Coaches Corner: Curt Miller
Curt Miller serves on the 2017-21 USA Basketball Women’s National Team Player Selection Committee, which selects coaches and athletes for U.S. women’s teams at the 2018 FIBA World Cup and Tokyo Olympic Games, among other competitions.
The Associated Press 2017 WNBA Coach and Executive of the Year, Miller has been the head coach with the Connecticut Sun since 2016, where he owns an 89-69 record. And since 2017, he also has served as the Sun’s general manager.
The Sun reached the WNBA Finals in 2019 and the semifinals in 2020 during the WNBA’s “bubble” season.
Miller spent 24 years as a college coach, including 13 seasons as an NCAA head coach, and he earned six Mid-American Conference Coach of the Year honors while he was the head coach at Bowling Green State University. He also served as an assistant coach at Cleveland State University, at Syracuse University and Colorado State University. After making the jump to Bowling Green, Miller was a head coach at Indiana University and then was an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Sparks in 2015.
USA Basketball spoke with Miller to get his insight and perspective on coaching.
How has your approach changed for 2021?
I think the message since I joined the league, mentored by Brian Agler when I joined the league in 2015, is the WNBA is a league where you have to be flexible, it's a league in which you have to be willing to pivot and it's a league that has some challenges. Every year poses different challenges, from simple things like that we fly commercial, and our league is from coast to coast. So travel plays a part, and being able to be flexible in seasons when you have travel difficulties is a part. Last year was the pandemic. And certainly, we aren't through the pandemic, and we have some hurdles and obstacles and opportunities to learn from what we did well last year and grow from that, because I believe COVID will still play a factor in this season. We are learning from other professional leagues and learning that we at times have to pivot. So, ultimately, the story continues. You have to roll with some punches and plan the best you can, control what you can control, and when you can't, then you have to be able to pivot and make do with the situation you're dealing with.
The bubble season was a season that forever we'll talk about, and looking back, I was proud to be a part. So many things happened not only on the court, but off the court in terms of social justice. I was proud of our players and proud of the league, and how we stayed in such a healthy environment with great protocols and procedures to handle the COVID pandemic. But, it would be really nice to never have to talk about a bubble season again.
In your experience as a coach, what aspect do you find most challenging?
It’s interesting. Since I became a head coach in 2001 at the collegiate level and spent a large part of my career at the collegiate level, now to the pro level, every year is different, every year creates different hurdles, obstacles and challenges. For me at this level, the biggest challenge is the dual hat role that I take on with the Connecticut Sun, not only as the head coach but also the general manager. That dynamic is challenging. There are five of us out of the 12 WNBA coaches that wear a dual hat in the league and the challenges that that creates. Obviously, I have GM responsibilities daily, that at times take away from my head coaching role, and vice versa. There are times where I have to put on hold some GM work and GM responsibilities, because I'm in the middle of coaching. So, the dual hat is definitely challenging. Anytime you're negotiating money with the players, you could have a great player-coach relationship, and now you're negotiating contracts, and dealing with agents and dealing with players in terms of money, it is always a challenge to not let that affect your coach-player relationship that you worked so hard to cultivate. It's a challenge to wear that dual hat.
Is there an offensive principle that you really think is most important?
For me, I believe that spacing is offense and offense is spacing. As a person who has been known as an offensive coach throughout my career as a head coach, I work really hard to create spacing for the players and then give them freedom to make plays within that spacing. I work really hard to create that spacing for these talented players. That is an overall general principle that I think is really important. I'm known as a pick-and-roll coach, and pick-and-roll and being a ball-screen coach has been a big part of my career since becoming a head coach in 2001. My reputation has very much been around the offensive side of the ball and being a ball-screen coach.
Is there something that you find yourself every year emphasizing?
Ironically, I think it is tied together in that with offense you're trying to create spacing and provide an opportunity for your players – the best situation to make plays. On the defensive end, you're trying to shrink the floor, and I'm trying to take away that spacing from our opponents. I'm a really big believer in help defense and a team approach, and at this pro level with so many talented players, how can we shrink the floor? How can we show as much congestion to these incredible players as we can? So, while the offensive end is all about spacing, at the defensive end I'm trying to shrink the floor and trying to take away that spacing. These pros are just fantastic when they get space on offense.