Video Gamer: A week in the life of Raptors assistant coach Adrian Griffin
by Eric Koreen
Saturday, February 23
Adrian Griffin won his first game as a head coach last night.
Griffin, 44, is Raptors coach Nick Nurse’s lead assistant. Against the Spurs on Friday, referee Marc Davis tossed Nurse, awarding him two technical fouls in the third quarter for … well, it is not quite clear. Nurse said the first technical foul was given for questioning why Gregg Popovich was allowed to make a substitution. Presumably, the second one was for questioning the validity of the first.
Upon ejection, Nurse put Griffin, along with Griffin’s fellow assistant Nate Bjorkgren, in charge of the emotionally heightened game against the Spurs.
“I just grabbed him and Nate both and just said, ‘Work together on it. You guys share it and work together on it and you guys will be fine.’ I think they did great,” Nurse said. “They did great. As a head coach, I’d hope my guys know what to do when they get the opportunity.”
“With the (after-timeout plays), Nate was phenomenal,” Griffin says. “We kind of tag-teamed with the play-calling. Late game, he kind of took over. He really specializes in that and has a really great, calm demeanour.
“During the game, I had to resist looking at (his wife Kathy) because I needed to focus on the game. But I could tell she was a nervous wreck.”
The Raptors pulled out the game dramatically. Alas, Griffin will have to wait until he gets a full-time head coaching gig to get an official win. When Steve Kerr was away from the Warriors for much of their 73-win season because of health issues, he was still credited with the wins instead of acting head coach Luke Walton. You are what your title says you are.
“I think you’ve got to pitch at least five innings before you get the win,” Griffin says. “I’ve got a long way to go.”
His long journey is full of long days. This week will present some opportunities to breathe, but Sunday isn’t one of them. The Raptors hold a practice at 11 a.m., with last night’s game ending after 9:30 p.m. That does not sound too bad, until you realize Griffin still has to cut clips and put together an edit to show today in the intervening hours. If he is lucky, he gets to sleep around 1 a.m., and is back at the Raptors’ practice facility by 9 a.m. at the latest.
“Bless my wife’s heart. After games, we’ll go out for dinner, and she allows me to take my computer,” Griffin says. “She’s great with it. She’ll say, ‘Bring your computer, we’ll grab a glass of wine, we’ll order some food.’ I’ll watch a game and pull my edits. We’ll leave around 12, 12:30. She’s my biggest supporter.”
“He always had a computer,” says Alan Griffin, Griffin’s eldest son who is currently a freshman with the University of Illinois men’s basketball team. “We’d be going anywhere and he always had a laptop. I understand that.”
In his first year as head coach, Nurse has decided to rotate his coaches through assignments. Every 10 or so games, his lead assistants will switch up their focus, going from offence to defence to special situations. Nurse wanted to do it to remove biases on the staff — if each coach has a foundation in all of the game’s elements, he should not advocate for one side of the ball or the other by default — and to help his assistants grow. This aids Griffin, who has been pigeonholed as a defensive mind, much as Nurse was viewed as an offensive coach when he was an assistant with the Raptors. Perhaps this is because so much of Griffin’s coaching career has come with hard-nosed coaches like Scott Skiles and Tom Thibodeau, or because of his playing days when he was known for his one-on-one defence. Regardless, to become a head coach, it helps to have a reputation for being versatile.
Griffin is in the middle of his defensive cycle this week. On each practice day, he has to put the team through a defensive edit of video, clips pulled mostly from the prior game. He then has to lead drills on the areas of improvement Nurse and the staff want to focus on that day on the defensive end. Hence, the odd combination of wine and film.
“The hardest part of being an assistant is the time pressure,” Nurse says. “The game ends at 11 o’clock, you get out of there, you go out and you’ve got to be at the office at 9 o’clock (in the morning) and have your edit done. And you’re not just pulling bullshit clips. You’re telling a story everyday to those guys. You’re showing, ‘This is what we went through, we did it wrong, here’s how we fix it.’ You’re piecing, melding stuff together from the game to tell a 15-minute story. I always said if I went out to eat or did something after a game (as an assistant), all I was doing was costing myself two or three hours of sleep.”
After that, Griffin gets back to his coaching roots, rebounding for players and helping them through their individual work. Griffin started primarily in player development. The higher up the coaching ladder you climb, the less time there generally is for that.
And when the players file out, Griffin’s work is only halfway done. The Raptors play the Magic tomorrow.
“We have reports that are due every game,” Griffin says. “We have a pregame report and we have a pre-edit report that we have to put together for the coaching staff, and it’s due tonight. So I have to start prepping for Orlando, watch all those clips, pull good ones to show the team (on gameday), and then I have to write a written report. And that takes time. It takes sometimes three, four hours. It’s a constant grind going into the season. But you go into the games and feel well prepared.”
Sunday, February 24
Most players detest afternoon games. They mess with their rhythms and routines. Even during Griffin’s playing career, when he was a journeyman wing defender over nine seasons after toiling in minor leagues, he didn’t mind them. They meant there would be no morning shootaround, and there would still be an opportunity to do something with the evening after the game. It is rationale that sportswriters can appreciate, and few others.
As a coach, Griffin still likes afternoon games. The Raptors play at 3:30 p.m. against the Magic, and with no shootaround, he doesn’t have to get to Scotiabank Arena until noon, when the team will have an abbreviated walkthrough.
“I like to do a pregame workout for myself. I do a series of weightlifting and then I semi-run the steps,” Griffin says. “For me, it’s more of a fast walk, get a little bit of cardio. And then I’ll come down and go over the plays they run so I know the calls during the game. Especially when you’re a defensive coach, whenever the opposing coach calls out a set, you’ve got to make sure you know it and can call it out to the players.”
In the first half of the game, Griffin is focussed disproportionately on defence, as he is in charge of the halftime notes the staff will give to the team about that end of the floor. The offence is a bigger issue for the Raptors than the defence early on, although Griffin encourages some adjustments, notably trying to get his big men to hedge the pick-and-roll a little further from the basket, thus stopping the ball-handler’s progress. The Raptors’ biggest problem all year defensively has been containing the ball. Magic centre Nikola Vucevic’s all-around game renders that plan ineffective. In the second half, Griffin’s responsibilities become broader.
“There are a lot of moving parts. You’ve got to make sure in timeouts you’re communicating the coverages,” Griffin says. “You’ve got to make sure (the players are) out of their seats before the horn sounds. You’ve got to make sure coach has his iPad. There’s a lot more than just watching the game. It’s managing the game.”
No amount of preparation or adjustment matters, as the Raptors lose by 15, one of their worst performances of the year. There is a lot of gruesome tape for Griffin to wade through to get ready for tomorrow’s practice.
He has another responsibility, too: a five-page paper for his knowledge management class as part of the organizational leadership doctorate he is working on online through Concordia University (Chicago). He started the program in 2015, when he was an assistant with the Bulls.
“It’s a challenge to grow and to get better and put yourself in a competitive (scenario) in coaching,” Griffin says. “I always wanted to think outside of the box — what could give me a competitive edge, and also what could make me a better person? My father was a minister. He was a community leader in our home. I got to see up close and personal what type of impact leadership can have.”
It adds to Griffin’s already formidable workload, but it is an extension of his mindset when he became a player. He did not expect to have a significant NBA career, and was always preparing to enter the real world at a moment’s notice. In case his coaching career did not stick, he started working on his master’s degree in business during his early days as an assistant. He was earning it from the University of Phoenix, one of the first schools to start offering degrees based on online work.
In 2013, Griffin, 39 at the time, interviewed for a head coaching job with the 76ers. Brett Brown wound up with the job.
“I had to meet with the owners and management. The owners were telling me how they got their degrees from Wharton and all this stuff,” Griffin says. All three primary owners of the 76ers are graduates of Wharton School, the famous business branch of the University of Pennsylvania. Former Philadelphia general manager Sam Hinkie graduated from Stanford.
“They asked me about mine, and I told ’em ‘I got mine from the University of Phoenix, which is the equivalent to Wharton, probably about the same thing.’ They thought I was serious, and I had to be like, ‘I’m just kidding with you.’ They had these Wharton business degrees and I was like, ‘Mine is the same thing as yours.’”
Monday, February 25
As a player, Griffin did not think he would be cut out for coaching. He was one of the hardest-working players around, and he hoped his teammates picked up cues from him, but he was not a vocal leader.
In 2004-05, Griffin played for the Bulls, who were still trying to dig out of their post-Jordan hole. The Bulls were working rookie Luol Deng into their rotation. Griffin was still prideful about what he could bring to the table as a player, but he was smart enough to see the direction the Bulls were going in. He made a concerted effort to fill a blended role, as player and mentor.
“Griff was my vet to begin with,” Deng says. “When we started, he was always teaching me. He was always telling me what to do, how to survive in this league. He was always a great defender with great hands so he was always telling me how to position myself. … I kind of knew that (he would become a coach) because he always had the inside of the game, high IQ but he was always advising. He was always, always advising.”
“Luol, he was just a great kid and I wanted to see him succeed,” Griffin says. “I took a liking to him. We hung out off of the floor. I think (then-Bulls coach) Scott Skiles and the other assistant coaches saw that and came to me and said, ‘When you retire, I’ve got a job for you.’’’
(Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)
As luck would have it, Oklahoma City traded Griffin to Milwaukee before the 2008-09 season. After the Bulls had fired Skiles, the Bucks hired him. Griffin wanted to crack the roster as a 34-year-old.
“I went to training camp. The cut off date (to pick the roster) was like a Thursday at 3 o’clock. Scott Skiles called me at 2:59 and said that I got released, ‘But what do you think about joining my staff?’” Griffin recalls. “I went from retirement with the players to the locker room with the coaches overnight. The only difference was that the bodies are a bit different, from the players’ bodies in the locker room to the coaches’ bodies in the locker room. That was the biggest shock to me.”
It still took a while for Griffin to become sold that the job was for him. After two years in Milwaukee, he went to work under defensive guru Thibodeau and Ron Adams, one of the most respected assistant coaches in the game. Griffin would watch how Adams worked individually with a player, rebounding for him, but also encouraging him and teaching him. He saw how Thibodeau would drill home defensive philosophies, day after day.
In Griffin’s words, he gained wisdom from Thibodeau and essentially served an apprenticeship under Adams. Eventually, Griffin started to take over some of Adams’ one-on-one work with players, including his pairing with late first-round pick-turned All-Star, Jimmy Butler.
“Every coach has a player that impacts (him or her) more or just as much as you impact them,” Griffin says. “Jimmy was that player for me. He held me accountable. He was tough. I had to learn. I had to grow. I had to learn how to communicate better. We kind of grew together. … I was trying to help him believe in certain things. But he helped me see that when a player really wants to get better, nothing is gonna stop that player.”
“Adrian Griffin had a lot (to do with my success), because he had to deal with me just being unbearable because I was a rookie and I wanted to play,” Butler said in 2015 when he was named the league’s most improved player. “I beat him one-on-one a lot in my rookie year, and he can’t beat me to this day. I think he has a lot to do with who I am.”
Griffin has worked with Skiles in Orlando and Billy Donovan since then, and wound up with Nurse this year. The two first got to know each other when they had appointments about a decade ago, one after the other, with their agent at the time, Steve Kauffman. They never lost touch, but when it seemed to Nurse like he might be in line for a head coaching job last year due to the Raptors’ regular-season success, conversation picked up. Nurse wanted to work with Griffin.
And now Nurse is entrusting one of the Raptors’ most meaningful opponents, the Celtics, to Griffin. The Celtics are one of Griffin’s “scout” teams, which means he has extra responsibility in addition to his current defensive duties.
“It’s just a little bit more work that goes into it,” Griffin says. “I’ll have to come up with the game plan and present it to the coach. Tomorrow at walkthrough (in the afternoon), I’ll walk through maybe three or four sets we have to cover. And then I’ll have my edits. When it’s your scout, you do all the prep work and present it to the team. When you’re just the defensive coach, you can pull some edits but the scouting coach presents it.”
Tuesday, February 26
The Kyrie Irving-Al Horford pick-and-pop for the Celtics, the play that has tormented the 76ers over the past nine months, looms tonight. Serge Ibaka is not quite quick enough to wall off Irving and recover to Horford, while Marc Gasol definitely is not.
Nurse forgoes morning shootaround, which is useful to Griffin. Despite the chemistry issues they have been dealing with, the Celtics, with all of the talent they have on the floor, are a complicated team to handle. The Raptors will have a walkthrough a few hours before the game, and then will meet again 45 minutes before tip.
“(Not having a shootaround) allows me to put a little bit more time into my scout,” says Griffin, declining to get into specifics about the nature of the game plan, as all coaches do. “Even though I had my game plan done last night, I got up the morning, revisited it, made some tweaks and sent out another game plan (to the coaching staff) after I watched more film. And then you’ve got to watch your personnel edit, which you show right before the game. You show two clips. At shootaround, you show the game edit. At night (right before the game), you (highlight individual) personnel.
“It’s a lot of film. To me, that’s the key. I learned that from Tom Thibodeau, just the preparation you put in and the time you invest so the team is ready.”
This is one of the most gratifying wins of the year for Griffin, even if he won’t cop to it. He is in charge of the defence, and the Celtics are his scout. The Raptors win 118-95, and the Celtics shoot just 38.4 percent from the floor. Jeremy Lin and Patrick McCaw, still getting used to their defensive roles, play big parts in slowing down the Celtics’ plethora of perimeter options.
Also, with two days before the next game, there is no planned practice tomorrow. No late-night video session tonight.
“The turnaround is not as quick,” Griffin says. “I still have to pull my clips tonight or in the morning and have them ready in the afternoon. I don’t have to prepare for practice and draw up drills. It’s a nice little breather. I’ll get to sleep until 9, or probably 9:30.”
Wednesday, February 27
Griffin wakes up at 7 a.m., stays in bed and works on his defensive edits that he will show the team at tomorrow’s practice. It is mentioned that this is not a great plan, ergonomically speaking.
“I prop myself up. Now I get a pillow under my computer, a pillow behind my back,” Griffin says. “I’ve got a good system going right now.”
It’s a light day, with a few players coming in to do some optional individual work and get treatment. There is a brief coaches meeting, and Griffin gets a head start on his defensive plan for Friday’s opponent, Portland, but he is still out of the practice facility by 3 or 3:30. The Raptors’ annual charitable soirée, Rap City Social, is tonight. There is light hobnobbing, and Griffin says that Kathy is happy for the chance to get out of the house in normal hours.
Afterward, Griffin and his wife go out for dinner with Paul Elliott, the Raptors’ equipment manager, and his significant other.
“We warned them before then, ‘My son is playing, so if I’m peeking at my phone, I don’t mean to be rude,’” Griffin says the day after. “They just started laughing. They were great.”
Illinois is having a tough year, a doormat in the Big Ten, but Griffin watches as much of his son as he can. The Big Ten Network is not available commercially in Canada, but the Raptors get it at their practice facility, allowing Griffin to watch some of Alan’s games live. Griffin has four kids, and the basketball gene has been passed on to three of them — his daughter Aubrey has committed to playing with the vaunted University of Connecticut program starting this summer. College scouts are sniffing around his other sons, high school sophomore Adrian Jr. Griffin’s daughter Vanessa is the only who isn’t currently playing.
Griffin tries not to put too much pressure on his kids when it comes to basketball, and that included Alan’s decision to go to Illinois. Griffin set up the campus visit, calling in a favour to one of his old rivals, Illinois assistant Orlando Antigua — they played against each other when Griffin played for Seton Hall and Antigua for Pitt — and Alan ended up blown away. Even after he had a prolific senior year in high school and attracted more attention, Illinois stuck with Alan.
It has been a typical freshman season for Alan, who has struggled to gain his coaches’ trust ahead of upperclassman. At the beginning of conference play, he was in the single digits for minutes played most nights. Lately, he has gotten some more run — the 15 he plays tonight are the third-most he plays all year. He adds seven points and four rebounds.
Griffin calls Alan his “best friend, besides my wife.” They talk or text at least every other day.
“I try to switch hats,” Griffin says. “I say, ‘I’ve got my coaching hat on: If you give up a corner 3, you may get subbed out, so you can’t too upset about that. Just make your corrections. As a father, I wish you were starting and wish you were playing 30 minutes a game.’ I have to be honest with him in terms of how I feel. Every father wants their son out there. I say, ‘It hurts me, too. But you’ve got to earn it. It will come in time.’”
“When I switched from high school to college, it started off shaky,” Alan adds. “He’s been in the same position as me. He started off and coach wasn’t playing him a little bit, and he had to earn his minutes and gain them throughout the season. He just told me to build trust, find ways to impact the game. I used to score a lot in high school. When I got here, he always gave me ways to impact the game other than scoring, and told me to let scoring handle itself.”
Alan says he craves the extra set of coaching eyes, and he wants his dad’s opinions from a coaching perspective. He was constantly around Griffin’s teams when he was younger, and understands that his dad knows of what he speaks. Still, Griffin tries not to get too bogged down in what is happening on the court.
“I really learned from my dad, David Griffin Sr., he passed away when I was 26. In all my years, he never gave me advice or input about basketball. Not one time,” Griffin says. “He was real athletic. Every time I came to him with a problem, he’d always say, ‘How is your spiritual life?’ If I had a bad game — ‘Coach is not playing me, I’m not getting the ball’ — he’d say, ‘Well, how is your spiritual life?’ He never said, ‘Well, I saw your shot, and your elbow is out.’ He was always making sure I was in the right mind frame. He knew if internally I was right and I was in a good place, that I would play well. It all starts inside.”
Thursday, February 27
Griffin spent his first eight years as a coach working under either Thibodeau or Skiles. On the personality continuum, they both lean toward intense and high-strung, at least from a coaching perspective. He next worked in Oklahoma City as an assistant to Billy Donovan, perhaps a slightly milder personality, but still a product of the college game where coaches have more power over players than in the NBA.
Nurse is an adjustment for Griffin. It is not that his assistants don’t work hard, but Nurse’s personality is more laid-back than most coaches, and his style is more collaborative.
“Coach Nurse is unique in the sense that he knows when to lighten up, he knows when to tighten up,” Griffin says. “He knows when to get on us and he knows when to (allow you to) let your hair down and enjoy the journey a little bit. It’s a long season. Burnout is real in the NBA — the games and the travel. Sometimes you’ll come in the office and he’ll have some jazz playing, just to lighten the mood. That speaks to his experience of being a coach for so long, the last 25 or 30 years. He gets the grind. He gets the mental grind. He has a really good feeling of how to pace the team.”
(Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)
When we think about why coaches might cancel a practice or a shootaround, we usually think about easing players’ workloads, saving them unnecessary miles as they try to play 82 games in a half year, and hopefully more than in the spring.
It is also for his lead assistants.
“Especially for those guys, the guys with the video pressure and the performance pressure, being in front of the team, a hundred percent,” Nurse says. “Every now and again I tell ’em, ‘Don’t do your film for tomorrow, we’re not going to watch it.’ They need it. It’s a big deal to get a game off here or there.”
Griffin is savouring that, and Nurse is learning about Griffin. This is the first time the two have worked together, and talking everyday, disagreeing on many of those days, will change a relationship. Head coaches want their assistants to challenge them, but Griffin’s personality does not come with screaming or banging on the table for what he believes in.
Again, this was a reason why Griffin thought he might not make it in coaching.
“He’s got a great personality for it. It’s different,” Nurse says. “He’s not a type-A, hardline coach. He’s more like a fatherly figure type (in terms) of personality. He has a calmness about him. He seems like a wise person when he’s conveying something. For me it’s a great mix for our staff. It may not appear, sometimes, that he’s got this coaching gene or whatever. But he sure does.”
Griffin gets his chance in front of the team before practice at 10:30 a.m., about two hours after he arrives at the practice facility. In the morning, he finishes the defensive edit, going over it as many as four times so he knows exactly what message he wants to hit in front of the players. Tonight, he will continue the team-specific edit for tomorrow’s opponent, Portland. The long-range bombing of Damian Lillard and the screen slithering of C.J. McCollum await.
Somewhere in all of that, Griffin has to do some school work. He has to respond to a discussion question today. And remember that paper? He had to request an extension for that, as he got too wrapped up in the Celtics game and the extra time it demanded. Griffin says Concordia is pretty good with flexible deadlines, even if it means handing in some assignments after the course is over.
“Sometimes you have to settle for a B,” Griffin says, laughing.
Friday, March 1
The Raptors play the Trail Blazers, and it is one of the games of the year. It features four all-star-level players performing, at various points, up to their ceilings. There are questionable calls that send both benches, not to mention the crowd, into a tizzy. There are multiple opportunities for both teams to fold, and neither does. The game is so intense that when Kawhi Leonard hits the game-winner, a baseline jumper that uses all of the rim to nudge itself through mesh, he lets out his version of a primal scream, which appears to be more of a delighted whoop.
About 10 minutes after the game is over, Griffin walks out of the Raptors’ locker room. He betrays none of that emotion.
“As a player, you’re supposed to cut it off at 11:59. As soon as midnight comes, you’ve got to start getting ready for the next opponent,” Griffin says of reacting to a big win. “For players, you have a little longer time to celebrate and enjoy. Coaches, you’ve really got to start thinking about the next game and getting your edits and clips ready for the next day. If we had practice tomorrow morning, I’d have to start getting ready for my drills, my film work. You don’t have a lot of time to celebrate.”
The defensive numbers aren’t great, with the Trail Blazers scoring 117 points on 49 percent shooting, 14 3-pointers and 23 free throws. The Raptors force an above-average 16 turnovers, but this is not their sharpest performance of the year.
Lillard, with his combination of shooting and speed, is especially dangerous in taking advantage of the Raptors’ uneven perimeter defence. However, it is McCollum, winding through screens, who torments the Raptors, hitting a career-best seven 3-pointers. Gasol makes the defensive play of the game, switching on to McCollum on the Blazers’ penultimate possession, and staying close enough to force an off-balance 3-pointer that falls short.
In a tight game in an electric arena, Griffin has to do a little bit of everything.
“It’s just to make sure our coverages are in tact in each timeout, and then communicating it almost on the fly,” Griffin says. “The timeouts get a little shorter, and there are a lot of voices, a lot of energy in the huddles. You’ve got to maintain your composure, but at the same time make sure everyone’s on the same page.”
The Raptors will not hold a practice before headed to Detroit tomorrow, which will allow Griffin to do his video work in the morning instead of tonight. The Raptors’ schedule is fairly spread out for the next little while, the product of having played the most game-packed slate earlier in the year. Still, four of the next five games are on the road. Griffin is planning to head back to the Four Seasons Hotel with Kathy.
“Me and the wife will probably get something quick to eat, talk and get a little quality time before we hit the road,” Griffin says.
Tonight, at least, Griffin can keep his laptop in his bag.