Structuring an NBA Coaching Staff
As the lockout continues, forward-thinking and opportunistic organizations will be wise to focus on internal processes. With coaches unable to communicate with players, their time would be best spent communicating about how to structure the staff in a more optimal and efficient way. By better defining roles and responsibilities, head coaches can make assistants feel more valuable. This inclusiveness and enhanced communication can have a tangible effect in the short-term (i.e., wins and losses) and the long-term (organizational pride).
There’s more to being on an NBA coaching staff than what happens in practice, the film room, and on the sideline at games. However, this article will look at the way an NBA coaching staff can be structured when dealing with these basketball-specific operations. This particular model is not the only one employed by successful NBA teams, though I think in today’s game role compartmentalization makes best use of the entire staff.
The Head Coach
The head coach’s job, as the face of the organization and the one who gets all the credit or the blame, must serve as the lead teacher and motivator. The head coach makes decisions, some good, some not, but stays forward-thinking. Good head coaches set high but accessible expectations for players and the other coaches, and work creatively with each person on the roster to bring out their best in whatever role they occupy. In this model of staff engineering, the head coach must be mindful of the whole picture, and avoid the trap of getting bogged down in details: they must see the forest through the trees.
The real key to success in this model is delegation; that is, the willingness of the head coach to empower his staff to take ownership of particular tasks, and to cede responsibility to them for that task. The ultimate decision making power must always remains with the head coach, so this does not mean handing the keys over to the assistants. But smart delegation prevents the head coach from running the show with an iron fist.
The model proposed here looks similar to that employed in the NFL, with a separate offensive and defensive coordinator. Instead of a special teams coach, basketball teams would do well to have one assistant primarily focused on opponent scouting. Any additional assistants beyond these three can have additional roles as needed, but this core group really comprises the central braintrust. For the purposes of this article, it is irrelevant which assistant is chosen as the #1 assistant – this designation is based more on the relationship between the head coach and his staff than on the coach’s actual responsibilities.
As an offensive coordinator, one assistant would have primary responsibility for teaching the team’s offensive approach and specifically offensive sets. In the preseason and throughout the year, his role would not only be to implement strategies, but also to keep it crisp and effective through constant repetition and maintenance.
By focusing at least 75% of his attention to the offensive end, this assistant will be able to hunt for opportunities to exploit the opponent in game. For example, a simple adjustment like having a screener look for chances to slip the screen and cut to the basket because a defense is overplaying would be an easy change to the default attack and may gain a few made baskets: a significant difference in a single game and multiplied over time, a huge difference in the course of a season.
In games, the offensive coordinator would take time to talk to players about their play when they return to the bench, talking about approaches and ways they can take better advantage of what the opponent allows. In addition, their conversations with the head coach would be suggestions for tweaks and adjustments in-game and between games. Their main concern is what an offense can do in that particular instant to get the most out of the situation: a focus on offensive detail.
The defensive coordinator would have many of the same responsibilities, but on the other end of the floor. They must bring a wealth of knowledge and experience: teaching great defense in the NBA is not easy, and over the course of an 82-game schedule, keeping it fresh is even more difficult. Their focus must be on effort and consistent execution of principles and strategies that fit the head coach’s overall vision for success.
In games, strong defensive-minded assistants must constantly look for ways to exploit their opponent’s approaches. If a defense is having trouble in transition, constantly getting beat by quick outlets and fast breaks, an adjustment might have very little to do with getting back, and more to do with jamming the rebounders and preventing easy outlet passes. These kinds of issues are more easily detected and resolved when a coach is spending most of his energy on ways to maximize defensive effectiveness.
The “special teams” coordinator has one major responsibility: opponent scouting. If an organization is unwilling to commit to a separate player development staff (which should be standard for any franchise truly committed to long-term success), this assistant may take on the additional role of player development coach. However, the real value of this position comes from the coach’s intimate familiarity with each opponent. They must know every team they play against better than they know their own, and then they must have the ability to teach their opponent’s tendencies to their own team’s in quick and simple ways that fit into the brief time allotted between games.
Different head coaches want their scouting to focus on different things. My desire is for the scout to focus on potential matchups, meaning opposing player strengths and weaknesses and tendencies. How often an opposing scorer attacks from a particular position on the floor in one direction or the other is the first level of detail. The next is how often that attack results in a pull-up jumper or drive to the rim. Then knowing their success rates is important, and finally being able to catalog and categorize how other opponents have succeeded or failed in making that player uncomfortable is a part of the job as well.
Other staffs will have their scouts focus on specific sets, approaches, and strategies of their opponents. Knowing call signals and developing a better-than-working knowledge of how an opposing team will attack offensively and defensively is the focus for these coaches. They must prepare the team to simulate their opponent as closely as possible in short order – not an easy task with games to play in rapid succession and often no more than a shootaround to prepare.
In a game, this assistant must be an encyclopedia of special situation knowledge, especially focusing on end-of-clock settings. This may include knowing how a team responds when they have the ball at the end of the shot clock, quarter, or game, and how they are likely to defend in those situations when his own team as the ball. You know when the coaches huddle before going to the bench during big timeouts? This assistant would be the one informing the head coach of how best to approach the situation.
This compartmentalization of a coaching staff allows a team to focus both on the broad picture and on the nitty-gritty details. Assistant coaches would acquire skills on both sides of the ball as they moved through the staff, changing roles from season to season, giving them a better all-around education as they prepared to ascend to the head coaching seat. It would also give the head coach latitude to employ his philosophy more generally without getting bogged down by too many details. A head coach’s central role now becomes relating to his players and finding new ways to motivate them to play better and better. By using the time now to discuss and establish these roles and responsibilities, a committed franchise can make internal improvements that have a positive impact for years to come.
Have questions for Coach Macri? Be sure and drop by HOOPSWORLD on Mondays at 3PM Eastern for the Coach’s weekly basketball chat! You can also follow Coach Macri on Twitter @CoachMacri.
Each week, HOOPSWORLD NBA analyst and coach Anthony Macri will open his notebook and offer an assortment of observations on games, players, and teams from throughout the league. Coach Macri serves as a player development consultant for the Pro Training Center and Coach David Thorpe, working with a variety of NBA players on their skills and game understanding. The Coach’s Notebook appears on HOOPSWORLD every Thursday.