The challenges of being a first-year NBA head coach
Portland’s Chauncey Billups knows firsthand some of the challenges Will Hardy will be facing as a first-year head coach, and that they aren’t things he can prepare for
This whole thing that Will Hardy is going through — being a first-time head coach of the Utah Jazz, a team with a lot of young players and some uncertainty about the future — is a situation that Portland Trail Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups knows very well.
“Just like our team has to continue to improve, I have to continue to improve. So you reflect on all those things postgame and look forward to getting after it again.” — Utah Jazz coach Will Hardy
To be fair, all head coaches know what it’s like to be a head coach for the first time. But for Billups, the memories are fresh.
In June 2021, Billups was named head coach of the Blazers after serving as an assistant with the Los Angeles Clippers under Tyronn Lue. Billups thought that his 17-year NBA playing career and his experience on a coaching staff would have prepared him for the leap to being the head coach. He was in for a rude awakening.
“Every day is a first, so you can’t prepare,” Billups said ahead of the Jazz’s preseason win over the Blazers on Tuesday night. “I came into camp last year and I thought that I was prepared for a lot of different situations and things and it’s just tough. Things always come up, you know. This job is about so much more than just basketball.”
Early on, Billups realized how much he would rely on his assistant coaches for small things. The need to delegate tasks so that the smallest of moments can run smoothly was of paramount importance. Take for example, a timeout huddle during the course of a regular-season game.
“There was a couple of times where I got to the huddle and I’m looking around like, OK, he’s in, he’s in. Oh, man, I can’t run that ’cause he can’t dribble. Can’t bring him off the double. And before you know it the horn is ringing,” Billups said, laughing recounting his early days. “Then I figured out that I need to put the names down before I come out to the huddle … you start to get a rhythm and you start to delegate responsibilities. ‘All right, coach, you have the names ready. You have defensive adjustments. You go tell the squad.’ That’s typical first-year stuff.”
The Jazz’s first preseason game was more eventful than most. A part of the NBA’s 2022 Canada series, the Jazz played against the Toronto Raptors in Edmonton, Alberta, and the Roger’s Place arena was absolutely packed. It felt more like a highly anticipated regular-season game than a normal preseason exhibition matchup.
“So tired after the game,” Hardy said. “I definitely have not talked that much during a game in my life. Probably a lot of that was adrenaline and excitement with it being the first game, and then the crowd in Edmonton was unbelievable.”
Was there anything that happened that surprised Hardy or came at him faster than he expected?
“Yeah, it all happened,” he said with a laugh. “That was the first game in that seat and there’s a lot of different things that go into it. It’s communication with the players, it’s communication with the staff and managing all those elements in real time. It was definitely an adjustment and a lot of fun.”
It won’t all be fun and exciting, though. As Billups continued to explain, he noted that he never realized the time demands of being an NBA head coach. At his office at the Blazers practice facility, he said that he spends all day putting out fires and going through meetings and taking care of logistical things. It’s the prep work that leads to his real work.
“I’m there all day, and I rarely get to do basketball stuff, because I’m dealing with everything else,” he said. “When you lead so many people, you sort of have to leave the office to go home to actually work. I didn’t know that. I really didn’t know that as an assistant coach.”
Going into his second season in Portland, Billups feels more prepared than he did last year, but is also keenly aware that the best type of preparation that can be done is being adaptable and ready for anything, because no matter what, there will always be something new.
Billups also pointed out that the time demands and the need to be someone who can deal with family issues, team issues and player issues are all just as important as the basketball side of things. Because at the end of the day, the head coach is in charge of a lot more than winning and losing. The weight of the position has to be something that a head coach is not only ready for, but invites.
“You’ve got a lot of people’s careers in your hands,” he said. “Not only my staff — people that came here and are committed to me and my success and our success — but the players. And everybody’s in a different position. So it’s a great position to be in, but it carries a lot of responsibility. I love it, and it’s one of the reasons why I wanted to do it.”
Hardy has just two preseason games under his belt. He won’t coach a legitimate NBA regular-season game until Oct. 19, when the Jazz open the season at home against the Denver Nuggets. But he’s excited and eager and nervous and looking forward to all of the challenges ahead of him.
“Just like our team has to continue to improve, I have to continue to improve,” Hardy said. “So you reflect on all those things postgame and look forward to getting after it again.”