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Masters of the Game
Jack McCallum
November 05, 1990
They're coaching in the NBA, not in the NCAA
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November 05, 1990

Masters Of The Game

They're coaching in the NBA, not in the NCAA

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True, but the NBA coach must teach the players plenty, too, and right from the start. The league has always had the right idea about training camp—exhibition games begin a week after the first whistle blows—but that has fostered the notion that a roll-the-balls-out-and-read-the-newspaper type of coaching goes on in the NBA. Conversely, the long preseasons in college are perceived as being "classrooms" in which the geniuses of the sport—the Smiths, the Bobby Knights, the John Thompsons—divest their charges of the bad habits they learned in high school and reeducate them in a fundamentally sound and tradition-laden "program." ( NBA coaches hold jobs; college coaches preside over programs.) Although the teaching skills of many college coaches can't be denied, the teaching that goes on in the NBA is more sophisticated.

To begin with, most college players come into the league with only a rudimentary grasp of how to play man-to-man defense. They might be experts at sliding from side to side in a 2-1-2 zone, but that is irrelevant. "In college ball, maybe once in a while a player has to fight through a down screen [a screen set near the basket down by the baseline]," says Indiana Pacer coach Dick Versace, who says he experienced "total shock" when he entered the NBA as an assistant in 1986 after 14 years as a college coach. "In the NBA there is no way to fight through a screen set by [ Philadelphia's 6'10", 260-pound] Rick Mahorn. No way. So how do you defend the jump shooter you're guarding? There are several techniques you have to learn just to do that, things a player never even heard about in college."

Same with defending the pick-and-roll, which has almost no place in the zone-oriented college game. Then there's the constant presence of the illegal defense guidelines, which are nonexistent in college ball. The NBA coach faces an almost daily struggle of instructing his players in the vagaries of the guidelines while at the same time reminding them not to dwell on them. "If they're thinking too much about the guidelines, they won't be able to play defense," says Ford. "But if they don't know the guidelines, the players are going to be illegal all the time."

Here's one more thing college players never have to think about: defending Michael Jordan on Tuesday night, Isiah Thomas on Wednesday and, oh, maybe Magic Johnson on Friday. "A major factor about coaching in the NBA is how quickly the regular-season games come upon you," says Fratello. "For those times when you can't prepare, your training-camp fundamentals must hold up."

Indeed, NBA coaches run intense two-a-days in what little time they do have before the daily grind of preseason games begins, and that preparation is even more important than it is in college ball, in which games are more humanely spaced.

Probably the biggest change in NBA coaching over the last decade has been in the increasingly sophisticated manner in which teams prepare for opponents.

Says Daly, "My team expects a printed report of the opposition, offensively and defensively, plus a personnel description, for every game. And it gets even more detailed in the playoffs."

What's more, familiarity breeds not contempt but innovation in the NBA. "When Patrick Ewing was at Georgetown, we needed to stop him," says St. John's coach Lou Carnesecca, who coached the ABA's New York Nets for three seasons, "but we only played him two times. Now, you take the 76ers and the Celtics—they play him five or six times a year. They better come up with something."

Sure, the college coach has a variety of zone defenses to choose from, such as the complex matchup zone used by Villanova's Rollie Massimino and the "freak" defenses employed by LSU's Dale Brown, who firmly believes that college coaches are "far more creative" on both offense and defense than NBA coaches are. Sorry, Dale. For every college coach like you, who plays combinations, dozens of others simply sit in the same No-Doz zone, year after year.

Anyway, the assumption that zone defenses are not played in the NBA is false. The rules allow for full-court zone pressure, and because defenses are permitted to aggressively double-team the ball anywhere on the floor, teams play de facto zones in the frontcourt, top. To one degree or another, every NBA team uses some type of zone. Throw in the added pressure of "staying legal"—i.e., not violating the defensive guidelines—and an NBA coach can only laugh when he hears about a lack of creativity in the pros.

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