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Preparation never ends: What NBA coaches do before games

NBA players often have meticulous game day routines, but what do the coaches do during this time? What are the keys to properly preparing a team for a game?

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

We've all heard legendary tales of different players' pregame workouts. Whether it is Ray Allen's meticulous festival exactly three hours before every game or the guys who get their shots up and then attend chapel, the majority of NBA players have a consistent pre-game ritual.

But what about the coaches? What are their responsibilities during pregame?

Like last time, we'll focus on the pregame activities when the team is on the road, because the coaches' schedule and activities are more consistent when a team is traveling. Like my previous looks behind the velvet curtain, this is an amalgam of what a few different teams do during pregame while traveling the highways of the Association.


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After a day of watching video, meetings and usually a game day shootaround or walk through, the assistant coaches head over to the arena early either by taxi or on the first of two buses from the team hotel. If you are a player development coach or an assistant responsible for working with young and/or out-of-the-rotation players, you're getting to the arena about three hours before the game. In fact, the player development assistant(s) will set up shop early with the members of the staff who really work the hardest: athletic trainers, equipment managers and video coordinators.

If you're responsible for warming up older established players or are that night's advance scout (each team's assistant coaches split the other 29 clubs), you're probably on the first bus, which gets you to the arena approximately two and a half hours before tip-off. On the road, the team (and the coaching staff) is usually housed in a smaller space that is an offshoot of one of the NHL dressing rooms. It's not quite as functional or luxurious as your own locker room and coaching office back home.

What are assistant coaches' pregame responsibilities? That depends on a few things. Are you responsible for the advance scout of that night's opponent? Is it your turn to be the master of the white board? Do you have an assigned group of players that you must help warm up?  Do you have more advance work to do for an upcoming opponent?

If the game is your "scout," that means you are on whiteboard duty. Each locker room is outfitted with one of those dry-erase boards, used to write down the important game plan points of that night's opponent. Ideally, the whiteboard should be a condensed written version of what you have already communicated throughout the day at the shootaround or walk through:

  • The opponent's top 5 -10 offensive actions.
  • The opponent's usual defensive schemes.
  • The individual player matchups.
  • The opponent's best and worst three-point shooters.
  • The opponent's best and worst free throw shooters.
  • Late-game tendencies.
  • Your own overall points of emphasis.
  • Maybe an inspirational quote or sentence. Maybe.

Some coaches keep their whiteboards short and sweet: simple, organized, clean. Needless to say, this is my ideal. I am a big believer in communicating only a minimum of the huge amount of meta data that is available. Emphasize the key points, then rely on your overall teaching and philosophy to execute them. Don't overwhelm the players

Other coaches go Jackson Pollack, covering every inch of available space on the board with different colors and perhaps a little too much information. Most coaches want to leave no stone unturned and often go all out on the whiteboard. Different strokes, I guess.

Teams will also often produce a one-page summary of the advance report or whiteboard material and leave it in the players' lockers. At the end of the night, the same coach doing the whiteboard will be responsible for collecting the one-page summaries, or at least making sure that none are left behind. You wouldn't want your proprietary brilliance left behind for the opposition to read.

Some coaches will even leave a small handwritten note for "their" players before games. A famous example of this technique was then-Phoenix Suns assistant coach Dan D'Antoni leaving game-to-game longhand reminders for Leandro Barbosa, with whom he was close. These provide a personal touch while reinforcing team and individual responsibilities.


Richard Rowe-USA TODAY Sports

If you are not responsible for that night's advance work, you are out on the court with the players. Some teams schedule pregame warm-up times for players and coaches down to the minute. Coaches have assigned players who they work with throughout the year. Younger and out-of-the-rotation players usually work in groups of three. Starters and rotation players usually work in pairs or individually with a coach.

Other teams use the pregame warm-up times to develop organically, with the unstated understanding that the young guys and out-of-rotation players get their work in early. Some players are particular with who warms them up, while others have such a strong individual feel for what they need before a game that it doesn't matter whether it is a coach or one of the ball boys who rebound and pass for them.

What are you trying to accomplish working with the players before a game? Most importantly, you're putting guys in an ideal physical and mental state to perform. You do this by establishing a successful routine. As I wrote previously about the game day shootaround, pre-game warmup routines should also be based on shots that will come up in the game and out of of your own offensive actions. That means spot-up threes and a variety of pick-and-roll scenarios for guards and wings, post moves and inside finishes for bigs, and a combination of both for stretch fours and modern positionless players. Each player has their own little intricacies as they move through the various spots on the floor. Ideally, you are assisting them in finding a comfortable rhythm while also getting a little sweat going. Pre-game success breeds a better-than-average chance of in-game success.

One of my favorite things to watch during pregame is how assistant coaches throw chest passes. Do they snap off crisp and accurate deliveries? Do they follow through, snapping their wrists with thumbs down? Do they work one-handed passes into the mix using both hands? It probably sounds silly, but throwing quality passes is a point of pride with many coaches. It helps move the individual player efficiently through his routine while establishing the rhythm that will hopefully carry over to the 48 minutes to come.

At the end of a warm-up session with an individual player, coaches will sometimes grab a couple of minutes on the bench or courtside and review video on a tablet or briefly go over the advance scouring report again with a player. This allows them to reinforce the points of emphasis or player tendencies one more time. If you see an assistant coach sitting courtside off by himself before the game with his laptop or tablet, you can usually count on that coach being responsible for the next game's advance work. All video, all of the time.

With 30 minutes or a little more remaining before tip-off, players and coaches head back to the locker room for a last review of that night's game strategy and a few words from the head coach. The assistant coaches shower and get out their finest Jos. A. Bank suits and begin the waiting game until tip-off.

Hopefully, your pre-game work has set the table for a successful road victory. If not, then it's on to the next one.

"ATO" of the Week

As Yogi Berra once said, "it's déjà vu, all over again." Yogi was a wise man, at least when it came to the "ATO of the Week." His time machine knew that the San Antonio Spurs would make repeated appearances in this space.

What was originally supposed to be the game of the week quickly became another example of the San Antonio Spurs' season-long dominance over the Eastern Conference.  It also provided another example of Gregg Popovich's ATO creativity and recognition of where to attack a defense in a half-court situation.

After a loose-ball sequence, Popovich called timeout to recover his steely gaze. What, you may ask, would cause the former Pomona head coach to call a timeout with 7:39 remaining in the just the third quarter? A loose ball heading toward the Spurs' bench with Lance Stephenson in pursuit, flying into Popovich and being caught before total disaster ensued. Amusingly, Popovich didn't even grin.

Coming out of the TO, Manu Ginobili takes the ball out of bounds in front of the Spurs bench, covered by Paul GeorgeKawhi Leonard (marked by Stephenson) and Tiago Splitter (checked by David West) set up shop at the elbows. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker complete the box set down low, covered by Roy Hibbert and George Hill, respectively.


Duncan triggers the Spurs' action by setting a mid-key cross screen for Parker. The Frenchman cuts off of the pick on the baseline side (running out of bounds), with Hill locked on his hip. Hibbert casually stays on the top side of TD.


As Duncan completes his pick, Leonard walks down the lane to set a pindown screen for Timmy. The Spurs have some classic Flex action on the go. Stephenson is hugging Leonard tight, only releasing his grip when the San Diego State alum reaches the charge circle. This allows Leonard to slide over and set a very effective screen on Hibbert. Duncan moves up the lane unimpeded, stopping just above the pinch post, where he receives the inbounds pass from Manu.


Here is where the Spurs' simple brilliance and knowledge of individual tendencies comes into play. As Ginobili takes two hard steps toward Duncan from out of bounds, George turns his head toward the ball and immediately tries to cut off the space to the inside of the cut. George doesn't want to be trailing as Manu comes off an apparent dribble handoff. This aggressive defensive move by George is reminiscent of a more famous overly enthusiastic inside closeout in last year's playoffs.

Knowing this, Manu has done an outstanding job of setting up a hard back cut on the emerging star out of Fresno State. As George gets turned around by the cut, Timmy hits the Argentinean with a perfect backdoor bounce pass. Because Hibbert was late getting out on Duncan, he is now also late at closing out back at the rim on Ginobili. George's wing 360 also puts him a step behind Manu, while Stephenson has followed Leonard to the opposite side and lamely waves at Manu as he heads to the hoop.


Manu finishes with Ginobili-like left-handed reverse layup, using the rim as protection from both George and Hibbert. As always, Pop comes out on top. Game. Set. Match.


One other little tidbit that made this ATO extra special: The Pacers' game operations staff left the disco ball turning throughout the whole play. Notice the hypnotic, swirling lights that frame the action like the Spurs are running the set at Studio 54, circa 1978. It makes the execution of the ATO all the more impressive.

(A tip of the hat to NBA TV's "The Starters" for noticing this disco-themed ATO gem. Boogie on, big-time bloggers.)

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