Coaches are hired to be fired, or so goes the famous basketball adage.
When management wants to change the facade of a disappointing season, it’s usually through the sidelines, where all the coaches reside. The reasoning is rather simple: it all boils down to finances. Players, as a collective, are paid a hefty amount of money to win basketball games, or for the unluckier fanbases, the services they render. They’re paid so well that it requires a certain set of rules — the collective bargaining agreement — to regulate it.
Prior to the new CBA, the average player was paid somewhere around $6 million. That number figures to go up to 8 million this coming season. Popovich — widely considered as the LeBron James of NBA head coaches — is paid a mere $11 million, significantly less than double of what an “average” player makes. That’s usually without all the CBA shenanigans of guaranteed contracts, number of roster spots, and what not.
Consequently, it’s no surprise that head coaches are the butt of a lot of ridicule and jokes -- because often the front office thinks the same way too! But like most things in this world, it’s never really that simple. All too often truth is never reality (I know most Americans know this for a fact by now).
So, when Kumar, of Bourbon Street Shots, interviewed Assistant Coach Jamelle McMillan from the Pelicans, it offered a new and possibly eye-opening perspective on coaching for most fans.
I’m not one of those.
Full disclosure: I was part of a coaching staff for a big college university here in the Philippines. Think of Duke, North Carolina or any of big Division 1 colleges currently in embroiled in March Madness — I was part of that environment. The workload is certainly different (they prepare for 2 to 4 games a week over a stretch of 6 months while we prepared for 1 to 2 games for a 3 month stretch), but the approach is basically the same. This experience changed my perspective by 180 degrees on how to look at basketball in general, and I hope that podcast and maybe my two cents can help change yours as well.
There is a lot to unpack from that linked podcast — and you should seriously consider listening to it on the way to work in your car or during your commute, when you’re at work or just anything. I’ll break it down to two parts: I’ll talk about the workload of coaches and the mindset of coaches (both of which Coach Jamelle touched on but didn’t expound enough).
Coaches work incredibly hard and focus on the smallest of details
The first major point that should change your perspective is when Kumar asked about a typical day for Coach Jamelle:
10 o’ clock practice, I’ll start at 8:30 with Tim Frazier, followed by Solomon Hill and then Dante Cunningham and then Jrue Holiday. Those are mainly my guys, we’ll go for a 20 minute individual work out which is completely tailored to their specific opportunities.
Just as with most people in the working class, coaches do 8-hour workloads plus overtime. The Pelicans practice may start at 10, but most of the coaches come in much earlier to handle various affairs like pre-practice — which is different from the pre-practice prep for the team. The biggest takeaway should be that every practice usually starts with a film session. I’m sure most fans would say “oh yeah, for sure,” but for the most part that’s something they casually forget when they remarking about a coaches intelligence during a game.
During these film sessions, the coaches do not speak in basic terms as simple as “okay, we did a bad job here” or “we gotta do a better job here” — no. For the most part, they present a complete and detailed breakdown.
Offensively, they’ll focus on two things: the game before (what we did right, what we did bad and what we could do better) and then the game that is to come. What defensive sets do the other teams use? What call sign do they use? Who calls the sign? Then they’ll talk about something as minute as the tempo, timing and speed of a player as he comes off a dribble handoff/pitch.
For instance, imagine something along the lines of this being uttered: “Jrue, you gotta attack that ball screen harder, make sure those shoulders are square to ADs and come off it at this angle.” The angle, the posture and the timing of the screener — all of it are discussed and dissected.
Coaches will also spend time on spacing — even a half-foot off the mark (which most fans don’t notice in game) — and the men in suits will harp on it amongst themselves and perhaps with the players afterwards. They’ll focus on who inbounds the ball, how and when the players should receive the ball (seriously) and where to direct the ball as it crosses the half court (for the team I worked for, it was the sideline).
It’s a bunch of little things.
Heck, one time my coaches focused on how a player was dribbling across a screen. All those little things are talked about, pointed, re-played on a big screen, talked about and (sometimes) worked on during the first few minutes of a practice.
It’s the same for the defensive side. They’ll talk about the game before — the good, the bad, and the “what could we do better.” No detail is spared: what foot is forward when you close out on a shooter, what hand is up when you’re challenging, the angle at which you close, how you fight through a screen (if that was the plan).
They’ll move on to talk about the top X (some days it’s three, others five, on a long gap possibly even seven) actions that the other team likes to run and what sign they like to call it. For example, say the opponent likes to run a Horns position (one of the more common positions in basketball). The coaches will talk about whether they’re using a thumb and pinkie call for this (and who calls it, the coach or the point guard, or both) or a point and pinkie and whether it’s upside down or just straight up, to the left or to the right. If they don’t call it, what initial position do they take when they go on these specific sets (who is bringing the ball up the court is important). Then they’ll talk about the first option — where the first pass goes to, how do they like to cut, the timing and tempo of when the actions happen. Then they’ll move on to the second, and sometimes the third action.
Do this 3, 5 sometimes 7 more actions and you get the idea. After that, the coaches focus on particular players and their biggest tendencies on their most used actions. With how detail oriented Erman reportedly is, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn if some of the Pelicans staff spends more than half their film session on this facet.
After the film session, on-court drills follow. The team will work on the things they just talked about in the film session. If the coaches talked about the guards attacking the ball screen harder, they’ll do a 2v2 drill. If they wanted the guard to attack the ball screen harder, in hopes of opening up a shooter, they’ll do a 3v3 — or a 4v4. They sometimes even do 3v4 (the offense is at a disadvantage) just to up the pressure.
If the coaches talked in practice about stopping the initial action of a play, it’s the same thing. If the initial action is a pistol action (a 3-man early offense on the sideline), they’ll do a 3v3. If the defensive response to that concerns a fourth guy, they’ll do a 4v4, maybe a 5v4 (again with the defensive at a disadvantage) just to up the pressure.
And when I say 2v2 and 3v3, I’m not talking about 2 players vs 2 players. Often, this is 2 players vs 2 coaches. Yes, the coaches actually do sweat out during practice. Coach Gentry will probably be watching from the side (along with Erman) stopping, correcting and pointing out issues as they come. They’ll drill a call sign:
“ICE, ICE, ICE.”
“I GOT THIS. DROP LOW, DROP LOW.”
“SCREEN COMING, SCREEN COMING.”
Then they’ll do this for a certain amount of reps, hopefully until both Gentry and Erman are satisfied.
As you should surmise, the amount of work coaches have to put in on a typical day is staggering. They possibly spend 14+ hours of work every day, even on weekends. Those are split between on-court work (drills, reps and shootaround) and off-court work (scouting, video work, meetings). The Pelicans have eight coaches and it wouldn’t shock me the least bit if all of them are stretched thin. But they find a way to make it work, because they have to. The job demands it, and if they’re not up to the task, replacements everywhere lie in wait.
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “coaching is hard.” Some of the accompanying replies include “of course it is but they’re paid well for it,” yet often it seems too many fans tend to portray coaches as unprepared fools who bum around all day doing nothing. That during game action, they have no idea on how to adjust to an opponent’s strategy, or worse, don’t have an inkling on how to get the most of their team.
The coaching profession is a small group comprised of hardworking and detail-oriented people. You can’t be a coach and not be hardworking and detail-oriented, especially in a market as competitive as the NBA. Heed Jamelle McMillan’s wonderful insight because the New Orleans Pelicans have tried to make the season a success or the DeMarcus Cousins transition as smooth as possible. Sometimes, it’s just really hard to hit that home run.