Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Practice Makes Perfect?

One of the continual bones of contention this season centered around practice frequency, times, and habits. The power struggle between Nate and the team leaders over this issue hit the media on multiple occasions. (Which means there's likely more behind the scenes that we didn't see.) It culminated late in the season with articles about the youngsters practically begging Zach to participate in drills and Zach re-naming the coach "Sarge".

For the most part, I do not believe that the drill-sergeant approach works with professional-level players, at least not in a steady diet. These guys are highly paid, highly trained athletes who have spent years honing their games. I'm not saying they don't need work--especially the young ones. But at some point there has to be room for them to have a say too and for them to feel respected and trusted. It's not surprising that many would bridle at the idea of being sent back to "boot camp" so to speak. And Zach and company are hardly the first players to rebel against such a notion. We all remember Allen Iverson's famous outburst.

That said, I do believe professional athletes need to be pushed. I doubt Zach knows anything about the rigors people suffer under real drill sergeants, or even what his elders went through under vintage-era Pat Riley. There's a difference between wanting to be respected and trusted and just not wanting to be bothered. I am not confident in Zach's ability to discern between the two, nor that he's had enough years and success in the league to be able to judge.

Practice also serves two irreplaceably valuable purposes:

1. It builds team-wide "muscle memory" (so to speak), making critical plays routine. I believe that most of these players, given time, would know the right decisions to make in any given situation. They're too good not to. But last-second, crisis-level plays don't give you that time. It's not enough to know what to do. You've got to be able to perform even when your brain is overloaded, your adrenaline is running high, your stomach is in your throat, and five very big people are doing everything they can to make sure you don't accomplish what you desire. In those situations there's no time to think--no ability to even. As a little, green wise man once said, you just do...or do not. Consistent practice subliminates those critical decisions from the level of conscious thought to instinctive action.

Our 1999-2001 teams were populated with cagey veterans--guys who had proven themselves and knew the game. A lot of those people also famously distained practice. If you remember, that team was great when it was bulldozing people with talent, but when the game got tight it often fell apart. And I'm not just talking about the infamous fourth-quarter collapse here...it was a regular occurrence. This tendency was masked by the fact that games seldom got close, but it was there. And I don't think the two were unrelated. When the crucial moment comes you won't perform like you think you should, you'll perform the way you practiced.

2. The other indispensable function of practice is to build team continuity. In basketball one guy can mess up everything you're trying to do just by being in the wrong place or doing the wrong thing. Ruben Patterson was a prime example of a great individual player who torpedoed a lot of sets by being a loose cannon.

Spacing is an important and underrated concept in basketball. I heard a coach make a fantastic comparison between basketball and chess recently. Chess is all about controlling squares with your pieces. The more space you control, the harder it is for the opponent to move productively. Basketball is the same way. On offense you try to have guys spread out in such a way that passes are easy, lanes are open for driving, and players can run interference for each other. It's the same on defense, except you try to disrupt those things for your opponent. Having players occupy the same space on the floor while leaving other spaces open wastes your resources and makes it easier for the opponent to stop you or score (whichever). Again using Ruben as an example, how many times did we watch him and one of the other forwards posting up in the same area, two feet away from each other, both calling for the ball? Or how many times this season did we see our defense respond to an opponent's post entry pass with a completely unnecessary triple-team when a double-team or even single coverage would have sufficed? The sad truth is, we've been absolutely horrible at spacing for most of the last three years. It's no coincidence that we're losing games in droves.

Timing is also a critical factor here. You not only have to know where to be, but when to move and how to react to what other players are doing. In a five-man game where any player can get the ball at any time dependence on teammates is a given. If your action is out of step with the rest of the team it's worthless, even if it seems brilliant at the time.

The point is that the only way I know to develop spacing and timing continuity between fifteen people occupying five interchangeable spots in a fast-paced game is practice, and lots of it. Being a great individual player is great, but the purpose of that talent is creating a winning team. That'll never happen unless those individuals put in their time together.

I must admit I cringed a couple times this season when it appeared Nate was using practice as a public, punitive measure to whip the kids into shape. I wished that either he'd find another way or at least that it was kept private. On the other hand I suspect that these guys need to be taught how to discipline themselves to practice well before they can be taught to play well. I think that is the message Nate is trying to get across. Let's hope that somebody picks it up.

--Dave

P.S. I know everybody's abuzz about today's Oregonian article that the Blazers and PAM have agreed to agree on agreeing on stuff. I'll have more detailed ownership thoughts tomorrow after we see a full article about it.

5 Comments:

Blogger BLAZER PROPHET said...

I share a similar concern about Nate & Darius. Darius is an introvert who wants to win. He's easily the most talented SF on the team and when we're going thru this evaluation process and he maybe starts and maybe not, when he sees a team dedicated not to winning (for the time being) I think he goes into a funk. IMHO, if Nate reached out to him a bit more we might see a completely different player, but Nate doesn't seem to have that ability to get the most out of his players- only those who are his type of player. To me, that's a negative.

7:43 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

Yeah. I said in a post last month that I think Nate himself would agree that he employed the wrong tactics with some of his players this year. Every player is different and some will respond to one thing and not another. Nate seemed to take a "throw the spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks" approach this year. Most of it didn't stick, at least with the veterans.

That said, it's got to be a two-way street and I am not sure Miles is very good at reaching out and accepting coaching no matter how things are put. He had big time problems with Paul Silas and Mo Cheeks, and now Nate? Even giving him every benefit of the doubt, at some point you've got to say he's not the easiest guy to get along with or motivate.

I do think Nate did a good job motivating and teaching the youngsters however. I think we saw clear improvement and progress along the learning curve from Martell, Jarrett, Bassy, and maybe even Khryapa. Did you perceive that also?

--Dave

7:33 PM  
Blogger BLAZER PROPHET said...

I agree completely. Nate has a good ability to bring along young players. Much more so than Dunleavy or Cheeks.

I also agree that Darius is not good at meeting the coach half way. However, with his kind of talent at both ends of the floor it would behoove Nate to go the extra mile. I mean, hell, he's making $5,000,000.00 per year. That should buy us something.

7:34 AM  
Anonymous jorga said...

Isn't it always best to start off strict and ease up rather than to begin laid-back then try to crack down? (At least this is the advice they give teachers and mothers and managers.) I'm guessing that if the team had been winning, or even making great strides forward then Nate would have relaxed the boot camp atmosphere. I could be wrong - he may know nothing other than driving his players hard.

Maybe we need a sports psycholgist to come in at the beginning of training camp and do some player evaluation and then spend time with the coaches explaining how to get through to each player. Or is this way too unmacho? Somehow I can't see Miles sitting down and honestly completing the Meyers-Briggs. He gives me the impression that he thinks he's too good to change and everyone should adapt to him.

8:45 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

Meyers-Briggs. Funny! I suspect Darius' personality type would turn out to be J E R K...

--Dave

9:56 AM  

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