by the likes of Dick Vitale about what geniuses the two coaches are who happen to be directing the fortunes of the teams he happens to be working. Really, whatever the game, whoever the coaches, Vitale’s over-the-top positive platitudes are monkey-business as usual.

The truth, however, is that the worst NBA coach is better than the best of the college coaches. A careful observation of aimless zone offenses employed by the undergraduate teams is one easily discernible proof. So, too, the fact that the average NBA game plans include about five-times more offensive sets with around ten options each. Also, at least five-times as many defensive calls.

This means NBA coaches have to make more on-the-spot choices during games. And the shorter shot clock likewise means these decisions have to be made quicker and more often.


Not to mention the difference between coaching millionaires and obedient schoolboys.

In any event, there are several NBA coaches that I really respect, and a few that I do not.

Thumbs Up:

Kenny Atkinson (Brooklyn Nets) — I coached against him when he played for the Wichita Texans in the CBA, and his team reflects the way he played: Always hustling, unselfish, performing with great intelligence, and with everybody accepting their respective roles. Plus Atkinson is a modest, down-to-earth guy.

Rick Carlisle (Dallas Mavs) — Another guy I coached against in the CBA when he played for the Albany Patroons. Hard-nosed, expects intensity for 48 minutes, and will get in a player’s face if necessary — a trait that offends some of his young, selfish players. A no-bullshit coach who, like John Wesley Harding, never makes a foolish move.

Dwayne Casey (Detroit Pistons) — Low-key, astute, always has his teams prepared. 

Steve Kerr (Golden State Warriors). Learned from two of the greatest-ever NBA coaches — Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich. Has great in-game instincts. Knows how to relate to his players. Is also very politically aware. And another good-natured, all-around good dude.

Michael Malone (Denver Nuggets) — Eschews the unfortunately normalized NBA offenses that mostly feature isolations, screen/rolls, screen/fades, drive-and-dish, and the wholesale launching of treys. Instead, preaches the same kind of 5-man, constant off-the-ball movement as employed by Kerr.

Nate McMillan (Indiana Pacers) — Another tough, honest, demanding presence. Too much so for the average NBA man-child. But his expertise cannot be denied.

Nick Nurse (Toronto Raptors) — In addition to his being modest, personable, and knowledgeable, I must confess to having a personal connection.

Back in the summer of (I think) 2000, Nick was enrolled in a weekend Beyond Basketball course that was led by Phil Jackson and me, and convened at Bard College. At the time, Nick was coaching a low-level club team in London and made the trip to the US just to take the course. In the opening introductory go-round, he said this: “My dream is to someday coach in the NBA.” Some dreams do come true and, at this moment, Nick’s Raptors are in first-place in the Eastern Division.

Eric Spoelstra (Miami Heat) — Another no-nonsense coach who always inspires his players to play at their best.

Gregg Popovich (San Antonio Spurs) — Gruff, savvy, highly successful, Pop is willing to face down his best players in public if they played poorly. However, in private, he relates to his players in a much softer tone than he exhibits when a mic or a reporter are on hand.

Thumbs Down:

Mike D’Antoni (Houston Rockets) — Doesn’t know how to spell D-E-F-E-N-S-E. The infamous “7 Seconds to Shoot” philosophy he instituted in Phoenix is still in effect and has ruined the game. Much is made of James Harden’s phenomenal scoring (even if his output shrivels when matched against the 50.4 points per game Wilt Chamberlain averaged back in the 1961-62 season when teams were allowed to play hands-on defense), yet Houston is currently only the 5th seed in the Western Conference with a record of 28-20. 

David Fizdale (New York Knicks) — Known among NBA insiders as a “bullshitter deluxe.” Makes excuses for his routinely erratic substitution patterns. Only communicates with some of his players. 

Doc Rivers (Los Angeles Clippers) — Like Fiz, another coach who speaks with a forked tongue. ++

Author, professional basketball coach, columnist Charley Rosen, of Stone Ridge, has had two dozen books published, both fiction and non-fiction.