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Coaching Culture

I  wanted to talk today about Jason Quick's excellent article from Sunday about Greg Oden's training regimen.  No doubt you all have read it.  If you haven't, please do so posthaste!

The main thrust of the article was Oden's rehab progress, but I was more intrigued by the subtext, namely the way Oden viewed and related to Coach McMillan and his job.  Consider the following:

With a morning fog still clinging to the tops of evergreens, the three men began their walk up the steep incline, McMillan and Jensen wearing black stocking caps and Oden in full Blazers practice gear.

Oden did the first third of the hill in side-to-side steps, as if he were guarding a player going baseline to baseline. In the middle section of the hill, Oden jogged backward. On regular days -- Oden does this workout three times a week -- Oden finishes the final third of the hill walking straight ahead. But on this day -- with his coach there to see exactly what his prized player has been doing -- Oden finished the final legs in impressive sprints, once playfully brushing McMillan's shoulder as he passed him.
"I just wanted to basically show him this wasn't easy," Oden said. "I didn't want him thinking that I'm out here doing something that wasn't going to help me out. And it was hard on him. Jay stepped up his game, and said, 'We're going to kill Coach,' and we did. But it was good to get Coach out there, to say, 'Look, this is hard. This isn't easy at all.' "
McMillan said he never doubted Oden was working hard in his rehab, which is in its sixth month. The reports from Jensen and strength and conditioning coach Bobby Medina have been filled with effusive praise of Oden's work ethic.

But after Wednesday's excursion, McMillan admitted he has a new appreciation of how hard Oden is working.

Even with the workout being the feast and the coach involvement leftovers, there's still plenty of meat on those bones.

For one thing, this reveals a largely-unspoken truth about the coach-player relationship:  it is somewhat adversarial.  I'm sure Nate wants the best for his guys.  He certainly wants to see them succeed.  But even though we fans get the warm fuzzies over stories about the team cheering for each other and eating dinner together, the truth is the coach is not their friend.  This is his job.  His livelihood, reputation, and future prospects all depend on winning.   He should reasonably be expected to do whatever is necessary to make that happen.  This is the players' job too.  They can expect to be assisted in areas of the game in which they need to improve.  They can expect to be told what's going right and wrong with their performance.  They cannot, and should not, expect to be coddled or granted special dispensations.  This is a tough league and it's a tough business.  If you are not performing there are literally thousands of players eager for a shot at your position.  It is absolutely your responsibility to be ready, to aggressively pursue your goals, and to show everyone who cares to watch--especially the coaching staff--that you want this and that you're willing to do whatever it takes to achieve success.  That means working harder, longer, and not wasting any opportunities that come your way.

This is particularly true in the case of playing time.  A lot of folks have been wondering aloud why we don't play the 10th-15th men on the roster more, especially as the season winds down.  Some of that is attributable to our desire to see the guys we're curious about, which is natural.  But some of it is also because this entire organization has been conditioned for years to view minutes in a way different than the best, winning teams do.  This stretches as far back as the "Everybody's an All-Star" teams of the early 00's.  We fielded a horde of veterans with distinguished careers, many of whom were on the downside.  The Detlef Schrempfs and Rod Stricklands of the world felt entitled to some playing time.  They shouldn't have to prove themselves all over again.  The Damon Stoudamires and Steve Smiths felt they deserved it too, as they were entering or just leaving their prime.  The culture of experience and earned credit dictated that minutes be distributed for reasons other than strict competition.  It was no accident that one of the first things we had to do while bringing up young guys like Zach Randolph and Bonzi Wells was jettison all of the "name" players.  Then we ended up with the same problem for opposite reasons:  there wasn't enough talent in the middle of the decade.  A bunch of positions were filled by either stopgap players who wouldn't get big minutes on most squads or very young guys who hadn't proven themselves yet (but you had to play somebody).  Now the culture said you gave guys minutes to get them experience or let them learn.  Once again merit had little to do with it.

In neither case was this a winning formula.  The best teams play their best, most productive players the majority of the minutes.  If you can take the spot from one of them it's yours, but if you can't that's about you, and you had better get better if you can.  One of the biggest challenges before this coaching staff has been to change the culture of entitlement brought on by a near-decade of name players and unproven youngsters into a culture of winning...where minutes are taken, not given.  This could not have happened without Brandon Roy and Lamarcus Aldridge bringing enough talent to their positions to make the process meaningful.  But they have shown enough of the way that the rest of the team can fall in line.  We probably have a couple positions where we're still playing guys who otherwise wouldn't merit as many minutes as they're getting, but we haven't filled out the talent roster yet and we're still very young.  (Again, you have to play somebody.)  But this article shows that somewhere, somehow, the message is getting through.

Think about this:  that's Greg Oden being talked about.  This guy was not only the number one pick in the draft, he has been heralded as a once-in-a-generation player at the rarest and most-coveted position on the roster (center).  He's already being talked about in the same paragraph with Bill Russell, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, and Tim Duncan.  Whether he can actually get there is immaterial...this is what people are saying.  If anyone has an easy, downhill slide into entitlement-land it's he.  And yet look at what he is saying.  "I didn't want him thinking that I'm out here doing something that wasn't going to help me out. And it was hard on him... it was good to get Coach out there, to say, 'Look, this is hard. This isn't easy at all"   This guy wants the coach to know that he's working and that he's willing to battle to get what he wants.  He knows what that relationship and his job are about.  This speaks remarkably of him.  It's incredible at his age and level of hype that he doesn't seem to be distracted a bit...that he sees through it to what is important.  But it also shows that the staff must be doing a remarkable job of conveying what the league is about to these young men who, frankly, have probably grown up with quite a different image as to what the NBA lifestyle entails.  That is no less remarkable than the first, that they are able to get that message and the work ethic across.

We appear to have coaches who are going to set the bar high and not back down from that.  We also appear to have players who are going to fight whoever is necessary--be it themselves or the coach--to get over that bar.  That speaks well of what we're eventually going to be able to do to our opponents.

This also shows, I think, why some of the calls to give certain players rest and give others time are falling on deaf ears, and rightfully so.  At this point in our maturation as individuals and as an organization we're trying to get beyond make the leap from a developing team to a winning team.  If we want the culture to change, realizing that change is still in its embryonic stage, the cost of changing the ethic might not be worth the reward or the message sent.  I'm sure we'll reach a time when the culture is so embedded that the repetition of its message is not as critical, but that time might not be here yet.

--Dave (