Stan Van Gundy Discusses The Start Of The NBA Season And How He’d Approach Defending James Harden

Stan Van Gundy has experienced the game of basketball in a number of ways over the last decade-plus. He’s been an assistant coach, a head coach for teams with title aspirations, a head coach for squads that are fighting to just make the postseason, and for a few years, an executive in charge of making personnel decisions for his team.

While he’s not on the sidelines for any team right now, Van Gundy is still staying around the game as an analyst for Turner, a role he has taken on after spending last season with ESPN. It’s a gig that lets him touch on some things he’s used to as a longtime coach, like breaking down film and drawing conclusions based on what we see on the court, while allowing him the opportunity to showcase the quick wit that was always on display when he’d get peppered with questions by the media.

Dime recently caught up with Van Gundy over the phone to get his read on where things stand in the league up to this point in the year, along with how he thinks teams should try to guard James Harden with the hopes of keeping the Houston Rockets star from putting up monster numbers.

What game or games, now that were 10 to 15 or so into the season, is the first mile-marker for when teams are comfortable drawing big conclusions that then inform big decisions that it makes at some point in the year?

Well, it probably varies a little bit in each situation, because sometimes, injuries can delay you getting a read on your team. Schedule also — you may have played a weaker schedule or a schedule where a lot of people were hurt against you. So I think it varies, but I generally think the 20-game mark, about when you’re a quarter of the way into a season, that you probably start to get an idea of who all these teams really are because the schedules have probably balanced out enough and you have a good idea.

Now, you have to get beyond the record, though. You have to … because I remember last year, with Utah, they started with a really, really difficult schedule. So you really do have to get beyond the record and look at how teams are playing and what they’re doing well and not doing well and who they’ve played or haven’t played. But when we get a quarter of the way in, which is coming here fairly soon — in the next few weeks, next three weeks, let’s say — we’ll have an idea, I think, of who teams are.

As you look around, what are the teams that you think should start gearing up to make some big decisions so they can shape the course of what this season should be?

Yeah, again, I think it’s a little early because if you look at what’s happened early, we had teams like Sacramento and Orlando get off to bad starts — teams that were expected to be playoff teams — and so everybody started writing “what do these teams need to do?” And now they’re both playing really well.

So we’re a little early still, I think, to to make those decisions. I think the one to me that is probably pretty well set in stone that we’re sort of all looking at is Oklahoma City. They’re playing okay. They’re being very competitive against good teams. They’re pretty good. I think if Chris Paul and [Danilo] Gallinari stay healthy, they could compete for the last couple of spots in the playoffs in the West. But do they want to do that, or do they want to take those two guys and move them, which I assume is what people think they want to do.

And then the question becomes, who are the teams who want to make enough of a play for this year — and in Chris Paul’s case, even beyond that, more long-term? So they’re about the only one, I think, have an idea of what they want to do long-term. But everybody else I would guess is still sorting it out, but I think in the next few weeks that’ll start to sort out. And December 15 sort of becomes a big date, anyway, because by then you have an idea of who your team is and now virtually everybody in the league is able to be moved, so that becomes the date.

Right now, all those guys who signed this summer can’t be moved and you don’t know who your team is. So it’s going to take more time before we get to that point, and I don’t know who should do things. I think right now the obvious target is Portland. “Now, they need to do something, they’re off to a terrible start.” Well again, let’s wait and see. Let’s go another two weeks and see where they are and then we’ll have a better idea.

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This is a very broad question, so you can take it however you want. But what is the one thing from these first 10, 15 games that has interested you the most? It could be a player, a team, a general trend, whatever you want to say.

Well, what’s interested me, I look at the game a little bit differently. If you’re just asking me personally what’s interested me from a coaching standpoint is I think defenses are playing a little bit differently this year. I think the offense has sort of got the upper hand in the last year or two, particularly last year, and we had seen basically pretty straight-up defense, a lot more switching is what we had seen and a lot of five men playing in drops. I think the two main things in terms of pick-and-rolls, especially.

And now this year, what I’m seeing is, for teams in their basic man to man defense, I’ve seen a lot more blitzing than I saw a year ago. I’m seeing more aggressive pick-and-roll defense in that regard. We’re seeing more zone, particularly in the last couple of weeks here and with Toronto in particular, but with some other teams also. We’re seeing some combination defenses. Toronto, on their road trip, threw out there a lot of triangle-and-two, box-and-one, things like this.

So, I’ve seen teams mix up their defenses more than what I have seen. It’s now not just one team. I’ve seen Miami play zone. I’ve seen Charlotte play zone. Heck, I’ve seen the majority of teams play at least a little bit of something in terms of zone or combination defense and certainly more aggressive pick-and-roll defense. So that, to me, is from a coaching standpoint the most interesting thing.

You did a video about a week ago about guarding James Harden, and I wanted to ask you a few things about that. First off, how much do you enjoy doing the roll-your-sleeves-up-and-dive-into-film sort of thing in your role with Turner?

Yeah, I liked that and analyzing questions like that, but also sort of looking at teams and why they’re doing well. What is it that they’re doing that is making them successful or why are they struggling, and being able to break that down and show it on film. I guess as a coach, that’s sort of what you’re used to, looking at film and breaking it down, and so I enjoy it. Obviously, on TV, we can’t get into the depth you do as a coach, but I still enjoy that type of work immensely.

So what is it about Harden that makes him so difficult to guard?

Well, a couple of things. Number one is his endurance and their determination to ride him every possession, possession after possession after possession, night after night after night. He plays every night, he plays huge minutes, and they put the ball in his hands on every possession. It becomes the whole game, I think, is how you’re going to guard him. And then what makes it difficult is he can do everything — he can shoot the three, he can get to the rim, he can draw fouls better than anybody we’ve ever seen in the history of the game. And then if you come and help, the guy is an outstanding passer.

So it really does become that you can’t take everything away from him. You just can’t. He’s going to be productive offensively, and so what you have to decide as a team is, what is it we’re going to try to limit? And a lot of that question is what do you think you can take away from him because you can’t, I don’t think, be successful if you’re just giving him everything.

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You said something in the video that I thought was really interesting and you just touched on it a second ago. You said priority number one has to be not letting him get to the free throw line. You mentioned how good he is at getting to the line. How do you successfully guard someone who — and I don’t mean this as a negative — seeks out contact with the goal of shooting free throws?

Yeah, no question. Look, I think a lot of it is really understanding who he is and how he draws fouls. And so for instance, when he uses his step back to create space, you can’t then come at him. You can’t jump at him trying to take away space and contest the shot. You’re going to end up in his landing area, and you’re going to foul, so you have to understand that. And if you want to get a contest, we showed one on the film, you’re going to have to contest and get to the side of him so you’re not coming down in his landing area.

On the drives, your hands have to be out and up. I think San Antonio a couple of years ago did an outstanding job of really understanding how he plays, the last time they played in the playoffs, of really locking in and getting your hands out and up. Because even if your hands are out to the side, he’s going to seek out and get up through your arms. He’s going to find a way to get contact.

So you have to understand how it is he draws fouls and you have to stay away from that. Because to me, again, it’s easy points, it puts your frontline guys on the bench because of foul trouble, and it also provides him not only the easy points, but a chance to rest. He’s carrying a heavy offensive load, and when he gets to go to the line to get his points, he gets a little bit of a rest. You want to keep the game moving on him and take that away.

But it’s not easy, and I don’t think you’re going to get him at zero. The way he’s going now, if you could ever get him down to six free throws, eight free throws, something like that, I think you would make a big impact.

My last question: Are you someone who made a championship pick from the East, from the West for the end of the season?

I don’t really. If forced into, it I will, but I don’t put much stock in my predictions or anyone else’s. I think it’s a little easier to talk about who we think can contend, but until you see teams start to play and we hit that 20-game mark and really get to know people, I think even that’s hard. I think it’s pretty clear that the Lakers and the Clippers are both going to contend just based on their personnel. I think Milwaukee’s got enough of a track record behind them that we know they’re going to contend, and the same with Philadelphia in the East. But beyond that, is Denver going to be a true contender now? I think they are. Utah? Houston? Is there anybody else in the West that may come up as a contender in the East?

I think Boston, Toronto, and Miami are all right now early looking like maybe those teams can contend, and Indiana, when they get Oladipo back, based on what they’ve done without him, could they contend then? I’m still not sure … look, if I had to make a pick, I’d pick Milwaukee in the East, and I would take the Lakers in the West, but before the season, I would’ve taken the Clippers. But I’m not a great prediction guy. I think I’m a little better at looking at things in sort of being able to analyze why things go well or don’t go well. But as a predictor, I’m probably not the guy you want to talk to, anyway.