Stephen Silas, the associate head coach of the Charlotte Hornets, is the ultimate NBA lifer. He was literally born into the league in Boston, where his father Paul, a former NBA star and coach who spent more than 40 years in the league, was helping the Celtics win a pair of championships. Stephen can remember toddling around the Kingdome while his dad completed his playing career for the Sonics under Lenny Wilkens.
While born to a great player, Stephen has always considered himself the son of a coach. More than that, he wanted to be around his dad as much as possible, so he grew up going to practices in San Diego when Paul coached Donald Sterling’s Clippers. Later, he was a ballboy for the Knicks while his father was an assistant under Pat Riley.
Young Silas played games of HORSE on the Garden floor with Patrick Ewing’s son (little Patrick) and mopped sweat while Big Patrick was shooting free throws. He also learned an essential lesson in those years.
“Being on the sideline I knew I had to be quiet when Pat Riley was coaching,” Silas says. “Be seen and not heard was how I grew up.”
That may as well be the essential credo of assistant coaches everywhere. Do your work, stay on top of things, and keep out of the spotlight. Some teams go so far as to keep their assistants completely off limits. The Hornets are not one of them.
They’ve granted me access to Stephen while the team prepares for a mid-November game against the Celtics. I’ll be with him from shootaround through pregame and postgame, with a film session sandwiched in the middle, to document the largely opaque daily world of an NBA assistant coach.
His boss, Hornets head coach Steve Clifford, shrugged when I thanked him for agreeing to the project. He knows what it’s like to toil in anonymity. Silas, frankly, doesn’t need the extra publicity. He has interviewed for the head jobs in Charlotte and Houston and annually shows up on lists of up-and-coming coaching candidates.
If Silas is unknown to the general public, he’s practically family within the larger NBA ecosystem. He worked with the retired players’ association after graduating from Brown with a double major in sociology and management. Later, he cut his teeth as an advance scout working both the college and the pro circuit, where he first met Clifford almost 20 years ago.
When a job opened up on his father’s staff in 2000 with the Charlotte Hornets, friends suggested he hire his son. Paul wasn’t sure. Neither was Stephen, for that matter. Enough people convinced them it would be a good idea and Stephen had his first coaching job at the age of 27, then the youngest assistant in the league.
“To be Paul Silas’ son in the world of basketball wasn’t necessarily something I wanted to do right away, but it was a way in,” Stephen says. “Being my dad’s son has always been great. That’s one thing I’ve just had to deal with.”
Father and son stayed together through stops in both Charlotte and Cleveland. Stephen later worked with the Warriors under Don Nelson before returning to Charlotte in 2010, where he’s been ever since.
After almost two decades on the sidelines, the 44-year-old Stephen has outgrown his father’s shadow. His fellow coaches find him to be thorough and meticulous. Players respond enthusiastically to his even-keeled, yet demanding, approach.
“He’s always been around the game,” says Hornets forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who has worked with Silas since his rookie season. “He knows it inside and out. He coached my cousin in Cleveland, Dajuan Wagner. It’s like damn, feel me? He’s old, but he don’t look old.”
In a league that is trending toward more and more toward specialization, Silas’ coaching profile is broader and more diverse. He’s done offense with Nelson and defense with Clifford, two of the game’s great tacticians. He’s worked individually with guards, big men, and wings. He’s coached summer league.
“There isn’t much in the NBA that I haven’t done,” Silas says.
There also isn’t anyone he doesn’t know. As we chat following a practice session at Emerson College, Silas nods toward an Emerson coach. “That’s my guy,” he says. “We met at Dave Cowens’ camp.”
9:30 a.m. Shootaround
There’s something about the cold quiet of the morning shootaround that says it’s time to go to work. There are no frills to be had in this environment, least of all heat. The players and coaches arrive on buses in their workout gear, while the support staff stocks their locker room with uniforms and equipment.
After watching film, the Hornets hit the court at 10 a.m. for a 50-minute walkthrough, which, like all NBA walkthroughs, is closed to the media. There’s 25 minutes of offense and 25 minutes of defense. Everything is planned in advance.
“When I first started, shootaround would be literally, shoot around,” Silas says. “You go and play some shooting games, maybe walk through four plays. And that’s it. Everybody get on the bus and go.”
Things change. Under Clifford, the Hornets are known for preparation and attention to detail. Before they get to the Garden, the coaches will have gone through a thorough scouting report that was compiled by one of the assistants.
“Cliff is so detailed,” Silas says. “He’s got it down. If we have an opinion, we’ll give it to him. As the years have gone on he’s leaned on us a little more.”
When Clifford got the Hornets job four-and-a-half years ago, he didn’t even bother to interview Silas. He simply asked him if he’d like to stay on staff. As the number two man, Silas runs practices on occasion and takes the lead in game-planning. During games, he’s responsible for substitutions.
“He can do everything,” Clifford tells me. “It’s healthy for the team to not have to listen to the same voice 82 times. I have so much trust and he’s so thorough and knowledgeable in what he does that I’m never worried. The preparation is going to be as good or better.”
That’s in addition to his other duties, which include working individually with the wing players. If Silas has a speciality, it’s player development — Clifford was immediately drawn to how Silas interacts with players.
A special education major in college, Clifford notes something a former professor had told him about teaching: “If you gain the right type of communication with your group they will try hard to meet your expectations,” Clifford says. “That’s what he’s very good at. He has a way to gain their respect and establish the right kind of credibility so they know he can help them. There’s nothing more important than that.”
Silas is perhaps best known by hardcore NBA aficionados for his work with a young Steph Curry. He taught Steph his two-basketball dribbling routine and he gets a chuckle when fans come to the arena early to watch Curry’s pregame workout. Their relationship has deep roots.
Silas had known Steph since he was a kid growing up in Charlotte. His niece and nephew went to the same school and Paul Silas had coached Dell Curry with the Hornets. They were both sons of former players and hit it off immediately. Curry would come over on off days and watch games or eat dinner. They’d go to church together or go to the gym and get up shots.
“He’s like the perfect student,” Silas says. “He listens all the time, asks great questions, challenges you a little. You can tell him something and he’ll get better right after you tell him. He stretches you, which was good for me as a coach.”
After the walkthrough is completed, everyone heads back to the bus for the short ride back to the hotel. Now it’s time to think about a future opponent, the Cleveland Cavaliers.
12:30 p.m. Film work
Still in his sweats from shootaround, Silas has a tablet setup on a stand next to his MacBook, where he’s watching film of Cleveland’s game against Houston. We’re in a suite on top floor of the Ritz, where the team is staying. Being the number two man has its perks.
Like most teams, the Hornets divide the scouting work, with each assistant taking 20 games. Silas has the lead for the Cavs, which consists of watching five games worth of film and compiling his notes into the scouting report that goes to Clifford. He’ll then go over the report with the head coach before they present it to the group.
In his early days, Silas would travel with a plastic bag full of VHS tapes. He once spent a lonely Saturday night in a Los Angeles Walmart looking for two VCRs so he could make his edit on the road. Now the team has its own software for watching film.
As with everything, there is a routine. Silas likes to watch two games back-to-back, which helps him recognize patterns. He never watches live so he can skip past commercials and free throws. He keeps the sound on because he can occasionally pick up a tidbit or two based on what they’re talking about on the broadcast.
Once he has his five games he’ll compile the scouting report, which sounds a lot cooler than it actually looks. The report is only a few pages long, but it’s crammed with offensive and defensive keys, matchups, and individual play sets. Silas and the other assistants draw the sets in black ink and make notes in red because Clifford prefers it to computer generated diagrams.
“Our game plans are pretty substantial,” Silas says.
Before he even gets to the video, Silas will have received an email from the team’s advance scout, Drew Perry, who sees each team live at least twice. Perry tracks all the play calls and forwards them to the team’s video department.
The video team then syncs them with the film so they appear on the bottom of the screen. They also catalogue them for the scouting report software they use where Silas makes his notes on the tablet. After watching games all the way through, he can jump back and forth between specific sets, individual personnel, or outcomes.
Perry will also send along a playbook consisting of diagrams as well as his own notes. Silas flips through the diagrams that run on for several pages detailing how the Cavaliers try to score: early offense, secondary offense, post-ups, corner, high posts, Hawk cuts, UCLA cuts, zippers, catch and shoot, loop action and spread, Princeton, dribble hand-off, step ups, horns, middle pick-and-roll, side pick-and-roll, side out of bounds, deep corner out of bounds, baseline out of bounds, ATOs, and crunch time plays.
It’s literally everything you could ever want to know about how the Cavs run their offense in every conceivable situation. Even for someone who consumes a ton of NBA basketball, the diagrams look like hieroglyphics. For coaches, they’re an unspoken method of communication.
“Drew is unbelievable,” Silas says. “He’ll do seven different options on double drag, which is just two picks in transition. It’s a little bit of overkill, but it’s better to have more than less.”
Advance scouts are the true information brokers in this league. They see everything from play calls to player reactions on the bench and in the huddle. Silas learned the art of scouting from his days doing advance work and it was an invaluable apprenticeship. He used to diagram everything. Now, he instantly recognizes actions and traces them back to the root.
“Slice 4 Pop,” he says as the Cavs run through a set. “A Kevin Love play. This is actually a play they used to run for Amar’e Stoudemire in Phoenix where the small will pin down on Kevin Love coming up to the top.”
On the screen, all of this happens in a few seconds. A guard runs toward the baseline to set a screen on Love’s defender that will allow Love to catch the ball about 18 feet from the basket near the top of the key. Within that set are variations, and within those variations are options if the play breaks down. Silas can diagnose all that in less than the time it takes to watch the full clip.
On defense, he’s looking for coverage patterns. Do they shoot the gap on a stagger screen or lock-and-trail? Do they get up in the passing lanes and deny everything or lay back and pack the paint? Always, he is looking for tendencies in pick-and-roll coverage. “That’s the nitty gritty of offense,” he says. “Try to get two guys to the ball.”
Despite all those tactical adjustments, there is a fairly consistent collection of sets and calls from team to team. The difference is philosophy, as well as personnel. Right on cue, as the Cavs bring the ball up in transition, LeBron James waits a half-beat and then hits a trailing Love for an open three at the top of the arc.
“Those transition threes,” Silas says, shaking his head. They will be an adjustment for Dwight Howard, a traditional center in a world that emphasizes speed and shooting.
“Dwight is programmed to run back to the rim,” Silas says. “But with the game changing and more spacing [for centers], he has to be conscious of staying up. So when I do my writeup it will talk about all those aspects. Kevin Love running into that trail three.”
When his film work is done, Silas will have a few hours to himself before heading back to the arena.
5 p.m. Arrive at the Garden
Before every road game Silas will catch a ride with forwards Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Treveon Graham 30 minutes before the first bus leaves from the hotel. Guards Jeremy Lamb and Malik Monk will arrive around the same time, and the next part of the workday will commence.
They are his guys and they run the gamut of experience levels and roles. They all need something different from their coach. Silas is responsible for them and takes ownership over good plays and bad ones. The bad ones linger. Maybe he could have found another clip or talked through a coverage one more time.
“You’re always thinking about your guys,” Silas says. “Every guy is completely different. You can’t approach it the same way. Some guys are better learners on the floor. Some guys need 20 clips, they want to see everything. Some guys want 10 of their good and 10 of their bad.”
Each player gets his own individual time with Silas for a pregame shooting routine and going through more film on the bench on a laptop. The order is set and never deviates.
Graham is up first. The 24-year-old from Virginia Commonwealth caught on as an undrafted free agent last season after a year in the D-League. Graham earned a role off the bench in the absence of Nicolas Batum, but he’s out with a thigh contusion. Coach and player sit on the bench and talk.
“For him, it’s, ‘Are you good? Is there anything you need a little more work on?”’ Silas says. “If it’s a veteran that’s not playing much they’re completely different than a young guy who’s not playing much. They have to know you have their best interests at heart and you understand what they’re going through. If a guy’s not playing much you can’t hammer them all the time because they’re going to hate coming to work every day.”
Kidd-Gilchrist, a low-maintenance defensive stalwart, takes the court next. He always gets exactly what he needs. No more. No less. Before a game against the Rockets, Silas sent him a clip defending James Harden. The next day Silas asked if he got the text and MKG nodded. Silas laughs. “I can’t get a thumbs up, or an OK, or a black fist or something?”
That’s MKG: quiet and dependable. They’ve been together for six years and their connection grows deeper every season. “He’s more than a coach, man,” MKG tells me after finishing his pregame routine. “He’s a friend. He’s a mentor.”
Lamb, a thrice-traded former lottery pick from Connecticut who is off to the best start of his career, is up next. His emergence as a starter in place of Batum has been one of the team’s positive developments. It’s early in the season, but Lamb appears to finally be achieving a breakthrough six years into his career. Then again, it’s not that early. He and Silas spent much of the summer working out in Charlotte.
“It was real this summer,” Silas says. “That’s a win. A good summer is a win and now he’s had 11 really good games. He’s super confident, he works, and is very conscientious.”
Lamb always has to get shots up after practices and shootarounds. They hit the same areas of the floor day in and day out. Devising a routine and sticking with it has been an important part of his development. And he’s always asking for clips. Silas makes it a point to mix in positive plays so Lamb can leave the session feeling good about himself.
“When you do have a coach who cares about you and really likes to develop players and make people better that’s huge,” Lamb tells me. “You don’t always find that in the NBA. People always talk about how hard players work and stuff like that. At the end of the day, they never get a day off. He’s always texting me, ‘What time do you want to go tomorrow?’ Even when I’m late, he’s there. It’s great having a coach that believes in you but also pushes you.”
Because he is a rookie, Monk gets the final pick and winds up with the last shooting slot right as the arena countdown clock gets to 90 minutes. “He got the best time,” Silas says with a bemused look. “Go figure.” Silas has to bring Monk up to speed quickly but not overload with him with too much information. It’s a delicate balance.
“This is completely different than anything he’s ever seen before,” Silas says. “It has to be enough but not so much that they don’t tune you out, which I would have done when I was 19 and someone was showing 20 clips of pick-and-roll protection.”
Monk, who is already getting important rotation minutes, is full of boundless energy and enthusiasm. On our way off the court for a quick interview, he stops to sign an autograph and winds up signing for every person in the section. This is still new and fresh and he’s eager to please. I ask Monk if Silas ever loses patience with him.
“Never. Never. Never. He doesn’t get mad,” Monk says. “You make a mistake, he’s going to tell you and you learn from it. In the tone that he talks. No get mad, no get frustrated, nothing like that. Coach Clifford is the one that gets mad.”
After their workouts, there’s still more time for film and final prep. The crowd is starting to arrive and the Garden is coming to life.
Gametime 7:30 p.m.
The gameplan has been well established since early this morning. On offense, they want to run multiple actions to try and gain an advantage against the Celtics’ switching defense. Any possession that ends with one pass or or one screen is probably not a good possession. On defense, they want to keep the Celtics’ new star point guard Kyrie Irving out of the paint and off the three-point line.
The Hornets catch a break when it’s announced that Al Horford won’t play because he’s recovering from a concussion. That solves one issue since Horford is a mobile big man who takes opposing big men out to the perimeter, and the Hornets prefer to pack the paint. His replacement, Aron Baynes, also isn’t as likely to switch on pick-and-rolls. They catch another break when Irving crashes into Baynes and suffers a facial fracture less than two minutes into the game.
The first half goes according to plan. The Hornets limit transition and dare the C’s to beat them from the outside. The offense runs through multiple sequences and keeps turnovers to a minimum. Even though All-Star guard Kemba Walker struggles with his shot, he still hands out 10 assists in the first half as the Hornets build an 18-point lead.
They’re still up a dozen points going into the fourth quarter, but that’s when things fall apart. Walker is suddenly the only player who can score and the Celtics make an inspired comeback to extend their winning streak to 12 games. It’s a brutal loss for the Hornets, even more so because it’s their fourth straight defeat and they won’t play again for five days.
As I head down the tunnel to catch up with Silas, Celtics coach Brad Stevens pulls me aside and says the Hornets were as prepared as any team they’ve played this season. “Whatever we did, they were on it,” Stevens says.
I relay the complement to Silas, who grimaces. “Great,” he says. “What does that get us?”
The Hornets mood is forlorn, even angry. Coaches and support staff walk by sporting thousand-yard stares. It’s only November, but these setbacks hurt. I ask Silas how he deals with the losses. “Not well,” he says.
He’s got family waiting for him and he’d rather not deal with any of that right now. There are postgame duties to handle on the plane ride home, and he’s already thinking of clips to show his guys. The Cavs’ report is waiting to be finalized when he lands.
The bus is leaving for the airport in 10 minutes, and it occurs to Silas that they’ve been on the road for a week and a half. As he searches for something positive, he says, “It will be good to go home.”