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Former Bad Boys assistant shows no two coaching stories are the same

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Former Pistons’ assistant Brendan Suhr offered insights through Coaching University at Las Vegas Summer League.

NBA: Summer League-Philadelphia 76ers at San Antonio Spurs Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

In the 110 degree Nevada desert, the Summer League showed off the NBA’s shiny new prized possessions that were drafted only weeks ago. The national focus was squarely on the rookies and rightfully so as it was their much anticipated introduction to the league.

But the players weren’t the only ones looking to sharpen their craft.

Coaches from levels of high school, international, and the NCAA also gathered in Las Vegas to share war stories and listen to top NBA coaches discuss their philosophies and strategies.

The clinic took place on a court just off the strip at Impact Basketball, which, if you’re a top flight talent, you’ve trained there and are well versed with what Impact has to offer.

Coaches spoke on-court and a flown-in collegiate team was used for demonstration purposes.

Leading the think-tank was former former Detroit Pistons’ assistant coach Brendan Suhr who started his coaching career at the ripe age of 21 and continues to this day. Suhr, now 66, MC’d the two-day event introducing each guest speaker and often times dished up anecdotes from his Pistons’ days.

Suhr’s painted pictures weren’t random, though, each one had a clear point as it related to coaching.

On the rare times the ultra competitive Isiah Thomas needed a mid-game kick-in-the-butt, Suhr would calmly call Thomas over to the sideline and remind Zeke that Vinnie Johnson was just itching to log more minutes. If Thomas didn’t get his act together, Johnson was checking in and with his microwave reputation, he might not ever come back out.

That’s all Thomas needed to hear.

There was no yelling, screaming, or anything that could be caught by eagle-eyed cameras or overheard by thirsty journalists. The message was distinct and most importantly, delivered quietly which was an example of Suhr’s ‘shout praise and whisper criticism’ belief that he adopted since he first started coaching over 40 years ago.

After being introduced by Suhr, each speaker had a similar speech pattern of a short autobiography, how they obtained their basketball theories, specific Xs and Os and finally a Q&A from the attendees.

All speakers shared one common ambition: take players where they can’t take themselves.

Below are the stories of David Fizdale, Jerry Stackhouse, and Brett Brown and proves there is no singular path to success at the professional level and there is no one size fits all when it comes to coaching.

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David Fizdale was part of the Miami Heat organization from 2008 until he accepted the head coaching job in Memphis in 2016. While in Miami, he gained two significant allies to help him in his own coaching journey: Erik Spolstra and the legendary Pat Riley.

As an assistant in Miami, Fizdale was eager to to run his own team but knew not to plunge at the first opportunity to became available. Instead, the ‘right’ job had to open before Fizdale would consider leaving such a strong Miami franchise.

In Riley, Fizdale had one of the most influential voices in the league on his side. One call from Riley would go a long way in landing any head coaching job. Again though, it was important to Fizdale not to waste a Riley bullet on a job that wasn’t the right fit.

When the Memphis opening came to light in the summer of 2016, Fizdale and Spolstra hopped in the film room to explore the Grizzlies’ roster and play.

Memphis’ Grit and Grind culture was a fan favorite and more importantly, it worked; could Fizdale’s Miami background of pace-and-space mesh with such an old school built roster?

The more Spo and Fiz honed in on game film the more they felt comfortable with the favorable idea that Memphis was the right spot. Once they were sure, Fizdale pursued the opening.

Once Fiz was welcomed to the position he wasted no time in getting everyone on the same page. Fully transitioning Miami’s up-and-down playbook with Memphis’ bulky and somewhat aged roster simply wouldn’t work, so Fizdale joined the two to create a pace(yourself)-and-space offense.

Fizdale fully believes in being blunt with players and didn’t dance around the topic of Zach Randolph coming off the bench. Tip-toeing around difficult subjects is the fastest way to lose credibility in the eyes of players like Randolph. If you got something to say, say it. Knowing this, he was upfront with ZBo but noted that all present day players want to know the ‘why?’

Gone are the days that players did exactly what was asked without questioning the choice and as a coach, you can either adapt or die. How you relay your message is just as important as the message itself.

Once Fiz explained to the established vet that he wanted Mike Conley to score more and needed Randolph to come off the bench to create a scoring threat on the second unit. Of course, that’s the G-rated and paraphrased version but ZBo bought in.

Next up was Marc Gasol.

Gasol came into last season with 12 three pointers made in his eight year career.

“Marc, how do you feel about shooting four three pointers a game?” asked Fizdale.

Again, the justification of the ‘why’ is critical to all players. Conley needs space to attack and even though Randolph is coming off the bench, he would still share time with Gasol and for it work, the redundancy of the bigs’ skill set had to change.

Gasol shot 268 three pointers last year making 104. Fizdale successfully sold his vision.

Finally, it was time to make sure Mike Conley was in stride with the coaching staff. Conley spent his career making everyone else around him happy playing the role of a true point guard. Those who mistook his quiet demeanor never made the same mistake twice as he’s viewed as one of the best lead-guards in the league. Fizdale, though, was asking Conley to tweak his game to score more.

Conley has all the means to score but had never been the scoring focal point of a professional offense. Fiz knew something was missing in order for Conley to fully flourish.

To add a bit more nastiness to Conley’s game, Fizdale added Nick Van Exel to his coaching staff. Van Exel was never short on confidence during his 13 year career and surely Conley was not lacking in that department but Van Exel helped to push to the right buttons to ensure an aggressive Conley showed up night in and night out.

Mike Conley went on to average a career high 20.5 points per game during the 2016-17 season including nearly 25 per game during the postseason.

The Grizzlies’ new pace(yourself)-and-space identity was new to both player and coach and instead of teaching the system, Fizdale let the system teach him. After watching game film, he used what worked in the game during Memphis’ practices.

Often times bigs Gasol or Randolph were the last to cross the timeline heading back to the offensive end after securing a defensive rebound. This lead to Memphis using a lot of drag screens (or even double drag screens including both) with either trailing big. Conley would use the screens to create for himself or a high-low game would ensue between a now three point shooting Gasol and/or a rolling Randolph.

Because of newly found success using double drag screens, Fizdale incorporated a three man drill in practice to explore every single option the set opened up.

Ground-breaking idea? No. Smart and efficient? Absolutely.

Fizdale isn’t a fan of stopping live scrimmages or drills in practice, something he took with him from his days in Miami. Instead, should something go wrong, he wants his team to figure it out on their own without relying on the sidelined Fiz to bail them out. In other words: learn to play under chaotic conditions.

The best example of this method paying off was Ray Allen’s miracle game-tying three pointer in game six of the 2013 NBA Finals. Fizdale chuckled to himself admitting the Heat “were lucky as shit” to see that ball go in the hoop. Luck, however, is best described as preparation meeting opportunity. When the opportunity arose, the Heat were overly prepared.

If you already know everything there is to know about the game of basketball, don’t expect to make friends with Fiz, he’s got no time for know-it-alls. Like all good coaches, he’s on a mission to never stop learning and is dedicated to transferring that knowledge to his players. Should a player with NBA talent fail to reach his ceiling, Fizdale believes the majority of the blame falls on the shoulders on the coaching staff.

Don’t hold your breath on any of Fizdale’s players not meeting their potential.

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Jerry Stackhouse wants to be a head coach in the NBA. That’s the immediate goal. It wasn’t always that way, though.

After Stackhouse’s playing career winded down he had more time to attend his son’s basketball games. In doing so, he found himself puzzled at the way his son’s AAU team was being handled. To Stack, it seemed as if they just rolled the ball out there and said good luck.

Stackhouse took matters into his own hands and stepped into the head coaching seat. This is where Stack fell in love with the art of coaching and also where he started logging reps - decision making reps to be exact.

Coaching is just like anything else in life as the more you do it the more comfortable it becomes. There is stigma in and around coaching circles that good to great players make poor coaches. The game seemingly came effortlessly to the greats and historically they had a hard time relating to players not on their level. Stackhouse’s resume certainly qualifies as good if not great. While seventh grade boys AAU is far from the end goal, logging the decision making reps and trying to relate to kids is a fantastic starting point.

In 2015, Stackhouse joined the Toronto Raptors as an assistant and now coaches their G-League affiliate team Raptors 905.

Stack’s coaching defensive game plan was simple: create schemes that he - as a player - hated playing against. Create walls at the basket, keep the ball out of the middle at all costs and force players to beat them with their weak hand. A Stackhouse team will always force isolation and pick-and-roll action to the ball handler’s weak hand with few exceptions for any singular player.

Experience has taught Stackhouse to stick to his core coaching principles and live with the results.

In the 2017 D(G)-League Finals - Stackhouse’s first season as head coach - his Raptors 905 team dropped the first game of a best-of-three to the RGV Vipers due to last minute changing of game plans that would cater to stopping individual Vipers’ players.

The result was a 119-106 loss.

Both Stack and his staff realized the costly mistake and swung back to what had got them there in the first place. The Vipers averaged 120 points per game during the season and in games two and three, each won by Raptors 905 by double digits, the Vipers mustered up a mere 85 and 96 points, respectively.

Offensively, his designs are a mixture of all his former coaches including Dean Smith, Rick Carlisle, Doug Collins and Avery Johnson.

An admitted hard-head, Stackhouse laughed about how he use to butt heads with Carlisle but now as a coach himself, admits he was in the wrong (most of the time).

Echoing Fizdale’s approach, he appreciated when coaches met tough decisions head on instead of trying to please everyone. He was a successful starter in the league throughout his career before heading to Dallas in 2004 where he asked to come off the bench.

Stackhouse didn’t buy it at first.

“Who’s in front of me? I’ll bust their ass”.

Dallas needed Stack to come off the bench no matter whose ass he could still bust and it was up to the Mavericks’ staff to convince Stackhouse this was the right move.

It was.

Not only did it end up helping Dallas but it gave Stackhouse a chance to reinvent himself which added years (and paychecks) to his career. Doing so also gave the competitive Stack the chance to get every basketball itch out of his system and to go out the way he wanted to.

An important item each speaker declared was the importance of player development. With his Raptors 905 team, on non-game days (except Sundays, they’re always an off day) Stackhouse has his team come in at 8 a.m. for a 90 minute specialized practice concentrating on individual development and strength work. After, it’s a quick meal and maybe a nap with the team reporting back at 1 p.m. for a team practice which is typically focusing on game enhancement.

With his goal of becoming a NBA head coach, he smirked mentioning, it’s probably not in the cards to get NBA players to report at 8 a.m. But he’ll cross that bridge when he has to. A bridge, though, that may be closer than most people realize.

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How does one acquire a Bos-tralian accent? Well...

Brett Brown grew up in the New England era and graduated from Boston University playing under Rick Pitino. After graduation he served as a graduate assistant under John Kuester at Boston U.

That’s when things got interesting.

Brown would spend the next 17 years coaching in Australia even spending time as their national coach in an assistant role. It was his home for over half of each year as he was married in Australia and two of this three children were born there.

So yeah, his accent game is thick and strong.

(Quags - he had nothing but decent things to say about Australia)

He always kept a distant eye on the NBA back home but the experience in the Outback offered something the NBA couldn’t: it gave Brown an understanding of how the world viewed basketball.

The San Antonio Spurs brought Brown in to be the Director of Player Development - a position only few NBA teams had at the time - in 2002 and Brown was taught the NBA game by Gregg Popovich, not a bad gig.

Linking his universal basketball education from Australia with sophisticated Spurs schooling, Brett Brown decided to trust the process and accepted the head coaching job of the Philadelphia 76ers in 2013. After four years of utterly bad basketball, the City of Brotherly Love is full of hoops excitement again.

Unlike most of the speakers Brown decided to take a different approach to convey his message. For roughly an hour, Brown hosted a Q&A session for those in attendance which was equal parts ballsy and unique while his answers were equal parts confident and passionate.

Questions came from all angles:

What would a blind person hear at your practices?
Down by three, ball on the sideline, only three seconds remaining, what play are you running?
What’s it like to coach such a young team? How do you keep a positive environment?

Brown’s responses were pinpoint but sincere, the enthusiasm was infectious. His mic stopped working a third of the way through but you could hardly notice as he did what any good coach would do, he yelled (which highly emphasized the Bos-trailian accent).

Brown animatedly mentioned his time with the Spurs on multiple occasions and compared them to the New England Patriots which led an explanation of his personnel.

He’s set up his coaching staff like a football team. There is an offensive and defensive coordinator, position-specific coaches along with a special teams core to take of everything in-between. The delegation of such important decisions was something he took from his Spurs’ tenure noting that while Popovich was the end all he wasn’t the be all of their organization. Pop’s open mindedness led the Spurs to evolve and grow in an ever-changing NBA.

So what would a blind person hear at one his practices?

Exactly what they should hear. Offensive coaches barking out offensive instructions and likewise down the line with the objective of being the best at what your best at.

Brown uses the acronym W.M.I to balance out his days and to make prime use of his precious coaching time. What’s Most Important to Brown?

  1. Relationships
  2. Development
  3. Becoming a better leader

If what your offering doesn’t fit into one of those categories there is a good chance Brown doesn’t have time for it.

It’s not easy being a perpetual loser in the city of Philadelphia and the 76ers have owned a revolving door of players but one thing remains constant: Brown’s dedication to the development of his players. It doesn’t matter if you’re Joel Embiid or the the last guy on the roster, Brett Brown is committed to producing better basketball players. Following a common theme, he believes the lack of player development is an organizational issue.

Put in a no-win situation as 76ers head coach, Brett Brown has sadistically enjoyed the journey, a process in which he fully trusts.

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The amount of high level basketball discussed over the course of two days was unparalleled to anything I’ve witnessed or been a part of. Those are just three stories and I could easily produce a couple thousand more words from the other speakers and I didn’t even tap into the Xs and Os or leadership traits that were tossed around.

It was humbling to say the least but at the same time encouraging. It didn’t matter if you were a third grade girls or a D1 NCAA coach, if you were there to learn about basketball, you were in the right spot. As someone who talks constantly about hoops and tries to crowbar basketball into any situation or conversation, I now realize that I don’t know shit about the game but there are endless avenues to pursue information.

I’m not saying coaches or organizations shouldn’t be second guessed but if caller Bob from Madison Heights thinks he has the answer to the Pistons’ problems and lets the local radio station in on the secret, believe me, these coaches have already thought of it.