In November 2016, CourtsideBuzz.com’s Pavan Peketi sat down with former NBA head and assistant coach Don Casey to discuss his memory of coaching the likes of Larry Bird and Kobe Bryant, the current state of the NBA, and where he sees the league going in the future.
“Competitive,” “hardest worker out there,” “will do anything to win” are just some of the common phrases used to describe both Kobe Bryant and Larry Bird, two of the most passionate players we’ve ever seen step foot in the NBA. What else do they have in common? Don Casey, a former NBA Head Coach, got to experience, coach, and work with both of these legends.
Don Casey has experienced it all in his time in the NBA. But, even before that, Coach Casey had experienced winning a state championship for Bishop Eustace Preparatory School, where he coached future ABA all-star Bill Melchionni. He then moved on to Temple University, where he coached teams to three conference championships. His experience allowed him to coach in the NBA, starting as an assistant for the Chicago Bulls in 1982. Don Casey eventually landed a head coaching gig with the Los Angeles Clippers, in 1989, where he coached 5x NBA champion, Ron Harper. After that, Coach Casey worked with the Celtics as an assistant head coach from 1990 until 1996, where he coached Larry Bird, at the end of his career. In the 1998-1999 season, as an assistant for the New Jersey Nets, Don Casey replaced John Calipari as the head coach, who was trying his hand in the NBA after some very successful seasons with the University of Massachusetts in the NCAA. Just last year, Coach Casey worked as a consultant for the Los Angeles Lakers, helping refine and coach their zone defense schemes. Not many people get to say they got to coach the final seasons of both Kobe Bryant and Larry Bird, so experience is definitely not lacking in Coach Casey’s career.
“The NBA is not soft now. It’s just different.”
The game we have today, despite it being bigger than it has ever been, is more criticized than ever before. ‘The NBA is soft now…the NBA was so much better in the 80s and 90s…They don’t play defense in the NBA today…’ are just your everyday comments on social media by fans. Living through basically three different eras in the NBA, Coach Casey doesn’t buy that notion that the NBA is soft now. He just thinks it’s different. According to him, in the 80s, and 90s, “it was a little more of a grind-out league. In the East, you had the New York, Detroit, and Chicago mentality” of grinding and physical play. Looking at how the game has evolved nowadays, Don Casey says that, “It has really just evolved into a perimeter game.” He had players like Reggie Lewis, Kevin Gamble, and Bird himself that were bigger that could shoot the three, but he “didn’t think the three would be as prominent” as it is today. The three-pointer is more prevalent now than ever before; every year a new 3-point record is broken by multiple teams. Players that can’t shoot are dropped significantly on draft boards, teams that can’t shoot consistently are repeatedly not able to last deep in the playoffs, and bigs now have to be able to run out to the perimeter as well as protect the rim.
Speaking of the big guys in the league, there’s definitely been a drop-off in the talent down low since Casey’s time in the NBA. However, he thinks the young guys in the league such as Steven Adams, Anthony Davis, Kristaps Porzingis, and even Domantas Sabonis can change that. But, in order to be successful as a big man in today’s NBA as opposed to in the past, Casey says they have to “do more than just post-up. They need to be more of stretch-fours that can play the five, be much more mobile, and get in the open court.” The youth at the center position has a lot of potential, especially with all the versatility they possess.
“D’Angelo is pretty comfortable out there and away from all the pressure.”
The big men aren’t the only players that Don Casey enjoys watching today. When speaking of the players he enjoys watching the most, Russell Westbrook immediately comes to mind. He compares his ability to take the ball from anywhere he wants and score or get to the basket to that of Allen Iverson. With his insane athleticism, crazy shot-making, and unprecedented motor, Casey is always in awe, just lost “wondering how long it can continue.” He also really appreciates Isaiah Thomas, who has revitalized his career in Boston, after being “scrambled in Sacramento, he now has a new mindset under new leadership and franchise.” Isaiah has backed up Casey’s words so far this season, as he his producing at career-high rates in nearly all categories.
He is shocked at the young talent we have in the NBA today, highlighting players such as Kyrie Irving, Brandon Ingram, Kawhii Leonard, and the player he was most looking forward to see play, Ben Simmons. Working with the Lakers last year, he really thinks D’Angelo Russell, especially, has major potential but still has “a huge process to go through.” D’Angelo had one of the biggest roller-coasters of a rookie year that any high lottery pick has ever had to go through, with his recording scandal with Nick Young, to Kobe’s retirement tour, and his issues with Coach Byron Scott and his spot in the rotation. Coach Casey got to witness the struggles firsthand. and he thinks that this year, “he’s pretty much comfortable out there and away from all the pressure that was on him” last year. So far D’Angelo is impressing people and making Lakers fans hopeful. Lakers fans, you have nothing to worry, Coach Casey says, “He’s going to be okay. He definitely has a skilled future.”
“I think LeBron is even getting better!”
As much as Laker fans hope, their team is not in the position to become a super team, yet. The NBA has turned into a league where players join forces, instead of in Casey’s time as a head coach, where players like Bird, MJ, and Magic all wanted to compete against each other. However, Coach Casey doesn’t see a problem with that. He finds it “interesting” and understands that Kevin Durant just wanted “a bigger stage, and to play with the players on the Warriors, like Curry, which is a once a lifetime chance.” He says, “It looks like they can dominate for a while, so give them some credit for them being able to make this happen. I have no objections against it at all.” Although many fans hate that Kevin Durant left to join the Warriors, he made a decision that would give him the best chance to obtain a ring—which fans put the most pressure on him to obtain.
The NBA is an entirely different era now, and players are going to do what they need to do to succeed, and help their brand. LeBron James started the trend, and it proved to be successful. Speaking of that, many fans think that LeBron James ‘could never touch Michael Jordan.’ However, Coach Casey doesn’t think it is that much of an impossibility. He does say though, in comparing Michael Jordan to LeBron James, as everyone does nowadays, that “everything is relative—time, place and situation.” He continues, “In the Bulls concept of winning, they really relied on the triangle offense, and were a half-court execution team. Whereas, Cleveland has a push-push, basket-to-basket mindset. I think LeBron’s presence in today’s game is more valuable for a team to win based on the system, the concepts, and the other players he has around him.” This makes complete sense, as LeBron works best with a specific type of players, with a lot of shooting around him. Surprisingly, he says “I think LeBron is even getting better. Just when you think you’ve seen it all…He’s an effort player and a skill player. He’s got a great attitude about winning and has respect for the game, which is monumental” LeBron James himself thinks so too, as he said Thursday, “People think I’m slowing down, but I’m only getting stronger.” LeBron James turns 32 soon, and there is no doubt father time will catch up with him soon. However, with the way he’s taken care of his body, there’s no precedent for predicting when his career will start to decline. On if he can ever surpass Michael Jordan, Coach Casey thinks “LeBron’s right there. He looks in terrific shape, he’s got a terrific mindset, he’s got athleticism, he’s got smarts, and he’s getting better and better…” That for sure sounds a lot like Michael Jordan.
“He wanted the coaches to work as hard as he was.”
Coach Casey has had a roller-coaster of a career in the NBA, however, he did get to witness true consistency when he was an assistant coach for the Boston Celtics, starting in 1990. That means he got to coach Larry Legend, one of the most productive players ever to touch a basketball. He details this experience, saying, “It was very rewarding and really amazing to see in practice how committed he was. Larry was a very demanding player. He wanted the coaches to work as hard as he was. He was a pure gamer.” He says, “The atmosphere he created, with the tone in practice, and the commitment really was a learning process” even for him as an experienced coach. Now, most people would say Coach Casey is already fortunate enough for just being able to be in the same room as Larry Bird day in and day out. However, he stepped his game up even further and got to work with another legend in Kobe Bryant last season, as a consultant for the Lakers. Fittingly, he must have noticed some difference in the styles of practice and work ethic for two of the greatest players in NBA history after getting to experience them firsthand. He says of this contrast between the superstars, “Bird was very quietly determined. He didn’t do much video work. His idea was that the other team should be more worried about him that he’s worried about them.”
“Some players have a real hard work ethic, but there are those that rise even above that.”
Whereas, “Kobe came in the new age with the videotape, and he took advantage of it. He developed an advantageous mindset. A mindset that special people have. Jordan had it. Magic had it. Some players have a really hard work ethic, but there are those that rise even above that, and Kobe Bryant is obviously one of them. Bird was more of the ‘I’m doing it everyday guy.’ He just played the game and was very respectful to coaches. I just think it was two different approaches.” Whilst Bird is known as a tough competitor, and hard worker, finding someone’s whose will for practice and commitment to the game is nearly impossible. He also says that Kobe differentiated himself from past superstars of prior eras because he knew how to brand himself. He was flashy and fiery and made public what he had to make public to get attention, in terms of his practice spirits, and teammate connections. Coach Casey knows that Kobe Bryant is a fan favorite for Open-Court fans, and attributes that to his commitment and mindset, which differentiated him amongst his peers.
Not only is Coach Casey a fantastic mind on the court, he is a very inspirational human off of it. He was the vice chairman for the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition, showing a true passion about encouraging physical activity to Americans. He says, “there’s a lot of odds against the kids today, so he wanted to push that sugar, caffeine, and soda overuse were causing problems for the youth.” He claims, “Everyone needs, to some extent, large muscle activity, which is more common in other countries than in American schools today. I wanted to make a commitment to both that and changing the culture of locker rooms, which can be intimidating.” Coach Casey did great work on the court, and off, and presents a great message to make the world a healthier place to live in.
Through all the changes in the NBA throughout time, Coach Casey still sees the game as improving. The NBA is the most beautiful sport in the world, and despite the changes in styles, the game remains as a fan favorite, year-round phenomena, full of storylines and craziness. Coaching and preparation today is a bigger deal than ever before. Living through coaching legends in Larry Bird and Kobe Bryant, Head Coach Don Casey truly knows that hard work and passion trumps all.