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Creating freedom through structure: Assistant Coach Rajaković on how the Suns built an identity

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Phoenix Suns assistant coach talks about coaching in the NBA

Oklahoma City Thunder v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

To truly get inside the head of an NBA coach is a difficult task.

Throughout the season, members of the media do their best to provide that perspective to fans. But there’s only so much information that coaches are willing to divulge in a media scrum format. For the sake of the players, the front office, and themselves, they will instead choose to speak in mostly abstract terms.

Sometimes it just takes a coach to get the most out of another coach.

For the past 14 years, Chris Oliver was the head coach at the University of Windsor in Ontario. But what was previously just a side project, a website known as Basketball Immersion, is now his full-time job.

Basketball Immersion seeks to provide coaching and player development techniques to coaches of all levels. The website also features a podcast, and the guest of this week’s episode was...well, you likely guessed it based on the title of this piece.

Phoenix Suns assistant Coach Darko Rajaković, who may or may not have just finished his 1st season in Phoenix (depending on the state of the regular season), joined the show to discuss a myriad of topics related to coaching. But while only part of the conversation was relevant to Suns fans, those nuggets were largely much more revealing than your typical press conference.

For one, Rajaković made sure to touch on the “0.5” offense, a buzzword that Suns fans have heard plenty about this year. But he stressed that 0.5 was not the only theory forming the team’s offensive identity. Just as essential were these concepts:

  • “paint-to-great”/”good-to-great”: Attacking the paint, but also not being afraid to pass up “good” shots in favor of creating great shots
  • Execution: The theory that players need to adhere to certain principles in order to succeed, but within reason. Creating rigid sets that allow for no freedom or feel aren’t helpful.
  • Limiting turnovers. This is self-explanatory.

But above all, the defining principle of the ‘19-20 Suns can perhaps be summed up by this one quote.

“Players want to play inside of systems where they’re touching the ball,” Rajaković said on the podcast. “Not necessarily getting shots, but they want to touch the ball. They want to feel they’re part of the offense, they want to get a good rhythm for the game, and all the players feel much more confident...when the shot actually comes to them, they’re gonna feel much more confident shooting the ball.”

With the returning Devin Booker and a new starting point guard at the helm in Ricky Rubio, the Suns’ coaching staff set a preseason goal of leading the league in assists.

Mission accomplished. The Suns averaged a league-leading 27.2 assists per game, way up from the 23.9 they averaged in ‘18-19 under Igor Kokoskov. Best of all, they accomplished this while averaging fewer turnovers per game.

And even when turnovers did plague the Suns this year, it didn’t necessarily bother Coach Rajaković. So long as those turnovers were the result of playing with confidence, and not too much hesitation.

“A player needs to be confident to make a mistake,” he explained. “As you said, inside of the framework of what you’re doing. But they gotta be vulnerable enough to try to do new things.”

To be clear, the Suns still ran plays. They still had sets. Rajaković explained that they divided up their playbook based on transition offense, halfcourt offense, after-time-out (ATO) plays, and so on. But too much structure, and too much focus on having players memorize every possible option within a set, can actually end up sterilizing your offense. It creates situations where players become hesitant, as opposed to letting natural instinct take over.

And this is what I mean when I talk about freedom through structure. The Suns’ coaching staff set up a series of guiding principles, a framework that would stick in the back of the players’ minds. But after those principles were instilled, they had to let the players loose for the sake of positive development.

This attitude seeped into film sessions, where coaches were careful to not be too emotional. As Rajaković explained, repeated errors were still addressed. But if Ricky Rubio commits 5 turnovers in an unusually bad game, everyone moves on. Some mistakes just don’t need correction, so long as they were made within the framework.

Rajaković isn’t a member of the front office, but if management buys into these coaching principles as much as he does then it reinforces the value of a pure point guard like Ricky Rubio. Furthermore, it reinforces the value of a dual playmaking backcourt of Rubio and Booker, where both players are prepared to make their teammates better and ensure that everyone touches the ball. Booker and Rubio alone averaged 15.5 assists this year, more than any other starting backcourt in the NBA. They even topped Harden-Westbrook.

Here’s a link to the full, hour-long interview on YouTube. It can also be found on podcast apps like Apple Podcasts and Spotify, under ‘The Basketball Podcast’. I highly encourage Suns fans to listen, as Rajaković covers many other topics ranging from spacing and driving principles to communication and trust.