The Los Angeles Lakers are in the midst of a transition, turning into a team that's focused on building up organically through a youth movement. With that comes the territory of both developing prospects and identifying talents, making their D-League affiliate, the D-Fenders a key area that can boost their progress.
The hiring of a head coach to replace Phil Hubbard following Conner Henry's departure to Orlando was a big decision for the Lakers as they prepare for the future. Deciding Casey Owens was the right fit for the job -- a longtime basketball coach and scout who also spent time with the D-Fenders as an assistant -- is an important step for the Lakers.
Silver Screen and Roll had a chance to speak with Owens via telephone, and the new D-Fenders head coach provided great insight. Here's the full Q&A session.
Are you excited to land a head coaching job with the D-League after spending so much of your career overseas?
"I really am. I was with the D-Fenders two years ago as an assistant. I've been all over the world as a head coach and an assistant. Working overseas really gave me great perspective on the game, to be able to coach it, teach it and watch it internationally in different languages and different cultures. It really helped me grow as a coach. I wouldn't trade my time overseas at all. I was able to take my family many places, so basketball's been very good to me in that respect. On the other side, I'm elated to be back in the States. There's not many head coaching jobs in the United States, and to be able to have one of them I'm humbled and very privileged. I'm excited to hit the ground running."
You have a long history of scouting and coaching at various levels. What kind of things are you looking for when you're watching a player?
"I look at an overall skill set, which is very important. Athleticism is always important, but skillset -- being able to do multiple things with the ball, and being able to defend multiple positions is huge. How a player carries himself. Body language is very important to me. Not only interactions with teammates, but with officials. Reactions to any type of adversity or tough plays. You try to find bits and pieces of character while you're scouting guys, and hopefully you're right more often than not."
What kind of identity are you hoping the D-Fenders will establish under you?
"We want to play fast, that's what the D-League's about. The D-League's about players and players need to get their numbers so they can get called up, or bought out in Europe, or get assigned by the Lakers so they can prove they deserve time in the NBA. We have to play fast, but we can't play sloppy. It can't be pickup ball, we have to have some discipline on the defensive end. Having said that, a good defensive team in the D-League is one that gives up 100 points. We want to be able to change defenses and play at different speeds, but I want to give guys as many opportunities as possible. I want them to play for each other and be selfless, which is very hard to do in the D-League, because guys are trying to get theirs -- but they have to get them the right way. They have to play for each other and understand and trust that, and that's how I've had success in the minor league. If you can get a team that'll play for each other, then everybody's going to have success. That's what I'm hoping we can find as an identity."
How much responsibility is on your shoulders to help these young players develop and find their place as professional basketball players?
"To me that's the whole goal. Obviously I want to win games while we're doing it -- every coach wants to win every single game -- but this league is about the players. I'm under no illusion in that respect. I'm trying to teach these guys to not only be better basketball players, but to become better young men and learn how to be a pro. With as young some of these guys are -- these are 19-to-20 year old guys that we're going to be coaching -- they haven't had the opportunity to learn how to be professional. It's a long process, but that's what I'm there for. I'm there for these guys."
How important is your role in identifying talent for the Lakers to develop?
"It's very important. We're trying to help the parent club in identifying young talent. I think they've done a really good job of utilizing their D-League team in that respect. There's only a couple roster spots up for grabs each year, and they're using the D-League team in the right way by trying to find young talent in other ways than the draft. That's what this is about. I'll be working closely with the Lakers, trying to find guys that fit into their system, and fit into their philosophy. We're an extension of them, so whatever we can do to help the parent club is what we're going to do."
Will you be working with the Lakers to get on the same page from an X's and O's standpoint?
"When guys are assigned or called up we want it to be a seamless transition for them, so I'm looking forward to working with coach Scott on his offensive and defensive principles and philosophies. I want to be running the same actions he does. We have to have the right roster to do that, but that's what we're trying to build as a mirror organization of the Lakers on the floor. We want to play like the Lakers do in certain respects, but the D-League is always going to be a faster league, so we'll have some freedom there on our end as well."
How important is synergy between a parent organization and their D-League affiliate?
"I think it's essential. If they're not working in tandem and there's not an overall shared philosophy, then I question why even own one. What I'm seeing league-wide is these NBA teams really utilizing their clubs in multiple ways. It's not just an investment in players. They're looking for potential employees they can call up at every level, whether it's a trainer, a PR person, a general manager, an assistant coach, a head coach. They're really valuable, and I've been extremely impressed league-wide with how many people are getting called up out of the D-League."
Are you surprised with how quickly the D-League has grown over the last few years?
"It's headed to a one-to-one ratio quicker than even I thought possible. My first year in the D-League was in 2005 in Fayetteville when they still had a lot of the teams in the South East. The difference between now and then it's like it's two different leagues. We're not quite Triple A baseball yet, but they have a 100 year lead on us and we're going to catch up pretty quick. The playoffs were on ESPN which is outstanding. People used to say who cares about minor league basketball, but now minor league basketball there's tons of NBA players in these games. There's tons of high profile players from big colleges that these fans are used to seeing. The way the league is going, I'm just blown away by it. I think we're going to see full one-to-one affiliation sooner than later."
The NBA's focus is beginning to shift to analytics and talent development. What are your thoughts on the use of advanced stats and scouting in the NBA?
"I think it's essential. That's the way the game is growing. The game changes and either you change with it or you get left behind. We didn't have all these stats before. In my opinion I don't think people necessarily turned their nose up at it, but it just wasn't available. You had a box score and basic averages, but with analytics, things like baseball's sabermetrics, and fantasy sports, it's amazing what you can break down.
How you get those stats and relate them, or translate them to in-game situations remains to be seen. But it really helps me in preparation. Seeing what different lineups are good together, efficiency defensively and offensively, it's just amazing how deep you can go into this stuff. I'm all about it, I think it's really cool. I know some people are a little resistant to it -- and to each their own -- but I think it's here to stay. It's not going anywhere, and I think it's a big help to the game.
These are tools. As a coach you're a leader, but you're really teaching. Why would you reject anything that would make you a better teacher? That's how I look at it. Why would you turn anything down that can help you teach these young men, and if you're a teacher, you have to broaden your own horizons. You have to keep getting better. You can't just sit in your chair like some old university professor for 80 years and not change. You have to roll with the flow. This is a fluid, evolving game and its important to stay up with it."
What are your expectations for the season?
"My No. 1 goal is to put these guys in an environment and situations where they can succeed. If they buy into that, I have no doubt that success will come on the court. That's not a canned answer -- I can't predict wins and losses - but do I think we're going to be successful? Yes. My success in my opinion will be measured by if I can create that kind of environment. In the past I've had success, and I'm confident I will again."
We'd like to thank the D-Fenders organization for making head coach Casey Owens available for this interview.