Diehard NBA fans can name every player on their favorite team as well as the head coach and general manager, but how many can name every assistant coach on the bench? How many know what an assistant’s job entails?
Countless individuals grind every day to rise through the coaching ranks, hoping to one day secure a job on an NBA coaching staff. Much like playing in the league, it’s a dream job that few individuals ever get to actually achieve, which is why any cons that come with it are tolerated.
HoopsHype talked with three assistants to discuss the pros and cons of the job, what a typical game-day is like, their relationships with players and more. Two of the assistant coaches requested to speak on the condition of anonymity because they were sharing sensitive information. (Some NBA teams don’t allow their assistant coaches to give on-the-record interviews.)
THE PROS AND CONS OF THE JOB
Let’s start with the positives. For one, you’re working very closely with some of the best athletes in the world and contributing to an NBA team’s push for a championship. Many former players realize that they miss the competition and camaraderie once they step away from the game, so they transition into a coaching job to scratch that itch.
Also, when you’re working for an NBA organization, you have world-class facilities and terrific benefits, you’re staying in five-star hotels and traveling on chartered jets. It can be exhausting, but it’s a luxurious lifestyle. One assistant coach laughed at the thought of his life being hard now, pointing out that prior to coaching pros in the NBA, he was living in a dingy apartment that doubled as a laundromat for his high-school players’ jerseys.
“I love seeing players experience success, first and foremost,” one assistant coach said. “Even just seeing little breakthroughs from a player is great. You’re always working on something with a player and I love seeing results. Right now, the NBA is trending younger and younger, which means there’s a lot to learn from a development standpoint – on and off the court. When that success is accompanied by winning, that’s the absolute best. You see how hard these guys work and how much they put into every game; when you win, it’s great. It sounds cliché to say I love winning, but this job is built on wins and losses.”
Portland Trail Blazers assistant coach David Vanterpool pointed out that this career path allows him to make a difference in many lives. Vanterpool, 45, started working with the Blazers in 2012 after a playing career that included stints in the NBA, Italy, China and Russia.
“My favorite part of the job is the opportunity to impact these young men’s lives,” Vanterpool said. “You’d be surprised how many times the conversation gravitates from basketball to life. In this job, you get an opportunity to be closely related to some of the most admired people in sports. But, aside from them being admired for their athletic prowess, they’re still people. They’re highly talented; more talented than I could’ve ever dreamed to be. But you realize that you can contribute to their lives aside from their profession. If I have some little tidbit I can offer a player and it can impact his life, that is really gratifying. Sometimes, it’s telling them about a mistake that I made in the past. That means a lot to me. You’re watching these kids’ lives completely transform.”
While it’s easy to see why droves of people wish they were coaching in the NBA, there are downsides that come with the profession. For one, you’re never off the clock. There’s a never-ending to-do list because there’s always something that could be done, such as watching more film or tweaking a game-plan or adjusting a player’s development plan and so on.
“You’re never done working,” Vanterpool said. “There’s always something that can be done. Always. This job is 24/7. I like to use the saying, ‘Every day is Wednesday to me.’ It doesn’t matter what day of the week it is or what the date is, all that matters is whether we have a game or we don’t. Every day is Wednesday.”
“There’s always some film I need to watch, either now or later,” one assistant said. “Tomorrow, for example, I’ll be watching three or four games and taking a ton of notes. I’m always watching film – after games, on airplanes, in hotel rooms. It’s tough, but you have to get all of your work done.”
“One thing to understand with this job is you’re working every single day,” another assistant coach added. “My son plays basketball now and when I’ve talked to some of the other parents, they’re just blown away that we don’t have a single day off until the end of the season. The level of work obviously varies day-to-day, but it’s an every-day job. You’re either working with your guys on the court or you’re working off the court by going through to film to help them with some aspect of their development or to prepare them for an opponent. When coupled with the travel, it can be tough, especially if you have a family.”
To get an idea of what this lifestyle is like, Vanterpool called to do his phone interview from a Sacramento hotel room on January 1, hours after celebrating the New Year by watching the ball drop with some players at a random restaurant. Another assistant called from his hotel room on Christmas Eve, explaining that his family was celebrating around his work schedule. Both men were alone on holidays, trying to make the best of it. It’s a very demanding job that requires a ton of travel, which takes a toll on an individual and the people close to them.
“You have to make big sacrifices, for sure, and if you don’t have the right support structure at home, it could be extremely difficult,” another assistant coach said. “My wife is so supportive and she does a great deal for our family, so we’re able to make it work. But that doesn’t mean it’s not hard. One thing that helps is that if we’re just gone for a road game, not a long road trip, then we play the game that night and I’m getting home around midnight or 1:00 a.m. That means I get to sleep in my own bed and when I wake up in the morning, I’m there with my family. NBA travel is way better than, say, G League travel. In the G League, you’re playing the game, staying overnight in that city and then traveling at 3:00 a.m. or 4:00 a.m. rather than arriving at that time. The travel is still tough, though. We’re playing 41 away games and there’s a minimum of two flights per trip, so it’s a lot. I always try to take care of my body – staying hydrated, getting enough sleep, working out – and I drink Emergen-C to try to keep from getting sick. The players are the ones playing, traveling and then playing again. As a coach, you have to be able to bring that energy because it can affect the players and maybe help them forget how fatigued they are so they can play their best.”
“The travel gets more and more taxing; you don’t realize how taxing it is until you stop stumbling around and realize how tired you are,” Vanterpool said. “For the players, it’s obviously even worse because they’re the ones running up and down the court. For us coaches, it can be difficult mentally because your schedule is just in disarray. A lot of coaches like to get workouts in, but with our schedule, it has to be more impromptu. You have to balance it with the film you have to watch and shootaround and meetings and flights. There are a lot of things that throw your schedule out of whack. Time management is very important in this job. But time management does get more difficult the longer you’re on a road trip.”
Another thing that every coach mentioned is that there’s only so much you can do to help a player or the team as a whole. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. You can’t maximize every player’s potential. You can’t win every game you’ve perfectly prep. There’s quite a bit that’s out of your hands.
“What’s most frustrating is probably dealing with the guys who just don’t get it,” Vanterpool said. “Not every story is a success story. There are times when I’m talking to a player and even some of his peers are trying to get him to take heed, but the guy just doesn’t listen. You can tell a guy, ‘That isn’t the best situation,’ and, ‘Watch out for that,’ but when they don’t adhere to those things and bad things end up happening to them, it’s frustrating.”
“My least-favorite part of this job is when you lay an egg,” one assistant said. “It happens to every team. It’s part of this league. It’s a long season and there are some games where the schedule is brutal, which may play a part in it. It’s awful when you feel like you’ve done everything you possibly could to prepare – you feel like you had a great game-plan, a great walkthrough and a great shootaround – and then you don’t play anything like you’d hoped. That’s the most frustrating. And as a former player, you want to go grab the ball and try to do something about it, but you can’t. As frustrating as it is, I’ve learned it’s really important to stay even-keeled and not get too down because the players are affected by your attitude.”
Bryan Oringher, who’s a former video coordinator for the Washington Wizards, recently pointed out on The HoopsHype Podcast that players sometimes lie about their preparation. The Wizards would give players a YouTube link and have them study a specific video. Some players would lie about watching the content, unaware that the staff could see who had actually clicked-through and viewed the film.
It’s also worth pointing out that being an assistant coach can be a largely thankless job. Internally, your contributions are recognized. But publicly, the head coach gets all the credit for any success – even after you’ve worked extremely hard. However, as Vanterpool pointed out, that’s something you know when you sign up for the job.
“If you’re in this business to be noticed or to be thanked or to get credit, then maybe [being an assistant coach] would bother you. For me, personally, that has nothing to do with why I do this,” Vanterpool said. “Whether I get thanked [or get the credit] is irrelevant to me. I obviously want to be appreciated, and I feel like Terry Stotts really appreciates his assistants. He goes out of his way to show us and tell us that he appreciates us. He knows how hard we work. I really do appreciate and love the fact that he appreciates us and makes sure we know that. That’s enough.”
At the same time, in addition to the credit, the head coach also gets the bulk of the public scrutiny when things go wrong. “You are heavily protected from [the scrutiny],” Vanterpool acknowledged.
“Everything is built around the head coach; that’s the person everyone knows,” another assistant coach added. “But the way I look at it, our job comes down to two things: preparing the players as much as possible and helping the head coach prepare as much as possible, doing whatever your specific role entails. I think every staff is a little bit different in terms of roles and responsibilities. That’s pretty much what it comes down to in this job, helping the head coach and players in any way you’re asked.”
Another assistant coach echoed this sentiment, stressing the importance of trust among coaches and everyone on the staff being on the same page.
“There’s too much work for one man to handle it all by himself, even if he wants to do it all. That’s why trust is so important between coaches,” one assistant said. “It’s hard to be successful without trust. The head coach has to trust his assistants and their work. And as assistants, you all have your head coach’s back and you’re all conveying the same message. Loyalty is incredibly important in this industry. Trust among the various assistant coaches is huge too. The coaches’ office is a sacred place and whatever happens behind those doors, stays behind those doors. Now, friction creates fire too; it’s not always about agreeing. But it is always about figuring out the best path for the team and once the head coach decides on a certain plan, everyone buys in. That’s the only way to be successful.”
The lack of job security is also an issue, but the coaches said they don’t worry about that.
“There’s pressure in everything; we just happen to be in an industry with a lot of scrutiny and a lot of eyes on it,” one assistant said. “It’s no different than if you’re a CEO of a company. If the company is successful, you’re successful. If it’s not successful, you very well could be on your way out. I’ve been an athlete and there was pressure there too. It’s a make-or-miss league, it’s a win-or-lose league, but ever since I’ve gotten out of YMCA, it’s been like that. It’s about results. You just put your head down and pound the stone. I do this because I love to coach, and whether or not I have job security never factors into my what I’m doing on a daily basis.”
THE SCHEDULE ON A TYPICAL GAME-DAY
Just like the players, each assistant coach is given a schedule for the day that lists the team’s flight info, hotel info, practice times, bus schedule, meetings and more.
Each assistant ran through their game-day schedule with HoopsHype, providing a glimpse into their life, and they were all very similar (with little variances here and there). It’s important to note that each team splits game assignments among the assistant coaches. One assistant counted through his list of assignments and he was responsible for 12 teams around the NBA. For games when an assistant is the assigned scout, they’re even busier. The assistant must put together a report that breaks down the opponent’s last five games. Every coach has access to video using a service called Second Spectrum, which allows them to review film of any possession that took place in any game (dating back years).
“The pregame preparation starts before the actual game-day,” Vanterpool shared. “Whether it’s a back-to-back or there’s a day or two between games, there’s always preparation before game-day. What you’re doing depends on your assignments. For me, personally, every single game I have to do some game-planning, look at defensive assignments and make sure I’ve seen the last few games that the upcoming opponent has played – whether that’s my specifically assigned ‘scout’ or not. That starts the night before or two nights before, depending on what our schedule looks like.
“Let’s say we have a home game. On the actual day of the game, I always try to wake up super early, get a workout in and then go to our practice facility for our 8:30 a.m. coaches’ meeting. That’s when we’ll go over different things to know about that specific game – from our coverages to what we want to do offensively and defensively to match-ups to rotations… We discuss anything the [head] coach wants to cover. He may have certain questions and need data or information or input. The coaches’ meeting usually lasts 30-to-45 minutes and players are usually rolling into the facility as we’re wrapping up. After we’re done, I try to grab a bite of breakfast.
“Within 15 minutes of us finishing our coaches’ meeting, there’s almost always at least one player who’s on the court and you need to be out on the court and ready to assist that player in whatever he may need. Sometimes they’re shooting, sometimes they’re doing a workout. You need to help the player with whatever he wants to get in before we start our pregame shootaround at 10 a.m.”
From there, Vanterpool explains that the whole team watches pregame film in a theater at the practice facility. This focuses on the opponent and specific sets they like to run. From there, everyone goes to the court. The coaches break down the opposition’s tendencies and the team’s game-plan for that night. Shootaround lasts 45-to-75 minutes, then each player has their own routine to prepare and the coaches offer assistance. At the facility, the team provides everyone breakfast, lunch and snacks.
Then, Vanterpool heads home between 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. The Blazers have a deal with Jamba Juice, where he usually stops to get a protein shake on game-days. Once he’s home, he picks out his suit for the game. Coaches must wear a suit during the game, but they wear casual clothes at the arena before and after the game starts.
“Once I get to the arena [around 3:00 p.m.], I’m helping players with their pregame warmups. With our team, our players will each spend 20 minutes on the court. The young guys go early and get a full workout in. I mostly deal with Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Evan Turner. They each have their own 20-minute timeframe within our schedule, within our structure. [Players typically start their session sometime between 4:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.]. The idea is to focus on whatever they need to get warmed up for the game. It’s all about getting them comfortable and ready to play. Between workouts, you get a chance to converse with different people; maybe you know coaches and players on the opposing team and you’ll exchange pleasantries. In addition to helping each player with his warmup, you’re just trying to assist the head coach. Sometimes it’s helping with certain personnel decisions, rotation decisions, match-up decisions or anything like that. You help everyone with their preparation until it’s time for the game.”
Before a coach runs through their pregame workout with a player, they sometimes look over film from the last game. HoopsHype sat in for some film sessions between assistant coaches and players. Prior to the session, the assistant compiled a bunch of clips from the team’s previous game and got notes from the head coach as well. The assistant and player walk through the plays, starting with clips where the player made a mistake and the coach points out what could’ve been better. Then, the two look through plays where the player did a decent job, but there may have been a better option. The player and coach are typically on the same page, with the player sometimes pointing out mistakes before the coach even highlights them. Finally, they look over plays where the player did a fantastic job, with the coach sharing positive notes from the head coach too.
Over the course of the season(s), players develop chemistry with the assistant who works with them. It’s clear that during these sessions, the coach doesn’t want to overload the player with criticism. After all, he’s playing another game in a few hours. Coaches make an effort to highlight positive plays and offer encouragement.
As for what happens during the actual game, another assistant coach offered some details. The head coach is always asking his staff, “What are you seeing?” Assistants offer input as everyone tries to identify mid-game adjustments. For the assistant who scouted the opponent, he’s thinking of his film study and mentioning anything that may help the team. The coaches try to keep the players unified and focused, while also pointing out match-ups they can take advantage of and areas where they can play better. Also, the bench has a live feed of the game so if an assistant coach wants to highlight a specific play, he gets that clip, loads it onto an iPad and then goes over it with the player during the next timeout or when the players checks out – similar to how an NFL quarterback reviews their throws from the previous drive.
Every coach described a very similar game-day schedule. Assistants sometimes leave the arena as late as 2:00-or-3:00 a.m. on game-days.
“Typically, when I get home depends on a number of things,” Vanterpool continued. “After the game, I have to prepare a postgame edit. If I know we’re going to have a practice or get together as a team to look at the postgame edit [the next day], I may stay in the arena after the game to watch at least the first half of the game before I go home. I either have to watch the game at the arena, later that night when I get home or really early the next morning. I have to watch the full game and have my edit prepared before we have our coaches’ meeting the next morning, which is at 9:00 a.m. the day after a game. When and where I watch the game really depends on my schedule. There are times where I don’t leave the arena until 2-or-3 a.m. because I want to finish watching the game. Other times, I’ll go home, watch the first half, fall asleep and then wake up super early the next morning to finish up the second half and make sure my edit is prepared in time for the coaches’ meeting. It just depends.
“Ultimately, it’s all about making sure you’re prepared for the next day. It’s not unlike a teacher making sure they’ve prepared the next day’s lesson for his or her class.”
MANY FORMER PLAYERS BECOME COACHES
As previously mentions, plenty of retired NBA players eventually make the transition to coaching. Right now, there are a ton of former players who are currently assistants around the NBA including Sam Cassell (Los Angeles Clippers), Jerry Stackhouse (Memphis Grizzlies), Juwan Howard (Miami Heat), James Posey (Cleveland Cavaliers), Mark Price (Denver Nuggets), Nick Van Exel (Memphis Grizzlies), Malik Allen (Minnesota Timberwolves), Darrell Armstrong (Dallas Mavericks), Adrian Griffin (Toronto Raptors) and Ime Udoka (San Antonio Spurs) and Popeye Jones (Indiana Pacers) to name a few.
Vanterpool explained how playing experience impacts his interactions with players.
“Being a former player gives you a frame of reference,” Vanterpool said. “Let me explain it like this. You’re a journalist. If you were to teach journalism to a young, up-and-coming journalist, you could actually talk to them about the process of writing and you could talk about what it feels like to put together a great story and you could talk about dealing with writer’s block. You could talk with them about a lot of things that someone who simply studied journalism couldn’t communicate to them. They could try to explain what they’d want their process to be like, but they’ve never gone through that process and what it feels like and what emotions you go through and what it’s like mentally. They don’t have any idea about that.
“A lot of times, in my opinion, guys like Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith start saying, ‘Well, he never played!’ and I think what they’re trying to say is misconstrued. I think they’re trying to say, ‘He never played, so he doesn’t know how it feels.’ That’s big. Running a suicide is very different from telling someone, ‘Run a suicide in this much time.’ I’m talking about playing at any [higher] level. Not everybody has played in the NBA; I get that. That’s not a big deal. But if you’ve played basketball at certain levels, you understand how specific things feel. You understand what it feels like to fight through a screen on pick-and-rolls. You understand what it feels like to try to squeeze a pass into a certain window. You know what that player may be experiencing and how difficult that can be. You know what goggles that player is looking through. I think that gives guys who previously played an advantage.”
Do former players also have instant credibility with current players given their past? Vanterpool isn’t so sure. There’s usually such a big age gap between coach and player, so he doesn’t know if there’s that immediate respect.
“That [playing experience] may also give you some credibility with players, but most of these guys are so young that your playing days are like ancient history to them,” Vanterpool said with a laugh. “I retired in 2007. It may not seem like that long ago, but that’s ancient history to these guys! They’ll point out, ‘Man, you’re old!’ My playing career doesn’t even matter to them. The credibility [advantage]? Eh. But being able to understand how certain things feel? That makes a big difference.”
Another assistant coach agreed that the immediate credibility doesn’t matter too much. Even if the player respects you a bit right off the bat, it doesn’t change the fact that he expects you to help him improve and you better know your stuff.
“I think playing can get some instant respect, for sure, but to me, the biggest thing is that these guys are looking for a competitive advantage somewhere,” one assistant said. “If you can provide that competitive advantage thanks to your perspective as a former player, that’s one thing. But if that competitive advantage comes from your ability to break down film and show them some little nuance that can help them get a leg up on the competition, that’s what will get their attention.”
There’s incredible technology available to today’s players, and several players-turned-coaches are jealous. Many teams are now using wearable technology. One team uses it to ensure that everyone – from starter to bench player – gets the same workload on a game-day, which helps prevent injuries if an out-of-rotation player is called upon to play big minutes.
Some people may assume that former players hate analytics because there are some prominent examples of this, but there are many players-turned-coaches who really value the data. In fact, one of the coaches admitted that he now wishes he had done a better job of utilizing some of the advanced stats back when he was playing. Most coaches view analytics as a resource that helps them do their job.
“I look at analytics all the time,” said one assistant. “I don’t go as deep as some people – teams pay people to specifically dive into those numbers these days – but I check certain stats often. We get league rankings where we see, team by team, how everyone stacks up based on certain analytics. It’s helpful to look at some of the team rankings when you’re doing your scout [of an opponent]. The way I look at it, there’s the eye test and you can look to see if the numbers back up what you’re seeing. If the two don’t line up, you can try to figure out why, but you have to decide what you’re going to roll with in your scout. I’m not one of these anti-analytics guys. It’s a tool in the toolbox that can help you. The more tools you have, the better. You just have to figure out how to use it and when it works best for you.”
CLIMBING THE COACHING RANKS
Most NBA assistant coaches earn between $100,000 and $1,000,000 a year depending on the coach’s experience, according to a recent article in The Washington Post. By comparison, head coaches make several times that (for more specific numbers, check out this HoopsHype article).
Sometimes a coach is forced to take a pay cut in order to achieve their dream of joining an NBA coaching staff. There are instances of coaches taking a 50 percent pay cut when going from G League head coach to NBA assistant coach. For example, Bryan Gates left a six-figure job in the G League for $50,000 as an assistant with the Sacramento Kings when he first joined the team in 2009, according to this in-depth piece by CBS Sports.
This past offseason, Vanterpool was given the opportunity to interview for a head-coaching position with the Orlando Magic and Charlotte Hornets. He explained how he prepared for each interview and how they went.
“First of all, it was an honor to even be considered for those situations,” Vanterpool said. “Orlando showed some interest and then asked Portland for permission to do the interview. I had some time to prepare some material for that interview, and I worked diligently to prepare as much as possible. It’s really difficult to prepare for a head-coaching interview because you have absolutely no idea what they may want to talk about. You kind of go in flying blindly, which is kind of cool because, ultimately, your plan and your vision should be your plan and your vision. It really shouldn’t matter what team or organization it is. But, at the end of the day, you obviously have to cater to certain personnel and the direction of the organization. Still, the house you want to build should be the house you want to build, whether it’s in California or New York or Florida. Anyway, preparing for that interview was great. I had a lot of direction and I know I was prepared for it.
“I thought we had a great time. The conversation was great. We were in there for six hours. We talked for six hours! It was amazing. And it didn’t feel like six hours, it felt like it was two and a half hours, to be honest with you. Then, we looked up and we were like, ‘Oh man, it’s getting late! We should probably go…’ It worked out wonderfully with Orlando. I really enjoyed meeting with [Magic GM] John Hammond and all those guys. Then, while I was there in Orlando, I got the opportunity to talk with Charlotte.
“[Hornets GM] Mitch Kupchack had been calling my agents pretty much the entire day I was in Orlando to try to get me to come to Charlotte for an interview. I ended up leaving Orlando and going straight to Charlotte. I thought, ‘Well, I’m close to Charlotte, so let’s just go there next.’ We talked about it and my agent was like, ‘You won’t have anything prepared,’ but I told him that I’d figure something out. I worked all night and put something together for Charlotte. I went in and sat down with Mitch and [Hornets assistant GM] Buzz Peterson, who got sick so he didn’t end up staying for the whole meeting, and [Hornets executive vice president of operations] James Jordan Jr. was there (who is Hornets owner Michael Jordan’s brother). We had a good interview and that also went well.
“I didn’t get either [job]. Throughout the entire process, I was in close communication with Orlando. They were A1; I would’ve loved to work with them, to be honest with you. It didn’t work out. They decided to go in a different direction, which I respect wholeheartedly. They went with Steve Clifford, who has head-coaching experience. It’s really tough for me because I can’t offer something that I don’t have, and the only way I can get head-coaching experience is if somebody gives me the job. There’s nothing I can really do about that, other than just stay as prepared as possible for when those kind of opportunities come.”
That’s one of the big hurdles for assistants as they try to land their first head-coaching job. As far as how to become an assistant coach in the NBA, one current assistant offered the following advice:
“Two things: Ask questions and do your homework,” said one assistant. “Don’t be afraid to ask a ton of questions. Throughout my career, I’ve been around some really, really high-level basketball minds. But the most impressive thing about those great coaches is that they’re not afraid to ask the people around them questions. It blew my mind at first, but it was a great lesson. If these guys, who are just so smart and know the game so well, are asking questions and are this humble and acknowledge that they still have things to learn, that’s a lesson to everyone. The game is always evolving, the players are always evolving, so you can never stop learning. And that’s why doing your homework is so important too. You need to become really knowledgeable about this game. No matter if you’re coaching at the high-school level or college level or professional level, learn as much as you can and never stop asking questions. By learning more and more, you’re just empowering yourself.”
At the end of the day, as long as an individual understands what they’re signing up for, they should do fine in the coaching world.
Check out our other articles on the life of… an NBA agent, a former NBA player in China, an NBA-player-turned-broadcaster, an NBA scout. If you’d like to see a behind-the-scenes article on a specific topic, tweet us here.