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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Sam Cassell: A Student of the Game Evolves into A Teacher

I have always enjoyed watching Sam Cassell, in no small part because it is apparent that he takes very seriously what Steve Young would call the "craft" of playing his sport. Relative to top NBA players, Cassell never possessed great size, speed or jumping ability, yet he has always been able to get off--and make--his shot in pressure situations.

In his first two NBA seasons, Sam Cassell played a key role on Houston’s back to back championship teams; as a rookie in 1993-94, he ranked fourth on the team during the playoffs in assists and three pointers made. After Cassell’s third season in Houston, the Rockets traded him to Phoenix as part of the deal to acquire aging star Charles Barkley. That was the beginning of a nomadic odyssey around the league for Cassell, who ultimately played for three teams in the 1996-97 season alone (Suns, Mavs, Nets). In his only full season with the Nets (1997-98), Cassell blossomed into an All-Star caliber player, averaging 19.6 ppg (16th in the NBA) and 8.0 apg (10th in the NBA). During the 1999 lockout-shortened season, the Nets shipped Cassell to Milwaukee, where he helped the Bucks to reach the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals. Cassell ranked in the top ten the league in assists in 2000 (9.0 apg, 3rd) and 2001 (7.6 apg, 8th) and he averaged between 18.2 ppg and 19.7 ppg in each of his four seasons with Milwaukee. Cassell’s next stop was Minnesota as the Timberwolves continued to try to find the right pieces to fit around Kevin Garnett. Cassell and Latrell Sprewell proved to be excellent perimeter complements to Garnett’s game and the Timberwolves made it to the 2004 Western Conference Finals as Cassell enjoyed his most decorated NBA season, earning his only All-Star selection, his only All-NBA Second Team nod and placing 10th in MVP voting. The Timberwolves were not able to duplicate that success the next season and in 2005 Cassell was traded to the L.A. Clippers, who had not made the playoffs since 1997. With Cassell at the helm, the Clippers went 47-35—their best record since 1974-75, when the franchise was known as the Buffalo Braves--smashed Denver 4-1 in the first round and took Phoenix to seven games before bowing out in the second round. In 2006-07, injuries limited Cassell to 58 games and the Clippers missed the playoffs. Midway through the 2007-08 season, the Clippers bought out Cassell’s contract and he signed with the Boston Celtics, reuniting with Garnett and eventually winning a third championship ring 14 years after winning one as a Houston rookie. Cassell hit some big shots in spot duty for Boston—including back to back games of 20 and 22 points late in the regular season and a 10 point fourth quarter outburst in the first game of the Cleveland series—but this year Doc Rivers plans to use him sparingly in the regular season. In effect, Cassell has become a player-coach, a mentor on the practice court to the team’s younger players, including starting point guard Rajon Rondo.

I recently spoke with Cassell about a wide range of subjects, including the difference between winning a championship as a young player and as a veteran and how he developed the ability to be a consistent NBA scorer despite not being super athletic.

Friedman: "You won championship rings in your first two seasons and now you have won a ring as a veteran player. What is the difference in your perspective on winning a ring as a young player versus winning a ring as a veteran player?"

Cassell: "This ring I got recently with this team—I know what winning a championship is all about. When you win so early like I did, I didn’t understand the concept of winning a championship, what it meant—the grind, the struggles, the sweat, the tears, the blood, the injuries, you know what I’m saying? All of that is a part of it. What we accomplished last year was unbelievable for me because it’s 13 years since my last championship. Going through the whole struggle and not winning and then finally winning, that was big. I felt it. I felt it."

Friedman: "Did you almost go from having the attitude as a young player that you were going to win championships every year to wondering if you were going to get just one more before you have to retire?"

Cassell: "No doubt about it. Yeah. That’s what I thought. Is it possible I could win another one? Out there in L.A., the window of opportunity was closed. Not closing—it was closed. I got new breath with these guys and I jumped at the opportunity to come and be a part of this."

Friedman: "I interviewed Kenny Smith a while ago and he told me something very interesting about when you were teammates. He had a conversation with you when you were playing the same position and in competition for the same minutes and he told you that he would never be on the bench rooting for you to fail. What kind of impact did that have on you when a veteran player said something like that and how have you communicated that to the younger players who you have worked with since then?"

Cassell: "The advice that Kenny gave me was big. It definitely helped me to become the player that I am now. For instance, if Rajon (Rondo) is playing well and it is my opportunity to play and (Coach) Doc (Rivers) tells me to go sub in for Rajon, I’ll tell Doc, 'Let him play. Just let him play.' Like in game six (of the 2008 NBA Finals). I could have subbed for him but I said to Doc, 'He’s playing well. Let him play.' That’s what players on good teams do: sacrifice for each other for the betterment of the team. The team is the most important thing. On our team we have great individual ball players but they understand the team concept and that makes us even better."

Friedman: "You are not big for an NBA guard and you have never been a high flyer but you have the ability to post up other guards and are able to play down low even against players who are bigger than you. How did you develop that aspect of your game? How are you able to play on the block against players who are bigger and more athletic?"

Cassell: "I worked on it, first and foremost. It’s about making the game easier for me. That made the game easier. The closer you get to the basket, the higher your shooting percentages are; the farther away you get from the basket, the lower your percentages are. So, I learned that and I worked on it. I understood the concept of it."

Friedman: "What is the concept? If you are going against a player who is 6-6 and jumps better that you, most people would assume that that guy has an advantage against you. You must see an advantage from your perspective; what advantage do you see?"

Cassell: "Number one, I know how that guy is looking at me: he’s looking at me like I’m small and I won’t be able to get my shot off. I’m crafty with it; I pump fake and my whole thing is to shoot the ball when they don’t think that I’m going to shoot it, especially when I’m on the post."

Friedman: "So it is all about getting the defender out of rhythm."

Cassell: "Yeah. When I have the ball, I’m going to take the shot I want to take; I’m not going to take the shot that the defender wants me to take—then I’m playing into his hands. When I have the ball, I’m controlling the situation right now. If I want to take two dribbles, turn to the baseline, pump fake, pump fake again and then shoot it, that’s what I’m going to do. He’s not going to dictate what I’m going to do when I have the ball."

Friedman: "Do you think that a lot of times younger players or players who are gifted with a lot of athleticism kind of settle for shots and don’t have the mentality that you described?"

Cassell: "Yeah. You’ve got to learn it. When you’re young you think that you can jump over the world. The name of this game is putting the ball in the basket. That’s the name of this game—and how frequently and at what rate you can do it. It took me three years to understand how to do that. It took me three good years in this league to learn how to score, how to get a basket when I need to score."

Friedman: "So it was different than when you were in college and maybe didn’t think of the game in quite the same way. In college you simply had an athletic advantage over a lot of the players who you faced."

Cassell: "College cannot be compared to this. I breezed through college basketball. I didn’t average 20 points but I averaged 18 points two years in college but it wasn’t hard for me. Three guys on my team (Florida State) averaged at least 18 points a game (in 1993; Bob Sura and Doug Edwards were the other two players). It wasn’t hard for me to score points in college but when I got to the pros my first year I averaged seven points a night. My second year I averaged 10 points a night. By my third year I started to understand how to score the ball and how to be a complete ball player in this league."

Friedman: "Is that something you learn from veteran players or from coaches?"

Cassell: "It’s just on the job training. A guy can’t tell you how to score. You’ve got to understand it and go do it yourself."

Friedman: "Throughout your career, you’ve had the ability to take and make big shots. You don’t shrink from that. I think that there are some players in the league who don’t really want the ball in that situation. They may say that they do but you can see that when a screen is set for them they come off of it just a little bit slow so they’re not open."

Cassell: "Yeah."

Friedman: "How did you develop that mentality that you really want the ball in those situations?"

Cassell: "I had to because when I played in Houston I had great players on my team, Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon. Those guys got double-teamed so I was left open. It was either take it and miss it or take it and make it."

Friedman: "You played in Houston with two future Hall of Famers and now on this team you are playing with three future Hall of Famers. What are some of the similarities and differences between the leadership styles of the main guys in Houston compared to the main guys in Boston?"

Cassell: "The guys in Houston were soft spoken. They led by example. They just went out and played the game. They weren’t critical. These guys (in Boston) are critical. Clyde and 'Dream' just played."

Friedman: "You played with Kevin Garnett when he won the MVP in Minnesota and you are playing with him again now. Outsiders might perceive him differently now because he won a championship but from your perspective has his game changed from then to now or is it just a matter of being in a better situation and having a better opportunity?"

Cassell: "Better situation and better opportunity. Put Paul Pierce and Ray Allen with us in Minnesota and we would have won a couple championships. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t go like that. So all three of those guys are blessed to have one another on the same team with Kendrick Perkins and Rajon—it’s a whole team. People are so fast to give those three guys all the credit but Leon Powe, myself, Eddie House, 'Baby,' Tony Allen, we understand the whole concept. Everybody might not like their role but they can respect their role. That’s what makes us successful."

Friedman: "Which player or players guarded you the toughest during your career?"

Cassell: "Eric Snow was a good defender. Craig Ehlo was a good defender at that time, long and lanky. Nate McMillan. Gary Payton, wow, Gary Payton was a tough defender at my position."

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:30 AM



At Tuesday, November 18, 2008 12:27:00 PM, Blogger madnice said...

Ive always loved his game. But I hate him for game 3 in the Garden in 94 with the key jump shot with 40 seconds left. That was the series right there. A crafty player who excelled on shooting the mid range jumper.

At Tuesday, November 18, 2008 10:30:00 PM, Blogger Joel said...

Underrated player. For a guy who was so productive for so long and had so much team success, it seems strange that he only made the All-Star Game and the All-NBA team once each (both in 2004). Excellent post scorer and midrange shooter, master of the pump-fake, and always willing to take the big shot.

At Saturday, April 05, 2014 2:48:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Good interview.


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