January 30, 2012

Steve Solloway: Portland Expo's been the lab for Claws' chemistry experiment

PORTLAND - Dave Leitao hesitated before telling players to switch positions late in Wednesday's practice. Had he forgotten their names?

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Dave Leitao, first-year coach of the Red Claws, said it’s been a challenge to lead a team with such a high turnover rate. He’s used 21 players in 24 games.

2011 Press Herald File

The Maine Red Claws have used 21 players in 24 games this season. It would be understandable if the first-year head coach blanked momentarily on a name or two.

"No," said Leitao, correcting a mistaken observation. "The names are easy to remember. It's harder to keep the personalities straight."

The coach knows the names of team president Jon Jennings' most recent acquisitions. Hello, Lawrence Hill. What's up, Xavier Silas. How's it going, Jerome Randle. Hey, Mo Almond. What Leitao is still learning is how and when to push their emotional hot buttons.

How to bring consistency to a game that emphasizes creativity and aggressiveness while the moving parts are always changing. The Red Claws hit the season's midpoint Friday night with an 8-16 record, which isn't good for business. Thousands of fans still heat up the Portland Expo when the Red Claws are in town but the emotional investment increases when they can spot familiar faces on the court.

Which is probably why Almond heard loud cheers last week when he pulled on a Red Claws uniform for the second time in three seasons. The loyalists haven't forgotten his scoring presence in the lineup in 2010. He threw in 40 points one night.

Big man Anthony Kent and forward Justin Brownlee are the only two to play in all 24 games. Kenny Hayes played in Portland last year, returned for this season and left for a stint in the Cleveland Cavaliers' training camp before coming back to the Expo. The three are all that remain from the Red Claws' preseason camp.

"You've got to build team chemistry," said Brownlee. "You've got to figure out how you're going to play with the guys around you. We're doing that. It's coming together."

Through three decades of coaching basketball at the Division I level, Leitao mostly started and ended the season with the same group of players. He knew about turnover in the NBA Development League, but to this extreme, with half the season remaining?

Players are beckoned to the NBA. Goodbye, Chris Wright. Or want to leave for Europe and a salary that can be tripled. Good luck, J.R. Reynolds. Or their skill set isn't what the team needs. Nice knowing you, Adam Tisdale and Tyc Snow.

"It's a challenge, but you've got to manage," said Leitao. "Winning teams have outstanding chemistry and you work toward that."

This week the Red Claws had three straight days of practice between games. Which is one reason Leitao allowed himself to smile Wednesday. For two hours or so he could coach. After looking through several of the NBA's massive playbooks before running his first D-League practice, the coach decided to close them and keep things simple.

During a short 50-game season, his players don't have enough time to absorb and retain hundreds of plays. In college, Leitao had so much more control making sure players were in class, eating right and getting enough sleep. Not to mention that without a shot clock he could stand on the sideline and dictate the game's tempo by calling plays.

"The shot clock takes a lot of the coaching out of the game," he said. "Once your team brings the ball up the court, goes through a rotation or two, it has maybe 13 seconds to really get after the business of scoring.

"This league is more about the concept of scoring. Your players have to make the decisions based on how you've coached them."

With shorter schedules and player turnover there is less time to coach the complexities of defenses to contain talented shooters.

"That's why this is a scoring league. Here, we learn defense on a string. It's more I trust you, you trust me."

So much to do, so little time and in the Red Claws' situation, so many new faces to get on the same page. But isn't that the nature of the sport when players in their offseasons would head to the gym and playground looking for a pickup game? No coaches, certainly. No set lineups, either.

Leitao shook his head. He's 51 and from urban New Bedford, Mass. He remembers the playground culture and that's mostly gone. Players spend more of their offseasons working with personal trainers or one-on-one to practice specific game skills.

"It used to be, while you were waiting for your time to play, you'd watch the game that was being played and picked out the guy playing your position. You learned a lot of basketball that way."

Leitao's job this year is to teach. Even as he keeps seeing new students.

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

ssolloway@pressherald.com

Twitter: SteveSolloway

 

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