Last season, Lakers head coach Mike D'Antoni inherited the coaching staff of Mike Brown, who was fired five games into the season. That changes heading into 2013-14, as D'Antoni had the prerogative of hiring his own staff, whose first priority will be to install D'Antoni's system in training camp.
Among the new hires is respected NBA veteran coach Johnny Davis, who played in the NBA for ten years (1976-86) and has coached for two decades. The native of Detroit spent his past two seasons as an assistant with Toronto, and the previous six in Memphis, including Pau Gasol's last year with the Grizzlies. His most extensive stay as an NBA head coach was in Orlando from 2003-05.
"Johnny is a two-time NBA head coach with years of experience playing as well as coaching in this league," said D'Antoni. "The vast array of NBA knowledge he brings to the table will be invaluable to us."
Lakers.com spoke to Davis from his home in Florida to get a better idea of what he's all about. Below is a transcription of the conversation:
MT: How did this opportunity to come to Los Angeles arrive, coach?
Davis: The NBA is really a close fraternity in that you know people around the league, and there isn't a huge turnaround in terms of new people coming in. Often, it's people just switching places, because the NBA is such a wonderful place to be and not many want to leave. There was an opportunity to join Mike's staff, and it was a good fit for me. I love the way that Mike plays, the philosophy of up-tempo basketball being something I believe in. Just from watching him over the years, his teams are always competitive and they play a real good style of basketball. The opportunity was a no-brainer for me, because I've always admired him and his system from a distance. Obviously, you have to have talent and healthy players and time to get the system intact, but I think Mike D'Antoni is an amazing coach who brought in the kind of play that you're beginning to see all around the NBA.
MT: Your fellow assistant coach Kurt Rambis said he'll likely focus some of his time on the defensive side of the ball, but is it fair to say that you and he have been around the NBA so long that you can focus on really any part of the game that Mike requires?
Davis: For me, basketball – unlike football and baseball and some other sports where you have a huge number of people involved – is 12 people on the roster that night and maybe two or three making up the rest of the team. That's not a lot of people, and in terms of what you have to do, those same 12-15 guys have to play on both sides of the ball when they are inserted into the game. I think that a coach should be well versed in not just offense and defense, but also game management, player relations and more. Coaching is all of that to me. So you can be specific in the sense of, let's divvy up the responsibilities to a degree with offense and defense and management and scouting, but a coach has to be able to do all of those things. Then wherever he's needed, be very comfortable going into that area. I'll be prepared to do all of the above, because it's all basketball to me. My training as a player beginning in 1976 up to today, I remember when you had guards, forwards and a center, not just that the point guard or the small forward does specific things. You had to be able to pass, defend, shoot, move without the ball, be able to play fast and slow and on and on. Our philosophy will be to play up-tempo basketball, and apply consistent pressure on the defense, and that's the style I prefer and am comfortable with.
MT: I've talked a lot about how difficult things can be on a coaching staff without a training camp, as we saw throughout last season. Is that too much of an excuse for a team that doesn't develop cohesion for any variety of reasons – like last year's Lakers – or is it valid?
Davis: Any time that you don't have an opportunity to have a training camp, then you haven't had an opportunity to sell your players convincingly of your philosophy. There have to be buy-ins throughout, and that starts in camp, when a player can see what's taking place and what needs to be done. When they can see the why of things instead of just the how of things. To be able to go back to the basic fundamentals of what makes the philosophy works I think will be tremendously beneficial to the team and the coaching staff to level the playing field against the competition. Most of (the teams around the NBA) had that opportunity last season and immerse themselves in the philosophy of their coaches. Mike D'Antoni did not have that last year.
MT: We think about D'Antoni's offensive system first in terms of needing that time to be understood and installed, but how about defensively? The team ranked only 18th in defensive efficiency last season …
Davis: What takes place in training camp comes on both sides of the ball with a philosophy, and you get to sell the players on that. If you don't have a training camp, you're doing it all on the fly. Now, if a player can move his feet on offense, he can do it on defense – it's just a matter of if he wants to. Defense is cohesion amongst the players that are on the floor. Everyone has to understand what his responsibility is. When there is a breakdown is when someone isn't sure where he should be, and that's when the offensive team gains an advantage.
MT: You've been around plenty of stars, but having been in Minnesota (2005-06 season), did you get a sense of what Kobe Bryant might be like by observing Kevin Garnett day in and day out from a competitive/intensity standpoint?
Davis: I think what separates a guy like Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett from the pack is their determination to win and the fact that they do not accept losing seasons. They don't want to lose. And they want everyone around them to be the same way, and rightfully so. They have a different level of preparation, a different level of intensity, of emotion as it relates to the game, and it's all about winning the game. Bryant and Garnett, and LeBron James – those players who are at the top of the profession want to play and win the last game of the season. Pau Gasol has also won multiple titles, and Steve Nash has been in a position to reach the pinnacle and through no fault of his own didn't get there, and they along with Kobe understand all that it takes to be a champion. That's one thing you can't give a guy as a coach.
Right away, just from the association with the Lakers – which historically has been one of the best if not the best that this league has had to offer – breeds a winning culture. When those new players come in, all they have to do is observe and get with the players that do know what it's all about. And the coaching staff will set the culture so that it's all about winning now.
MT: What does this team need to focus upon the most to be more competitive than may be expected?
Davis: The key is that we really and truly and sincerely have to be a team. Not just a collection of guys wearing the same color uniform, but truly a team so when you are practicing or doing anything, you don't want to let your teammate down. And you'll do what you're supposed to do to give the team the best chance at success. And do it consistently.
MT: That sounds a lot like Steve Nash and D'Antoni's message about what wasn't occurring last season, Coach.
Davis: You simply have to be a team in every sense of the word. You have to really give yourself to the team. And when each guy does that to become a team, you can overcome all types of odds and obstacles. I think the team itself will decide how far they want to go. If everyone has reasonable good health, then the sky is the limit. If they play together and believe in one another, allow the coaching staff to coach, believe and commit to do what's necessary to win and not be concerned about individual goals, they'll be able to achieve it.