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The Anthony Davis Architect: Can Phil Weber Maximize The Brow?

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Old 08-11-2015, 02:30 PM   #1
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The Anthony Davis Architect: Can Phil Weber Maximize The Brow?

"He's already one of the best. The big thing now isn't whether he's one of the best players in the NBA. Can he be one of the best players who win a championship?"

Current Marshall head coach and former New York Knicks and Phoenix Suns assistant Dan D'Antoni obviously has high hopes for Anthony Davis' continued growth under one of his former coaching colleagues, as he explained to Bleacher Report. And based on the history of Davis' new assistant coach Phil Weber, he should.

After years of tutelage under Monty Williams, the young big man now gets to play for an entirely new staff, one filled out with a few of D'Antoni's former co-workers. Alvin Gentry, another assistant from their Phoenix days under Mike D'Antoni, is the head coach, and Weber will join him on the bench.

Some people just always happen to be in the right place at the right time.

Robert Horry always managed to find his way onto rosters capable of winning titles, and his knack for impeccable timing carried over to in-game situations. Weber has similarly managed to stay on the cutting edge of NBA offenses as both an assistant coach and offensive consultant. It's no coincidence, either.

Ever since he joined the ranks of assistant coaches in 1999, Weber has honed his craft, proving himself an ace at player development, a man who can help expand the games of wing players and offensively limited big men through subtle tweaks and countless hours. Now, after building up his resume with plenty of other squads, he heads into the 2015-16 campaign as a member of the New Orleans Pelicans' staff, ready to maximize Davis' immense talent.

But in order to fully understand what Weber can do with the 22-year-old big man under his supervision, we first have to leave the bayou behind. Hop in the time machine with us, because we're diving back into the history of an assistant coach who, though he's always flown under the radar, has consistently remained one step ahead of offensive trends in the NBA.

Building in the Desert (2000-2008)

Though Weber received his first chance at NBA success when he was hired by the Phoenix Suns as an assistant coach for the 1999-00 season, that wasn't his first foray into the world of highly competitive basketball.

First, he played out his collegiate career at North Carolina State—initially under Norm Sloan and then with the legendary Jim Valvano pacing the sidelines. Though he didn't spend much time on the court, making only 17 appearances before graduating in 1984 and never spending a single minute on the floor (due to a redshirt) during the '83 run to an NCAA championship, he still had a chance to sharpen his basketball knowledge rather significantly.

As least as a player, professional basketball wasn't in Weber's future.

He'd hop on board with Florida as an assistant coach, serving under Sloan, who originally recruited him to the Wolfpack. From there, he'd serve as part of the staff for Iona and Chaminade before landing his big break with the Suns.

But the results in the desert weren't immediate.

As talented as Weber's offensive mind might be, he couldn't save the Suns' scoring ability during the 1999-00 campaign. Not when the roster was set up to be one of the best defenses in the Association and coached by Scott Skiles for the majority of the season. In fact, it wasn't until Mike D'Antoni spent a full season as the Phoenix head coach (2004-05) that the offense truly broke through and became the historic, run-and-gun unit that will stand the test of time.

But even with D'Antoni running the show and Steve Nash racking up MVP votes as the star point guard who sparked that "seven seconds or less" offense, Weber deserves plenty of credit. Danny Ainge originally hired him to work in player development, and he continued on in that role once he became an assistant, bringing his impressive workout regimens, unflappable positive attitude and constant pithy observations to the bench.

Before he landed in the desert, the man who would soon become "Drill Phil" to the rest of the Phoenix coaching staff, per Sports Illustrated's Jack McCallum in a 2005 profile of the team, worked at UCLA's training facilities, where he'd put draft prospects through intense and targeted workouts. As Herb Williams, who shared the bench with him years later as an assistant coach with the New York Knicks, told Bleacher Report, Weber always had the tools necessary to thrive in this capacity.

"His knowledge of the game. He not only played in college but coached and then used to work players out for a couple of different agents, just seeing what they needed to improve on and being able to work with them on the different things they needed to improve on," Williams said. "It's the way he builds up. You don't try to do everything at one time. He'd take it step by step by step by step to make sure the players improve."

Once with the Suns, Weber coached up plenty of key contributors, usually focusing on the wing players who composed a substantial portion of the roster.

In an NBA.com profile, he explained just how important the oft-overlooked concept of internal development could be:
I'd put our staff against any in the League on many levels, one of which is player development. Whenever you have young players, there’s a lot of work to be done, not only for guys to know the whole team concept, but on working with individual players on their fundamentals.

One of my favorite words in the English language is synergy. You add all those individual pieces, all those skill sets. As the skill sets improve, then you mesh that, all those moving parts into the way we want to play. It's exciting to see where we’re going to be.

Shawn Marion's offensive game improved greatly under Weber's watchful gaze, but perhaps the biggest success story is Boris Diaw, who spent a significant amount of time working with Weber during the 2005-06 season.

The positionless Frenchman struggled during his first two campaigns at the sport's highest level, both of which came while he was playing for the Atlanta Hawks. But as soon as he joined the fast-paced Suns, Diaw's levels of efficiency skyrocketed. He took smarter shots, found more success from outside the paint and began developing into the well-rounded contributor he'd serve as for many subsequent years.

Here's Doug Haller, writing for the Arizona Republic in 2008:
Almost every day after practice, Boris Diaw joins Suns assistant coach Phil Weber at a side basket for extra shooting. They focus on Diaw's form, Weber pushing for a shot that drops to the basket from an arc. They work on strength, Diaw holding a weighted ball in his shooting hand, releasing it eight, nine, 10 times.

The work is paying off...

'Before, his release was way back, and it was like he was throwing a dart,' Weber said. 'We've tried to create more of an arc, and if you've noticed, his shots are very soft now.'

Weber wasn't the architect of the famed Phoenix offense. That X's and O's work was largely left for the head coach and fellow assistants Marc Iavaroni and Alvin Gentry. But Weber helped the players fit into the system, improved their shooting strokes, figured out how to compensate for key injuries and remained as optimistic about the chances of success as possible.

Clearly, he made a positive impression, or else D'Antoni never would have offered him another job after they both left Phoenix following elimination by the San Antonio Spurs in the 2008 NBA playoffs.

Improvement in New York (2009-2012)

Weber's ability to develop players didn't suddenly fade away when he joined New York.

As he's been wont to do throughout his career as a coach, he noticed flaws and worked on fixing them through subtle tweaks and heavy doses of repetition. Most notably, he adjusted David Lee's release during his second season at Madison Square Garden, and the results were palpable. Per Howard Beck, then writing for the New York Times:
D'Antoni values big men who can shoot, and he was skeptical about Lee's ability to play in his spread-the-floor offense.

'I thought he was very limited offensively,' D'Antoni said.

Phil Weber, D'Antoni’s top assistant, saw something else: Lee was 'a yanker'—meaning he yanked his wrist back too far on his windup, shooting line drives instead of parabolas.

'Throwing darts,' said Weber, who helped Amar'e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw develop their jump shots when he worked in Phoenix.

Sound familiar?

Just as was the case with Diaw in the desert, Lee needed additional arc on his shot, allowing the ball to drop through the rim with more room for slight error. Williams detailed exactly how his colleague went about this particular undertaking.

"Just making sure his form was right. Different drills that he would give him to do. He made sure his hand position and elbow were in the right place," Williams said. "Made sure he was following through. He has a variety of different drills that he'd do with the heavy ball, shooting close and then moving back and making sure that it stays consistent and doesn't change when you start to move back.

"Sometimes people start to lower their angle a little bit with their hand. Just staying diligent to make sure he came in every day and did the same thing every single day. David was willing to do it, and he got a lot better."

See how much Lee improved under Weber on his way to an All-Star berth in 2009-10?

That wasn't a one-year fluke, either.

Lee joined the Golden State Warriors during the ensuing offseason, and he never stopped connecting from outside the painted area. The tools Weber gave him stuck, as he kept knocking down those mid-range attempts in the Bay Area whenever he was healthy.

However, Dan D'Antoni wouldn't single out Lee—or any other individual, for that matter—as the man on whom Weber had the biggest developmental impact.

"He worked with Iman Shumpert a lot in New York," D'Antoni said. "I wouldn't say any of us had just one person [who stood out as the top project]. He was involved with a lot of people. If you look at the NBA Finals, Cleveland had Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Shawn Marion, who was with us in Phoenix. On the other side, you had David Lee, Leandro Barbosa. These are all guys he's [Weber] worked with. He worked a lot with Boris Diaw. So he's involved with a lot of people...

"Certainly, Phil deserves a lot of credit. Jeremy Lin, I can't leave that one out! That was a pretty good hit."

Once Amar'e Stoudemire reunited with D'Antoni and Weber in 2010, New York's offense really took off (when Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony were actually healthy together).

Relative to the league average, that team had the Knicks' best offensive rating (adjusted offensive efficiency of 103.36) in more than two decades. One year later, the limited nature of so many rotation pieces, the discontinuity stemming from the lockout and incessant injuries held them back, but Weber did get to mess around with one new experiment before he and D'Antoni had to pack their bags midway through the season.

He worked to install Anthony as a point forward who could run the offense, and that paved the way for the positionless stylings he helped maximize with his next team.

Winning in Miami (2013-15)

To be clear, Weber wasn't technically an assistant coach with the Miami Heat, instead serving as an offensive adviser for Erik Spoelstra's staff. Either way, he gets to be associated with one of the most successful offenses in recent NBA history.

And as he told Ridiculous Upside's Keith Schlosser, he certainly benefited from that opportunity, limited as it may have been:
To be associated with the Miami Heat, in any capacity, is good for your career. I'm able to learn their culture, their defensive concepts, and see how they do things on a day-to-day basis. I was previously an advisor to the team and Coach [Erik] Spoelstra, but I still wasn't immersed in it. Now in this role, I'll be doing things in Sioux Falls, but I'll still have a part with the Heat.

Weber was referring to his most recent job—after helping enhance the skills of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the rest of the Heat as they won a second title and then made it back to the NBA Finals in 2013-14, he ran the show as head coach of Miami's D-League Sioux Falls Skyforce.

Unsurprisingly, the affiliate team finished right near the top of the leaderboard for offensive rating. By scoring 112.9 points per 100 possessions, the Skyforce trailed only the Rio Grande Valley Vipers and Reno Bighorns. Seven players even managed to average at least 15 points, though some did so in a limited number of appearances:

In addition to the tactical knowledge Weber brought with him, he proved to be helpful in the mental department. He has long been known as one of the league's eternal optimists, but the between-the-ears aspect of his coaching goes beyond that. Here's what Tyler Johnson had to say during a KDLT News broadcast:
You're not afraid to go out there and actually play your game, because you know that if you do make a mistake, Coach [Weber] is going to let you know what you did. Absolutely. But at the same time, he's not gonna put you in a box. He wants you to play your game, because there's a difference between going out there and playing not to make a mistake, and going out there and playing your game.

Weber would agree.

"Coach [Valvano] was always promoting self-esteem. We'll have a neon sign flashing in the locker room as a reminder to the players," he explained during an interview with Adam Johnson of Sea Dubs Central. "It's important to me because we're not only looking to develop these young players on the court, but off the court as well. Coach V had such a love for life and that's important for me to share."

Share it, he does.

"He's a very positive human being," the older D'Antoni brother explained. "He's always thinking the best, and he works to that end."

Creating Something Special in New Orleans (2016-?)

Weber and Gentry are now reunited by the bayou, driven to help Anthony Davis maximize his potential as the next great individual force in this league. And considering the 22-year-old big man was already a legitimate MVP candidate during Monty Williams' last season in charge of the Pelicans, that's a terrifying thought for the rest of the Association.

There's a reason that we've focused so heavily on Weber's past. It's highly relevant as he tries to move forward and glean the most talent possible out of Davis' ridiculous frame and skill set.

Weber has picked up tools from legendary coaches—Valvano, most notably. He's proved that he can help talented frontcourt players improve their shooting touch from the perimeter, which is particularly terrifying given Davis' already substantial gains on the Kevin Garnett free-throw-line jumper and Gentry's stated desire to turn his star into a three-point marksman.

Most importantly, Weber has consistently been on the cutting edge of NBA offense, helping lead the three-point revolution with D'Antoni's Suns, working to build something out of mismatched pieces in New York and then consulting for the James-era Heat as they helped popularize a brand of basketball that didn't rely on the five traditional positions.

Now, he gets to work with a transcendent talent alongside Gentry, a man with whom he's displayed synergy in the past. Weber and Gentry complement each other rather nicely, as Jack McCallum explained in 2006's :07 Seconds or Less, a book about his time covering the 2005-06 Suns:
The pregame wings meeting is a mixture of chalk talk, handled by Weber, and motivational talk, handled by Gentry. It seems like role reversal, for Weber is the relentless positive thinker and Gentry the old NBA hand who has courted carpal tunnel syndrome by drawing every conceivable X and O during his eighteen years in the league. But Weber has spent hours breaking down game film (even though the Lakers are Iavaroni's team), and Gentry knows that a game like this, played in the cauldron of pressure, might come down to intangibles.

The relationship between these two coaches is one of the linch-pins of team harmony. While the D'Antonis battle like, well, brothers, neither wanting the other to get the last word, Gentry and Weber find a topic of contention, hit it quickly, then move on to the next thing. They rag each other constantly, enjoy every minute of it, and their interplay frequently defuses tension. Plus, it is highly entertaining.

That ability to get along and resolve conflict in both expeditious and, well, non-contentious fashion should bode well for the offense of the Pelicans. There are plenty of quality pieces who can be used in a variety of ways, and experimentation will be necessary as New Orleans attempts to maximize its potential.

"We have shooting, ball-handling, length and speed," Weber recently told NBA.com's Jim Eichenhofer about his new team. "We have a stud, a guy who has only tapped into where he can go in our minds. It’s going to be so exciting to figure it out, how it comes together on the floor. With our roster here, we have the makings of some amazing pieces for what [Gentry] runs."

Lest we forget, Davis, the stud to whom Weber is referring, averaged 24.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.5 steals and 2.9 blocks last season while shooting 53.5 percent from the field. It was only his third season in the Association, but he recorded a player efficiency rating of 30.8, one that left him trailing only three campaigns from Wilt Chamberlain, four from Michael Jordan and three from LeBron James throughout all of NBA history.

Now, he's working with a coaching staff that can help further promote his growth. D'Antoni was quite optimistic about the impact his former colleagues could have on Davis' game, explaining to Bleacher Report that the 22-year-old could become something more than he already is.

"I think a modern-day center, which is a basketball player. An all-around basketball player, not just one that locates to certain areas of the floor and that's all he really produces for his team," D'Antoni said. "I think he'll learn all aspects of the game, from taking advantage of a mismatch or a deep switch on the pick-and-rolls.

"He'll understand the dynamics of the pick-and-roll a lot better, the technique that you need to make it successful and the drills and reps that will allow him to make better decisions—sometimes even him initiating it and someone else picking for him. He's going to be able to experience the full game of basketball, and his time is not going to be consumed in any one aspect. Unlimited, really, is his involvement in all parts of the game.

"Almost like a Tim Duncan-type player. He already does a lot of that. I'm just watching on TV, and he's a perfect match. I just think he [Weber] will further all his skill sets and take him another step up, allow him to be even more successful than he already is."

It's crazy to think how much of Davis' potential still remains untapped.

Though he's already part of any conversation centering on the best players in the Association, there are still some distinct weaknesses. If nothing else, the Kentucky product could take over games a bit more instead of letting the offense come to him.

Fortunately, he knows he's not perfect.

"It makes you smile to see yourself becoming the player you want to be," Davis explained to Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins back in December. "When people talk about the greatest ever, I want to be in that conversation. I'm nowhere close to it. No...where...close. But it's where I want to go."

The big man has gotten closer since delivering that quote. Now, he's primed to move closer still.

Throughout his entire career, Weber has consistently flown well beneath the radar but built up a set of skills that prepare him for this type of opportunity. Heading into 2015-16, he's in the perfect situation—coaching alongside Gentry—with the perfect pupil who is itching to continue expanding his game.

Davis is already a unibrowed monster.

Under Weber, he just might become a deity.

All stats come from Basketball-Reference.com. Unless otherwise noted, quotes were obtained firsthand.

Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

Read more New Orleans Pelicans news on BleacherReport.com

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