The DNA of a basketball coach

Steve Kerr is the first rookie coach to clinch the NBA title since Pat Riley in 1982. Is it a complete surprise that he does so well or is it somehow written in his DNA to be an excellent coach? Well, I think it is the latter. But don’t understand me wrong, I don’t believe this DNA to be God-given. Every basketball coach is responsible for his own DNA.

The DNA of a basketball coach is his philosophy on the game of basketball. Writing such a philosophy is a never-ending process of adding new knowledge, discovering new ideas, adjusting to new trends in the game, … One key quality of a coach should be his open mind: Open to new ideas, willing to listen to different ideas, willing to discuss other opinions, …
Therefore, I think it is crucial for a young and eager coach to invest and travel to meet other coaches, philosophies and structures. This is something I’ve put very high on my priority list for several years  and each and every investment was worth it. Every single time I traveled to go to a clinic or to meet a coach – in Belgium, in Europe or overseas – added at least a couple of strings to my coaching DNA. I can only recommend it to other young coaches.

COLLAGE

I think it is no surprise that winning an NBA title in a rookie season, is achieved by Steve Kerr. When you go back into the career of Steve Kerr, you will find a lot of collaborations – being a player, manager or analyst – with some of the best coaches in the history of the game. Being a guard, a coaches partner in crime on the court, Kerr served respectively for 5 and 4 seasons under Phil Jackson and Greg Popovich, probably the two best NBA coaches of the past 50 years.

The San Antonio Spurs, one of the most succesfull teams of the last decade are known for having the most international influences in the league: Parker and Diaw (France), Ginobli (Argentina), Splitter (Brazil), Mills (Australia) and assistent coach Ettore Messina (Italy). Also as an organization the Spurs aim for a rich DNA. A model that clearly worked and that one tries to copy in several other places, witnessed by the popularity of all former members of the staff of Popovic:

os-se-san-antonio-spurs-family-tree-20121127

 

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On the NBA Finals and “Summertime”!

Fall 2013, I had the chance to be sent by FIBA for an NCAA apprenticeship as a coach at Saint Joseph’s University. During my stay, I was more than happy to be invited at several practices of Brett Brown and the Philadelphie 76’ers. During the final phase of preseason, Coach Brown was finetuning a playing style, called “Summertime” with his players. “Summertime” was a playing mode, where everybody on the court should have plenty of fun, mostly by sharing the ball very quickly and insisting to make the extra pass.

Coach Brett Brown and me

Coach Brett Brown and me

A couple of days ago, I’ve read an excellent article by Jackie MacCullam for ESPN on “How Spurs’ majestic 2014 Finals performance changed the NBA“. To me, the victory of the Spurs over the Heat was mostly the victory of one of the most impressive and most beautiful types of TEAM BASKETBALL ever seen over the dominance of the most complete athlete in the world, Lebron James. I am sure that plenty of youth coaches all over the world, in different languages, used this story to convince their kids that sharing the ball is most effective on a basketball court. At least, I hope everybody seazed the opportunity, since too many isolation plays for Lebron might crown the Cavs this year. What to tell your kids then? 🙂

The ESPN-article describes more detailed the playing style of the San Antonio Spurs during the 2014 NBA-Finals:

Pop had his own name for it: Summertime,” Brown says. “It’s when you’re playing. Just playing. The ball’s moving, and the game’s flowing. You make a decision to shoot it, pass it, drive it. ‘Point five.’ That was the directive. You’ve got half a second. You’ve got a good shot, but he’s got a great one. So you pass him the ball, and there it is. It’s Summertime.”

Reading the article made me grab to my notes back in Philadelphia. It describes exactly the same principles Coach Brown was trying to install in his team. Which shouldn’t surprise, since Brown was for 7 years the assistent of Greg Popovic in the Spurs organization.

David Blatt and me

David Blatt and me

To be honest, I hope to see some more Summertime during the 2015 Finals from tonight (Game 5) on. The confrontation between a handicapped Cavs-team that runs too many isolation plays for Lebron and a struggling Golden State, hasn’t given many glimps of Summertime basketball yet. Allthough I have to admit that I am enjoying so far every single second of this Mastermind-game between Steve Kerr and David Blatt. Two new faces in the NBA, who were drinking a coffee together on an airport in June ’14, where Blatt practically agreed on being Kerr’s assistent. A couple of days later, he received a phonecall of the Cavs… I am thrilled to see them meet again tonight … in Game 5 of the NBA Finals!

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How Lebron’s deficit in defensive transition hurts the Cavs

Last week, I conducted a coaching clinic on defensive transition. Actually, it made me think about the fact that most coaches spend much more attention to offensive transition and how to create a lot of easy baskets in fastbreak, than the on the effort to prevent this on the other side. It is indeed an important key that can decide on the result of the game. Most coaches spend almost every team practice some attention to it. But in fact, it is only a game changer, RELATIVE to your opponent. One should rather look to the difference in scored fastbreak points minus the fastbreak points of the opponent team. Statistics show that this is a key to succes for some teams in the NBA (for ex. Golden State, Houston, Atlanta and the LA Clippers), while San Antonio proves to be succesfull in other aspects of the game, mainly due to an older roster.

based upon stats of NBA.com

Based upon stats of NBA.com

Very often, I see coaches going crazy during games when their team doesn’t sprint back fast enough and/or doesn’t communicate well enough while doing so. Are we sure as a coach that we teach our players HOW to run back (who has which responsability) and HOW to communicate (what to say in which situation)? If not, the players are not to blame…

During my clinic, I predicted that defensive transition might play a major role during the NBA Finals this years. While Lebron James is the best player of his generation, he tends not to focus in the defensive transition. Very often, after a made or missed basket, he gesticulates or celebrates towards the refs, the camera or the public. Against a team which most dangerous weapon are 3-point shots in transition, this could cost Cleveland an NBA title. I must admit that I was nicely surprised by Lebron during Game 1, also in transition. But at least one time in clutch time, he fell back in his old habit, resulting in an open 3-point shot of Klay Thompson. After a succesfull basket, with a 91-87 score on the board and 5 minutes to go, you see he’s not paying attention in transition:

Unnecessarily to say that these small mistakes can have a huge impact, for sure in an OT loss..

PS: Here are my clinic notes on defensive transition (in dutch).

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A deeper look into the statistics before the NBA Finals

Since a couple of years, NBA.com provides SportVU Player Tracking statistics data on their website. SportVU is a system of six cameras and software that measures the movements of all players and the ball on the court. This results in a huge amount of data. For example, for every shot taken in every NBA game, the information of who took the shot on which exact location out of which exact situation or pass, with which defender closest to the shooter and how many seconds on the shot clock is stored.

Most of this incredible amount of information is noise, but with the right knowledge and ability to analyse, it offers a whole new understanding of the game of basketball. Before an important match-up, finding one of the keys for the winning gameplan can sound like looking for a needle in this haystack of data. Of course, this cannot be the job of Steve Kerr of David Blatt, but it is known that composing the best staff around you, is a key factor in being succesfull as a headcoach at the highest level. I am absolutely convinced that the best teams in Europe still can progress if one of their assistant coaches is a statistical wizard who can translate the right conclusions to the head-coach.

It is interesting to see which insights one gets from a quick look to the statistics of Golden State and Cleveland, just before their match-up in the NBA Finals.

Source: NBA.com

Source: NBA.com

To me, the match-up between the Cavs and the Warriors is the match-up between probably the most impressive all-round athlete in the world (Lebron) and one of the most unselfish teams in the NBA who play all year long on a wave of confidence.

The Warriors are ranked as #1 team in the NBA (during these play-offs) with 25.1 assists per game, while the Cavs are #15 (out of 16 teams) with 18.9 assists per game. By a neutral sports fan, the game of the Warriors will appear more attractive, supported by their #1 ranking in Fast Break points a game (21.6 / game, while the Cavs are ranked again #15 with 7.4 / game). Golden State plays a much higher pace of 96.63 possessions in 48 mins on average, while Cleveland has 92.95.

On the other hand, Cleveland has the most complete player in the world, who can handle every aspect of the game on every position, offensively and defensively. Mostly in the beginning of these play-offs, Cleveland tried to exploit this advantage too radically. In 32.6% of their possessions, they went for an isolation play for Lebron (with a doubtfully efficienty of 0.68 point per possession). To compare, the Warriors look in 13.5% of their possessions to isolate their franchise player, Curry, with an efficiency of 0.92 PPP.

Player Tracking (SportVU) in action

Player Tracking (SportVU) in action

There is no other team in the NBA that takes more shots after more than 7 (!) dribbles by the shooter, than Cleveland in 17,8% (!) of all possessions. This reflects of course the well known (and disgusted by many) isolation play for Lebron where he dribbles at halfcourt with his four teammates waiting at the baseline. In these situations, Lebron has an effective FG% of 42.6%, but itis known that he took some bad shots on decisive moments. Allthough one has to say, that during the last three games in their series against Chicago, we have seen another Cleveland. Less isolation plays and a key role for Lebron in assisting his teammates in offense, while he attracts himself of course a lot of defensive attention of the Warriors. A lot more credit for this should go to David Blatt, who finally shows more ingredients of his successfull offensive strategies in Europe.

 

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A look inside the kitchen of Coach Kemzura and CEZ Nymburk

In 2013, I have met Coach Kemzura for the first time as he was a lecturer of the last stage of the FIBA Europe Coaching Certificate in Talinn. Kemzura is the former assistent of David Blatt (Cleveland Caveliers) and former head-coach of Khimki Moscow and the national team of Lithuania. Immediately, I was impressed by the way Coach Kemzura was driven and passionated in his coaching. From that first contact, I had the desire to get to know more, about the man and his coaching philosophy. Last week, I had the chance to spend a couple of days with him and his staff in Czech Republik, with his current team CEZ Nymburk.

Nymburk competes in FIBA’s Eurocup, the VTB League and Chech Republik’s national league (NBL).  Together with the NBL’s play-offs and some preseason games, Nymburk will have played 90+ games by the end of this season. This results in a very tough schedule of often 3 games a week (with long travels to Russia and Siberia in different time zones for the VTB League), harder than most NBA teams, who can count on a larger team, staff and budget.

Together with his assistants Robertas Kuncaitis and Ricardas Reimaris, the staff of Nymburk is completely Lithuanian. On the squad are two players well-known in the Belgian League, Jiri Welsh (former player of Boston Celtics and Spirou Charleroi) and Derek Raivio, who had two very succesfull seasons at Okapi Aalstar. The squad counts 5 Americans, 6 Czechs and 1 Slovakian.

During my stay, the team of Nymburk combined for two wins:
Friday 3/4/2015: Nymburk – Hradek 87-51                        1st Game QF playoffs NBL
Sunday 5/4/2015: Nymburk – Enisey (Siberia) 99-87      VTB League

As a coach, an exchange like this is priceless. I am strongly convinced that the game of basketball isn’t about hiding secrets: the magic play or drill to create champions doesn’t exist. A visit like this enables me to come in contact with the basketball philosophy of one of the best coaches in Europe: to get to know his accents in teaching, his contact with his players, his game preparation, focus on practices, his staff management, his coaching style from the first row, … I feel very lucky and rich as a coach for being able to have done numerous exchanges with excellent coaches, which make me able to construct my own philosophy about the game of basketball. A work that never stops, that lasts a career as a coach. The day that you’re not curious anymore, don’t have an open mind as a coach, is the day you sign your resignation letter. To all clubs and federations at the same time.

A huge THANKS goes to Coach Kemzura and CEZ Nymburk!

Kestutis Kemzura and me

Kestutis Kemzura and me

CEZ Nymburk vs Enisey (VTB League)

CEZ Nymburk vs Enisey (VTB League)

Game preparation

Game preparation

CEZ Nymburk huddle on gameday

CEZ Nymburk huddle on gameday

CEZ Nymburk's staff: Kestutis Kemzura, Robertas Kuncaitis, Ricardas Reimaris

CEZ Nymburk’s staff: Kestutis Kemzura, Robertas Kuncaitis, Ricardas Reimaris

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Basketball clinician in Qatar (december 2014)

December 2014, I spent a week in Doha (Qatar) as a clinician on behalf of FIBA. The Qatar Olympic Committee and the Qatar Basketball Federation (QBF) gathered 50 sports teachers, joined by 70 local coaches of all levels. The clinics were organised in the facilities of the QOC in Doha.

Some of my topics:
– How to work towards a motion offense?
– Offensive skills and footwork
– Basketball as a transition game
– Reading situations and decision making
– The passing game

Special thanks to FIBA, the Qatar Olympic Committee and the Qatar Basketball Federation.

Press conference with His Excellency Sheikh Al Thani

Press conference with His Excellency Sheikh Al Thani

Qatar Basketball Federation

Qatar Basketball Federation

Local press release

Local press release

Local press release

Local press release

Local press release

Local press release

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FIBA-instructor in Tunisia

I just spent one week as a FIBA-instructor in Tunisia. In a collaboration between FIBA, Olympic Solidarity and the Tunisian Basketball federation (FTBB), I conducted a technical course Level 3 for 32 local coaches. Spread over 5 days I gave 10 coaching clinics – both theoretical as on-court – on different subjects. Other clinicians were Mounir Ben Slimane (UAE), Ridha Labidi and Moussa Touré.

The venue of this event were the gyms, conference rooms and hotel of “Etoile Sportive du Sahel”,  one of the biggest sports clubs in Tunisia, located in Sousse. For the participating coaches an exam will be organised this fall to obtain there Level 3 coaching license.

In 2012, Tunisia played against the Dream Team (USA) on the Olympics in London, with Salah Mejri as their key player (former Antwerp Giant and currently playing for Real Madrid).

I want to thank explicitly the FTBB, FIBA and Olympic Solidarity for this opportunity and all organisors, clinicians and participating coaches for the warm welcome and the enriching basketball discussions.

Group picture with all participating coaches and the U14 demo team of Sousse

Group picture with all participating coaches and the U14 demo team of Sousse

Present of the national federation of Tunisia

Present of the national federation of Tunisia

"Offensice concepts in 3on3, 4on4 and 5on5"

“Offensice concepts in 3on3, 4on4 and 5on5”

Theoretical session "Profile and management of a high level team"

Theoretical session “Profile and management of a high level team”

On-court coaching clinic

On-court coaching clinic

Planning of the Level 3 Coaching course

Planning of the Level 3 Coaching course

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Shooting free throws is a mental game

Every basketball coach knows the importance of free throws during a game. Working on a good shooting form and hours and hours of practice are crucial to be a good shooter. But that’s not enough. Shooting a free throw with a couple seconds on the clock, a tied score and the pressure of a team, a coach and a crowd on your shoulders gives an extra dimension. Some great shooters already failed scoring this so-called “easiest shot” when the game was on the line.

As a coach you have to be creative to mimic a similar pressure on your pratice. Allthough it will never be the same as a game, you can find ways to improve the mental strengths of your players individually and your team as a group.

During my apprenticeship in NCAA basketball (see previous post), I had the change to experience how Coach Phil Martelli (NCAA Coach of the Year 2004, Saint-Joseph’s University) handles it.  The night before every game, he ends the team practice with the same drill. He puts a score of 70-70 on the scoreboard. Everybody has to shoot free throws and according to his rules of the drill, the team has “to win the game”.

This drill can be over in 5 mins, but can also take … 1h15. When the team loses the game, they start all over again. During my presence at SJU, it took the team 1h15 to complete the goal. In the beginning it seems funny, but after a while, we had to change gym (because the women’s team had a practice), managers and even assistent coaches started to leave. During this 1h15, Coach Martelli didn’t show a single emotion, while the players started to get annoyed and frustrated, and started to blame each other for not making their free throw. As a coach, this a moment where you will learn a lot about the dynamics within your group: who are the leaders, which players tends to give up soon, which bench players are important for your team chemistry, who steps up to make the clutch free throw …

For some this will seem a waste of time, but I’m sure that this will make your team stronger and gives you a lot of usefull information. Oh yes, after the 1h45 pratice and 1h15 free throw drill, a video session on the next opponent lasted for 45 mins. By Coach Phil Martelli himself, since the assistent coaches already left home.

Coach Phil Martelli at Saint Joseph's University, Season 2013-2014

Coach Phil Martelli at Saint Joseph’s University, season 2013-2014

 

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New challenge with the “Musel Pikes”

In the beginning of February, I took over the Musel Pikes as a head coach. The Musel Pikes play in the 1st Division of Luxemburg (Total League).

Team picture:
Musel Pikes Senior Men _

Team website:
http://develop.pikes.lu/

Calender and results:
http://www.flbb.lu/clubs.php?Abrclub=MUS&Option=Equipes&Gruni=MUS&Catage=SH

Press:
2014-02-25 23.28.23 2014-02-13 18.30.59

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The Talent Code – Greatness isn’t born, it’s grown

The Spartak Tennis Club is a small tennis club in Moscow with one (!) indoor court. Nevertheless, it produced more top 20 ranked women between 2005 and 2007 than the whole USA. It is an example of a “talent hotbed”.

I’ve recently read a book by Daniel Coyle, “The Talent Code“, which I can highly recommend to every coach or teacher. In this book, the author visits and investigates different talent hotbeds, in all sorts of domains: the Clifford soccer schools in Brazil, the baseball fields of the Carribbean, a classical music academy in New York, …

Coyle identifies three key elements of a talent hotbed:
1) Deep learning
Everybody knows that practice is the key to success. But not every practice is equally effective. Some keywords that characterize “deep” learning: challenging, room for making mistakes, breaking down, learning instead of winning, learning to make decisions, …
2) Ignition
We all need a little motivation to get started. Passion is a higher level of commitment and can be triggered by certain primal cues. One single example or event can be such a primal cue and can passionate a whole region or nation for a certain sports. For example, the Belgian tennis federation got an enormous amount of new members after the successes of Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin.
3) Master coaching
In his book, Coyle describes the characteristics of the world’s most effective coaches, with legendary basketball coach John Wooden being one of them. These “talent whisperers” must fuel the passion and create the right circumstances to ensure the deep learning every single practice.

To me, Lithuania is the best example of a “talent hotbed” in basketball. Lithuania has a population of 3,3 million (among 25000 basketball players) and is worldwide one of the greatest basketball nations (ranked 4th on FIBA world list and silver medal on Eurobasket 2013). Arvydas Sabonis is one Europe’s best players of all time and started his own basketball school in Lithuania. With Sabonis being the president of the Lithuanian basketball federation, they have for sure a man with a vision in the driving seat.

The other Dream Team“, is a great documentary which covers the inspirational story of the 1992 Lithuania national basketball team and their incredible journey from the clutches of Communism to the Summer Olympics in Barcelona:

The situation in Lithuania has to be an extra motivation for other nations to do better. For example, Belgium has a population 10,7 million (among which 93000 basketball players). On a smaller perspective, every coach should ask the question which percentage of every practice is a situation of “deep learning”. For me, this book also confirms the importance of having a 1st Division basketball team in my region (Limburg). Such a team can and will trigger a lot of little kids to be passionate about the game of basketball! It is a very important condition to create a “talent hotbed”!

 

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