Coaches Corner: Mike Fratello
In his USA Basketball coaching debut as head coach of the USA Men’s National Team that competed in the February 2020 FIBA AmeriCup qualifying games, Mike Fratello led his team to two wins against Puerto Rico.
Fratello, who currently is an analyst for NBA TV and for nationally televised games on TNT, served as an NBA head coach for 17 seasons, including stints with the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Memphis Grizzlies.
Boasting of an NBA career regular-season record of 667-548 for a .549 winning percentage, he led teams to the NBA playoffs in 11 of his 15 full seasons as a head coach. He ranks 20th in all-time NBA regular season wins (667) and 21st in games coached (1,215).
USA Basketball spoke with Fratello to get his insight and perspective on coaching.
In your experience, what things do you try to accomplish in the first part of the season?
Oftentimes, when you begin a season, and I'm talking about playing games, you haven't really had the time to get everything the way you would like to have it. Therefore, in practices leading up to the beginning of your regular-season games, you have to get your core stuff in, both offensively and defensively. That is your bread and butter stuff and will carry you throughout the season. It’s the things that you want to be the best at, good at and the things you have to have to be able to play against your opponents. As you look at your schedule, you see who's coming up who you have in game 10, who you have in game 15, and you have other stuff you want to add in the beginning of the regular season that you weren't able to get it during your training camp practices. By game 15, you're going to have to have it in order to deal with a certain style that a team might play, and that's different for everyone else. Therefore, you still have those first 12, 13, 14 games to get more in, and the practices in between those games leading up to game 15, and then there's always the fact that as you go on later in the season as opposed to early in the season, you may add something here or there that you didn't have in the beginning, but you've been holding it back. You've been waiting to put it in. You may make adjustments to what you put into the beginning, because you go into training camp with a certain idea in mind, and then you realize after three weeks of practice, or four weeks of practice, what I thought it was going to be like, I’m not liking it as much right now. So, maybe I'll make some adjustments to it as we go along.
That's where your good coaches can see what they have and see what they thought it was supposed to be like. Then you take the wrench, and you do a little tightening here and some substitution there and you come up with something that's a little bit different than what you had going into it.
It's so important that you get your basics in the beginning, meaning your basic defenses, how you are going to play pick-and-roles, what your transition defense is like, if you will play zone, are you going to have a zone defense along with your man-to-man defense? At the offensive end, you have to have your post play, your pick-and-roll, your transition, your zone offenses, all of those things. But, you still will add to them eventually as you move forward.
What is the most important lesson you've learned in your coaching career?
I'm not sure that you could say there's one lesson, because there's always lessons to be learned. No matter how long you’re in it, you're still learning lessons later on. But I know having really good players is much better than having mediocre or poor players. Good players help you win more games. I've always felt that surrounding yourself with the right people as your assistant coaches is instrumental to success. They have to have all the things, the qualities, that you want in a person, the ability to teach, the work ethic, the ability to communicate with the players. I've always felt that the success that we've had along the way was due to the people that I hired. I think that indication to me that I may have picked the right people is how many of them went on to become head coaches after they left our program, which made me very happy and proud of them, because it told me that I chose people that understood basketball, were good teachers, good communicators, had great work ethic and helped mold the team and get teams to win. Therefore, they were given opportunity and became head coaches. I think that you cannot underestimate the importance of hiring the correct staff.
Is there an overarching principle or emphasis that you try and instill within all of your teams?
Playing hard is probably one of the biggest things to me with all the teams that I've been fortunate enough to coach. Each night I expect them, and I would expect that they expect their teammates, to come and play hard every night. We owe that to our organization. We owe it to our owners. We owe it to the fans that follow us. We give them a max performance every night. You're not going to win every game, but you can try the best you can and try the hardest that you can every night. There's no reason why you can't do that. And, as a result, if you are playing the hardest you can every night, you're going win your share of games.
Then, I ask them to play as teammates. I think it's important that we understand their roles respectively, how they fit into our team, understand what our team is about and have a willingness to do what they can do to help our team win. I probably have placed more emphasis over the years at the defensive end of the floor than I have at the offensive end of the floor, but that's just how I was brought up and taught. I believe it that's how you win games and championships - being a great defensive team first.
Selecting your talent is so important when you're putting a team together, and that's when you have to have the help of your front office people, the GM, the presidents, assistant coaches, your scouts. When you all have input, that is when you up selecting the right kind of guys to go along with each other.
Is there an important characteristic you work to develop in your athletes?
Athleticism, speed and quickness wind up being a very important part in our league. I'm talking about pro basketball. Then you look at different guys for different things. When putting a team together, you have to find guys who make shots. You have to find guys who can handle the ball and push it to accelerate on the pass break and can make the right decision and the right pass. You have the people that can rebound the ball. You have to have people that are willing to stick their nose in and play defense. So, when you look at a player, you'd like to have all of it in one player, and if you do, then he's probably a star. He's probably a big-time star. But, in putting teams together, sometimes you have to add the pieces. You look for that guy who can really shoot, and then we can run a lot of good stuff offensively. That guy is what we need to catch and shoot the basketball and make shots for us. Today's game, making 3-point shots becomes so important, because the game has changed so much in the last few years. The number of 3s that people are taking add up.
And, I look for toughness. I love toughness. I love people that play unselfishly and love people that have great work ethic. And then the skill parts of it, the shooting, dribbling handling, rebounding, that comes after the being unselfish and having a strong work ethic.