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Rosen: The Role of NBA Assistant Coaches

David Richard/USA TODAY Sports

A quick look at (and behind) the benches of most NBA teams discovers nearly as many suits as uniforms.

Counting assistant coaches cleverly disguised as shooting, player development and/or skills coaches, there are a total of 158 assistants in the league. Denver leads the pack with eight assistants, and the league average is 5.2 per team.

Jerry Krause once said that the only useful assistant had to be an ex-player because NBA vets will eventually tune out anything a civilian might say —  unless that civilian was the head coach. However, only 61 of the current assistant are former NBA players: Five of Brooklyn’s six assistants have played in the league, while Portland and San Antonio are the only teams without an ex-NBAer on their respective coaching staffs.

15 current assistants have been head coaches, and I wonder what “Crumbs” Krause would have to say about Becky Hammon and Nancy Lieberman.

It also should be noted that, from Gregg Popovich to Frank Vogel, half of the current roster of head coaches were once NBA assistants.

Exactly who are these guys and what do they do?

The ideal assistant is impeccably loyal to the head coach — as Phil Johnson famously was to Jerry Sloan. Less than ideal are the several overly ambitious assistants who habitually undercut their immediate bosses in hopes of replacing them — the most notorious of these were Craig Neal and Dave Wohl.

Moreover, there have been numerous excellent assistants who lacked the charisma, the temperament and/or the leadership qualities to succeed as head coaches. The most notable of these include Jim Rodgers, Frank Hamblen, Herb Brown, Bob Weiss, Del Harris, Sidney Lowe and Phil Johnson.

With so many distinct histories, personalities and levels of experience, it’s only natural that various assistants have their various fields of expertise. In fact, one of the duties of head coaches should be to allow their assistants to exercise their expertise and present themselves as capable individuals. The more responsibility an assistant is granted, the more respect he gets from the players. Moreover, letting his assistants have an active voice in practice sessions and in games keeps the coach fresh and makes own pronouncements more impactful.

At the same time, most head coaches forbid their assistants from having any personal contact with any members of the media. Their rationale being to ensure that the organization always speaks with one voice.

Then there was the case of Larry Brown: Back in the days when Brown had two flesh-and-bone hip joints and coached the 76ers, he showed the influence of his college coach, Dean Smith, by being the only voice his players heard during practice sessions.  Brown’s assistants mostly chased down loose balls and silently conducted the players through their daily drill-work.   

This was a foolish situation simply because players easily get bored hearing the same criticisms, suggestions, instructions and yipping from the same person from October to April, May or even June.  

There are assistants whose primary duties include designing their team’s defense, and some who are mainly primarily responsible for offense. Also, whereas baseball and football assistants usually specialize in various positions (pitching, batting, quarterbacks, tight ends, etc.), NBA assistants can either focus on bigs or smalls.

Big men used to be big children and, as such, were always vulnerable to being criticized and teased. Six-year-olds who looked like 10-year-olds, but lacked the coordination to run and chew gum at the same time. Clumsy adolescents slowly growing into their extra-large bodies. Self-conscious young men always visible in a crowd, and whose every on- and off-court mistake was on display. That’s why every NBA team employs an assistant to see to the special needs of its centers and strong forwards. Clifford Ray was the best big coach ever, and Patrick Ewing the worst.

Guards and small forwards likewise need instruction and correction in ball-handling techniques, in executing efficient entry passes, in defending screen/rolls, etc.  The top-flight assistants for the “smalls” include Larry Drew in Cleveland, Pete Myers with the Bulls, Elston Turner in Memphis and Jim Cleamons with the Knicks.

Some assistants — most notably Chip Engelland in San Antonio — also function as shot doctors for any slump-ridden players.

Usually, one assistant confers with his head coach to plan every practice session (including the day-of-the-game shootarounds) down to the minute. The most celebrated practice-master was Johnny Bach when he was an assistant with the Bulls. As part of his routine, this youthful octogenarian would hand-letter every practice schedule and distribute them beforehand to the players. Bach was trained in calligraphy by the Jesuit Brothers in Fordham University back in the 1940s, and his practice itineraries were works of art.

Most teams utilize advance scouts who have assistant coach status for pension purposes. These guys are always on the road scouting future opponents and preparing appropriate game plans for the head coaches’ consideration. To complement these advance scouts, some teams divide up the 29 opponents among the bench assistants for occasional eye-witnessing and constant video scouting. Doing this, and also studying tapes of their own teams, are why assistants arrive at their offices early and leave late.

Bench-assistants have multiple duties during ball games: Suggesting substitutions and highlighting matchup advantages and disadvantages. Charting both teams’ plays to ascertain what specific strategies are working best for the good guys, as well as trying to determine what plays the bad guys might run with whatever player combinations are currently in the game.

The assistant in charge of game prep for the opponent on hand (in conjunction with an advance scout’s report) is also responsible for anticipating “criticals” — those plays likely to be executed after timeouts and in last-second win-or-lose situations. During timeouts, one assistant watches the opponent’s bench to see if any subs are preparing to jump into the game at the last possible second. (The trainers usually keep track of the allowable timeouts and personal fouls.) Assistants are also charged with being alert to any players who might be either fatigued or slightly injured.

The worst thing an assistant can do during a game is to get tooted for a technical foul. The worst thing he can do after (or before) a game is to second-guess the coach or the front office.

Assistants are paid an annual salary that can range from about 300K to the $1.4M that makes Cleveland’s Tyronn Lue the highest-paid assistant in the league. Plus a $99 per diem on road trips (even though most of the teams’ chartered flights serve gourmet meals gratis). Plus a hefty pension that starts accruing after three full seasons.

There are several possible paths to become an assistant in The League. Be a successful coach at a powerhouse Division I college. Beg Howie Garfinkle to accept your presence as a volunteer at one of his Five Star Camps, then work hard and network like crazy.  

Or better yet, hitch your wagon to a star. Think of Flip Saunders, who was a senior point guard and ball-distributor at the University of Minnesota when Kevin McHale was a ball-hungry freshman — and then was named coach of the Timberwolves when McHale was the team’s general manager. Or Don Zierdon, who was Saunders’s longtime assistant in the CBA and had been a fixture on Saunders’s various NBA coaching staffs until he signed with Washington. And so on.

Best of all, be the son or brother of an NBA head coach — Donn Nelson, Stephen Silas, J.B. Bickerstaff, Ryan Saunders, Dan D’Antoni and Wes Unseld, Jr.

By any standards, and by any means, being an NBA assistant coach is nice work if you can get it.

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