Interview With Dallas Mavericks' Assistant Coach Del HarrisThis interview was originally published at Suite101.com on April 11, 2005.
Del Harris, the NBA Coach of the Year in 1994-95, won 556 games in 14 seasons as an NBA head coach. He guided the Houston Rockets to the NBA Finals in 1981, his second season as an NBA head coach. Harris later led the Milwaukee Bucks to the playoffs for four straight seasons (1988-1991) even though the Bucks were decimated by injuries during that time. Harris worked as a consultant for the Sacramento Kings before becoming head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers in 1994-95. He is the second Los Angeles Lakers' coach (Pat Riley was the first) to win 50 games in three consecutive seasons, including a 61-21 mark in 1997-98, his last full season with the team.
Friedman: "What approach do you take as a coaching staff heading into the postseason?"
Harris: "It's preparation for the opponent, to be ready on both ends of the court--to have studied them well enough that you know what they do best so that you can try to restrict the few things that they really excel at and then identifying the areas where you think that you can capitalize against their defense. It's really all about preparation when it comes to a seven game series, so it's different than the regular season. In regular season play you are more focused on trying to develop a system of play--a style of play on both ends of the court that players can feel comfortable with night in and night out. You don't want to get so specific on Friday that you play that game one way and then specific again on Saturday to play a different way. But in the playoffs you use that base that you formed to adjust from, so that you have a core of stuff that you really can do well--your style, your system--but then you develop the ability to keep true to that, yet to adjust here and there from it to suit the particular opponent that you will face in the playoff series."
Friedman: "Is that a process that you can start now? You don't know exactly which team you will be playing, but you can narrow it down to two or three by looking at the standings. Do you start the process now of looking at DVD and focusing on particular teams or is the focus now still on that general process of winning regular season games?"
Harris: "Our seeding won't change but we don't know who we're going to play (because other teams could move up or down). It could be any one of literally four teams. Because of the change (Avery Johnson taking over as head coach for Don Nelson), we're still trying to cement in our adjusted style. We're playing a little bit differently than we did prior to Avery taking over. We have not had two of our most important ingredients--our starting center, Erick Dampier, and our leading sixth man, Jerry Stackhouse--for over a month. Each of them is playing right now on about a 15 minute string, but we hope that sometime next week we can get them back in (for their regular minutes). Our final ten games will be used to really cement in our style. We won't worry about who we play until right at the end. We're probably not going to play (the first playoff game) until Sunday (April 24) and we'll find out who we play on Wednesday (April 20), so that gives us enough time to make those adjustments because we already know that whoever we play, we have a pretty good idea of their game because we have played them four times already. But this is a critical time for us and we have to make valuable use of the games and practices to integrate our new players into the adjusted style that we have."
Friedman: "Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki were such an incredible tandem when they played together. What do you think the reason is that now that they are on different teams they are both having career seasons?"
Harris: "In Steve's case he has a better group of players to fit his style, to run with him. We didn't have the same kind of athletes to run with him that Phoenix has. When you look at Stoudemire, Marion, Richardson, Johnson, this is like going to a race track. We had different kinds of players--we had very good players or we wouldn't have been winning 50-60 games during the years that he was here--but we didn't play that way and this (running style) really fits his game best. As for why Dirk is having a better season, in the past it was mainly Steve and Dirk working off each other and Finley fitting in there. We didn't have the overall team balance, so opponents could pretty well zero in on those three guys. Particularly if two of them were involved in a play action, they could load the defense in that direction. This year Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson were able to bring nine new players into our mix and what we now have is a team that is so much more balanced that if you load up on Dirk we've got four or five other guys who can get 20 or 30 points on you. We didn't have that before."
Friedman: "The other teams can't just assume that Nowitzki is going to get the ball in the same areas all the time and run the same pick and roll. They can't focus in on stopping one or two key plays, so that enables him to have greater individual success."
Harris: "Also, he has elevated his game on both ends of the court. He has really developed his inside game, his post game is better. He is no longer hesitant to drive the ball. He can take the ball to the basket as well as anybody. By the time the season is over he will have shot about 300 more free throws this year than he did last year. His whole style of play is so much more aggressive. Last year he depended on Steve for a lot of pick and rolls. This year he doesn't get his points off of pick and roll that much. He gets them through various play actions, posting and driving the ball. While it doesn't show up statistically, he has also elevated his defensive game to the point that he is probably our second best defensive player behind Josh Howard. The league has been slow to catch on to that, but if they observe, if they really watch, you see a very, very well rounded player in Dirk Nowitzki this year."
Friedman: "Where specifically is his improvement on defense?"
Harris: "All around--his steals, his blocked shots, his footwork one-on-one against the ball, his help side defense attacking penetrations, his pick and roll defense. There is not an area that he has not improved."
Friedman: "You mentioned that Nowitzki's free throw attempts are way up. Do you think that the rules change or the interpretation change (limiting defensive contact against perimeter players) has helped him? Obviously, he has to take advantage of it, he has to drive to benefit from it, but when he drives do you think that the way things are called differently now helps him and some other players who drive to the basket?"
Harris: "It hasn't helped Dirk as much as it helps the guards. The guards are the ones who benefit more because those calls are generally made way out in front, guard to guard. When you are down below the foul line they just seem to let you bump and grind. The fouls he gets are not those fouls (hand checking fouls on the outside). The fouls he gets are when he attacks the basket and they put him into the stands--but he just keeps coming back."
posted by David Friedman @ 1:45 AM