Mental Mistakes in Basketball and Flip’s Unique Challenge to Correct Them

“I’m tough on players that I think have a chance to be very special. At one time everyone thought I wasn’t tough enough on Garnett. I couldn’t be tough on him because he did everything I always asked him to do and he very rarely made any mistakes and he played hard. I thought that if he kept on playing that way, he’d be great.

My toughness on them has to do with repeated mental mistakes.”

That was Flip Saunders after the recent loss to the Spurs at Target Center. It reminded me once again just how unique Saunders’ challenge is, coaching this team that is just so replete with bouncy athleticism and yet — in its current form — so totally devoid of all-around NBA basketball players.

Consider that Andrew Wiggins leads the team in minutes played and Zach LaVine is fourth. Each guy is 19 years old; the age of most college freshmen. Shabazz Muhammad is fifth in minutes and he’s 22, the typical age of a college senior, and Anthony Bennett is 21, barely old enough to legally drink a beer. He’s eighth in minutes.

Flip is coaching a college team against NBA competition.

Flip has made comparisons to AAU and college basketball both, when describing how his young players approach games and how he has to approach practices. The specific issue he mentioned that required disciplinary action — mental mistakes — is not a significant issue for coaches of veteran NBA lineups. Rick Adelman spent one season in Minnesota with some players like Saunders has now, still trying to learn how to play and relying more on their bodies than their brains. That one season was enough for Adelman, a veteran coach with no interest in teaching 22-year olds the nuances of playing the game, but just to take able players and mold them into a competitive team. He said goodbye to Michael Beasley, Wesley Johnson and Anthony Randolph, and hello to Andrei Kirilenko, Dante Cunningham and Brandon Roy.

Saunders’ comment reminded me of something I read in A Season on the Brink, the classic book written by John Feinstein about Bob Knight’s 1985-86 Indiana Hoosiers. Feinstein described Knight’s emphasis on the mental aspect of basketball:

Time and again Knight reminded his players that basketball is not an easy game to play. “It is the toughest game in the world to play,” he said one day. “There are no huddles, no time between pitches, no breaks. You have to be able to think on every possession. If you can’t think, you can’t play.”

Not thinking, to Knight, was a cardinal sin. Players were going to miss jump shots, they were going to mishandle the ball, and they were going to throw bad passes. Knight almost never got on a player for missing a shot, unless the shot was a foolish one. But some things were unforgivable: not boxing out, not knowing where your man was on defense, not setting a proper screen. Those were mental errors caused by a lack of concentration. There was no excuse–none–for not concentrating.

Can you even imagine what he would think of some of the current Timberwolves plays? A Zach LaVine 21-footer off the dribble with 18 on the shot clock, or Anthony Bennett staring at the rim, waiting for a rebound, while Kenneth Faried blows by him for a monster tip-dunk?

I shouldn’t limit this to the young’ins. What about when Thad Young opts for a 10-foot floater in traffic while looking off an open corner shooter? What about Mo Williams dribbling the air out of the ball before chucking a reckless pass, then screaming at the intended recipient for not reading his mind about where he should’ve been to catch it?

Mistakes abound on this team and Flip probably gets (almost) as frustrated as Knight would if he were sitting in his chair. (Or if he was throwing that chair. I’ll be here all week.)But part of that coaching job — an NBA coaching job — requires that the coach contain himself and not unleash rage every time he’s upset. It is a “player’s league” after all. That means a few different things.

First and foremost, the money. NBA players not only make money — unlike their NCAA counterparts — but they make a shit-ton of it. Usually more than the coach makes. When you consider that they all share the same boss, that salary-money talks. Put simply, NBA players don’t have to take shit from their coach the way a college player does. Much more often than not, a good coach will get fired before a star player gets traded to save him.

Tied to that, the entire hierarchy of authority is muddied in most cases and flipped on its head in others. LeBron James famously pushed David Blatt last night, during an argument with a referee. He said all the right things after the game about “saving his coach” from a technical foul, but the shove — however harmless — fit into a larger context in Cleveland where the coach is on the hot seat with a level of authority that may not be very high. It was powerful symbolism about who LeBron James, four-time MVP is, and who David Blatt, rookie NBA coach is.

The thousands of basketball coaches who do not work in the NBA are considered by their teams to be teachers and leaders. Authority is taken for granted. It’s just not that simple in the NBA.

Finally, an NBA coach needs to show more respect to the ego and psyche of his players because not only is the NBA a player’s league, but it is a player’s game as well. Despite rule changes which have unquestionably dissolved this a bit, the NBA is a (Magic Johnson voice) star’s league. It’s a league where individual greatness is a more significant factor in game results and season results than team chemistry or well-developed schemes. With that in mind, the playmakers on an NBA team need to have SUPREME confidence. They cannot worry about mistakes the way that most college players have to.

The shot clock differential is big; in the NBA the first open shot is oftentimes the best one. The trigger needs to be pulled without a second thought and without a hint of hesitation. That isn’t always so in college. In college, aggressive trapping defenses can sometimes cause an opposing player to fold up. In the NBA, they rarely even attempt traps, let alone win with them. Knight and other successful college coaches instill discipline and mistake prevention in their players. Phil Jackson and many successful NBA coaches instill confidence in their players who need a boost of it.

A close-to-home example of what I’m getting at occurred here in December 2008, when Glen Taylor fired Randy Wittman and forced Kevin McHale to coach the team that he assembled from his front office perch. Wittman, a Knight protegé of all things, was a disciplinarian type (in those days, anyway) and it simply did not work here. And it ESPECIALLY did not work with young guard, Randy Foye, a talented young player who was struggling to find his way.

Foye would get it from two directions: Wittman would bark at him for turnovers or ill-advised shots from the bench, and star post man Al Jefferson would cuss him out if he didn’t feed him the ball enough on the block, or if he missed shots after Al kicked it to him. You could tell just from watching that Foye’s confidence was way down, at the time of the coaching change.

McHale, a fun-loving guy who easily relates to players, let Foye loose. He threw out some of the playbook and basically just rolled the ball out for a few games. Foye went on to play what must’ve been the best stretch of basketball of his NBA career; before or since. Like most Timberwolves stories, it came to a crashing halt with a devestating injury — this one being Big Al’s torn ACL — but it was pretty clear that he improved by getting yelled at less, and feeling more free to play his game.

So when Flip watches these mistakes pile up and feels the urge to throw a temper tantrum about what seem like fundamental mistakes, this is the balance that he has to consider. He knows that LaVine and Bennett are in over their heads, but he’s smart enough to recognize their potential. He’s been around the league long enough to see examples of young players who were given up on too early, only to thrive somewhere else. The name Chauncey Billups comes to mind.

He wants these players to improve here, so that they can succeed here. Crushing their confidence is not going to help make that happen.

But, like he said, he also can’t sit and do nothing when the same mental mistakes are made over and over.

It must be a difficult balance, coaching undeveloped players that you want to one day coach as winning veterans in the NBA.

None of this excuses things like a historically-bad defense or a propensity to design plays for two-point jump shots. There are criticisms to levy against Flip and the roster he has assembled.

But in the midst of a long and losing season, it is worth considering all of the factors at play and how they might be shaping some of the things that the coach is saying, and doing.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Mental Mistakes in Basketball and Flip’s Unique Challenge to Correct Them

  1. Winning pro basketball is a game of making layups on offense and rim protection on defense. From there, making free throws and finally the corner three. Wolves seem to struggling in all four areas. Any comments?

  2. Sjoerd

    excellent read