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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Hank Egan Interview

Where did the defensive principles taught by San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich originate? Few people are more qualified to answer this question than Cleveland Cavaliers Assistant Coach Hank Egan, who has four decades of basketball coaching experience, including 23 years as a Division I head coach at the Air Force Academy and the University of San Diego, where he won West Coast Conference Coach of the year honors in 1986 and 1987. Egan played for Hall of Fame Coach Ben Carnevale at the Naval Academy before becoming the head coach at Air Force.

Popovich served as Egan's assistant coach at Air Force--and the two were reunited in San Antonio a decade and a half later, this time with Popovich taking the role of head coach.
Current Cleveland Cavaliers coach Mike Brown played for Egan at the University of San Diego. Popovich added Egan to his staff in San Antonio; the Spurs made the playoffs seven times and won the 1999 NBA championship during Egan’s eight years with the team.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are trying to become "San Antonio East," importing three members of the Spurs' brain trust: Danny Ferry, who is now the Cavs' General Manager, Lance Blanks, who is Ferry's Assistant General Manager, and Egan.


Friedman: “Based on your experience coaching in college as well as in the pros, when you come to a new team where do you start in terms of implementing your defensive principles? Where do you start as a base for getting the team to play the kind of defense that you want it to play?”

Egan: “You always start at the basket and work out. How you play post-up players dictates how you play the rest of the game. We’re a team that fronts, so therefore we need a lot of backside help. We try to keep the ball out of the middle because our bigs can’t help there because they are on the frontside. We try to force the ball to the outside and get a lot of backside help, but it starts because we want to front the post.”

Friedman: “What defensive principles are different in college versus the pros? For instance, usually in high school and the levels of the game below the NBA, players are told to not give up the baseline defensively—the defender should put his (outside) foot on the baseline and make the offensive player come to the middle. Yet, in the NBA to some degree the defenses try to force the great players away from the middle of the court.”

Egan: “Yeah, I think that it used to be (taught to) not give up the baseline and that is still said sometimes, but (now) it’s (taught) more that if you give up the baseline we can come and help you without giving up rebounding (position). If you allow a player to go to the middle and we help it’s going to be away from the basket so then we are turning them loose on the boards. But I don’t think that is just changing now in the pros; that is an evolution that has been going on for a while even at the college level.”

Friedman: “Why do you think that idea has changed?”

Egan: “Because if (offensive) players get to the middle of the floor they can find all different kinds of things (to break down the defense). People do a lot more rotating now (on defense). Before you couldn’t give up the baseline because there was no help. Now when an offensive player goes on the baseline defenders rotate and help one another. That helping principle has expanded how you play good defense.”

Friedman: “So it used to be that if you gave up the baseline then the guy just drove in and scored a layup while the other defenders were watching their men without knowledge or awareness of what was happening.”

Egan: “Right. Exactly. But now guys are rotating across and rotating back.”

Friedman: “That brings me right to my next question. Describe the impact of scouting, particularly the ability to use DVD or video footage that players can digest very quickly. How much has that changed defense over the years and the way that it is taught and the way that it is played?”

Egan: “I think that it has changed defense at every level, but you add another element when you get to this (NBA) level, and that is that the players have corporate knowledge. It’s not just four years and you graduate, when it was a part-time thing for them. This is their livelihood. You’ve got some guys who are in their 12th or 13th year in the league. You can feed them an awful lot of information about the other team and they can absorb it and use it. It is much more detailed at this level.”

Friedman: “Would you say that defense is more sophisticated in the way it is played now than the way it was played 10, 15, 20 years ago?”

Egan: “Absolutely—and technology has had a lot to do with it. It really has.”

Friedman: “Talk about Larry Hughes’ impact on the team and how it helps LeBron to play alongside an extraordinary perimeter defender who can guard multiple positions.”

Egan: “Larry Hughes is a multidimensional player. He is a good scorer who can shoot the ball with range. He can get in the middle of the defense. He is very good at breaking down the defense, getting inside and creating shots for himself or giving it up. He is also a very calming influence, a very ‘Steady Eddie’ kind of guy. We can play him on ‘1’ through ‘3.’ That means that if LeBron is in foul trouble we can flip flop them (defensively) if we need to keep LeBron in the game. We can do things like that because Larry can play those positions. Just the fact that he is a quality player makes it hard for teams to just tee off on LeBron because we have another guy who can hurt you too.”

Friedman: “As a defensive coach, are there one or two numbers in the box score that if you glance at them you will know if you played the way you wanted to defensively without even watching the game?”

Egan: “The key statistic to me is always field goal percentage defense. That’s the one because it means you’ve made it hard for them to score. Points don’t mean anything—we like to fast break, so we’re going to give up more (shot) opportunities (for the opponent). So it doesn’t mean as much.”

Friedman: “What about point differential? Is that something you look at?”

Egan: “Not so much. Defensive field goal percentage is the (main) one. The other ones (statistics) are key factors, like turnovers. The Spurs are one of the worst teams in creating turnovers but they are one of the best teams in preventing fast break points because they don’t challenge in the backcourt. They get back and set up their defense. They don’t try to gamble.”

Friedman: “So it’s like what you were talking about before in terms of defense starting in the paint—the Spurs are entrenched at the basket and giving up nothing at the basket. They are not forcing a lot of turnovers because of that.”

Egan: “Absolutely. That’s the tradeoff they make. That’s why the other statistics can be misleading. Good field goal percentage defense means you are contesting shots and making it hard for them to score.”

Friedman: “When you coached at Air Force your teams regularly ranked at or near the top of the nation in field goal percentage defense. Were you employing a similar philosophy to the one that the Spurs are using?”

Egan: “Yeah. We played what they called sideline defense. I learned that from my college coach way back in the 1950s (at the U.S. Naval Academy). It has become somewhat more sophisticated now.”

Friedman: “Who was your college coach?”

Egan: “Ben Carnevale. Then I worked for Bob Spear at the Air Force Academy and he was a sideline defense guy. Popovich played there (Air Force) and then he was on my staff there, so that’s why the Spurs use it. Mike Brown brings a different element. He’s been with Bernie Bickerstaff and George Karl and Bob Kloppenburg, who’s kind of an old defensive guru. So Mike has added a lot of different things and new elements to it and it’s his defense that we are using now.”

Friedman: “George Karl played for Dean Smith at North Carolina, who used the jump/switch and the sideline traps. That element does not seem to be used here (in Mike Brown’s defensive plan in Cleveland).”

Egan: “No, not anymore. People have kind of moved beyond that. But to show you the lineage, Dean Smith’s first coaching job was as Bob Spear’s assistant at the Air Force Academy. So that sideline concept went from Air Force to North Carolina. Larry Brown has the same thing.”

Friedman: “He used it in the ABA with the Carolina Cougars when he had Billy Cunningham, Mack Calvin and Joe Caldwell.”

Egan: “Right. But they extended it full court. The same principles (are used) now, but guys are so quick and can handle that pressure, so we’ve taken the same principles and applied them here (in the half court set). It’s not run and jump to trap the ball (in the backcourt) but it’s run and jump to help one another. A lot of the rotating and stuff like that that North Carolina used to do full court is now done here in the half court.”

Friedman: “Also, you can use the shot clock against the other team, right? With a 24 second shot clock, if you run and jump and disrupt the team for just a few seconds it makes a big difference.”

Egan: “Absolutely. See, the clock is the monster. You have a 35 second clock in college, so if you take off the first eight seconds (with full court pressure) when the offense is getting started and the last eight seconds (with pressure in the half court), you still have almost 20 seconds left. In the NBA you have a 24 second shot clock, so if you take off the first eight seconds and the last eight seconds you have the offense scrambling with only eight seconds left. So it’s a big time difference there. So some of the things that you do in the pros are, exactly as you said, trying to force the offense to burn time and get them in the late stages of the shot clock.”

Friedman: “Isn’t the difference between the elite championship level teams and teams that aren’t at that level the ability to respond when that kind of defensive pressure is put on them and still get a good shot and conversely to put that kind of pressure on teams to get them in a scramble mode on offense?”

Egan: “Absolutely on the money. Exactly right.”

Friedman: “Isn’t that what is happening to Cleveland when the Cavs play on the road or when they play against the Spurs and Pacers? The Cavs seem unable right now to respond to that (level of defensive pressure) or to put that kind of pressure on other teams.”

Egan: “We’re 3-2 on the road and we have lost badly to two teams that are very good. I think that you’re right. While our guys are thinking, they’re reacting because they have been in a system for a while. Our guys have got the concepts but you have to anticipate a lot of things that happen. We’re a little bit behind. We have to improve our ability to react quicker with our defense and to sustain the effort. Then we have to be able to execute better offensively and sustain the effort.”

Friedman: “It seemed to me that one of the things that happened against the Pacers (in a 98-76 loss at Indiana on November 24) was some over-penetration by the Cavaliers that led to some offensive fouls. It seemed that some of the dribblers could have stopped one step sooner than they did and passed to an open man.”

Egan: “That may have had something to do with it. We could feel the pressure of the moment, whereas they were together and reacting to the pressure as a team. We had guys going a little too fast trying to make things happen because they haven’t learned completely to do things together as a team. That just takes time.”

Friedman: “How long does it take for a team that is willing to learn—which seems to be the case with the Cavs—to internalize these defensive concepts? You went through a similar situation with the Spurs in terms of putting a system in place.”

Egan: “Absolutely. It depends upon how talented your team is and what their corporate memory is and how quickly they assimilate the information. We’re getting better but it takes a year or more—especially at the defensive end. You’re deep into your second year before you’re getting to the point that it is second nature.”

Friedman: “When you are molding a team from a defensive standpoint, how important is it to have players who have a defensive mentality versus simply having players who are willing to listen and internalize your principles? In other words, are defensive players born or made?”

Egan: “Both. Guys who can lock up people one on one are born. God gives them that ability. What we are trying to do is turn it from a ‘me versus you’ game into an ‘us versus them’ game. That comes from having guys who want to be part of a team, understand team concepts, know how the game is played and have good basketball knowledge. You can create a good team defense, but you can’t make someone a good individual defender.”

Friedman: “Because that involves certain physical abilities.”

Egan: “Right. You can help a guy get better by teaching him good fundamental concepts and footwork and all that. But he’s got to have strength, speed, reaction and all that.”

Friedman: “What is the single most important physical trait for an individual defender? Obviously, if someone has an extreme deficit in any of these areas he couldn’t play in the NBA, but would you single out speed, length, lateral quickness or something else? Is there a certain trait that you can see in a player and say that he will be a really good individual defender?”

Egan: “Lateral quickness. That’s the one.”

Friedman: “You can’t teach that.”

Egan: “No, no—it’s ‘boom’ and they’re there. They get there. That’s the one. The really quick ones you can make into great defensive players.”

Friedman: “They have the tools and then you just show them what to do.”

Egan: “There are some other things going on. An individual defender has to understand what he is doing. If you are thinking about it, in this game, it’s almost too late. You have to not only have quickness, but you have to have a good feel for the game and know what the offense is going to do.”

Friedman: “Do you think that fans and the media do not appreciate the level of defense that is played in the NBA? A lot people say that college is a ‘coach’s game’ and the NBA is a ‘player’s game.’ I’m not sure that I buy into that statement; what do you think of that? You have an interesting perspective on this because you’ve coached in college and in the pros.”

Egan: “I think that at both levels it is a combination--good players and good coaches are both needed to win. John Wooden said it best: ‘Nobody wins without players.’ A coach who knows what he is doing can get the players to be the best that they can be. I think that it is a combination everywhere…The pro game (used to) focus on isolation plays. When I coached in college it was your system versus the other guy’s system. Now you see more and more system play in the pros and you see more and more taking advantage of mismatches and isolations in college.”

Friedman: “Why do you think that has changed?”

Egan: “They’re learning from each other--being on the Olympic staff with one another, sharing information. I think that there has been a crossover—but this is much more sophisticated because of the time spent just on basketball.”

Friedman: “That is what I think a lot of people don’t realize. When you are saying ‘This is much more sophisticated,’ you are referring to the NBA.”

Egan: “Absolutely.”

Friedman: “I think that most people—meaning fans and even a lot of media people and broadcasters--do not realize that and that they do not appreciate the sophistication of some of the coaching in the NBA; that’s the impression that I get.”

Egan: “That’s changing a lot.”

Friedman: “You think that people’s impressions are changing?”

Egan: “I don’t know if the impressions are changing but I’ve been in it (the NBA) for 10 years--and I was out of the game for two—and in the last 12 years I have seen the game grow and become more sophisticated all the time.”

Friedman: “Haven’t the technological improvements and the increased scouting enabled the college coaches and pro coaches to watch each other’s games more?”

Egan: “Absolutely. Like I said, there is interplay—the World Games, the Olympics, the Pan-Am Games—when coaches are on staffs together.”

Friedman: “A quick Olympics question: Don’t you think, even with the team that we sent, which was heavily criticized, that if that team had been able to practice together even for a month or two months with officials under the FIBA rules they probably still would have won the gold? They won the bronze even though the team was basically thrown together.”

Egan: “Yeah. The days of us being able to do that--we used to do that, but those days are gone. Nobody wants to admit it. We can’t just throw a team together and show up, especially when half of the players who are playing for these foreign teams are NBA players.”

Friedman: “They’re not intimidated.”

Egan: “Right. They’re not intimidated and they are used to playing at a high level of competition.”

Friedman: “It seemed like Tim Duncan, who is obviously an intelligent player, spent half of the Olympics trying to figure out how to stay out of foul trouble because of the different way that the games were officiated. Some of the TV announcers mentioned that certain things that he can do in the NBA with his hands on defense were being whistled. When you’re in a habit, even if you are told not to do it, if you’ve only been playing the new way for two weeks you don’t remember when you get in a crucial situation, you go to your natural move and you get whistled.”

Egan: “Like I said, in this game at Division I--or any level--if you have to think it is already too late. It’s got to be a reaction.”

Friedman: “It seemed that in the context of the Olympics that Duncan did have to think.”

Egan: “Oh, absolutely. You’re right on.”

Friedman: “He looked confused in a way that he never looked at Wake Forest or in the NBA, but the FIBA rules and the way that they were calling the game—“

Egan (smiling): “He looked that way when he first came in the NBA.”

Friedman: “Maybe I’m forgetting that.”

Egan: “He had a couple years of a learning curve and then, bam. He’s a great player. I think that he is the best player in the NBA right now and he has been for several years. He had the luxury while he was breaking in of having David Robinson right there, cleaning up a lot.”

Friedman: “The personality that Robinson has, to accept the transition (to a lesser role).”

Egan: “Grace.”

Friedman: “It’s hard to think of another player of his status who could do something like that. I think a little bit of Julius Erving with Moses Malone coming in and them winning a championship together with Julius stepping back somewhat. But David Robinson did it year after year.”

Egan: “After Tim’s first year, someone asked him if it bothered him that we were going more to Tim on offense and he said, ‘Tim is better offensively than I am.’ That’s exactly what he said. He didn’t say that he was getting older or anything like that. He just said that Tim was better.”

Friedman: “They had different offensive games. Robinson’s game, particularly after some of the injuries, was a face-up game.”

Egan: “Yeah. He was always better faced up because he was a narrow-based player. He was straight up and down. He couldn’t go to the post where other players would hunker down and use their width. So he played straight up and down.”

Friedman: “Duncan has a different kind of body to get in the post.”

Egan: “Absolutely. Absolutely.”

Friedman: “That’s another thing that I guess is a natural gift in a sense. Robinson is certainly strong and muscular in his arms but he has that tiny waist.”

Egan: “Tiny waist, a little knock kneed. Tim Duncan is built like Olajuwon.”

Friedman: “Yeah. Your game gets constructed around your body type in a certain sense.”

Egan: “Absolutely. Yeah. People would say, ‘You have to get this guy to play down low.’ He can’t play low; he’s a straight up and down guy. You have to figure out how to use what God gave him.”

Friedman: “That’s a big part of coaching, right? You have to see what you are working with. You can’t just say, ‘My system is best and in my system the 5 does this.’ If you have a 5 who can’t do that, then you have to find other ways to use his skills.”

Egan: “Absolutely. Absolutely.”

Friedman: “Robinson was amazing, particularly before he got hurt—his quickness, the way he could run the floor and steal the ball from guards. He was a very unusual player with what he could do.”

Egan: “Yes.”

posted by David Friedman @ 11:50 PM

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