Getting to Know: Assistant Coach Jim Eyen
BY MIKE TRUDELL, LAKERS.COM
When Byron Scott played shooting guard for Pat Riley and Mike Dunleavy, one of his assistant coaches, Jim Eyen, will now serve in the same role on Scott’s new staff.
Eyen was on Riley’s staff during the 1989-90 season, and remained with the team through 1992, helping Los Angeles get to the Finals in 1991. Eyen’s been in the NBA ever since, with stints for the Bucks, Blazers, Clippers and most recently with the Kings from 2009-13 for a total resume of 24 seasons in the NBA as a coach and scout.
We sat down with Eyen the week before training camp to learn about his philosophy on coaching, his relationship with Scott, his outlook on the roster and more:
Mike Trudell: Your relationship with Byron Scott started in 1989 when you were on assistant on Pat Riley’s staff. How did that evolve to the point that he hired you as a key part of his staff in 2014?
Eyen: The three years I spent with Byron (1989-1991) started the relationship, and a lot of years have come and gone in between. But over the years, just in coaching and playing against each other from the benches, we stayed in touch, if superficially. When he got the job here we talked, initiated by me. And Byron was really open and honest up front and said that an important part of who he was going to hire was there had to be a certain comfort level, which you can understand. The more that we talked and re-familiarized ourselves with each other, I think there was a certain comfort level that was achieved in our conversations. And I think that the root of our basketball philosophies are very similar, and maybe it has a lot to do with where we came from 20 years ago over that time. We started talking basketball, and a lot of what each other said was similar. Some with just different terminology, but some of which was rooted in the same philosophy.
MT: How would you describe the basketball philosophy that you think that you share with Byron?
Eyen: I think that in basketball it is difficult to pinpoint specifically as to what makes a team successful. However, I think that probably the similar philosophies that we engaged in had to do with the defensive side of the ball and how your offense can affect your defense and vice versa. It’s hard to pick one versus the other, but certainly there was an old school approach that I think we found ourselves thinking very similarly.
MT: The head coach and the general manager can dictate how a staff operates in different ways, with some having assistants focus on specific things and others having a more macro approach. Do you have an idea of how Coach Scott wants things to run?
Eyen: I think every staff is different and every head coach likes a particular mode, but basketball’s a little different from other sports. It’s not football where you have coordinators and you have a specific, sole responsibility. Basketball’s a little bit integrated, and I think the feeling that I get from Byron is that he would like us to be well rounded, well versed, see the entire game and certainly contribute in any area we want to – but have a particular focus as to maybe where we’re coming from in that point of view. I, over the years, have been at it a long time, and when you’re in something a long time you usually do a little bit of everything. So I have done a little bit of everything. But probably one of my strengths would be game preparation, which then leads you down the road of defense, though there’s still an offensive part to that game preparation as well. That’s probably where my focus will be.
MT: Game preparation typically involves working with the advanced scout and tracking the last several games an opponent plays and then preparing a game plan. How would you describe the process?
Eyen: Game preparation consists of the advanced scout, who’s out on the road watching the game, and your video coordinator, who is taping the game, which then we break down and would be able to watch as a staff, watch individually and watch as a team. Then you take that information and formulate your specific game plan for that specific game. It’s important that there’s a fine line between losing sight of who you are and what you like to do versus the team you’re about to play. So you try to incorporate both attacks to not change specifically what you do, but tweak it for the team you’re about to play. And as the game comes, they come so quickly in the league, that usually the schedule dictates how much you prepare for a particular team. If you have a couple of days off prior, you may incorporate that game preparation into your practices. You play a back-to-back game, there’s more conversation than actual practice time in the preparations. It goes with the schedule.
MT: Right, if you’re playing against the Spurs – a team that’s been running the same stuff for a couple of years now – it’s one thing. Sometimes you have the schedules where you’re back-to-back at Denver the next night and you know just getting their bodies prepared is one thing, let alone getting through pick and roll coverages…
Eyen: You create certain priorities for that particular game. Sometimes the rest may outweigh your preparation or practice time on the floor, and you have to make those decisions. As we get into training camp and as we prepare for the season, we will have a generic way that we play every action on the floor: pick and rolls, low post, pin downs, back screens. There will always be a generic way that, if that comes up in the course of a game, our guys know how to play something. But when you play particular teams (and) when you play a particular player, they’re so talented in this league that you have to be able to tweak coverages a little differently game-to-game.
MT: On this roster right now there isn’t that true, classic rim protector, even though there aren’t that many of these guys now in the league. You have your defensive philosophy coming in. Do you have to tweak it based on the personnel?
Eyen: That’s a great point. You have to adjust to the roster you have. And I’m glad that you brought up big men, because to be a very good defensive team, it’s common to speak of your guards. It’s common to speak of (starting) with pressure on the ball. And all that’s very true, but one (significant) area at times are your bigs, and they don’t have to be the rim protector (in a classic sense). That always helps, of course, but the bigs – the forwards, the center – are so important in your defense and they’re underestimated. And what they bring to you is a catcher in baseball’s point of view, where they see the whole floor. They’re the backside. They need to be vocal. They need to be auxiliary in every action that happens. And if you can have good ball pressure and you can have bigs that are engaged – that are calling out coverages, that are there to help and be the not-so-much rim protector at times, but paint protector – you’re going to be a good defensive team. You’re going to be solid.
MT: There were plenty of breakdowns last season defensively, whether due to injury, or a lack of helping the helper and so on. Basically, guys weren’t playing on a string together on defense. So how do you come in with a bunch of new guys that haven’t played together and try to get them into a system against some of these teams that have the benefit of the same coaching staff and similar teammates for years?
Eyen: Basketball is thought of as such an individual game, and particularly at this level sometimes it is. But sometimes it is to a fault, and along the lines of what you’re asking, you’ve got to create the mentality that: “I don’t have a man. I’m a defender. I’m one of five defenders that need to defend our half of the court.”
And you speak of helping the helper. That’s great terminology, and we use that often because that’s what it really comes down to: being on a string and not worrying about your man. The focus needs to be the ball because the ball is the thing attacking you.
MT: Is there anything that specifically about defensive philosophies that you agree with Coach Scott about trying to implement from day one?
Eyen: It’s the “team-ness” of your defense. It’s not the individual stoppers. It’s incorporating a mentality of “five against the ball.” And so probably some of the conversation we had is: How can you influence the offense? At this level, you’re not going to stop the offense. You’re going to influence them into doing things that you want them to do, as opposed to letting them do what they want to do.
And it’s a percentage game. Every night you can look, and over the course of 100 game a season, each team ends up with 80, 95 shots a game. Your job is not to stop one person from scoring 20. Your job is to have the opponent shoot the least percentage you can, and I emphasize “opponent.” It doesn’t matter who’s taking the shots. If you walk out of that gym and you forced that team to shoot 41, 42 percent, you got a good chance of winning.
MT: And you’d rather have the opponent shoot long 2’s than corner 3’s and layups, obviously.
Eyen: That’s the percentages of the game: where those shots come from. The corner 3’s are a very good-percentage shot. You take those away. You run people off open looks. You contest shots. You do all those little things that don’t take tremendous strategy. It takes will. It takes focus. It takes energy. And if you’re able to contest shots and influence the offense, then over the course of time, the percentages will probably end up in your favor.
MT: I know that this is what training camp is for, but do you go in thinking, “OK, we’re always going to do X on side pick and rolls. We’re going to down them, or we’re going to blitz them.” Have you already had those conversations about what is going to be the best way to play the coverages?
Eyen: We’re still discussing our generic way that we’re going to do things. But those are all part of it: pushing pick and rolls, influencing baselines and sidelines, not allowing the ball to get swung side-to-side easily, which can break you down. Those types of philosophical points of view are what we’re going to try to relay to our team. And at the end of training camp we’ll have a pretty good idea of how we’re going to play each and every game with the exception of certain teams and certain individuals.
MT: What stands out to you about the personnel right now? When you look at the roster, what jumps out at you?
Eyen: That it’s versatile. That I don’t think there’s any roster in the league that doesn’t have some holes in some ways. And so as a front office, you’re always trying to fill those gaps. But you either walk into the picture with the point of view that the glass is half-full or half-empty. I like to be half-full, and I look at the roster as versatile. I look at it as tremendously experienced in some positions, very young in others. I think you look at our roster; you can play big at times, you can play small, you can play fast, you can play deliberate – all of which, at certain times in the season, will benefit you. I think that we have players – young, talented players and experienced players – that if the game is close, they can impact the game in our favor, one guy in particular. Our job is to keep the game close when we are struggling. When we’re not struggling, I think there’s a certain flow to the game that you just let go. There’ll be times over the course of the season that we’ll need to be a little more hands-on in our defensive approach (and) our offensive approach. But we have guys that can certainly make a difference at the end of the game.
MT: Obviously the roster starts with Kobe Bryant. From various accounts, he looks very good right now. At the same time, he’s getting into his 19th year in the NBA. How do you look at Kobe coming into this season?
Eyen: He’s been a nemesis of mine for a long time from a coaching standpoint, and I’m glad we’re finally on the same side. (Scouting reports on Bryant) were always such a challenge. I just look at somebody who really enjoys a challenge, and this is going to be another one for him. I believe he’s such a student of the game that he’s able to adjust his game to whatever point in his career he’s at. He’s able to adjust to whatever opponent he is playing, to whatever teammates are playing with him. So there’s a certain element of “game within the game” with him, which is one of the reasons he’s as good as he is. And he embraces that.
MT: How did you first fall in love with the game? How would you say that passion led you into the NBA to the place where you are now?
Eyen: I coached for 10 years prior to the NBA at the high school, junior college and four-year, Division I level, and then entered the league with the Clippers back in 1988. So from that point, it almost took a life of its own in terms of challenges. You’re working with and playing against the most talented players in the world, and it’s a very engaging proposition to have to challenge yourself to, on a daily basis, try to push yourself to ultimately be the best you can be as a coach, as a strategist (and) as a creative thinker in trying to get things done to be successful. So that has a juice all of its own, and that’s created a lot of the passion, just the challenge itself.
MT: So many people around the world love the game. So many people want to be a part of the NBA. How did your first chance come about?
Eyen: I was at Santa Barbara as a coach. Jerry Pimm was the head coach, and he was friends with Don Casey, who was an assistant with the Clippers. I met Don through Jerry Pimm, and ended up doing a big man camp with Casey, and we became friends over the next few years. When he got the head coaching job with the Clippers, he asked me to join him. So then I went from the Clippers, and Pat Riley hired me with the Lakers. So that’s how that transitioned. But I’d been coaching for 10 years prior to that.
MT: As for any coach at this level, it’s such a fickle business in terms of job security. How have you managed that lifestyle?
Eyen: It’s a nomad lifestyle and I’ve been fortunate. My family is instrumental in helping me stay grounded, and it’s not always been easy for them. My wife, she’s extremely bright, extremely practical. But the fact that she married me may put that in question. My kids are 21 and 19. My son is over here at Pitzer College, plays basketball for Pomona-Pitzer, a Division III school that Coach (Charles) Katsiaficas, or Coach Kat, does a terrific job there; one of the best Division III programs in the country. So he enjoys that. And then my daughter’s (in) her second year at Santa Clara, and she’s the artist of the family and works on the school newspaper as a graphic artist editor. … My wife went to Stanford, so she can talk Trees to Mark Madsen. So there are very strong loyalties there all-around. But again, back to your question, it’s not always an easy lifestyle, but a support group helps and they have certainly helped me. And it’s not always easy on them, and they have found a positive in the movement as well. Although it’s not always positive, they have found a positive in the whole lifestyle as well.
MT: As I mentioned earlier, you were here for a couple of years with Pat Riley and Dunleavy; how do you view the Lakers organization compared to all of the other places that you’ve been?
Eyen: It’s a class organization that’s got terrific history. Dr. (Jerry) Buss was an unbelievable owner that I had a lot of respect for, and he treated me very well. And so that part of it I’m a little partial to, in terms of what it means to the league and what it means to people that have once been here before.
MT: Every coach is always going to try his best at every place, but can you see Byron feel this a little differently, just being back home where he did his work, where he grew up and having that chance to bring the franchise out of a couple tough seasons?
Eyen: I hate to speak for him, but I would think so. I certainly have that feeling. There are high standards here. There’s no question. But that’s not to say there aren’t high standards at every other organization in the league. But particularly Byron, who grew up here and has played here and now he’s coached here, that has to feel very good and bring a certain fulfillment, but also brings a certain responsibility, which I’m sure he does feel.
MT: If there’s one thing you want to focus on more than anything else to bring to Byron’s staff and the players, what is the thing that you think about first?
Eyen: Experience. Having been through a lot of different situations, having coached at all the different levels; nowadays it’s almost a benefit to have coached in college and the younger players because we have younger players.
And I’ve been around long enough that I’ve been on really good teams and I’ve been on struggling teams. So I’ve seen the whole process and what it takes to get somewhere, and hopefully I can provide that experience and that point of view.