Below is a recent conversation with Lakers assistant coach Kurt Rambis, touching on his hire, relationship with Phil Jackson, past critiques of Mike D’Antoni and how to fix to the Lakers’ defense
How did your role as a Lakers assistant coach under Mike D’Antini materialize?
Rambis: “It started with a conversation several weeks ago initiated by Mike D’Antoni. We had breakfast and he said he was interested in me working as an assistant coach for him. It was that simple and that plain. I jumped at it right away. I thought it would be a really interesting situation.
Why were you surprised about it?
Rambis: Well, it wasn’t what I was expecting. That’s where the surprise came from. We’ve known each other in the past. I wasn’t sure what direction the conversation was going to go. I’m always fine with sitting down with people and talking basketball. I had other conversations with a lot of head coaches.
Is it accurate that your role is going to entail primarily overseeing the team’s defense?
Rambis: I don’t know if it’s been stated as such. But that’s how I view the sport. I look at what any team can do to get stops. It’s critical to win games in the NBA. It takes five guys to figure out how to stop a ball. When you’re playing against talented offensive players, a myriad of challenges come up in figuring out how to stop them. It takes all five guys being on the same page. That’s how I look at things. On the other end, you’re trying to utilize your offensive talents and seeing how the other team is playing defense. You look at how they play defense and what we can do to take advantage of that based on the talent on offense that we have.
What’s your vision on how the Lakers play defense next season
Rambis: We haven’t sat down and formulated anything. Mike and I have a similar concept in what we want to do. But we haven’t walked through all of the steps. Even if you take wing screen-and-roll, there’s a lot of things offensively that can happen. How to defend all those different options. A wing screen-and-roll involving Dwight Howard and a wing screen-and-roll involving Dirk Nowitzki makes you defend it differently. We have to go through that process to make sure we’re all on the same page to look at those situations and defend him. That’s a simplistic example, but it’s clear the difference between the two.
With your mention that it takes five guys, how does the Lakers offset the absences that Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace brought on defense? Whenever you have gifted players on either end of the floor, they can make up for a lot of mistakes. If you have a very gifted offensive player, your offense can be run really sloppy out there and the guy makes an incredible shot with two guys hanging on him. That wasn’t great offensive execution. That was just a great player making a great play. It’s the same way on the defensive end.
Rambis: When you have defensive oriented players, they can cover up a lot of mistakes. Even with that, you need five guys connected in knowing how you’re going to defend this action and know you need to be in this spot. When the guy’s on the strong side, this is what you need to do. When the guy’s on the weak side, this is what you need to do. Here’s what the offensive options are and these are the areas you have to cover when the ball moves. It’s just a matter of going through that, rehearsing it and making sure everybody understands it. Everybody has to communicate. Guys make mistakes. The offense changes and makes an adjustment. It’s always on the floor. Guys will have to read and react and communicate and cover up for each other.
What was your view as an analyst for ESPN and Time Warner Cable SportsNet last year that contributed to the Lakers’ defensive issues? When you had talented offensive players like the Lakers had, they can make up for a lot of mistakes. They thought they didn’t have to run everything perfectly as long as they had spacing and movement. Offensive players can figure out how to score. When you have new faces and a lot of people coming from different backgrounds, there’s different terminology. You can be talking about the exact same sequence, but everybody calls it something differently.
It never looked like they were consistently on the same page. It never seemed like when this happens, they know how they were going to defend it. There was always lapses. With veteran players, it seemed like that shouldn’t happen. They never really got connected. It put all their pressure on their offense. They had to figure out how to continually score because their defense wasn’t figuring out how to get stops.
When you look at this roster, the pieces they got in Chris Kaman, Wesley Johnson, Nicky Young and Jordan Farmar appear on paper to be better fits for Mike D’Antoni’s system. But how can the defense minimize issues on transition defense , on missed shots, etc? Your defense starts a lot with your offense and making sure guys understand where shots are going to come from and making sure the proper people are getting back with your guards and small forward depending on who shoots the ball. They need to get back to slow the ball down and make sure there’s organization in transition.
When you look at the team, yeah, they have some more athletic people. But they still have people who want to get the ball inside. I’m not sure you’re looking at an extremely fast team. Certainly, they’re a team that can push the ball a little bit. It’s easier to run your offense against a team that, even if they’re getting back on defense, aren’t completely organized. You can run things then better than if you’re going against a set halfcourt defense. To me, it all starts with your offense. Guys will have to know which shots are going to be taken. Your offense helps create good shots. Then everyone understands how you get back on transition and then it builds from there.
With the relationship you have with Phil Jackson, what does that do for the team? He and I have basketball conversations, whether it was last year or the year before. It’s been an ongoing situation, even when I was coaching in Minnesota (2009-2011). It’s not like that’s going to stop. But he’s not the only coach that I talk to. I have several coaching friends throughout the NBA that I talk to and run things across. I ask, ‘In this situation, how did you handle this?’ or ‘I saw this on your team. That was really good.’ I ask them about their thought process. It’s always good to bounce things off from different coaches and get different perspectives.
Which particular coaches beyond Phil that you talk with on a normal basis regarding that?
Rambis: It’s probably inappropriate. Phil is a natural connection. But I don’t know if organizations will be saying, ‘I want you to talk about that.’” (laughs)
Are you planning to incorporate any of the concepts you learned from Phil in terms of the triangle offense and how you oversaw the defense on his teams?
Rambis: What that offense did that was really good is a lot of it is spacing and a lot of it is changing sides of the floor and guys moving without the ball. But those are sound fundamental basketball concepts. It’s not like any good organized offense wouldn’t have that. That’s what you need in order to beat defenses. You have to move the ball around and shift people around so the defense has to shift. When I look around the league and I watch teams play, most teams use concepts of the triangle in their offense. They may not run that. But there’s concepts. There’s the spacing and the two-man game. There’s aspects of it that you use. It’s not like it happens on a continual basis. But it does happen.
You were fairly candid last year as far as assessing the Lakers. Given that dynamic, are there any particular things you have addressed to Mike or plan to address to Mike on any concerns on how he handled personnel and overall strategy? No, I mean he came into a tough situation. I understood his situation because I came in  and filled in for Del Harris. You had your vision on how things should be different and how things should be run. When you had injuries and a lack of practice time, it’s hard to get what you want across. You also really don’t know a team intimately until you’re out there working with players.
Rambis: It’s easy to say from the outside. That’s why it’s easy to be an analyst and say, ‘This should be happening.’ Then you start to see the players and how they have a hard time doing what you want them to do. You have to get out there and see how your team is and adjust and react and see how quickly they pick up things. If you talk the exact same thing on every same team and went through things, you would have some teams that got the stuff real quick and then some players that really struggled with it. Depending on what you’re teaching with it, some of the players would change. Different people may pick it up quicker. You just have to work with players. When I’m looking at the talent that’s out there on the floor, I didn’t think there was good spacing and ball movement. And I knew where some of the players liked to play and where they wanted the ball. So that’s when I said, ‘This is what I think should be happening.’”
So you’ll have a tougher gig this year.
Rambis: Absolutely. I can do that with every single team. Even when you’re looking at Miami, I was thinking they needed to get LeBron [James] into the post a lot more. They need to get him on the elbow where they can see defenders coming at him and double teaming him, while he can shoot the ball or attack the basket. It wasn’t just this situation. It was just my basketball opinion.
Where do you think your past experiences as the Lakers’ interim coach (in 1999) and an assistant under Phil (1999-2009) come into play particularly with working with Kobe and Pau?
Rambis:I think I understand their personalities. I understand their vision of the sport and view of the sport and where they like to have the basketball and operate from and where they like to play. It will be interesting with Kobe. You don’t know what player you’re going to get. Pau, too. They’re both going into be in contract years and have to make sure they’re both in good health. It’s going to be interesting trying to see not only how they play individually but how they fit in with everybody else. As a coach, you have to be able to coach the players you have and not worry about the players you don’t have. We’ll come in with a game plan and say these are the things we’ll focus on. We’ll talk about how we can tweak these things and make them work and make them more comfortable and get them to spots on the floor they can excel in.
With Kobe specifically on defense, it seems one-on-one that he’s had success. But when he’s off-the-ball, there’s so many instances where he’s roaming around and things get lost in the mix with that. How do you address that part?
Rambis: Everybody needs to understand, like I was talking about earlier, that when we’re defending this offensive situation, these are the spots we need to get at people. When the offensive personnel changes, people need to shift on defense too. We need to articulate which spots we need to have filled and then there needs to be great communication. Then if we do this correctly defensively, we need to know these are going to be the offensive outlets for guys and this is what they’re going to look for. That’s when we can anticipate and read and get steals if we know where they’re going to try to have the basketball. Does that work 100 percent of the time? No. The offense won’t just stand in the spots and be predictable. They’re going to react too. That’s why guys have to get the concepts and then communicate and react to the situations. Everyone is involved in it. Every position is critical to help stop the ball.
I know obviously the direct thing in front of you is your assistant coaching gig, but are you still aiming to become an NBA head coach?
Rambis: Absolutely, but will I freak out if it doesn’t happen? No. I like coaching. Being an assistant coach does not bother me at all. I enjoy working with players in game and practice situations. If the right situation came along, I would certainly consider it. To answer your question directly, that’s my ultimate goal. But if it doesn’t happen, I’m okay with that.
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