In particular, the areas in bold...
Ready for his close-up
Iavaroni works into position to become a head coach
Posted: Thursday March 29, 2007 11:01AM; Updated: Thursday March 29, 2007 5:34PM
It is just past 6 a.m. in Phoenix and Marc Iavaroni is already in his office.
"That goes back to my Stan Van Gundy days,'' says Iavaroni, referring to his three seasons as an assistant with the Miami Heat. "I'd get to the office at 7:30 in the morning, and I'd be the last coach there.''
He kept arriving earlier and earlier until he realized that Van Gundy, as Pat Riley's lead assistant, was coming in shortly after 6 a.m. "And that,'' Iavaroni says, "was in the summertime.''
Everything Iavaroni can write on his résumé has been earned the hard way. The 6-foot-8 forward spent three years in Europe before playing his way into the NBA as a 26-year-old rookie starter for the 1982-83 champion Philadelphia 76ers, launching his seven-year career.
Today Iavaroni is the top assistant to Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, and arguably the No. 1 candidate heading into the summer free-for-all for NBA head-coaching positions, with as many as six jobs potentially available. (For other top candidates, click here.)
This opportunity arrives after a long decade of working his way up the staffs of three Coaches of the Year -- Mike Fratello in Cleveland (1997-99), Riley ('99-02) and D'Antoni.
The overriding question is whether Iavaroni's renowned intensity will be his strength or his weakness as a head coach. Is he too demanding to develop a long-term partnership with NBA players? He is aware of that issue, which is why he is proud of his four seasons with D'Antoni, who has helped broaden Iavaroni's relationships with players as well as his vision for how the game should be played.
"I'm a perfectionist,'' admits Iavaroni, 50. "I always have to remind myself that you can't be a perfectionist with everyone else all the time, that it's too much. I've learned that you have to pick your spots.
"I really like being a cheerleader for players. I love when they do things right, and applauding it, and I've learned that's a lot more motivational than stopping practice and teaching and telling them all of the things they didn't do. You don't want to stop practice -- I learned that from Mike. You want these guys to play it out.
"I've learned that you've got to be positive,'' adds Iavaroni, who then tells a story from his first coaching season in 1992-93 as an assistant at Bowling Green to Jim Larranaga (who last year took George Mason to the Final Four). While meeting with his players during a rough stretch, Larranaga opened the floor for comments.
"One of the players said, 'Everybody's cool but coach Iavaroni -- you're negative,' '' Iavaroni recalls. "Here I was a neophyte coach, but I'd been a pro player, and now a guy at a mid-major said I was negative. I had a hard time believing him.
"But it was an epiphany. I realized you've got to treat them like you like them and believe in them, and if you show confidence in them, they'll respond. At the end of the year, one of the players told me, 'You've turned it around.' ''
No coach is without a blind spot. They all need help shoring up their areas of weakness. When Iavaroni is running his own team, he would do well to hire a staff led by someone like current Suns assistant Alvin Gentry, a former head coach who relates to people and who would help Iavaroni realize when to take his foot off the gas.
"Pat Riley had the players playing good defense, and Mike Fratello was also a great defensive coach,'' Iavaroni says. "But being with Mike [D'Antoni] has been like a finishing school for me, not just in his offensive ideas and how to get players to play confidently and freely and creatively, but Mike is also really good at having a strong bond with players without crossing a line. He's a great listener.
"I used to be a really conservative coach, just a defensive guy because that's what got me playing time. Now with Mike I realize the best part is when you turn a player onto himself. I would rather have a few less plays and defensive schemes, but really believe in the players and believe they will figure it out. If you're focusing on the X's and O's, that means you're figuring it out all the time. The players have got to be the ones to figure it out.''
There may be questions of what has taken Iavaroni so long to earn a head-coaching offer. If he is so strong a candidate, then why have the past two summers come and gone without an offer coming his way?
But this as a ridiculous perspective. Since when has on-the-job experience ever been a weakness? When Larry Bird stepped down as coach in 2000 after three winning years with the Pacers, he admitted that he still had a lot to learn about running an NBA team. If he was ever going to return as a head coach -- which he swore would never happen -- he said he'd want to spend an extended period as an assistant learning from one of the best NBA coaches. In this era of celebrity hires, Iavaroni is someone who is working to meet Bird's high standard of apprenticeship.
(To finish the context, Bird is applying the same course of study to his new career as a team executive by spending the last four years as understudy to Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh.)
"He'll be a great head coach,'' says D'Antoni. "The biggest thing he has going for him is his passion for the game and his work ethic. I guarantee you no one will outwork him.''
Another promising sign from Iavaroni is that he isn't willing to make promises he can't keep. When I ask whether his team would seek to play Rileyesque defense as well as D'Antoni-paced offense, he says, "I'm not sure you can do it. The players have a finite amount of energy. I would figure it out when I'd see the team I have, whether we were going to be more into defense or more into offense and running.
"But we played 110 games last year [including the Suns' preseason and playoff schedules] and I don't think you can expect guys to be balls-out every minute at both ends. You have to accept certain limitations, otherwise you get players who are not effective and pissed off. While you want to consistently push players, you've got to know what's reasonable. You want to get it right to that edge of asking too much.''
Iavaroni would prefer to coach a running team. "I really believe teams are at their weakest [defensively] at the beginning of the shot clock,'' he says. "Teams are not set defensively, it's exciting to watch and it's democratic, though you can still get the ball to your best players. But to do that you've got to have skilled players and shooters and people who are good at running. If you have a bunch of slow guys, obviously it's not going to work. I'd want to be with a GM who likes to run, who wants to run, and who's always going to be on the lookout for players who run well and play at that pace.''