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.
The Texas Legends are no longer purely conceptual. Beyond the cast of coaches and front office staff that has been in place since last November, there are now actual players populating the roster. Players with strengths, flaws, potential, and limits. Players that will find both success and failure — hopefully more of the former than the latter — under head coach Nancy Lieberman. Between the expansion draft, the D-League draft, and the D’s new allocation rules, the Legends have assembled a promising 15-man roster, and with it, have gained the burden of expectation.
“You can read the press release,” Lieberman said. “I mean seriously, you’re going to put in the press release that we got four former first round picks? I’m like, ‘Dude, I was trying to fly under the radar!’ I mean come on, I’m only a girl. How much can I take?” Lieberman plays the irony perfectly, clearly not overwhelmed by her standing as a pioneer for her gender, her vast responsibilities as a head coach, nor her own anticipation of the season to come.
“Talk about expectations. We have [Antonio] Daniels, Reece Gaines, [Rashad] McCants and Sean Williams,” Lieberman said. “We’re going to get on the court for practice, and we’re going to figure out Sean Williams’ strengths, Reece Gaines’ strengths, Gar Tucker’s strengths. We are smart enough as a staff to start molding the things that we want to do to benefit them.”
That molding, that adjustment, is what the D-League is all about, after all. The D-League is a professional entity in the literal sense, but it’s a stepping stone. It isn’t home to lifers. It’s a landing spot for players with an eye to something bigger, coaches looking for their next opportunity, and general managers looking to try their hand at running an NBA team. The D-League is, by nature, a league of transitions in which coaches like Lieberman, while likely pursuing their own dreams of an NBA job or high-profile college job, adjust in order to best develop and showcase the talent on their roster. “If we’re really who we say we are, we must set our [players] up for success,” Lieberman said. “It really cannot be about us.”
“I don’t have a crystal ball, but we’re going to get better and each guy is going to have a career year. They’re going to learn more about basketball than they’ve ever learned before. We will make our guys better. I promise you, we will make them better individually. And if they’re better individually, they’ll be better in a team concept.”
Of course, this venture isn’t purely altruistic. The Legends don’t only exist as a facilitator of hoop dreams, but also as a competitive franchise in itself, and, perhaps most importantly from an NBA perspective, a valuable resource for the Mavericks. Direct D-League ownership and the hybrid ownership model have reaped benefits for the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets respectively, and while Donnie Nelson’s co-ownership is based on a different model, the Mavs hope for similar gains.
Part of tapping into those gains is creating a clear organizational structure. The interests of both the Mavericks and Legends need to be in line with the hope that, eventually, the lines between the two franchises will be almost non-existent. Dallas will hopefully be able to call up players to fill either temporary or long-term needs, experiment with sets or schemes in a low-pressure environment, and use the Legends to further evaluate and instruct young players already on the Mavs’ roster. The connection between Dallas and Frisco should be seamless, and from Lieberman’s description, that seems to be the case.
“Think of us as one,” Lieberman said. “Donnie, Rick [Carlisle], the Mavericks, the Legends. Everybody decides what is best for the totality of the organization. We love that. We’re honored that the Mavericks care enough about us and enough about the future to help identify the players that we need to be successful. Everything will be collaborative and really, Donnie spearheads it. Donnie’s done every level: he’s played, he’s coached, he’s been a GM, he’s got the bridge to Europe, he’s always willing to make people around him better, and he really has a wonderful gift of bringing people’s interests together. We’re in really great hands.”
Hands that just so happen to steer the good ship Maverick, as well. That congruence is essential if the Legends are going to be a viable long-term resource.
The most obvious potential benefit to come from that resource is the players themselves. The Legends roster was assembled not only with the intent of creating a competitive D-League roster, but also by gathering prospects of interest for the Mavs. Some are relatively familiar faces — McCants, Williams, Daniels — but others, including the Legends’ first round pick, Matt Rogers, are unknowns to those not well-acquainted with Division II college basketball. Still, Rogers went to training camp with the Charlotte Bobcats, and the Legends will expect a lot from him.
“We targeted Matt Rogers from the first time we saw him at our free agent camp,” Lieberman said. “We were very impressed that, at 6-11, he could shoot, he understood how to play the game, he had good energy. We liked everything about him. We can use him in a lot of different, versatile situations on the court, so we’re excited to have him.”
But Rogers isn’t the only player Lieberman is happy to have in a Legends uniform. “I think in this league, it’s very important to have a veteran point guard,” Lieberman said. “Not that young people can’t excel; there are special players. But that’s why we looked at Antonio Daniels. He’s a veteran. He’s savvy. He’s been around the league. He knows what it takes to win. He’s smart. He’s versatile. That was very important to us, to address the point guard position. We also have Sean Williams, who is 6-11 and very explosive. We wanted to make sure that we covered the inside-out. Then we wanted to make sure we had some slashers, and guys that are combo guards, and guys that want to really defend and are willing to sacrifice and defend, and you put shooters around them. We’re really happy. We’re excited about getting Kelvin Lewis. We’re excited about having Booker Woodfox — the guy is an offensive machine. Some guys are just specialists. Curtis Terry is a lot better than people think.”
I’m not sure the Legends are a “team” in the existential sense until they finally hit the court together as a complete unit, but they have a roster, and by Lieberman’s enthusiasm and description, it seems a rather balanced one. There’s a good mix of youth and experience, bigs and guards, scorers and defenders. No one at this level is a complete player, but the Legends have some intriguing individuals and a notable level of collective talent.
Some of that talent is relatively straightforward in its implementation and utilization; Antonio Daniels is an NBA veteran who could surely benefit from instruction, but has a more established game than some of his fellow Legends. Moussa Seck, on the other hand, needs a fair bit of refinement in his game. Seck, a 7-4 shot-blocker, played for the Mavericks’ Summer League team in Las Vegas both this year and last, and though he’s improved in many respects, his basketball skills are still lacking. But rather than focus on how far Seck has left to go before becoming a fully-functional player, Lieberman sees hope in his progress thus far.
“I’ve known Moussa now for almost a year,” Lieberman said. “Moussa has come so far. He was very raw, but he has something that nobody else has. He has a great heart, he has a wonderful work ethic, he’s learning every day how to be a next level player. That kid was working every day in the spring on his strength, working on his game, working on his power, working on his hands. All you can ask of somebody is to get better.”
“Look at Manute Bol. Look at [Dikembe] Mutombo. Look at the guys who came here and really ended up flourishing. There has to be a level of patience. You almost have to project down the road: What’s Moussa going to look like a year from now? What’s he going to look like two years from now? That becomes our job, to develop him. He has the platform. He has people who care, and we’re going to invest in his development.”
That last statement seems to encapsulate a thematic element of Lieberman’s coaching style, though she’s quick to note her intention to balance that care and that investment with a strong, definite approach.
“We better love our guys because we’re going to work the dog out of our guys,” Lieberman said. “Seriously. All you need to know is my background and where I came from. Again, it’s not about me. I don’t want to make this about me, but they will not roll over me.”
Lieberman is the first female head coach of an NBA-affiliated team, but she’s made a career of destroying that “first female” qualifier. In 1986, Lieberman became the first woman to play in a professional men’s league. When Pat Riley became a coach, Lieberman was his first point guard; she played for the Lakers at Jerry West’s request when L.A. competed in the summer Southern California Pro League. According to Lieberman, Riley tells the story of their shared experience often, and told her: “You taught me how to be fearless. You were never afraid even though you were always overmatched. I never forgot that.”
This is just the kind of thing that Lieberman does.
“This is so normal for me,” Lieberman said. “It’s not normal for you. It’s normal for me. My guys in the office don’t walk around like I’m a chick coaching. We talk like we’re working together, hand-in-hand. We know the judgment. We know the expectation. We know it’s coming.”
It’s almost here. The Legends begin their season on November 18th against the D-League champion Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Lieberman’s D-League coaching debut and the Legends’ commencement are notable for very different reasons, and yet they both represent the actualization of the same plan. At long last, the Texas Legends are ready to tip off. The long-awaited blow of that opening whistle will inaugurate the Legends’ true existence as a basketball franchise and welcome all of the expectations and judgment that come with it.
After months of pondering the future of of an empty roster, there are now 15 newly christened members of the Texas Legends. Some of those 15 we know, and some of them we don’t, but with the draft now behind us, the Mavs’ D-League affiliate is beginning to come into focus.
Despite the public hiccup, Rashad McCants may be a Legend after all. His current inclusion on the roster represents more of a possibility than a certainty. Marc Stein reported for ESPN Dallas that McCants intends to pursue every possible NBA lead before reporting to Legends camp, and Percy Miller, McCants’ personal adviser, insists that there is legitimate NBA interest in the Rashad’s services.
Sean Williams is in, though. Absent are Mavs training campers Adam Haluska and Dee Brown, but in their place are a few former NBAers (yes, it’s that Antonio Daniels) and a few familiar faces (yes, it’s that Moussa Seck…as if there are others). Behold, your 2010-2011 Texas Legends:
|Name||Height||Weight||Age||Last Played for
|Sean Williams||6-10||235||24||Hapoel Jerusalem
|Rashad McCants||6-4||215||26||Sacramento (NBA)
|Antonio Daniels||6-4||205||35||Minnesota (NBA)
|Reece Gaines||6-6||198||29||Bakersfield (D-League)
|Matt Rogers||6-10||225||22||Southwest Baptist
|Justin Dentmon||5-11||185||??||Afula Israel
|Kelvin Lewis||6-4||195||22||Houston (NCAA)
|Moussa Seck||7-4||222||24||Mavs' SL
|Curtis Terry||6-5||196||25||Petro Luanda (Angola)
|Reece Hampton||6-5||195||??||Adams State (NCAA)
|Keith Clark||6-8||203||23||L.A. (D-League)
|Dar Tucker||6-4||193||22||L.A. (D-League)
|Pierce Caldwell||6-3||200||??||Incarnate Word (NCAA)
Only 10 of these Legends will comprise the actual opening day roster; in a rather cursory determination, I’d wager that Pierce Caldwell and Andre Gatlin, both products of the Legends’ open tryouts, are likely to be among the five players cut loose. Otherwise, I see McCants, Williams, Reece Gaines (whom the Legends acquired via trade), Daniels, and Seck as virtual locks to make the final roster, with Dar Tucker and Keith Clark not far behind.
It’s also worth noting that Kelvin Lewis attended the Mavs’ pre-Summer League mini-camp, but did not make Dallas’ or any other NBA team’s Summer League roster. Also, per Marc Stein, Curtis Terry is the Mavs’ own Jason Terry’s brother.
Here are some extra tidbits on the Legends, via the team’s press release:
- Matt Rogers was the Division II Player of the Year last season.
- Justin Dentmon, formerly of Washington University, was drafted in the third round. Dentmon spent last season playing for Afula Israel, where he averaged more than 20 points per game. In his senior year for the Huskies, Dentmon made 41.2 percent of his three-point attempts.
- Kelvin Lewis, who graduated from Houston University in the spring, will join the Legends after winning the Conference USA Tournament MVP during his last few collegiate games. Lewis averaged 15.5 points per game in his final season with the Cougars, and hit 39.7 percent of his three-point attempts.
- Booker Woodfox, the sixth round pick and Dallas native, also has D-League experience. After graduating from Creighton in 2009, Woodfox was picked up by the Erie Bayhawks midway through last season. The 6-foot-1 guard is known as a three-point threat, making 47.6 percent of his attempts from deep during his senior season at Creighton.