As the playoffs continue and the most mundane of storylines is examined like the Zapruder film, there has been one controversy that has repeatedly caught my eye. With the dysfunction swirling around the Golden State Warriors and their rapidly dwindling assistant coaching staff, I thought it was time to define what skills and qualities make for a good assistant coach.
This column is in no way a comment on either Darren Erman or Brian Scalabrine, as I do not know either coach. But the controversy got me thinking about the ideal qualities of an assistant coach, staff dynamics and what all goes into being a good NBA assistant.
Lakers coaching search
Lakers coaching search
Additionally, as I begun writing this missive, my phone began exploding with messages of Mike D'Antoni's resignation in Los Angeles. The general vitriol from Lakers fans and analysts alike has convinced me that the majority of folks have no idea what goes into coaching. Much of what you are about to read are things that I've learned from Mike, who will be back heading up a team before the ink is dry on my computer.
Most people would assume that an assistant coach is consumed with X's and O's and the technical minutiae of basketball. That is true for the most part, but that is not the most important attribute that an NBA assistant coach can bring to the table. Most of the coaches have the X's and O's down cold. Yes, some are better than others, but the most important qualities of an assistant coach are the ones that fall under the "softer" emotional intelligence categories.
This is a given with most coaching staffs, but it is often a tenuous relationship. Believe it or not, not all assistant coaches are hired by their head coaches. Front office politics and relationships often end up sticking together a staff that doesn't have any previous long-term personal ties or relationships. Add in the practice of powerful coaching agents trying to package different clients together and attempting to vertically integrate a staff, and the natural loyalty of longtime friends or associates is often missing.
Like the partners in a committed marriage, assistant coaches need to be both faithful and devoted to the head coach and the members of their team's coaching family. That type of loyalty is sometimes hard to come by.
Again, you would think this quality would be a no-brainer. The head coach has to be able to rely on the integrity and strength of character of the coaches working on his staff and be confident that the job will get done. A strong assistant needs to know the various issues and have a complete command of the team's subject matter. This will engender a level of trust with the head coach and others on the staff.
Be a 'Professional Suggester'
One of the best descriptions of the duties of an assistant coach I've ever heard is "professional suggester." The head coach wants your "eyes," but not your second-guessing. There are so many additional demands on the head coach -- media, corporate, community -- that there is never enough time for him to do everything. The ideal assistant coach needs to add value by helping to fill in the cracks for the head coach. You need to ask: "How can I find ways to add value for the head coach?"
You can continue to have strong opinions and ideas, but you have to realize that the head man makes the call. That is why you should always approach everything with facts and not just opinions. Back up your suggestions with video, stats, here is what we or others have done successfully, etc. The give-and-take of the coaching room leaves enough space for discussion and disagreement, but only to a point. Only one man gets to make decisions, and you best realize who that is early on.
Assistant coaches need to listen with their ears wide open. Listening truly is the most important thing in successfully communicating with both the staff and the players. Ideally, you need to show a high level of social intelligence, too. Everyone is different and you need to be able to pick up on a variety of verbal and nonverbal cues to know how best to communicate with your head coach.
In many situations, you often have to balance out the personality of the head coach. Is he easygoing? Then maybe you need to be a bit of a hardass. Does he get into people's faces? Then you need to be an empathetic listener who can be the voice of reason with the bruised feelings of players and staff.
Your communication with the players is just as important. Show the players that you know what you're talking about through your actions. You can't just wing it because the players will sniff out a fraud in no time. If you know your role and show confidence on the floor, that will go a long way in establishing your rapport with the majority of players.
Show up every single day and help the players get better. That is the absolute best communication possible.
Be available for the players, but always be direct with the players. Get places early and then stay late. Always try and do things for the right reasons, which in this case is to make the team and players better. You don't need to show off. Reach out to the guys who aren't getting minutes. Yes, this is the rampant cliché section of the column.
Another part of working hard is to also stay in the moment. Yes, that's very Zen-like, but it is surprisingly hard for some coaches. What does that mean? Try and be outstanding in the here and now. Many coaches are constantly looking down the road: to the next job, next potential promotion, the next organization, etc. You can become a much better coach if you stay in the moment and keep looking for "one small win" each day to build on what you're already doing with your present team and players.
So, in summary: be loyal, trustworthy, hard-working and communicate with everyone by being an active listener. Those qualities may seem ideal for a self-help infomercial (three easy payments of $39.99) or an old-school Frank Merriwell novel, but they also truly exemplify the best qualities of an NBA assistant coach.
The bottom line for a head coach assessing an assistant coach? "Do I want to spend time with this guy?"