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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Hank Egan Interview

Hank Egan won a championship in San Antonio as a member of Gregg Popovich's staff. Two decades before that, Popovich was a member of Egan's staff at Air Force. Egan also won two West Coast Conference Coach of the Year awards at San Diego, where one of his players was current Cleveland Cavaliers Coach Mike Brown. Egan is now an assistant coach on Brown's staff. Last season, I interviewed Egan, and he provided many candid, interesting insights about the NBA. One of the points he made is that it takes one full year and then some time into the second year before a team completely assimilates a coach's complete program, particularly at the defensive end of the court. I spoke with Egan recently and asked him how much progress the Cavaliers have made in that regard. Also, some analysts do not believe that Larry Hughes is the right "Robin" to LeBron James' "Batman" but Egan explains why they are wrong.

Friedman: “Last time when we spoke you described Larry Hughes as a ‘Steady Eddie’ player, someone who really settles everybody down and is very important for the chemistry of the team. Now that you have had a chance to coach him for a full season and are going into a second season coaching him, tell me some more about the impact that he has had on this team and the impact that he can have this season if he stays healthy.”

Egan: “That’s the big key right there—if he stays healthy. We started out very good last year with him (18-10) and then he went down and we hung around until we got Flip Murray—we needed another guy to offset LeBron, so the defense couldn’t just sit on him. He (Hughes) has played very well in the preseason. He’s been one of the best players in the preseason this year. If he can take some of the heat off of LeBron and give us some scoring punch, someplace to go (for points) when LeBron is on the bench, then that will be big for us.”

Friedman: “I’m sure that you are aware that some media people and some critics say that Hughes is not the right type of player to play with LeBron, that LeBron should be surrounded by pure shooters (to spread the court). How would you respond to that kind of comment or that kind of criticism?”

Egan: “Larry is a decent shooter but what he can do is dribble penetrate and pitch to LeBron, because LeBron can shoot the three, too. I don’t think that those people (critics) are right. We need to have somebody who can handle the ball a little bit because we don’t want LeBron to have to carry the whole load. I like having Larry (to do that). When we need shooting, we’ve got Damon Jones who we can put (on the court) with Larry and we’ve got Donyell Marshall, who is a great three point shooter. I think that we’ve got enough shooting.”

Friedman: “Isn’t the defensive versatility that Hughes supplies you with—where Hughes and LeBron can flip flop who they are guarding depending on foul trouble and also can easily switch on pick and rolls—an important aspect of his value as well?”

Egan: “Yes and that helps us with (point guard Eric) Snow, because he is a strong guy, and we can do a lot of switching with him, too, on pick and rolls. Lots of times, we put Larry on the point guard, Eric Snow on the shooting guard and LeBron can play the three. That makes it a lot simpler for us. His (Hughes’) versatility on the defensive end is helpful as well.”

Friedman: “Do you like having Larry on the point guard because of his length and because he gets his hands in the passing lanes?”

Egan: “Yeah and because he has some natural quickness. He’s a quick guy and he has length to him. He can put some pressure on the point guard.”

Friedman: “On the surface it would look like having Snow cover a shooting guard might be a mismatch because of the height difference but I remember that you guys did that last year even against Kobe. Why is it a good matchup for you to have him on a shooting guard even though he is giving up some height?”

Egan: “Because guys like Kobe want to post up and it’s hard to post up Snow because he’s a strong veteran who knows what he is doing. The reason we put him on the shooting guard is that a lot of teams want to post their shooting guards and we want him on that matchup because he will make it hard for them on the post.”

Friedman: “He has a low center of gravity, also, so his lack of height can almost be an advantage in terms of leverage.”

Egan: “That’s right. He’s strong; he’s a very strong guy.”

Friedman: “Last year we talked about implementing a defensive game plan and having a team become solid defensively. You told me that it takes a full year and then into the second year for the team to really have what you called ‘corporate knowledge’ about how to play defense. I am interested in a progress report of where the Cavs stand now defensively; when we first talked you were really just starting that process."

Egan: “We, as a coaching staff, changed our defensive philosophy as the season went along and we saw the strengths and weaknesses of our ball club.”

Friedman: “In what way did you change?”

Egan: “We were playing a lot of one on one defense and fronting the post to not allow the ball to go in there. Then we went to not fronting the post all the time, mixing our coverages, sometimes doubling and sometimes fronting and just being able to make changes (throughout the game). The reason we did that is because at some positions we are not really very, very athletic, but we have smart guys who have been around for a while. So the way that we have to compensate for not being able to use quickness, jumping ability and all that is using the ability to change defenses on the fly.”

Friedman: “Is center (Zydrunas Ilgauskas) one of those positions that is not athletic?”

Egan (smiles slightly): “Yeah, absolutely, but he’s intelligent and the other guys around him are intelligent. So sometimes we double on the post or we’ll double from different spots or we’ll change the pick and roll coverages. If they are hurting us on one pick and roll coverage then we will change it instead of putting another player out there. Even if they are not hurting us, we’ll change just to keep them off balance because we found that our guys can adapt on the fly. They can adapt during the game, which is a strength that we didn’t know that we had; so we are using that more.”

Friedman: “Last year you had the good playoff run and got so close to the Eastern Conference Finals. Did that almost, in a sense, put you ahead of schedule and put some added pressure on you for this year? People expect that since you went so far last year that you automatically have to go farther this year.”

Egan: “I don’t know about the expectations from the coaching staff but outside expectations and pressure—there is considerably more than there would have been if we hadn’t made the run that we did last year. So we are sitting with that burden right now and we have to respond to that. It will be very important for us early to respond to that—the pressure and also having the understanding that if we want to do as well as we did last year that we have to get better. It won’t happen because of what we did last year; it will happen because of what we learn from last year.”

Friedman: “LeBron talked about you guys being a hunted team and how some of the other teams recognize or believe that the Cavaliers are an elite team and that this season will be different mentally. Is that something that the coaching staff explicitly addresses with the team?”

Egan: “We’ve reminded them of it on more than one occasion. I’ll tell you that for sure. It’s not just us talking about it. I think that it was Charles Barkley who said that we have to prove that we can play with a target on our back.”

Friedman: “Absolutely. He did say that. You’ve had that experience with the Spurs. Is it something that, even though you say that to the team and you realize it, in a certain sense the players will not really understand how much they are being hunted until they get out there and experience it? You can talk about it and understand it at a conceptual level but isn’t it still going to be different when they actually get on the court and go through it?”

Egan: “Absolutely.”

Friedman: “Is it just something they are going to have to go through and you hope that they respond well?”

Egan: “Yeah. Exactly.”

Friedman: “Taking the Cavaliers out of the equation, who would you say are the top three teams in the East?”

Egan: “Miami’s got to be there because of Shaq and Dwyane Wade. The Chicago Bulls have made themselves considerably better. Last night’s performance (Chicago's 108-66 opening night win over Miami) was maybe an anomaly just a little bit because of the ring ceremony. Two things that I am glad of right now are that we are not playing Chicago, because they are playing so well, and I’m glad that we are not playing Miami, because they are going to kill the next team that they play (note: although it wasn't a blowout, the Heat did win their next game, beating the Nets, 91-85). I think Miami, Chicago and then Detroit, because they have been there before and they have Chauncey Billups and a lot of experience.”

Friedman: “Don’t you think that the loss of Ben Wallace is going to really hurt them, particularly in the playoffs?”

Egan: “Yeah, but they are going to have to change their style. It’s going to help them at the offensive end of the floor, because the defense won’t be able to just leave somebody. McDyess can score and do some things. They have been there and been there a lot of times before. They’ve been a good team for a while and they still have a lot of their (key) players and they’re not just going to go away.”

Friedman: “Wallace is not a threat to score, but he does offensive rebound and he’s a good passer, so is he as much of a liability on offense as some people think? The fans always talk about ‘we’re playing four on five when he’s out there’ but I don’t think that is really entirely the case because of his ability to screen, offensive rebound and pass.”

Egan: “I said that they had to compensate for him not being a scorer but they used him the right way—they used him off of the ball and he was such a threat on the offensive glass. Now, they can change the way that they play and go into McDyess (in the post) and that kind of thing. You know, a team that has been very good for a sustained period of time—three, four, five years—that just loses one guy and replaces him with a pretty good player coming out of San Antonio (Nazr Mohammed)—I have to think that they are still going to be there, I really do.”

Friedman: “What do you think of New Jersey?”

Egan: “They would be the next team that I would mention. They have three extremely good guys. Cliff Robinson helps them and their center is emerging. If he comes along—“

Friedman: “Nenad Krstic.”

Egan: “Yeah, Krstic. If he comes along, they’d be another team that is right there.”

Friedman: “Doesn’t the way that some of the rules and points of emphasis have been changed—in terms of preventing defensive contact on the perimeter—really favor them? You have LeBron James and Larry Hughes but they have three guys.”

Egan: “Yeah—it helps these guys (Washington Wizards), too; they are probably one of the few teams that play a pure four ‘out,’ one ‘in’ system, with four perimeter players and one post man in their starting group. They are moving all of the time; they are using a little bit of the same system that New Jersey uses.”

Friedman: “Eddie Jordan was an assistant in New Jersey when Byron Scott was there.”

Egan: “Yes—and they struggled after he left.”

posted by David Friedman @ 4:29 AM

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