Over the weekend, the Los Angeles Lakers hired Phil Handy — one of the most well-respected player-development coaches in the NBA — to serve on Frank Vogel’s bench.
But why is Handy so well-liked, and why is this hire earning so much praise? To lay that out, let’s take a closer look at a few things you may not know about Phil Handy.
He relates to (and earns the ear) of the game’s biggest stars
Handy got his start working for the Lakers during the 2011-12 season, when Mike Brown hired him as a player development coach. While with the Lakers, Handy worked with Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and the rest of the team, and seemed to earn their respect (particularly that of Bryant, who is always looking for an edge and ways to get better).
In a 2012 interview with Mike Trudell of Lakers.com, Handy described how he approaches helping superstars like Bryant, players who would be pretty good without him and who he has to convince can be even better by working with him, and how that approach is different than that he has to take with other players:
MT: In this sense Kobe’s really an exception, because he’s got so much in the tool kit, what are you really supposed to teach him or help him improve upon or add to his game?
Handy: Traditionally you try to get players to shoot on balance, but Kobe practices those off-balance shots, so they’re better shots for him than for others. Sure, that might be the one thing where you’d try to get him to be more balanced at times, but to him, every shot he takes is a shot he can make. That’s how he thinks. So it’s an interesting dynamic trying to suggest, or teach, or critique Kobe’s game; it’s really more of ‘What do you like to do,’ and see if you can enhance that.
MT: To state the obvious, that’s a bit of a different conversation than you’ll have with the rookies?
After Brown was let go by the Lakers and went back to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Handy followed him, initially getting the chance to work with Kyrie Irving before outlasting Brown and staying to work with LeBron James and the rest of the Cavaliers’ contending teams.
It seems he made an impact on Irving in particular, even connecting him with one of his former players (via Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated):
“Coach Handy has done an unbelievable job,” Irving said. “He’s kind of the one who introduced the relationship and mentorship that I have with Kobe. And in terms of working out late nights, doing whatever it takes to win, learning how to lead, understanding the nuances of the game and understanding what it takes to be a great player in this league, [Handy’s] really kind of put down the foundation and steps.
“He’s kind of like my dad in terms of in basketball when I’m away from my family. So he’s been influential on my life.”
Last season, Handy left the Cavaliers to work with the Toronto Raptors, where he worked with (and is credited with helping, more on that later) Kawhi Leonard. But Handy has earned the respect of more than just the players on his teams, as is made clear by the fact that he created the photo of the 2018 offseason (from his Instagram account):
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Work is work. It don’t what matter what team we represent the @nba is a family. True professionals all trying to #perfectourcraft @kingjames @cediosman @easymoneysniper @itsjerms_33 @rmbwilliams @boch2boch and the ghost #kawhileonard ... #hardworkisundefeated #ilovethisgame #theworkisreal
Handy described why he works with stars — and other players — not on his team during the offseason in an interview with Sam Amick of The Athletic. In short, he just wants to get better at his craft by helping other players get better at theirs:
So on Aug. 21, you put that picture up of a lot of the guys doing their thing. How rare is that kind of a run, and how many times over the course of a summer might you get that type of talent in the lab together?
Well, you know what Sam, I think for me, man, I’m just a purist at heart when it comes to basketball. I love the game, and obviously as an NBA coach there’s certain things during the season where we have our rivals. Obviously, I’ve been in Cleveland with LeBron and Kyrie and those guys for the last few years, and obviously Golden State is a rival of ours during the regular season. So I’m always trying to challenge – and I don’t even know if I want to use the word challenge, Sam – but I’m always trying to just help people open their minds to what we do in this industry in terms of coaches and players. During the season, we’re competitors, we’re rivals, and we’re trying to beat each other. But in the offseason man, I mean the NBA is a small family – it really is. And it’s a fraternity, and I think we’re all blessed to be a part of it, whether we’re coaches or players or trainers or anybody. And so, I’ve been trying to help people understand man, when it’s the offseason, guys want to get better, coaches want to work together and we’re all trying to continue to get better at our crafts.
Me personally, I don’t really care what teams guys play for. I’m in the gym, and I’m going to be working guys out. I’m working with some of our players, and guys want to work out, my gym is always open. My doors are always open to just help players get better, and obviously when Kawhi (was traded to) Toronto (in mid-July), you know he was a guy that I was going to have to try to create a relationship (with) and start working with him and just do whatever I can to help him improve his game just like I’ve done with anybody else. Me and LeBron’s relationship has remained intact. It’s been really good. We’ve worked out quite a bit over the summer, this summer, again just keeping him and helping him stay sharp and KD (Durant) is somebody who I’ve had a lot of respect for, and I think he’s had a lot of respect for me as a coach. And obviously everybody knows the relationship between KD and LeBron – they’ve always been close. It was very organic the way that workout came about – (Cavaliers big man) Cedi Osman is a young guy who I’ve worked out last year in Cleveland, and LeBron has a great relationship with him and respect, and it was just organic. It wasn’t anything that was really planned like that. Kawhi was coming to LA, wanted to work out a few days, ‘Bron was still in LA, he was still working out, and KD happened to be in LA and he wanted to work out, and Cedi came to LA to spend a few days with LeBron. And it just so happened that, timing-wise, that all four of those guys were able to get in the gym together, and just have a good afternoon of working out and really just pushing each other individually.
But why do so many players want to work with Handy? Well, it might be because he’s shown he can aid them in a few key details such as...
He’s a footwork aficionado
For the basketball nerds among us, Handy’s exchange with Trudell on his biggest areas of focus — and how he takes stuff he learns from watching and working with stars and makes it accessible for other players — is worth a read:
MT: Let’s get a little more specific on the actual skill work. It’s ball handling, shooting, passing and everything. But do you have an area of focus?
Handy: My two biggest things are footwork and balance. Every player needs to have good footwork and balance to be able to do anything. I’ve had a chance to work everybody out on the team, and over time I’ve developed the ability to be able to teach any position. Whether you’re Andrew Bynum or Derek Fisher, I try to cover every aspect of the game that I can.
MT: When you mention the focus on footwork and balance, it’s hard not to think of Kobe Bryant right away, one of the best there’s ever been from that standpoint. Your early impression?
Handy: When I came here, I was excited for the opportunity to both have a chance to work with him and also just see what he does. You know I’m really big on footwork, but I immediately started learning things from Kobe. I’ve never seen more of a technician with the footwork than him. He has a lot of stuff down that a lot of people couldn’t even attempt to do.
MT: Some of that No. 24 footwork seems ingrained from growing up with a professional hooping dad (Joe “Jellybean” Bryant), being around the game constantly, watching tape obsessively, all mixed with unordinary talent. But how do you get from the point of seeing what Kobe can do to teaching it?
Handy: Kobe shows some of everything: reverse pivots, inside pivots, spin outs, jabs - he puts it all together. So to explain or teach it to a kid like Goudelock, I basically break it down in parts. Goudelock has good footwork for a guard, but to try and get him to do some of the stuff that Kobe does, it would have to come in stages, then put it together as you go.
But Handy can help stars as well, as evidenced by Irving (above), Bryant and James’ continued endorsements. And more recently, he aided one of the game’s biggest stars in taking one of their skills up a notch.
Handy helped Kawhi Leonard improve his ballhandling to devastating levels
On full display as the Raptors made their first title run in franchise history was Leonard’s supreme skill as a ballhandler. Now, it’s important to note that he had already taken massive strides in that area since entering the league, but in this excellent piece from Michael Pina (then of Vice Sports) Handy detailed how he helped Leonard improve his dribbling:
But when Phil Handy—an assistant coach for the Toronto Raptors who specializes in skill development and has worked closely with LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Kyrie Irving, among many others—met Leonard over the summer and asked what part of his game he most wanted to improve, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year had ball-handling at the top of his list.
“Great players are great players, and I think they become even better players when they’re willing to get out of their comfort zone and just work on different things,” Handy told VICE Sports. “Kawhi was already a good ball-handler. I just think a lot of people didn’t really get to see that part of his game. It was there.”
They started with simple combinations and focused on improving his balance, base, and footwork, then blended in additional moves with multiple variations. Repetition was key. The objective wasn’t necessarily to teach Leonard new ways to transport himself from Point A to Point B on a basketball court so much as it was to plow what he already knew even deeper into his psyche. Now, when Leonard does something with the ball, his reflexes kick in before his brain has time to process what’s going on.
“Sometimes the dribbling exercises you put guys through, it may not be something they actually use on the floor but it gives transference. Their instincts become better,” Handy said. “They just instinctually start to go from one handle to another to another when they’re in different situations in games.”
Handy also explained how he helped Leonard “tighten” his handle in that piece, and the whole thing is really worth your time, but his final quote on the importance of ballhandling is something that may pay dividends for the Lakers (and explain why Handy can get some of the best players in the world to want his help specifically):
“I don’t care who you are, Kyrie, Steve Nash, Chris Paul. I don’t think you ever get to a point in your career where you say ‘OK, that’s enough with my ball-handling,’” Handy said. “You always have to constantly continue to get the rhythm of the basketball, and keep your handles tight, so wherever you are on the floor there’s any combination of dribbles you can use.”
But Handy isn’t just a player development, skills and relationships guy. He’s proved his motivational chops as well, which might be why it appears that Vogel lured him to the Lakers by offering him a job as a bench coach.
Handy is widely credited as helping the Cavaliers overcome their 3-1 deficit against the Warriors in the Finals
How does a player development coach help turn the tide of a seemingly un-winnable championship series? According to Spears’ great story referenced above, by getting really upset:
Handy respects head coach Tyronn Lue and stays in his lane as a Cavaliers’ assistant coach. But, after the Cavaliers looked overmatched, displaying little fight in their Game 2 beating, an emotional, almost-in-tears Handy asked and received permission from Lue to call out the team.
“We looked like a deer in headlights,” Handy told The Undefeated. “I was like, ‘Man, T-Lue, I’m not trying to step on your toes, but I got something to say, man.’ I didn’t go at nobody, directly. I was talking to all of them.
“We’re at the NBA Finals. They were acting like we were weak. I just told all of them that ‘this was some [expletive].’ That, the Warriors are ‘just out there punking y’all and ya’ll ain’t doing [expletive] … They’re getting in your faces, clowning in front of our bench and doing whatever they want to do. And ya’ll aren’t responding.’ ”
Handy told the Cavs he took their play and the Warriors’ behavior personally and that once the team returned home to Cleveland, they had “better be ready to play, because that was some [expletive].”
The rest, as they say, was history. Literally, as no team had ever returned from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals before the Cavaliers did it that year.
On a semi-related note, Handy is also the only coach not with the Warriors to say he’s been to the last five straight championship series, another strong point on his resume, but it’s not just on the court where Handy will provide value. Fans are going to enjoy him off of it, too, because...
Handy has an endearingly earnest Instagram account
Remember the Instagram account of Handy’s I mentioned earlier? Well, it’s incredible, and going to be a must-follow for Lakers fans.
I mean, look at this thing and tell me this isn’t the kind of coach you’d run through a brick wall for:
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#goatsundays I try and live my best life everyday! We all should. Life is too short to NOT LIVE YOUR BEST LIFE. They tried to tell me I would never be great... I said watch me! #BeYourOwnGoat #wethenorth #raptors #the6 #playoffmode #ringchasin #hardworkisundefeated #kyrie1s ... 2 good road wins! Let’s go @raptors fans we comin home.
#BeYourOwnGoat is a life philosophy I think we can all get behind.
So yeah, the Lakers seem to have gotten a good one, and I hope this piece is a good resource for fans who want to spend their offseason learning everything they can about all the Lakers’ changes. Assistant coaching hires normally don’t warrant 2,000-plus words, but Handy is an interesting get, and proof that the Lakers are trying to assemble the strongest auxiliary staff possible.
This story wouldn’t have been doable without all of the excellent pieces done on Handy beforehand, so if you didn’t click where they’re linked above and want to learn a bit more, I’d suggest you check them out.