What do assistant coaches do during games?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

A glimpse inside what all those men in suits on the bench are actually doing in the heat of the battle.

Who is sitting front row? Who is sitting second row?

No, this isn't an old Abbott and Costello routine. This week's bit of NBA terminology refers to the seating arrangements and game duties of the non-players sitting on an NBA bench. Other than the players, there are a whole bunch of folks, many in their finest Men's Wearhouse suits, sitting on or behind the team bench.

To start the New Year, let's meet the "front and second row."

The "front row" refers to the actual court side bench, which really isn't a bench anymore. (I'm shocked the NBA's marketing department hasn't gone the EPL route with the league-wide sponsorship and custom Recaro car seats for the team benches). The NBA rules stipulate that athletic trainer, head coach and no more than three assistant coaches can sit on the court-side bench.

More from Doug Eberhardt


The "second row" is set up directly behind the bench.  It is normally occupied by a fourth assistant or player development assistant(s), a video coordinator, sometimes an advance scout, members of the athletic performance staff, an assistant trainer and the team's security person. Plus, if you have a big superstar, he probably has his own individual security sitting second row, as well.

That's a lot of people.  What do they all do during the game? Their responsibilities vary depending on the franchise, but this has been my experience working for the teams I have.

The lead assistant coach or associate head coach normally sits between the athletic trainer and the head coach. He is the head coach's consigliere, Tom Hagen to Don Corleone. He may be a former head coach or a longtime assistant. He is usually given a great deal of latitude in terms of advice, suggestions and strategy. (Unless, it's how to deal with Sollozzo. Coach Sonny just wouldn't take any advice).

One of the first-row coaches would definitely have been responsible for the advance scouting report on that night's opponent. He would offer advice and suggestions based on that advance work. In some cases, he would make defensive calls if he knew the opponent's play-calling signals.

In every case, the assistant coaches are tracking data. Some teams leave this to their second-row assistants, but the majority of teams follow these general game charting responsibilities for assistants and other staff.

First row:

  • Offensive sets/actions (play calls, results, points per possession, etc.).
  • Defensive efficiency (the five W's: who, what, when, where and why... also how).
  • Defensive contests/non-contests and missed coverages.

The athletic trainer is responsible for tracking fouls and timeouts. This is the same pretty much throughout the association. More importantly, the trainer is also responsible for the coach's whiteboard. And non-marking pens. And eraser. And gum and other treats such as soda to accidentally "spill" at the opportune moment. Very important.

Second row:

  • Opposition offensive calls and times (for the next time the two teams play).
  • Play-by-play times for the video staff to cut up clips for both halftime and in-game instruction. The coaches usually want a couple of significant offensive and defensive possessions to use at the half, if necessary.
  • Defensive deflections.
  • Individual player notes and anecdotal observations.

All this tracking goes back to the 1970s. As teams added coaching staff, they were able to get more complex in their tracking of what was going on during the 48 minutes. Current broadcasting legend Hubie Brown was one of the first pro coaches to have his assistants chart extensively. Brown's Kentucky Colonels of the ABA tracked everything: play calls, out-of-bounds plays, fast-break and secondary shots, turnovers, deflections, etc. They also tracked the success of their many press defensive scheme. That's a little different than today's NBA.

Many of you may wonder why there's any need to chart anything on the bench, given the rise of advanced statistics and metrics. The reason? It gives the coaching staff some immediate feedback and also keeps staff focused on the small details. That, in turn, allows the head coach to look at the big picture with enough information without being overwhelmed with data.

So, that's the goal someday. Second row. Tracking deflections. And a shot at moving up the coaching food chain.

"ATO" of the Week

December 30, 2013: Heat 93, Nuggets 90, 53.6 left in fourth quarter. Denver ball.


After alternating Portland and Atlanta ATOs the first three weeks, it's time to move to the Mile High city for this New Year's edition. Although, the Hawks did have a wonderful overtime ATO this past week (thanks for the heads up @Joshua_Riddell). The Trailblazers also had an amazing ATO 3 by Nicolas Batum from the same setup we explored in Week 1.

Brian Shaw, new as a head coach, has not had a huge number of opportunities to draw up important after-timeout plays. (Although, he may have had a part in drawing up one of the most infamous ATOs of the last 15 years as an assistant with the Los Angeles Lakers: the sideline out of bounds play know as "WTF." We'll explore this famous Phil Jackson ATO at a later date).

In this week's ATO, Denver is down three points with 53.6 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. That's plenty of time to look for a quick two-point field goal and extend the clock as best as possible, but it's also enough time to look for a three if a quality shot presents itself. As always, a score of any kind helps ... just call me, Mr. Obvious.

Ultimately, Shaw draws up a delightful ATO which Denver executes to a tee. Not only do they score, but you can see the second and third options playing themselves out watching the video. Kudos, Nuggets.

Wilson Chandler takes the ball out of bounds in front of the scorers table. Miami covers the most dangerous man with its best defender, a fellow named LeBron James. Denver rounds out its setup with Darrell Arthur above the three-point line, Ty Lawson at the high post, J.J. Hickson on the low block and Randy Foye at the opposite high post. If I'm Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, I'm looking at this Nuggets configuration and thinking there will be a guard-on-guard screen, with Arthur then setting a down screen for Lawson.

Screenshot_2014-01-02_13

As the play begins, Lawson sets a down screen for Hickson. This is not the easiest assignment for the 195-pound Lawson, but he holds his ground. It is also important that Hickson cut on the ball side of the screen, forcing Mario Chalmers to stay on the top side of the screen and cut. Additionally, Chalmers has to be afraid that Lawson is going to cut back toward Hickson for a handoff and curl above the three-point line. This little thought will also keep him on the top side of Lawson.

Screenshot_2014-01-02_13

As Hickson pops up to just below the three-point line, Chandler hits Hickson with the inbounds pass. Over on the opposite side, Arthur is brushing off of a back screen from Foye.

Screenshot_2014-01-02_13

As Hickson squares to the hoop, Lawson adjusts his positioning from his down screen to move toward the sidelines.  Chandler does an excellent job of setting his cut and explodes off what is now a back screen by Lawson on LeBron.  Because Chalmers is positioned on the top side, he is unable to give 'Bron any help on Chandler's cut.

Screenshot_2014-01-02_13

And just to assure any possibility of help coming to stop Chandler is removed, Arthur has reversed his cut from the paint area and is moving quickly back up to set a flare screen for Foye on the opposite side. This forces Chris Bosh to pursue Arthur accordingly.

Screenshot_2014-01-02_13

Ultimately, Hickson hits the back-cutting Chandler with the pass and it's two-hand-dunk time for Ill Will. LeBron recovers too late and challenges the dunk, which actually looks a lot like a foul. (At least Chandler thought so).

Game, set ... but no match, as Miami goes on to win the game. There are flexible rules here at "ATO of the Week."

This is probably just the coaching geek in me, but the next couple of options on this ATO are just as well thought out as the original (and successful) score. What if Hickson had not hit Chandler with the backdoor pass? The next option would have been Foye sliding to the wing off of a flare screen from Arthur. DA was not only reversing his cut to take away Bosh as a help defender, but to set the screen for Foye. Hickson could have used this as option No. 2.

The third option or counter would have been Lawson. After setting the back screen on King James, he would have cut up off Hickson for a likely dribble handoff. A hard curl on the dribble and he would have had a second screen from Arthur into the paint or Foye continuing to slide off of the original flare screen.

Screenshot_2014-01-02_13

Obviously, we never got to see these options but they were there if Chandler's cut and dunk had not been open.

NBA ATO's. They're fantastic.

** If you have an ATO to suggest, please tweet or email me with #ebeATO

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