Coaches of young teams face chal­lenges

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - Christo­pher Dempsey: cdempsey@den­ver­ or @chrisadempsey By Christo­pher Dempsey, The Den­ver Post

You could ar­gue that some of the coaches in the NBA are more com­pet­i­tive than the play­ers they over­see. Los­ing keeps them up at night. Win­ning does lit­tle to sat­isfy the palate, un­less, of course it’s the ul­ti­mate vic­tory of an NBA ti­tle.

But while the coaches of young teams might dream of, and be work­ing to­ward, field­ing a ti­tle-con­tend­ing team some­day, the re­al­ity is the al­most daily headaches of bring­ing up youth in a man’s league. Yes, in some re­spects the NBA is get­ting younger. But whether that’s the case or not, win­ning big just doesn’t hap­pen when the ma­jor­ity of play­ers on a team are green.

Pa­tience, how­ever, needs to hap­pen. The rules for cul­ti­vat­ing young tal­ent are dif­fer­ent now. Can coaches chal­lenge young play­ers, coach them hard? Yes. But only to a de­gree. Play­ers are sen­si­tive and volatile at the same time. Ride them too hard and risk los­ing them, or the worstcase sce­nario, a re­volt. That pretty much hap­pened two years ago with the Nuggets, when much of the team ba­si­cally shut it down un­der then-coach Brian Shaw.

There are lessons to be learned.

In Den­ver, cur­rent coach Michael Mal­one has made changes to keep things up­beat for his young team. It doesn’t mean he’s ac­cept­ing mis­takes or medi­ocrity. Any­one who re­motely knows him un­der­stands that. But he, like so many other coaches, is lov­ing play­ers up in­stead of grat­ing at them all sea­son long and risk­ing turn­ing them off.

“We’re stay­ing pos­i­tive and stay­ing to­gether,” Mal­one said. “These are teach­ing mo­ments. These are the lessons that we must learn from.” He’s not alone. “We give our young play­ers the free­dom to grow,” Phoenix coach Earl Wat­son said. “We also have un­con­di­tional love if they fail. Just want to give them supreme con­fi­dence. We think we can win with young guys.”

But win­ning with youth is dif­fi­cult.

Of the five youngest teams at the start of the sea­son — Philadel­phia, Port­land, Toronto, Phoenix and Den­ver — only the Rap­tors had a win­ning record go­ing into Satur­day night’s games. The oth­ers com­bined for a 27-50 record.

All have suf­fered losses that are hard to swal­low. Those coaches count to 10, ex­hale, and cor­rect mis­takes from a calmer space than they may be used to. In Min­nesota, coach Tom Thi­bodeau has been known as a taskmas­ter. He has no doubt had to tem­per some of that through a rough 6-14 start with the Tim­ber­wolves, who own some of the top young tal­ent in the league.

Mi­ami coach Erik Spolestra beams at the prospect of coach­ing a young team. This is un­charted ter­ri­tory for him. He has al­ways had star­laden, vet­eran squads since he’s been a head coach.

“I like this team, I re­ally do,” Spolestra said. “I like the young guys. They have great po­ten­tial, but they’re also ‘right-now’ play­ers. That’s ex­cit­ing. Try­ing to get this group to un­der­stand what the Mi­ami cul­ture is about, it’s been in­vig­o­rat­ing not only for my­self but for the coach­ing staff.”

And it all starts with ap­proach.

“We never want them to play with so much pres­sure where they feel like they have to play per­fect,” Wat­son said. “Bas­ket­ball is an im­per­fect sport. That’s why it re­flects life. We just want to en­cour­age and in­spire a pos­i­tive at­mos­phere for our young guys to con­tinue to get bet­ter and bet­ter.”

Nati Harnik, The Associated Press

Nuggets sec­ond-year cen­ter Nikola Jokic talks to head coach Michael Mal­one.

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