March 2, 2016

Q&A with Del Harris (Part 1)

Few coaches had more influence over the NBA’s prep-to-pro generation than Del Harris. As a young coach, Harris was an assistant on the Houston Rockets when Moses Malone joined the organization in 1976. Harris was the team’s head coach when Bill Willoughby, another prep-to-pro pioneer, played under him and when Joe Bryant joined the team in 1982-83. Harris was also the Lakers coach when Bryant’s son, Kobe, broke into the league two decades ago. The following are portions of an email from Harris concerning his thoughts on coaching Bryant and Malone early in their careers. Part 1 is on Bryant. Part 2 is on Malone. The email is lightly edited for clarity.

Harris on Bryant:

In Kobe’s case, he had exceptional individual talent for that age and had grown up in the home of an NBA player, whom I coached when Kobe was a little boy, and had played a good bit against NBA players in the Philly area while in high school and those were advantages for him.  But, unlike LeBron and Jordan, who had some college at least, Kobe came to a team that had won 48 and 53 games the previous two years and had just added Shaq simultaneously with Kobe.  LeBron and Jordan were allowed to go their own way because they came to teams with much lesser talent.  The Lakers were the youngest team to make the playoffs both his first two years and he had All Stars Eddie Jones and Cedric Ceballos playing ahead of him at the time and we had veterans Byron Scott and Jerome Kersey as well, who were very good players and had excellent seasons.

Unfortunately, for him he was injured in the summer of his rookie year and got off to a slow start as a rookie, but still made the all-rookie team as did his rookie teammate, Travis Knight, while his third rookie teammate, Derek Fisher, had a nice rookie season as well.  The Lakers won 56 games despite Shaquille O’Neal missing 32 games due to injury.  Such was the strength of the overall team combined with his injury at the start that were reasons why Kobe did not score more than 7 points per game that season.  Nonetheless, he made such progress that he started 6 games during the year and by the end of the season had earned the right to significant minutes.

To help him mature as quickly as possible, I coached the Lakers’ summer league team and had him and Fisher play just so I could connect better to Kobe and give them both more experience. Before the season we lost Scott and Kersey in free agency, a mistake in Scott’s case as he was a good mentor for Kobe, but added Rick Fox, who played ahead of Kobe because he and Jones were so formidable defensively and we needed that, since Kobe was not the defensive player at 19 that he became, particularly at the small forward spot.  To make more room for Kobe to play minutes, we moved Horry to the power forward spot, a great career move for him but one that was criticized heavily in that everyone thought he was a good small forward.  He became a great power forward matched to great centers like Shaq and Olajuwon.  So the second year Kobe’s minutes went up to 27 per game and his points from 7 to 15.  He was clearly our sixth man and although he did not start except for one game, he was integral to our winning 61 games.  Had Shaq not missed 21 games due to injury this season we would certainly have had the best record in the league that belonged to the Bulls and Jazz who tied at 62 wins.  Ironically, had Shaq not missed the 53 games in Kobe’s first two years, the Laker’s would certainly have won more than 60 games both years.

Kobe and Shaq did not start off as rivals, again another myth.  Obviously, those first two years Shaq was the natural focus of the team, even though we had All-Star players in Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel and other very good players in Horry, Fox and Elden Campbell to note a few.  Kobe only started 7 games those first two years.  I was only there for 12 games the following season in which we went 6-6 in the lockout year.  While Kobe was a starter by then, I saw little friction.