In another addition of the “stuff I didn’t use for the Truehoop story” series, here’s my mildly edited interview with Kurt Rambis. I had been told that Rambis was so furious about the proposed content of my story that he nearly refused to talk to me. So by the time I got into his office, I was, just like the pro journalist I am, excruciatingly nervous. The barely-concealed irritation on his face as I entered certainly didn’t help matters. Don’t worry, it got easier.
[Stammering awkwardly]…So the public discourse is that the team is composed in such a strange way that it’s kind of baffling for people–
[Through very narrow eyes]. Explain. Explain what that means. How is it composed? We have centers, we have power forwards, we have small forwards, we have point guards and off guards.
Right. I think when they look at having Martell and Wes and Corey at the same position, that’s seen as being redundant. And I think part of that is the Darko signing, people seeing that as being…as being strange.
[Trying again] But…you talked about last year as being kind of a restart year. How did you approach coaching knowing that that was the case, knowing you had players that probably weren’t going to be around?
Well, you still coach. You still coach offense and defense and you try to get the players playing as well as they can possibly play, together at both ends of the floor. Part of my job is to try and bring out the potential in the individuals and the potential in the team. Obviously having last year so many new guys, so many young guys. Everything’s new, the coaches are new, the players are new. So there was a lot of teaching that was happening. We also had a lot of injuries. Kevin was hurt. Al was still coming back from his knee injury and I don’t think every quite regained the pop that he once had. So even the key ballplayers on our team were not quite there. And then we had the adjustment of bringing in Darko at the late stage in the season, trying to assimilate him into what we were doing last year. So all of that made it a difficult situation for us to try and win ballgames.
And we had so many players that were on the last years of their contracts who were playing for possible positions on this team and other teams and to stay in the league. And so it wasn’t a conducive environment to call it really the first year of a building situation. That’s why I said that that wasn’t even year one, that was year zero. This is kind of year one. This is the first year where we can start building with pieces that you can move forward with.
Was it a struggle to find the balance between trying to develop players and winning on a nightly basis?
It’s always like that when you have young players. You want to give them as much time as possible so that they can grow and learn the league. There are so many things that rookies, when they come in, have to learn: how to defend in this league, the talented ballplayers, the different arenas, just adjusting to the number of games. The sheer number of games that you play is always taxing on rookies. Just personally, forget about the team. And last year we had a whole bunch of guys like that.
Is your approach as a coach different now that the team is made up more of people that you’ve chosen?
No I think we’re still trying to teach guys to play the way that we want them to play, to have the basketball concepts that they need in order to win in this league, developing their individual talent, teaching them to play together at both ends of the floor. It’s a process, it takes time.
In some ways we’ve done the young players a disservice because they’re not playing behind a 7 or 8 year veteran that teaches them how to behave on and off the floor, how to practice, how to work hard. Instead of having that guy, they’re that guy. So they’re having to figure it out on their own.
Obviously we’re helping them, as coaches, try to figure it out. But whenever they’re out their on the floor they’re having to make these instantaneous decisions[…] If you watch them play and consider how well organized they are for the majority of the game–they have their moments when it all falls apart which you kind of expect. And that’s why I’ll put different people in, trying to change matchups or calm them down out there.
I’ve seen some stats saying that the team gets outscored pretty heavily when Love and Darko are out there together. I don’t know if you’ve seen the same thing but if you have, why might that be?
Well they’re starters and you’re looking at the opposing team’s best players. And they’re out there for a majority of the time and we’re losing games, so that all kind of fits, right [laughs]? Until we get to a point where we’re winning games and scoring more points than our opponent, you probably won’t see that turn around.
Love’s still obviously learning defensively. It seems to me and from what I’ve seen that Love is behind Tolliver defensively…is his learning process defensively just something where he’s expected to just learn as he’s going on the floor?
I explained to Kevin too that the power forward position is a relatively unique position because the guy that you have to defend can vary greatly from team to team. And I used my own examples. Alex English and Bernard King and Moses Malone and Atis Gilmore—one night you’re absolutely wrestling with somebody who’s bigger and stronger than you are, taller than you are and then you’re having to chase somebody all over the floor who’s a finesse oriented player. So you have to always change your game and you have to be on top of it defensively.
And not only does he have to do a great job of defending his individual assignment, but he’s got to do a great job at his team assignments too. [...] So he’s learning how to incorporate all of that—guarding his man, his team defensive assignments and rebounding the basketball.
If he’s in a game hurting a team defensively–and I think I know the answer to this question–would you let him play through it because of what he brings you at the other end of the floor?
I went through training camp and told everybody and everybody on the team agreed to it, they signed on with it that if there’s a unit out there that’s playing well, that unit’s going to stay on the floor. And if a unit isn’t doing well, if a player isn’t doing well then I’m gonna make an adjustment. And they said that’s great, that’s fine, that’s the way it should be. So now everybody feels comfortable in knowing that if something’s not going right then I’m gonna send someone else out there on the floor. And I think that I’ve demonstrated that with everybody.
Were you aware of the controversy that sprouted up after that first game? Did you care about that?
No, not if you take it and isolate it, which is what I do. People carried it over from last year. They looked at him coming off the bench last year—and again, Kevin coming off the bench last year had nothing to do with Kevin. It’s not as if he wasn’t playing well, it’s just that this combination of Al and Kevin wasn’t working[...] And Al with his knee injury, I didn’t think Al could come off the bench, so it was just a logical thing. Obviously every player wants to start and Kevin had been starting and it was difficult for him. I think that’s all it was.
Kevin got frustrated but I was just trying to do what was best for the team at that time. Everybody held it over in that first ballgame, and again it was just a decision where I though Anthony was doing a really good job. Kevin and I are on the same page, we’re working on things with him offensively and defensively. And it’s also a challenge for him too. Every player wants to play minutes but you have to earn those minutes. You have to go out and prove that you deserve those minutes. It’s a challenge for him to go out on a nightly basis as it is for every ballplayer, that you’ve got to go out and do the right things for the team. And I think he’s learning that. He’s had several 40+ minute games because he’s doing the right thing the majority of the time out there.
How does your offensive approach change when you have someone like Beasley playing well? Do you play less triangle, more isolations?
There’s nothing that every other team in the league runs that we can’t run out of our offense. We’re not always in that offense, let’s say the way the Lakers do. We use it as more of a flow offense. When we’re pushing the ball this is what we flow into rather than having to pull the ball back out and call a play. Any time a player gets on a roll, we can manipulate things to get a player more touches. And we’re looking at junctures of the game where we can’t get anything going too, where he can kind of create his own shot. He’s probably the only player on our team that you could really put on a side and they could get their own thing going.
Because, for the most part, when it’s done right the players all get their hands on the ball. So if somebody’s got a roll going, they’re gonna get their hands on the ball and their gonna find a way to score out of it.
How would you characterize the mood of the players right now?
They’re probably frustrated with losing, they’re angry with losing. But I think they’re extremely optimistic. They see the potential in themselves, they see the potential of the team. They even see it, that there are moments when everything is just working for them. It’s just getting them to the point where they can figure out how to do that the majority of the time and not just chunks of the game. Nobody likes losing and that’s the kind of players that we want to have on this team. We want to have guys that hate losing and enjoy the thrill of winning. They can see it. They can see the potential of what we can do.
And you feel like you as coaches have a good relationship with the team? It’s the relationship you want to have?
Yes. Every player in there will probably say that they want to play more. And I expect that. I don’t want guys sitting on the bench that don’t think that they should be out there, especially when we’re losing. I fully expect them to be saying that they could help, that they could play more and if they’re not playing I fully expect them to say that. But if you’re talking about guys seeing the team and the potential of the team and their teammates and getting along with the coaching staff, I think we feel very positive about that.