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How Steve Nash is gaining his footing as an NBA rookie head coach

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When a reporter noted his lack of experience Tuesday, Steve Nash smiled, took a swig of water and said simply, “undefeated.”

And when he was asked about the mini-controversy over Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant saying either of them could be coach, Nash was equally jocular.

“Can you repeat that Kyrie quote - I never heard that one. Just kidding,” Nash joked. “I read what he had said and I think it was one phrase at the end of a bunch of things he said about being excited about having me in this position and coaching and then took it to another level that seemed to grab all the headlines, which is fine.”

Then, Nash moved quickly to the serious.

“I mean I’m in a fortunate position where I get to coach Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. What we built here in a short period of time and how we are going to practice and play I think is exciting. I’m thrilled to be able to coach those guys. So, if one statement I don’t think was necessarily wasn’t meant the way it was taken by the press, that doesn’t bother me at all. I enjoy working with those guys, feel incredibly fortunate to work with them, and this is going to be a blast for me to coach those guys.”

With the first day of training camp in the books, the Hall of Fame player talked about a wide range of subjects, showing the aplomb that made him a fan —and media—favorite. There was the collaborative work he and his coaching staff have shared, how he’s still learning and obviously thrilled about a roster led by two superstars. He admitted he doesn’t have a straight line approach in terms of training camp. Instead, he wants to remain fluid and flexible. It is his first one, after all.

“I don’t know if I have an answer,” Nash said. “I would say that we definitely come in saying ‘let’s be fluid and flexible’ because any day things can change so we will have to be able to roll with it and be able to adjust and adapt.

“Fortunately for me, I have an incredible staff. They are making me confident, comfortable, and we are building something together. It is very collaborative so I am able to lean on their experiences but their practical experiences as head coaches or assistant coaches. We have almost always a consensus and we listen to everyone’s opinions to build that consensus in a smart and strategic way.”

Along with being fluid and flexible, Nash said he’s blended his experiences with those of his coaching staff to gain experience and build common ground with them and the players.

“The immediate answer is I hope I came in knowing what I don’t know and knowing where I am going to need to gain experience,” Nash said. “Fortunately, we have an incredible staff. I’m highly tuned to the fact that I got a lot to learn and of course I have my experiences and beliefs but I also have to be open to what I don’t know, what I can learn, and how we can fit all those pieces together and be as efficient as possible. Create an environment that is not only really, really fun, challenging for our players, but is a style of play that is incredibly competitive so you put that all in the mix and for me, it kind of is like the question. A blend of all those experiences I had in and outside of the sport with the practical experiences that my staff has.”

When asked about any surprises Nash has faced in his tenure thus far with the Nets, he pinpointed coordination of information across all departments, the grunt work of coaching. From surveying information to integrating people and personalities, he called it challenging but “one of the most rewarding and enjoyable parts of the job.”

“I would say just the amount of information and people there is to coordinate,” Nash said. “I’d say that has been something that has been an adaptation for me and a challenge but also incredibly welcome. It is incredible how much support and how much all of our departments are, how well-staffed, how thoughtful, and what a foundation we have here.

“For me to slide into this position is very privileged because of all the work that has been done to build our departments and our staff. That’s been challenging to survey all of that information, to integrate it with the people and personalities but it has also been one of the most rewarding and enjoyable parts of the job.”

For Nash, Mike D’Antoni, his former head coach and now his assistant —and offensive coordinator, has played a big role in helping the rookie coach gain his footing as a coach. Nash values D’Antoni’s long resume of winning and experience as a head coach, noting he is a guy he can approach in many ways and talk to about anything. Nash wants and has that same agenda with the other members of his coaching staff as well.

“He is already everyone’s favorite in the office,” Nash said about his former mentor. “He has definitely brought his typical personality, charm, and sense of humor. For somebody who has been a head coach in this league for so long and had so much success, he is incredibly humble but he has given me a great amount of comfort. Someone to have a relationship with to help guide and call, text him, or knock on his door or whatever it may be to gain his thoughts.

“I do that with all of our coaches. I really seek all of their opinions and all of their knowledge but Mike has been in a position where he has been doing this for so long and in such a unique perspective and skill set. He has been incredible for me but he has also been great every day here in the building and I think people have gravitated to him quickly.”

As for D’Antoni’s role as an assistant, he is the offensive coordinator for this Nets team. He will lead the offense while Brooklyn’s long-time lead assistant, Jacque Vaughn, will man the defensive end. Despite labeling the leaders of both sides of the ball, he wants there to be collaboration as well.

“Jacque Vaughn will lead the defense and Mike D’Antoni will lead the offense but we really want it to be very collaborative,” Nash said about leaders on both ends of the floor. “We want everyone to have input on both sides of the ball. In some respects, I have gone more so in that direction because I am a rookie coach and I want to be able to look at one person to say ‘look what are we doing here, what’s our adjustment, where are we in context to our schemes at either end.

“Perhaps if I have been doing this for a bunch of years, we may be completely flat and we all are collaborating but I think we want the spirit of collaboration but those two are going to lead each side of the ball.”

On the offensive end, Nash said he wants to play an “uptempo style,” taking advantage of the Nets playmaking and shooting. No surprise there. The rookie head coach also noted the value his centers will have in the offensive agenda. He called his centers (Jarrett Allen, DeAndre Jordan, and stretch-five Jeff Green) vertical threats and stretch them offensively to make the court bigger.

“I think we want to play an uptempo style,” Nash said. “We want to push the ball in transition, play in the open court, and in the halfcourt make quick decisions, space the floor, and take advantage of our playmaking and shooting. We have some centers that are vertical threats as well so we can really put pressure on people above the rim but also stretch them and make the court big and difficult to cover.”

When it comes to usage and spreading the touches on the offensive end, Nash does not see that as a major concern. He calls his players an ‘unselfish group’ and Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving will take the lead.

“I feel really fortunate that we have an unselfish group,” Nash said. “We have guys that enjoy playing the right way. You look at Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving - they are not only incredible basketball players with huge skill levels but their IQ and acumen are incredible. Instinctively very intelligent on the court so they take the lead there but you look at the depth we have, there aren’t any ball stoppers so I feel really fortunate that that is an asset and a strength of our team. We have depth, multiple guys that can shoot and play make, we have centers that can dive to the basket and be a threat so there is a lot of balance there. Guys, typically in this group, want to play the right way.”

When asked if Nash’s offensive will mirror D’Antoni and his “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns offense, Nash stated that there will be similarities but that style of offense is already the standard throughout the league. He wants to create an offense that is built upon the personalities and skill sets of his roster.

“I definitely think there will be similarities but I also think it’s clearly the way we played in Phoenix is very common to today’s game,” Nash said. “I look around the league and a lot of teams really look in some ways similar to that. We will have some similarities but you also have to really consider and blend with the personnel you have. Some of that is strategic and some of that is organic and we are going to let it grow and lets those understandings and relationships form and create an offense that is heavily built upon the personalities and skill sets of our players.”

As for the defensive side of the ball, Nash still labels it as a big priority, calling it the key ingredient to a championship team.

“It’s important and a priority for sure,” Nash said. “We realize that we are trying to compete for a championship and we have to be excellent defensively so it is going to be a process.”

As mentioned, Nash has Vaughn as his defensive coordinator. The rookie coach noted Vaughn’s defense in the bubble. Indeed, in the bubble, Vaughn used basic man-to-man defense and encouraged 1-through-5 switching within all those bite-sized Nets lineups. Still, the Nets ended up giving up a combined 246 points in the first two games.

It should be noted that when it came to switching on nearly every screen, the players did not look comfortable. It was visible in the games against the Washington Wizards and the Orlando Magic in the remaining seeding games. As bubble play progressed, Vaughn took a page out of Kenny Atkinson’s playbook and utilized zone defense, specifically a 3-2 zone, which worked better, especially against the Bucks.

Nash noted how the defensive strategy is “similar and in line” with how things are going currently. The Nets head coach labeled it as a work-in-progress and is something that will be built all year but the team needs to invest in that side of the ball to be good enough to bring home the franchise’s first championship.

“I think the defense last year changed in the bubble. I think Jacque started to put his imprints and adjustments into the defense and the performances in the bubble. I think that many of them were similar and in line with the way I see things so we have had a really enjoyable process of going through the film, looking around the league, figuring out what suits our team, and the way we play our game nowadays.

“There will be some commonality with the roster and there will also be some differences and adjustments but I think JV’s adjustments in the bubble is where we are going towards. At the same time, it is a working progress. It is something we will build all year. We may have some hard patches as we adapt but we realize that this is something we got to stick to, continue to work on and invest in every day if we are going to be good enough to compete for a championship.”

As for culture, for which the Nets have received great praise on throughout the past couple of seasons across the league, competitiveness and connectivity are the two key elements for the team’s identity.

“We value competitiveness and connectivity,” Nash said about the Nets culture. “So hopefully, they are going to see a team that is competitive, connected, has a great spirit, and loves the game. That is the type of atmosphere we are trying to create here at the practice center and hopefully, that emulates our style and what you see and feel when we are on the court.”

Outside of the challenges of being a rookie head coach, Nash enters waters that no other rookie coach has experienced: coaching in a pandemic. The 46-year-old completely understands the climate and nature of living in a pandemic, especially outside the hardwood. In the end, Nash, once again, stressed fluidity and being adaptive. He wants to look at the bright and positive sides if those kinds of challenges surface.

In addition, to always look at the positive opportunities that arise but in the end, value the measures and make sure they are staying safe.

“First and foremost the health of our players. If a player is unavailable, it is an opportunity for the rest of the team to grow and galvanize in support of that player and without them. We will always look to the positive opportunities that arise and try to be as thoughtful and diligent as to how we treat this virus and all the measures we are taking to make sure we stay safe.”