Sam Cassell Leaves Washington for LA Clippers, Will Be Missed by Wizards
The whispers first came from Ken Berger of CBS Sports in early July: Sam Cassell was being recruited by Doc Rivers after the Los Angeles Clippers lost assistant Tyronn Lue to the Cleveland Cavaliers and associate head coach Alvin Gentry to the Golden State Warriors. About 10 days later, Yahoo!’s Adrian Wojnarowski added his reporting to the fray. The move, however, was seemingly on hold while the Donald Sterling saga carried on; a judge ruled against Sterling last Tuesday.
Yesterday, Jared Zwerling of B/R reported that the official announcement of Cassell to the Clippers could be made next week. Michael Lee of the Washington Post has confirmed Cassell’s impending departure from Washington, indicating that Cassell will receive a significant pay increase from the Clippers and that Rivers, who has a relationship with Randy Wittman and played with him in Atlanta, called the Wizards organization to help convince them to allow Cassell to leave.
The Wizards already lost one assistant coach this summer. Ryan Saunders left to join his father’s staff in Minnesota. The Wizards moved quick to replace him with Kevin Durant’s high school coach, David Adkins, who had been an assistant coach for the University of Maryland women’s basketball program for the past five seasons.
Jerry Sichting left Wittman’s staff last summer after one season to become Jeff Hornacek’s lead assistant in Phoenix and was replaced in Washington by Pat Sullivan, who was promoted from scout.
Don Newman, who left the Spurs after seven seasons to become Wittman’s top assistant in 2012, and Don Zierden, who was the third assistant Flip Saunders hired in 2009 (from the WNBA), should continue to remain on Washington’s bench.
Assistant coaches change jobs, people move on, no big deal. But the loss of Cassell after five seasons will hurt the Wizards.
Although Cassell and Wittman were both officially announced as Saunders’ first two hires at the same time in 2009 (with Wittman being the top assistant), Cassell’s name was the first to surface in reports that tabbed Saunders as the replacement for Ed Tapscott (and Eddie Jordan) on Washington’s sidelines. That May, Cassell retired from the NBA after 15 seasons as a player (and after winning his third ring with Doc Rivers in Boston) and immediately joined Wittman’s staff.
In addition to being coached by Rivers and Saunders as a player, the list of other NBA head coaches Cassell played under (in suiting up for eight different franchises), includes Rudy Tomjanovich, George Karl, Cotton Fitzsimmons, Jim Cleamons, John Calipari, Don Casey, Kevin McHale, and Mike Dunleavy.
Cassell has long been the one coach on the Wizards who could truly act as an intermediary between an old school coach like Wittman and younger players who could still remember watching Cassell play growing up. His three championship rings and Baltimore flair commanded respect. That Cassell was famous for his “big balls dance“—which players now get fined for repeating—couldn’t have hurt his standing in the locker room. His big smile and ‘always got jokes’ nature helped keep the mood light, but Cassell could always counter-balance that with a sharp tongue good for trash-talking and putting youngsters (and old-timers) in their place.
“These my guards,” Cassell would say about John Wall and Bradley Beal. He would often play one-on-one games with various Wizards players after practice—part schooling, part just good basketball fun. TAI has filmed Cassell’s court escapades versus the likes of John Wall, JaVale McGee, and Nick Young.
It would be safe to say that Cassell had a profound impact on the development of both Wall and Beal, perhaps even more so with Beal, even though he’s not a point guard like Sam was. Wall’s not a point guard like Sam was, either.
Flip Saunders used to laugh, almost scoff, when asked what John Wall could take from the game of Sam Cassell. Flip before the 2011-12, lockout-shortened season (Wall’s second in the NBA):
“Sam does a good job because he has good knowledge as far as played the position. One thing that’s a little bit different is that Sam played a lot different than these guys. And sometimes you have to talk to Sam because the things he wants them to do, as far as shoot mid-range shots and those type of things, that’s not what their game is. Sam’s speed has definitely never been close to those guys. So that’s one thing we gotta watch out for a little bit. But he’s got a good knowledge of what to look for.”
Of course, Wall and Beal then became a couple of the NBA’s high-volume chuckers from the midrange, averaging 6.4 and 7.1 attempts per game respectively last season, ranked 10th and sixth-most in the league. Wall and Beal also respectively shot 36.6 and 37.1 percent from midrange—the worst two percentages amongst the top 10 in attempts. They must improve, because the utility of the midrange, particularly in relation to the fact that all shots can’t be either a 3 or a drive to the rim, isn’t going away.
Part of this is why Beal has potentially learned more from Cassell than Wall (even in two fewer seasons). For one, Beal is a more apt midrange player, even he must let other parts of his game predicate midrange opportunity and not the other way around. But the cadence, patience, and spacing that Beal showed toward the end of last season when it comes to reading ball screens and the defense seemed Cassell-esque at times. That said, Wall’s game has certainly benefitted. His sweet spot at the right elbow, an area that’s a factor of Wall’s dominant right-hand dribble and pick-and-roll maneuvering that also allows Wall to find shooters in either corner, has really improved since he entered the league. Thank Sam, among others.
Both Cassell and Ryan Saunders had been primarily responsible for working out Wall and Beal before virtually all games of their professional careers. Now the Wizards might have to find someone who can simply move around that much. Al Harrington would be in interesting choice to replace Cassell, as he has publicly expressed an interest in coaching and was one of Washington’s coaches for this year’s summer league squad. But Harrington is also preparing his body for another NBA season, and there have been rumblings that the Wizards might hold him as a free agent option but not actually sign him until later in the schedule in order to avoid putting Harrington’s body through early season wear-and-tear.
Cassell led coaching efforts, sometimes sharing the duties, in all four Las Vegas NBA Summer Leagues Washington has participated during his tenure (2011 was cancelled because of the lockout). With a Wizards team policy that does not allow assistant coaches to speak with the media (aside from a couple of exceptions, such as the benefit that Comcast has though their paid relationship with the franchise), covering summer league was always a joy because of the opportunity to speak with Cassell.
When I was covering the Wizards in Las Vegas in 2012, Cassell was asked about what coaching meant to him.
“I’m a basketball junkie. This is what I chose to do. When I retired, I didn’t have to do this, this was something I was planning on doing. After my tenth year as a player, I decided this is what I wanted to do. I have the passion for it, I love the game, and I know I can teach the game.
“The game of basketball is not all about Xs and Os. It’s about getting your guys to understand how hard you want them to play. If you get a team to play hard, that will cover up for a lot, a lot of mistakes.”
Farewell, Sam-I-Am, we shall raise a glass to you.
Cassell vs. John Wall
Sam Cassell vs. JaVale McGee
Sam Cassell vs. Nick Young