With several team’s holding their Media Days today, the 2015-16 NBA season is officially underway. So let’s take a look at the itineraries and goals that normally are in play from now until the preseason games begin.
As mentioned, it all gets going with Media Day, in which local, regional and national writers and broadcasters swarm around the 20 players each team is permitted to put in uniform. Naturally, the stars get most of the attention. And, just as naturally, nobody has anything meaningful to say.
“Yes, I’m looking forward to the season.”
“Yes, we have a really good chance to make the playoffs/challenge for the championship/win the championship. Blah, blah and blah.”
But sometimes Media Day does offer some juicy, if unreported, tidbits.
In the fall of 1999, I happened to be present at the opening day of Phil Jackson’s first season as coach of the Lakers. While cameras and tape recorders were being thrust into the faces of Jackson and his players, I was sitting in the stands next to Jerry West, the general manager of the team.
It should be noted that West was never a fan of Jackson’s. In fact, when West was asked about the then prevalent rumor that Jackson might be hired by the Lakers, West was quoted by Roland Lazenby as saying this: “F___ Phil Jackson.”
Anyway, I had a nodding acquaintance with West but a long, close association with PJ, so I told West that, since the Lakers had nobody who had played for Jackson in Chicago, and since learning the Triangle offense was a slow process, the team might have a difficult time to start the season.
West’s response was to huff and say, “He’s got six weeks.”
The day after the media hounds are fed, training camp begins in earnest. Once the season kicks off, practice sessions will be few and far between, so the next 7-10 days are extremely valuable. So critical that each practice session is planned to the minute with schedules often printed and distributed to the players beforehand.
While the specifics vary from team to team, every ball club hopes to reach several common goals during this perioid:
- Getting the players in game shape.
- Installing sufficient offensive and defensive strategies to commence the season in an orderly fashion. For those teams that have new coaches and/or a large turnover in players, this operation is especially important. If veteran teams will have at least 75 percent of their game plan in place when the lights are turned on for real, newcomers will struggle to master half of their new playbook. That’s why NBA action generally lacks a noticeable sense of cohesion until early December.
- The players have to learn (or relearn) their coach’s specific terminology. So, instead of describing how the passer, pivot man and basket should be positioned along a straight line, Jackson (for example) used the term “line of deployment.” Likewise, the “sweet spot” was where whichever player carried the ball over the time-line became a threat to shoot. And so on.
- The players have to learn what their coaches expect of them, and vice versa — and this is when the vital coach-player relationships are forged.
- In general, training camp is where coaches identify and try to correct problems.
To accomplish all of the above, most teams convene two-a-days for the first week or so. This means a 2-2 ½ hour practice session in the morning (usually around 10 am), then another session four or five hours after the initial one has ended. During the interim, the players will shower, eat, nap and recuperate.
However, there are variations on this theme: Some teams opt for a single four-hour session. When Gene Shue was coaching the Baltimore Bullets, his team practiced in the morning, then broke for a light communal lunch (mostly salads and soup) and a chalk session, before heading back to the court.
Whatever the design, training camp workdays have distinct protocols: For starters, the players jog lightly around the court before being led through a variety of stretching exercises by a trainer or conditioning coach. It should be noted that stretching “cold” bodies is verboten.
Next come some sort of dribbling/passing/cutting drills which are undertaken (especially by veterans) with varying degrees of seriousness.
Years ago, Tex Winter was being bothered by the Lakers’ lackadaisical attitude in executing a one-step-change-of-direction dribbling drill. In Winter’s eyes, Shaq was the main culprit. When his verbal chastisements proved useless, Winter (who was in his late 70s at the time) jumped on to the court and suddenly assumed a defensive stance in front of the surprised Shaq, who executed a swift and precise crossover. At the risk of drawing a body-smashing charge, Winter succeeded in getting his point across.
This was easily the most courageous action I’ve ever seen on a basketball court.
Generic drills might also emphasize defensive stances and slides might include a “star drill,” where each player is positioned in the lane and responds with the proper form as a coach quickly points to an unexpected direction where the imaginary ball has been passed. While waiting for these directions, the player in the middle must keep his feet popping in a “fire foot” procedure. A series of three-man weaves might be next on the agenda, the idea being to promote more inclusive coordinated movements.
From here, some teams break up into big and little groups wherein the appropriate assistants work on specific drills. Since footwork is so crucial for bigs, the exercises might feature inside- and outside-pivots, duck-under-moves, drop-steps, fakes and reversals, plus interior and mid-range shooting. At the same time, the guards and wings might work on pull-up jumpers, catching and shooting from a standstill and also after curling around a screen.
The better teams always include a round of fundamental drill in their repertoire. How to throw and receive certain passes in certain situations. How to box out, fill a lane, show and recover, etc. The specifics will change throughout the season, but every practice session will feature one or more of these basic “high-school” drills. This attention to the most minute details is often what separates contenders from pretenders.
Now comes some shadow exercises in team defense and team offense. This is done five-on-none, and then with token opponents. From the get-go, some teams will concentrate on defense and some on offense. A controlled half-court scrimmage may also be in the offering, with the coaches whistling plays dead to point out and correct any mistakes.
During any and all practice sessions, players always want to scrimmage. So perhaps a 10-minute up-and-down run might be inserted here.
Conditioning work is a constant necessity. Perhaps lightning rounds of three-man weaves in graduated sequences with extra forays used to punish any errant passes or missed layups. Or else several rounds of the dreaded suicides. For this, players line up along one baseline (and with so many extra players in camp, along the baseline extended). On the whistle, they run to the nearest foul line or foul line extended, pivot sharply, return to the starting baseline, pivot, race to the mid-court line, return, then to the far foul-line, then return, out to the opposite baseline, then the final return. Some coaches make this drill even more difficult by requiring each player to reach down and touch the appropriate line before reversing direction. Another variation excuses the winner of each suicide from running the next one.
Free throws are always practiced after some heavy-duty running to approximate game conditions. After everybody has shot their quota (with the efficiency usually tallied), coaches will frequently pick one player to shoot a free throw with the following conditions: If he makes it, then practice is over. If he misses, then everybody runs another suicide, and a different player’s clutch free throw shooting is put to the test. Ad infinitum, or at least ad exhaustium.
The second session often begins much the same way. Jogging, stretching, big-little drills, and so on. The offensive and defensive patterns are reviewed and expanded. A lengthy full-court scrimmage, replete with hired referees, constitutes the bulk of the evening (or second-half) session.
Here’s where veterans battle for any starting spots that are up for grabs; where others compete to be in the rotation; and where rookies and marginal players vie for the any open roster spots. Coaches tend to work their players in distinct units — the starters, the first-line subs and the hopefuls/also-rans. Players are quick to note the coach’s substitution patterns — which second-stringers get to play with the starters, and so on up and down the line.
Those players whose jobs (or playing time) might be on the bubble will play as ferociously as though each scrimmage was the seventh game of a championship series. Rookies, especially, will be fired up to impress both the coaches and the vets. But those veterans whose functions are totally secure will hold back some. These established performers are usually allowed to get ready for the opening bell at their own pace. Scrimmaging at 75 percent capacity is considered to be acceptable for veterans — although Michael Jordan always went at every drill and every scrimmage as though his life was at stake. Indeed, if a team’s ace player goes all-out whenever the ball is alive, this precludes any of his teammates from ever taking things easy.
But there’s one rule that every veteran always follows during training camp scrimmages: Stay away from the wild-eyed rookies and desperate free agents.
It should also be noted that incoming rookies and free agents are usually in top-notch shape. Accordingly, these guys will excel early in training camp while the scrimmages are still rather loose, the coach’s game plan hasn’t had a chance to solidify and the vets are in cruise-control. Coaches always have to be wary of falling in love with a player who dominates the action in the first few days.
The most awesome shot I ever saw occurred in a Chicago Bulls scrimmage prior to the 1989 season. At the time, I was coaching the Rockford Lightning in the Continental Basketball Association, and since Rockford was only about 70 miles from Chicago, I had the rights to any player the Bulls drafted and then cut. One of the guys I was looking hard at was Matt Brust, a 6-5, 225 pound, swingman from St. John’s, who had no chance of making the Bulls. Brust had a crew cut, an accurate jumper and the justified reputation of being a very physical player.
Anyway, Michael Jordan stole a pass from Brust and was apparently unimpeded as he dribbled downcourt and approached the basket. But Brust hadn’t given up on the play. Racing after MJ, he caught up just as Jordan left his feet for an easy dunker. Then WHAM! Brust slammed into Jordan from behind and sent him crashing to the floor.
The contact was so severe that MJ was motionless — causing Jerry Krause to choke on his jelly donut.
But His Airness soon jumped to his feet, waved off the trainer and signaled for play to resume.
About two minutes later, Jordan intercepted another errant pass by Brust and, once again, sprinted ahead of the field. And here came Brust again, dead-set on an encore of his body-slamming feat.
Without even glancing behind him, Jordan took flight, palming the ball in his right hand … Until, just as Brust showed up, MJ smashed his pursuer in the face with his left elbow, switched the ball to his left hand, reached to the nether side of the rim and — while remaining airborne — executed a dynamic left-handed reverse dunk.
Meanwhile, Brust shakily climbed to his feet, limped off the court, was cut the next day and decided not to continue what was left of his playing daze in the CBA.
After several days of practice, every player usually has at least a working knowledge of the offense, so the scrimmages become more and more physical. Also, since the same guys always wind up guarding each other, familiarity likewise breeds irritation, aggression and ‘bows.
Under the current agreement with the Players’ Union, the number of two-a-days is limited, but back when Bill Fitch was coaching the Cleveland Cadavers, there were no restraints. Indeed, Fitch’s training camps were infamous for scheduling 21 consecutive days of double-practices. With the Cavs simply beating on each other so mercilessly, the other NBA teams dreaded being Cleveland’s first preseason game foes.
Two-a-days are torturous mentally, physically and even spiritually. That’s why vets with the most minor of injuries are usually excused from one session or the other. That’s why some players time their necessary offseason surgeries to avoid two-a-days altogether.
Coaches also suffer in the process. Aching backs, sore knees and imbibing too much coffee always plague them. Also, after a summer full of soft-spoken recreations and amiable phone conversations, coaches tend to get sore throats at the onset of training camps.
Ah, the sacrifices that some guys make for multi-million-dollar paydays!