Sam Vincent probably got screwed.
He won't tell you that, of course. He'll speak in coach-tongue, delicately handling the situation and expressing only how proud he was of the Charlotte Bobcats' effort last year, and how thankful he is to the ownership group and front office for the opportunity. That said...
He probably got screwed.
Given the reins of a young team without a legitimate superstar, Vincent took the team for one season, lasted through season-ending injuries to Sean May and Adam Morrison, then suffered through a 20 game lapse without Gerald Wallace due to a concussion, along with the usual brash of injuries, and still managed to beat the Boston Celtics, LA Lakers, and 30 other teams during the season, staying with range of the East's eighth seed until the last month of the season. And then after all that hard work and suffering through bad luck, after all that patience, he was rewarded.
With a pink slip. They fired Vincent almost immediately and brought in "young-guy fuzzy wuzzy" Larry Brown. Vincent had worked in the D-League before, that's how he got the Charlotte gig. So he went back to looking at D-League jobs for next season while he gathered offers. He first had been reported to be a lock for the Reno Bighorns job, but that fell through. Instead he ended up as coach of the Anaheim Arsenal. He's not sure where he'll be in a year, but one thing's for certain, he's just glad to be back on the floor. Coach Vincent agreed to a brief phone interview a few weeks ago, and we talked about Charlotte, Anaheim, and the future of the D-League.
MM: What prompted you to take the head coaching position in the D-League instead of an assistant job somewhere else?
SV: I really believe that the way you operate as a head coach is really so different from an assistant coach. The opportunity to continue with that kind of dialog, with that kind of experience on the floor working with the guys was what I wanted to do at least over the next year or so. After this season, depending on what opportunities there are, and what coaches I have the opportunity to work with, that could change, but that's how I felt about this season.
MM: What's the biggest difference between an assistant job you'd take and a head coaching opportunity?
SV: As an assistant coach, your full role and responsibility is to understand the vision of your head coach and to be able to fulfill your role in helping that mission become a reality. Ostensibly, you're adding defensive input. You have to do your homework, or whatever your assignments are. You have to bring whatever your assignments are to the table. If it's player development, you have to know how to reach those guys to make them better. As a head coach, you're bringing all those aspects together. Player development, game development, all of that and managing relationships with the players and so forth. That was an area where I wanted to gain experience and improve.
MM: What are some things you think the D-League needs in order to be successful?
SV: I think number one, there needs to be some sort of increase in the players' salaries, because I think if the salaries increase a little bit you're going to get that next level tier of player. Right now those players will go overseas. They may be committed to staying in order to chase the NBA dream, but we're losing them. Number two, the affiliate teams need to be able to work even closer with he NBA teams in order to understand strategically what the NBA team is trying to accomplish. There needs to be a synergy between the two teams towards a common goal. You need to be able to mimic offensively and defensively, your parent NBA squad. So with time, the NBA teams will feel comfortable sending a player down, and they won't feel like it's wasting time. They'll feel like it's getting that player valuable experience.
MM: sometimes getting through to a D-League player in a way that motivates him to concentrate how he needs to in order to improve his difficult. What are your thoughts on player development and the challenges it entails?
SV: Player development is something that I really enjoy doing. I feel like I have a good ability in identifying a player's strengths and weaknesses and charting a program on how to improve on the weakness areas. I enjoy doing that, I feel like it's something I'm good at. And it's something that's obviously important for the D-League for the players to get where they're trying to go. I think that first of all at the D-League level, getting the guys to buy in to the fact that you're trying to help them improve, not only to get to the NBA level, but to help them get to a higher paying position, that's something you have to get through to them for them to trust you. Some of the guys in the D-League look at the NBA and if they don't really gain any ground, they lose their focus after a couple of weeks. So I tell them "We're going to help you get to the point where you're going to make more money no matter where you go. Whether it's Europe, whether it's the NBA, you're going to make more money." That helps them get involved. If we say "At the end of the year we want you to be a 20% better ballhandler", we'll give them drills that will help them. We'll give them drills that specifically help their areas of concern.
MM: You were originally reported to be signing on as the coach of the Reno Bighorns. What changed your mind?
SV: I originally looked at Reno. I have a good history with David Kahn. I have a lot of trust in what he's trying to do with the D-League and I'm comfortable working with him. So we started communication. I was leaning in that direction. But it came down to a decision with my wife and family. We don't have friends in that area. We don't have connections in that area. And moving from Dallas, where we've built a life, that was a little rough. Then the California situation came up, she has contacts, she has friends, she was much more comfortable moving to that area. It was a more realistic situation to go to California than Reno.
MM: General plans for the Arsenal next year?
SV: It'll depend on the draft. I want to be an aggressive defensive team that gets the ball up and down the court.
MM: With all the injuries you went through in Charlotte, and as competitive as the team was, I just wanted to get your thoughts on what happened with the Bobcats.
SV: My overall thoughts are that I'm still thankful to Michael and Mr. Johnson to have that opportunity to come in and coach for a year. The experience is something that you can only get having done the job. I will always be in debt to those guys for that opportunity. The way this season ended, I personally feel, and several other people I communicate with agree, that we had a good season to get to 32 wins with the injuries that we suffered. With Adam Morrison and Sean May being out, but also, Gerald Wallace, our second leading scorer was out 20 games as well. We went through a ton of injuries. We had guys that worked hard the whole way. And no one talks about how many games we lost in overtime or by 4 points or less. The guys came out and played hard every single night. We came out a lot of nights very short handed. I was happy with the way the guys performed. I was happy with the season, I was happy with the effort. I was disappointed we didn't make the playoffs, but I felt overall it was a solid year.
MM: What do you take away from working with Gerald Wallace?
SV: I think Gerald Wallace is a very talented basketball player. I think he has unique skills that afford him the ability to really help the team. But I think Gerald Wallace, he decides how effective he is going to be. If he accepts the role, and understands that that role can make the team a whole lot better, he's going to become even better. But it's when he steps out of that box, he decides to do a little too much and it sometimes hurts the team. Last year, we went out to LA, beat the Lakers, he had a great game, he had three games on that roadtrip where he was phenomenal and we won all three. When we had Gerald in that kind of role and Jason doing his thing, we were a pretty good team. We just didn't have the chemistry to do that for a whole year, and part of that was I was learning the guys and they were learning me. But a lot of the reports of the relationships with the players being strained and we couldn't get along, that was just false reporting. I'm a coach that will discipline his guys, because I believe that's part of coaching. But I never lacked any respect for those guys or showed any excessive discipline for them. I just tried to do the best job I could.
MM: Are you excited to be back on the floor next year with the Arsenal?
SV: Yes, I really am. I love coaching. And whether it's Capetown in South Africa, or Charlotte, or Anaheim, I love coaching. This gives me an opportunity to get back on the floor. This gives me a chance to help guys improve their games and get to the next step. That's what I love doing.