Donnie Nelson may not have snagged the salesman he had intended to replace Nancy Lieberman as the head coach of the Mavericks’ D-League affiliate in Frisco, but in the process, he landed one hell of a coach.
Bruce Pearl, the Legends’ initial candidate in their coaching search, and Del Harris, who worked as the Legends’ GM last season and will take over the coaching reins, are cut from fundamentally different stylistic cloths. Each is successful in their own way, but the latter brings an unprecedented résumé to the D-League coaching ranks. Harris is an incredibly accomplished coach at virtually every level of competition, and though he’ll still be selling the Legends as a product, his primary function will be in bringing that vast experience to his dual role as head coach and general manager.
Even with that kind of pedigree, Harris will have his work cut out for him. The Legends were stacked with borderline NBA talent last season, but have lost a handful of noteworthy contributors to foreign leagues. With just 15 days remaining until the D-League draft and a bit more than a month left before the Texas Legends’ season opener, Harris took some time to talk with me about how the D-League might be impacted by the NBA lockout, his statistical approach to coaching, and the future of the Legends.
MAHONEY: You’ve been with the Legends in a managerial role before and you’re going to continue in that role next season. Did anything about managing in the D-League surprise you?
HARRIS: No, not really. Everything is a little different in the development league compared to, say, college or the NBA’s principal league itself, but it’s still basically the same work. You try to work together with everybody — the owner, the coaches, and all the various front office entities — try to put together the best team you can. It all kind of comes under the heading of teamwork.”
MAHONEY: It seems like D-League management is pretty unique in that there’s so much roster turnover from year to year. How do you grapple with the fact that in the off-season any number of your players could find jobs overseas or in other leagues? How do you game plan from year to year and maintain any kind of consistency?
HARRIS: Everybody is in the same situation, so it’s not like anybody’s unique in the league itself. It’s not that unlike college or high school — and I have coached at every level that there is to coach — where you’re going to have turnover every year in high school and in college. So this is very akin to that process. Even now in the NBA it’s not uncommon for teams to turn over as many as seven spots, and the Mavericks themselves turned over nine spots one year recently. So with the advent of such ease of free agency in the NBA, that’s not that uncommon these days for a general manager and coach to anticipate having loss.
Just look at the Mavericks right now. I can’t mention any NBA players’ names because I work for the NBA, but there are a number of key free agents for the Mavericks for example this year, and once they can get back into business they have a very similar situation to what we have. In our case we have to replace three of our most key players. Our point guard went to the NBA so I can’t mention his name. Joe Alexander and Sean Williams were two of the top five players in the league and were two of the maybe three best big men in the league. Joe is in Russia and Sean is in Europe — Spain, I think — playing, so we have to replace those three key spots the best way that we can.
MAHONEY: You made Matt Rogers the team’s first ever draft pick last year and recently announced that he’ll be back with the team next year. Walk me through Rogers’ game and your impressions of his first season in the D-League.
HARRIS: Well, Rogers had an up-and-down year, partly because he blew out his ACL at the end of his college career — at which he was nonetheless voted the number one player in Division II basketball. He was a bit hampered, as last year was a rehabilitation year for him, and yet he did alright. We had one of the best teams in the league. We had five guys at one time or another who were first round draft picks when they came out of college on our team. So Matt held up pretty well for a rookie in what is actually a pretty tough league. We’re looking forward to this year for Matt because of his health continuing to get better and [him having] more confidence in his knee. He’s gotten bigger and stronger, and the year of experience will help him.
MAHONEY: The only other official player announcement thus far has been Justin Dentmon, who also had a pretty good rookie year. What kind of role do you see for Dentmon this season, and what improvements do you want to see in his game?
HARRIS: Dentmon had a strong year and again: he’s a key player. We may have to depend on him to play a little bit more point guard than he did last year and that’s something he would have to make some improvements upon, which he should be capable of doing. He is a key guy.
MAHONEY: I’ve heard and read opinions from both sides as to have the NBA lockout might affect the D-League. What impact do you think the ongoing lockout will have on the D-League and the Legends?
HARRIS: Well, the positive thing is that we’re playing, and that people can come and watch high level basketball. That’s part of it, so any negatives after that are relatively inconsequential to the whole process. But from a coaching standpoint, it’s not as good of a situation in terms of getting talent because the best way for us to do that is after the the NBA has had their final cuts. Those players that don’t make it [onto an NBA roster] can choose to go into the D-League draft and that’s where we end up getting some outstanding players. We would have evaluated them during the preseason, so we know who the guys are that are on the bubble and we have a good list of guys in a pecking order that we’d like to take. Well, we don’t have that this year.
The other thing is that there are guys that are going over to Europe — into lesser leagues, even — because they don’t know if the NBA is going to play this year, and the main purpose of playing in the D-League for less money is that this is where you have the best opportunity to get into the NBA this year if you didn’t make it in training camp. So we don’t have that element going for us now because they don’t even know if there’s going to be a league or a schedule — they don’t know one way or another. Second, they don’t know what the process would be as far as training camp if there is an NBA league to go on this year.
So from my standpoint as a coach, I’d say it’s a negative, but as a general manager from a franchise standpoint, it’s actually kind of a good thing.
MAHONEY: The lockout negotiations really aren’t good for anyone involved in the NBA world, but some good things could potentially come out of it. There were some rumors that maybe the NBA would be revisiting the way players are assigned to the D-League, maybe extend the age to which they can be assigned, or allow for injured players to rehabilitate there. What’s your take on the current assignment system, and if there are any improvements that can be made on it?
HARRIS: Well, those things would have been discussed in any event. They are things that were brought up before we knew there would be a lockout, and even though it’s a contract year, these are things that would have been brought up anyway. Obviously we think that it would benefit the NBA itself if there were some expanded opportunities for players to play in the Development League. We think it would help at the top and we think it would help us here at the D-League level, with the caveat that it does increase that volatility of your roster. You could be planning how you’re going to play the next game and then find out that morning that you’ve got two guys coming down from the affiliate team and that kind of changes your program. But all and all, I think it would be a good thing.
MAHONEY: I saw you speak at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference back in March, and you talked about integrating advanced stats into your coaching style. Do you think there’s room for detailed statistical analysis in the D-League, and does it make sense economically and infrastructurally for teams to pursue that information even on a minor league level?
HARRIS: Well, obviously there are a lot of considerations at any level, but particularly so at the Developmental League level. But you don’t have to be overly concerned about costs with most of the metrics that matter most to a coach in the NBA. I’ve been doing metric analyses since the 60s and was the first in a lot of areas in the 80s to implement electronic data systems and things when I was coach and Vice President of Basketball Operations for the Bucks. Then that continued on with the Mavericks in a more elaborate system of metrics. But the basic metrics that I use for coaching a game really only involve basic chart-keeping, so we will be utilizing things that I’ve done for over 40 years to evaluate our points per possession, our pace of the game, our momentum. I can train a guy to do that in 10 minutes.
MAHONEY: We’ve seen — and you have a longstanding relationship with Donnie — Donnie Nelson as a manger, but what kind owner is he, and what is his involvement like with the Legends?
HARRIS: Donnie Nelson is a jack of all trades and a master of most of them. He’s a dynamo and he’s a terrific owner, and just a great public relations guy — he sells the program really well. He’s very supportive of his people, and he lets them operate. He has a good front office here, headed up by Bill Boyce, who also has some excellent people working with him. We have a young fella who has a good future named Malcolm Farmer that does a lot of the heavy lifting. He and the other owners — particularly evan Wyly — are really terrific to work with. He’s great all across the board.
MAHONEY: I saw in another interview you did with Zach Lowe over at Sports Illustrated that you mentioned you were teaching a class at a local college. What are you teaching and at what school?
HARRIS: The class is entitled “Team Building” and it’s based on a book I have written but not published that’s basically Team Building: Developing the Point Guard Within You. I teach at Dallas Christian College and it involves basically four elements in team building, starting with purpose (or mission) and then developing leadership skills, and third, enhancing communication, and ultimately ending in relationship building. We use my book as a text and I start with the sports idiom and then translate that down to the secular world as to how there might be applications in corporate america, or in institutions such as education for those who are going into teaching, or church work for those who are going into that area, and families which most of them will be going into. Then I take it down to the spiritual application.
So we use those basic principles and how they all interrelate from the sports to the secular to the spiritual. It’s exciting. I thought we’d have 15 in the class and we have 35, so it’s a little bit more people than I had anticipated, but it’s been very interesting for me.
Some potentially great news for those keeping close tabs on the soon-to-be Mavs D-League affiliate in Frisco: Del Harris, who was once tapped to be the GM of the Frisco team, has left his position as an assistant coach with the Nets. The very same position, you may recall, that took Harris away from Frisco in the first place. Below is the statement from Del himself, via Colin Stephenson of The Star-Ledger:
This is to announce that I have decided to return to my home in the Dallas, TX area after two months with the New Jersey Nets. Even though we have had a difficult time winning as many games as we had hoped to, I enjoyed very much my time with my good friend, GM/interim coach Kiki Vandeweghe, the Nets players, organization and the local community. All were positive and helpful. I had not experienced such a losing situation since 1983, but because the players are such good people, the losing of games did not become the chaotic situation that has happened to so many teams who were locked into a total rebuilding year.
The reason for the timing of my return is that I came to help Kiki in his first venture into team coaching. I have seen Kiki go from a man who was trying to encourage a team that was down to one who has developed a good sense of coaching. I believe in these recent games there is strong evidence that the team has gotten over the hump and will be much more competitive the rest of the way. This experience will help Kiki in his role as general manager immensely. Every GM can gain from having the coaching experience.
My sincere thanks to Rod Thorn, Kiki, the Nets players and organization for the opportunity to experience the Nets and the good people of the New Jersey area. As difficult as this year has been for the Nets and their fans, I look forward to seeing the Nets capitalize on the moves they have made that have put them in a position to develop into an elite team over the next couple of years and on into the future.
Assuming that Harris will return to work with Frisco seems perfectly reasonable. After all, he left for New Jersey on the most pleasant of terms, and Donnie Nelson has wisely decided to wait on filling the position. After all, the team has no roster and no name, so is it really that pressing to have a general manager when other capable basketball minds are already on the staff? But now the opportunity has arisen to bring Harris to Frisco, and it’s entirely likely that Nelson and Harris are already a few steps ahead of all of us.
UPDATE: Donnie Nelson is, somewhat predictably, welcoming Harris back with open arms (via Tim MacMahon): “I told him the GM chair will be open…It’s there for him. We’re fully hoping and expecting he will come back.”
The Frisco D-League team doesn’t have a name, uniforms, or even players, but they’ve already undergone their first substantial change. Del Harris was announced as the team’s first general manager, but Harris was summoned by new Nets’ head coach Kiki Vanderweghe to be his top assistant.
It’s hard to find a coach more experienced and respected than Del Harris, and handing him the reins of the Mavs’ new D-League affiliate was a sound move by Donnie Nelson. I’m definitely curious to see what kind of basketball mind Nelson chooses to complement Nancy Lieberman and Spud Webb as the core of Frisco’s staff, but losing an established basketball mind with an established (and Dallas-based) reputation hurts. Despite only being with the Frisco organization for about a month, Harris’ departure leaves some big shoes to fill.
Cheers to long-time friend of the franchise Del Harris for the new gig, even if I wish he were still in Frisco.