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#SoWizards Podcast: Coaching a rebuilding team with Poole problems

A conversation with coaching lifer Brian McCormick

Washington Wizards v Dallas Mavericks
Washington Wizards head coach Wes Unseld Jr.
Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

Brian McCormick has coached at an array of levels in leagues around the world and has written books about basketball fundamentals, skills development, how to become a great shooter, running practices, and building an effective offensive system.

I invited him on to discuss the unique challenges faced by Wes Unseld Jr. and his staff as they attempt to lead a team at step one of a total rebuild. My hope was that I would learn something about coaching, and McCormick definitely delivered.

In this episode, we delved into the problems Jordan Poole is having as he tries to make the Washington Wizards “his” team, and how Unseld and the assistant coaches can help him improve.

McCormick described two ways to help players get better: correcting mistakes and expanding possibilities. Which approach to emphasize depends on factors including organizational goals for the team and the player. If a team wants a player to become a star and believes he has the capacity to reach that level, coaches will lean towards the latter strategy — over-correcting mistakes could lead to caution and stifle the creativity it takes to be great.

We also talked about how coaches approach a rebuilding situation like the Wizards where the players know they’re going to lose and that most of them won’t be around in a few years when the team is ready to compete. What leapt out to me is how much an NBA coach’s job is about negotiation and influence, and not giving commands and dictating actions and outcomes.

McCormick pointed out that players have their own goals and desires — money, accolades, personal satisfaction, winning, and so on. Ideally, a coach can persuade a player to align their individual goals with the team’s, but that’s not always possible. In that event, the coach has to figure out how to make use of the player’s individual goals for the team’s advantage.

Last, we touched on some ways outsiders can assess how good a job a coach is doing. The short answer: it’s tough, in part because we don’t (and can’t) know all of the “behind the scenes” factors at play. The coach is managing often competing demands from ownership, the front office, and players.

While fans may think he can “just bench” a player who’s not playing well or doesn’t seem to be giving a full effort, playing time decisions are often constrained by those organizational demands and expectations.

This conversation expanded how I think about coaching and player development. It’s not an easy job.

Listen here, using the embed below, or wherever you get your podcasts.