Coaches Have to Change How They Coach Young Players & Young Teams

Christopher Dempsey, Denver Post (

You could argue some of the coaches in the NBA are more competitive than the players they oversee. Losing keeps them up at night. Winning does little to satisfy the palate, unless, of course it’s the ultimate victory of an NBA title.

But while the coaches of young teams might dream of, and be working toward, fielding a title-contending team someday, the reality is the almost daily headaches of bringing up youth in a man’s league. Yes, in some respects the NBA is getting younger. But whether that’s the case or not, winning big just doesn’t happen when the majority of players on a team are green.

Patience, however, needs to happen. The rules for cultivating young talent are different now. Can coaches challenge young players, coach them hard? Yes. But only to a degree. Players are sensitive and volatile at the same time. Ride them too hard and risk losing them, or the worst-case scenario, a revolt. That pretty much happened two years ago with the Nuggets, when much of the team basically shut it down under then-coach Brian Shaw.

There are lessons to be learned.

In Denver, current coach Michael Malone has made changes to keep things upbeat for his young team. It doesn’t mean he’s accepting mistakes or mediocrity. Anyone who remotely knows him understands that. But he, like so many other coaches, is loving players up instead of grating at them all season long and risking turning them off.

“We’re staying positive and staying together,” Malone said. “These are teaching moments. These are the lessons that we must learn from.”

He’s not alone.

“We give our young players the freedom to grow,” Phoenix coach Earl Watson said. “We also have unconditional love if they fail. Just want to give them supreme confidence. We think we can win with young guys.”

But winning with youth is difficult.

Of the five youngest teams at the start of the season – Philadelphia, Portland, Toronto, Phoenix and Denver – only the Raptors had a winning record going into Saturday night’s games. The others combined for a 27-50 record.

All have suffered losses that are hard to swallow. Those coaches count to 10, exhale, and correct mistakes from a calmer space than they may be used to. In Minnesota, coach Tom Thibodeau has been known as a task master. He has no doubt had to temper some of that through a rough 5-14 start with the Timberwolves, who own some of the top young talent in the league.

Miami coach Erik Spolestra beams at the prospect of coaching a young team. This is uncharted territory for him. He has always had star-laden, veteran squads since he’s been a head coach.

“I like this team, I really do,” Spolestra said. “I like the young guys. They have great potential, but they’re also ‘right-now’ players. That’s exciting. Trying to get this group to understand what the Miami culture is about, it’s been invigorating not only for myself but for the coaching staff.”

And it all starts with approach.

“We never want them to play with so much pressure where they feel like they have to play perfect,” Watson said. “Basketball is an imperfect sport. That’s why it reflects life. We just want to encourage and inspire a positive atmosphere for our young guys to continue to get better and better.”

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