The Playbook: Laker Assistant Kurt Rambis

January, 17, 2008
1/17/08
2:42
PM ET

Through the years, I have learned that when I hate seeing the Blazers play against a certain player, it's probably a sign that player is pretty darned good.

As someone who grew up watching the Blazers in the 1980s, I learned to hate seeing them play against Kurt Rambis. It may have seemed like he was the brute lucky enough to draw Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, etc. as teammates. But in fact, I'd argue he was an essential ingredient. What team couldn't use a big, strong, agile guy with good hands, a willingness to make a career without the ball, and a rare understanding of the game?

He's in a club with some pretty good players (Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Bill Laimbeer, for instance) who frustrated me to no end in my Blazer mind, but impress me to no end in my basketball mind. If that makes any sense. 

Of course, now Rambis is the former head coach and current assistant coach for the Los Angeles Lakers. As part of our ongoing series of discussions with coaches, Rambis agreed to talk basketall -- the triangle, life without Andrew Bynum, and more -- with TrueHoop:

The Lakers have a special challenge whenever they acquire a new player: the triangle. Some guys take years to learn it. Some never seem to get it. It's the reason the Lakers have their own D-League team -- to teach it. Is it really so hard to learn?
I do not believe so, no.

I played in offenses that used the same principles growing up. Moving, getting teammates open, moving the ball -- that's how I grew up. We played more without the ball, then.

Compare that to the Leauge today, where most of these players have grown up as stars in systems where coaches call plays, and they get the ball in their hands to create. Players understand that. But we're asking them to let the ball dictate what their next action is supposed to be, instead of the coach. But in reality, the triangle is really just ball movement, player movement, and spacing in such a way that everyone on floor has access to receive a pass.

If I'm a fan watching on TV, how can I tell if the triangle is "working?" How can I tell if you're running it well?
Any time you see that ball is not being dribbled a lot in the half-court set, it's probably working. If you see the ball being moved around, and players making their respective cuts,Kurt Rambis those are good signs.

That said, within the triangle, you can do almost anything that you see other teams do, whether it's a high screen and roll or a wing screen and roll.

You can do all that within the triangle. We can do it, however, without yelling out "FIST UP, FIST UP!" and then the opposing coach is screaming to his players "HIGH SCREEN AND ROLL!"

We can get into a high screen and roll through the reactions of our players.

But you still can send in instructions from the sideline, right?
We have play calls. We can manipulate the offense.

You can still, say, go to the hot hand?
Phil [Jackson] can do that. But he doesn't want to do that, and shouldn't have to do that. We should be able to accomplish that through our offense, and in such a way that the defense has a harder time recognizing what we're going to do.

Are you ever not in the triangle? Are there times you just do something else?
If the staff had their druthers, we'd be using the triangle at all times. And I think that any basketball purist would rather see more player movement, more passing, and less dribbling.

The result of all that should be a quality shot: a layup, or a wide open jump shot within the player's range. Making that shot -- that just depends on the skill level of the player. But if you end up with a shot like that, the offense has accomplished its job, whether or not it goes in.

On the other hand, if a player comes down and misses a shot from three-to-five feet behind the three-point line, they might say they were open, but the answer is "yeah, but who would guard you out there?" Our objective is to penetrate the defense and find high-quality shots.

How does your approach change without Andrew Bynum for the next couple of months?
Well, we have changed our starting lineup, and we have changed our second group. So we have to get Chris Mihm back from ankle surgery, and we have to get Kwame Brown back to where he was [before his strained knee ligament]. Ronny Turiaf will probably take on a somewhat different role where he can play more center.

There is a possibility of playing a little smaller, like a lot of other teams do. We could play with an extra small forward or guard for periods, in a lot of different combinations. That will be determined by matchups, of course.

Also, we need to find ways our second unit can keep its identity. That has been our fast unit, which has been a strong factor for us, and hopefully that can continue.

Beyond that, players are going to have to step up, to find ways to make up the points, rebounds, and blocks that we will be missing.

Our first unit players had grown to be very comfortable with Andrew in the middle. One-on-one he was starting to be productive. And his teammates were comfortable that he would deliver if they gave him the ball. Now they'll have to make it their mission to develop that kind of confidence in Kwame, Ronny, and Chris.

I guess in a perfect world, another big man does get going well here, and then when Andrew returns, the team as a whole is stronger for the experience -- with an extra big man in the groove.
That's kind of how it happened for Andrew. Kwame and Chris's injuries last year opened the door. Andrew didn't earn playing time last year. Don't get me wrong, he worked hard and practiced hard, and was ready to capitalize. But the two guys in front of him got injured, and he was the last big guy standing.

How's the mood now? This season started for the Lakers with so much negativity. And then the pendulum swung the other way, and things seemed to be going so well. Now this Bynum injury. Does that leave you distraught again? Even-keeled?
Camp was full of so much turmoil and uncertainty. Then there was no trade made of Kobe Bryant. And Kobe settled into the role of "OK, I'm here. I'm going to do my basketball thing." And then a lot of guys stepped up, but especially Jordan Farmar and Andrew Bynum, who really started to deliver on a consistent basis, and started playing with confidence.

Things started to click for us. Guys got high on how the team was playing. They can play better, there's plenty to improve, but everyone was really feeling a continuity of effort, and trust in each other.

Now, there's uncertainty, because it seems like what happens mirrors last season. You can look it up, but we had almost the same record at this time last season -- maybe two or three games different -- and then the injuries set in, and it seemed like there was a 180-degree turnaround from the first half of the season to the second half.

One difference this year is that you have Derek Fisher. I can hardly imagine a player that would appear more ready to help steady the ship when things get rough.
He has been absolutely tremendous. Unbelievable. His knowledge of the offense, his undaunted nature, how hard he practices, his maturity -- it's hard to list the number of ways he has helped out our ball club. He's a great example. And when people have been through personal tragedies and different situations like that, they know how to pull through. They can look at things in a more realistic way.

I have been asking lots of coaches about zone d
efense. It seems to me that it has come of age somewhat -- more teams are using it for longer stretches, whereas in the past it has long been seen as kind of a gimmicky or junk defense. Do you think zone defense has come of age in the NBA?

Teams are starting to show some confidence in the zone. But you have to realize that there are man-to-man principles in zone defense, and there are zone principles (for instance, weak side help) in man-to-man defense.

On the NBA level, zones can certainly be disruptive. They have a shock factor, which can distract players and make them hesitant. It can take them longer to figure out what's going on.

Interestingly, the triangle can be helpful here, because one of the best ways to beat a zone, is overload one side, then swing the ball and re-attack, and then you can overload again on the other side, and swing again. The triangle does that anyway.

With the talent level in the NBA, however, where there are a lot of quality shooters, the zone is less effective over the long haul. Those shooters spread out your zone, but the whole idea of the zone is to protect the heart of the court. But if it gets spread out, that opens the middle, and then people can pick the zone apart, get to the seams, move the ball, and attack the back side. So a zone has shock value, but it shouldn't last very long.

It also makes it hard to rebound.

But the reality is that some players in the NBA now didn't play against it in high school much, and maybe didn't play in college, or played a year of college. So it might have more shock value for some.

Remembering your playing days -- as a savvy guy who could do the things without the ball to make your teammates shine -- it seems like teams could use players like you, and I wonder if our basketball system is working well to develop role players.
I have always thought that we should not try to pigeonhole guys by putting them into specific positions. Maybe it should be more like Europe (although I haven't been to see what they actually do). Maybe we could teach everyone to dribble, pass, and shoot, regardless of size. Teach everyone to play facing the basket, or back to the basket. Teach them how to be basketball players, and then let them gravitate to what they are best suited to do.

Even if you end up with a seven-foot small forward.
Sure, I mean look at Andrea Bargnani, or Dirk Nowitzki.

It seems to me that if you want to win you need guys like Bruce Bowen, Tayshaun Prince, or you ... yet to make the NBA you have to pretty much be a high-scoring star. And then some of those stars have to learn this new role. Seems like it would make more sense to be groomed for that role from a young age.
Well, there's no glamour in those positions, and a lot of players don't want to play them.

Do you have players who do?
Well, Ronny is a good example. Lamar can be like that, in that he is very unselfish and would rather pass than score.

That Laker team I was on in the eighties was full of role players. I always felt that Magic could have led us to less success if he had been a greedier scorer. If he was out there looking for points, he might have been much less productive.

But scoring is a role too. You count on scorers to score. It's a role most players would love.

But what role you can play has to do with your personality. Some people really love frustrating people, or the rugged play under the basket.

Speaking of that, are there unwritten rules of that kind of stuff?
Yes. There are things that you are not supposed to do. In the heat of the moment, those things do happen anyway, sometimes. You get your competitive fires going. I don't know why it happens, exactly, but players do things they would erase, if they could go back in time.

But you are not supposed to do, for instance, what Kevin McHale did to me when I was in the air. You are supposed to make a play on the ball. There are so many leapers in this league, so many basket attackers. Usually when the defense attacks, they attack the ball, and there might be body contact, but not just body contact.

Also, players at this level understand that elbows can be dangerous weapons, and most know not to swing them.

But they do all the time!
You do see it. But, for instance, if someone has his elbows up at his head, and someone's coming from behind, you're not supposed to swing them into the guy's head. If you hit him in the shoulder, OK, that's another thing.

Anything I haven't asked you about you'd like to add? Anything you wish basketball fans understood about the game that they don't?
Well, I don't know if this answers your question. But when players do something of transcendent athleticism, the twist, turn, jump, pike, flip, or whatever, and they miss the shot, the crowd goes ooh, ooh, oh.

But it's just a missed shot.

To me a much simpler way to play the game is better. The beauty is in the ball movement, the passing, and a lot less dribbling.

Would you like to be a head coach again?
Oh absolutely. That's what I'm working towards.

It seems like coaching, as a head coach or an assistant, is a lot of hard work.
I wouldn't say it's hard like construction, but it takes a lot of time. You meet before practice. Then you practice. Then you watch video, and file reports. It's a 12- or 14-hour day. It's more time consuming than work.

But that's time you're not spending with your kids.
My kids are pretty grown up. My youngest is 15. But I work it around my kids. I'll stay up late watching film after they go to bed. And, depending how you do in the playoffs, you still have the opportunity to have three-and-a-half to five-and-half-months off in the summer, when your kids are out of school. So there's a give and take, but it's not so bad.

(Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images) 

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