Steve Nash is just three days away from coaching his first exhibition game as an NBA coach. As the NBA season slowly approaches, Nash admits he’s still learning to be a head coach ... with the help of his coaching staff and players.
And, of course, his first preseason game vs. the Wizards Sunday night, will be without fans, something he’s going to have to get used to. There’s no guarantee that fans will be permitted inside Barclays Center at any point this season.
“Coaching with or without fans will be different for me,” Nash said with a smile. “I am pretty green obviously. I have a lot of history and experience with the game and the league but actually sitting in that seat is going to take a little bit of time to get used to whether there are fans or no fans.”
Then there’s the question of what kind of coach will Nash be on the sidelines. Nash admitted he doesn’t know how he’s going to react game situations in his first coaching gig. In fact, the other day, Grant Hill said he expects his former teammate to get his first technical in his first game. Nash thinks he will be under control and a mellow expressed coach but with his competitiveness and passion for the game of basketball, anything can happen.
“I feel like I am just going to be a meme of Grant Hill for the rest of my life now that I’ve taken this role,” Nash said jokingly. “I’ve thought about it and I want to say I’ll be under control and b more on the mellow side but that might be pretty presumptuous. I’ve always been a bit fiery and emotional as a player and that kind of competitiveness and passion is really hard to subdue so we’ll see.
“I feel like I’ll be reasonable over there but who knows how I will react well to the moment, be a little bit loud, and have to be able to adapt. Find a nice middle ground where I can be passionate, emotional, and competitive sense but be under control.”
But like all coaches, rookie or not, Nash will have to deal with issues like defense, rotations, development... all of it.
It has been no secret Nash and the Nets coaching staff wants to build a great defensive team. That should not come as a surprise considering the top three records over the past three seasons have been the best defensive rated teams.
Nash explained how during Thursday’s practice, his players’ defense was “picked apart,” noting that the schemes are so new to players.
“Today, I think we have to continue to build our defense,” Nash said. “Yesterday, we had a more controlled scrimmage, and our defense I thought was excellent. Today, we played more of scrimmage and I thought our defense got a little picked apart so we got to keep building. It’s so new. The game happens so quickly that there needs to be a process to hone in on those principles, that connectivity with one and other, and today the defense proved we needed to work at.”
Also, it’s become clear the Nets are going down the path of “position-less” basketball and maybe taking it to a new level. More than one player has said the defense has some surprises in store, some nuances that haven’t been seen before. When it comes to defense, there most definitely will be a lot of switching but with different levels of flexibility.
“I think one of the trademarks of this kind of the position-less era is that versatility and that flexibility to play a traditional rim protector, to be able to switch as much as possible, plug and play with a small-ball-5 that can switch everything to made switch everything with the traditional five,” Nash said, speaking about versatility on the defensive side.
“Having those different facets of flexibility defensively are really important. You see a lot of teams with different profiles that challenge you in different ways so the more versatility you have I think the better. Clearly, we have some versatility offensively because we have a lot of guys who can make plays and shoot the ball but defensively, that is where we have to get tight. Just be able to mix and match and stick to our principles but mix and match the profile of our individual players to collectively get ourselves an advantage depending on the matchups.”
Another particular challenge to Nash’s defensive plan will be the emptiness of the arena. The 46-year-old coach has heard about how defenses in the “bubble” had suffered due to the lack of fan noise. He’s banking on his players providing that energy and helping guys adjust if a problem occurs due to no crowd noise.
“We have learned that in the ‘bubble,’ the bench and talking when you can hear and see everything your bench says, it had a big impact defensively,” Nash said about quiet arenas. “That is the word that I am hearing. We definitely have to be engaged with the staff and players and make some noise for our team. Give them that energy and purpose but also be able to dictate sometimes to be able to help a guy that lost. Be able to get ourselves in our sets and schemes defensively.
“I think there is a big difference in that respect because when the arena is full, who knows if a guy hears you or not. You can try but when an arena is empty, the word is that in the ‘bubble,’ you can really really dictate and help your team get into its schemes, the right positions, and talk them through different scenarios. That is something we have to try to adapt to and be really good at.”
Beyond defensive challenges that can arise from an empty arena, Nash acknowledged how fans can make a big difference in a game. He wants fans in the seats but only when the society is in a healthier place.
“It is just a shame that it just happens to be that we are in a global pandemic and we are not going to have fans. That is the right call until we are able to safely have fans so we have to live with it. We have to be incredibly versatile and mobile this year and fluid, be able to adapt, and make changes.
“The teams that are more willing to accept that this isn’t going to be regular and things are going to constantly be in flux have an advantage. So I don’t know if it is a good thing to start off my coaching career with no fans yelling at me to call a timeout or whatever they want to say or if it is a bad thing because our business love having fans in the competitive nature of fans aid and inspire so let’s hope they come back soon but that means we will have a healthy society in some stretch.”
So what about rotations, a critical job for the head coach? The Nets continually plan to work on their rotations, Nash. We can expect to see a lot of substitutions and quite a bit of mix and matching with players on the court Sunday.
“I think for the rotations, I don’t know if we are there yet,” Nash said. “We have to give people a little more of a look and see what we have. That is going to be a process with two exhibition games. If we jump into what we see as a perceived rotation, it might be too soon. We may not know so in a sense, this may be a process that takes longer so we’ll see.”
Nash notes how the NBA’s condensed and compressed schedule makes it a challenge towards rotations. On top of the schedule, injuries and the ongoing pandemic can arise unexpected challenges for the Nets.
“To be frank, with the compressed and condensed schedule, that might be a process that kind of goes on all year. We have to be flexible with the rotations and roster. Who knows what will happen with COVID or injuries so we’ll probably air on the side of not making any real firm decisions. Being very flexible and kind of using as many guys as possible in the interim.
Another interesting challenge Nash will face is development, winning while also focusing on his young players. Not easy being the head coach of a championship-contending team with great depth on one hand and a team with a number of young and restless neophytes. (The Nets average age is 26.1 years, eighth oldest in the league, younger than most contenders.)
Nash knows it can be hard for young guys to stay motivated, especially if they are not seeing minutes but he hopes his young’uns continue to strive for growth and feel valued.
“It is important those guys if they are not in the rotation or if they are clearly on the developmental side, that they still feel valued,” Nash said. “They still feel hope. They are still striving for something continually without losing motivation because they are not playing immediately. That is a part of being a professional athlete and especially a part of being a developmental player.
“When you have a team as talented as some of the guys on the top end of our roster, it is just cut and dry. Can’t play everybody and some guys are going to play a lot so some of these guys that are NBA players but aren’t quite ready to break into our rotation have got to stay hungry and foster their development while they are not necessarily getting NBA action. That is a real skill to develop players in that scenario but that’s something NBA teams have all honed in on and are doing a pretty good job. We have a great development department and we will continue to work with those guys.
“On the human side, it is even more important to keep them engaged, keep them striving, and feeling motivated to continue to develop whether they see time or not.”
Although it is hard to incorporate young players in a team filled with depth and two stars, DeAndre Jordan noted how the team’s young players are mature and are working extremely hard to get better, which rubs off on the veteran players.
“As far as younger players, they are very mature. Everybody wants to work and wants to get better. Even if guys aren’t getting their reps that they want to get in practice, those guys are locked in in timeouts. Whenever we do scrimmages, guys are locked in, seeing plays, and defensive schemes.
“Before or after practice, guys get their work in,” said the 32-year-old Jordan. “Those guys are working their tails off right now so it’s good to be able to have young talent like that who want to work and continue to get better. When you have guys like Ky, Kev, Joe, Spencer, and guys who have been in the league for a few years, they can learn from it, it takes their talent level up a notch.”
There is one thing we do know about Nash’s debut. He’ll be wearing a golf shirt, not a traditional suit or sports jacket. A change is coming.
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- Kevin Durant, Steve Nash and all the Nets under the most pressure this season - Alex Schiffer - The Athletic New York