It’s 11 p.m. in Las Vegas, and a herd of NBA coaches, agents and front office staff has turned casino floors, restaurants and night clubs into a virtual convention floor. The NBA’s annual Summer League is in high gear, meaning the partying and networking has hit its stride on The Strip.
But New Orleans Pelicans assistant coach Darren Erman and a portion of his staff are nowhere to be found. As the rest of the industry enjoys Las Vegas’ lavish offerings following a 10-hour day of hoops, Erman (tabbed head coach for the opening week of Summer League) and his crew are in a hotel room, watching film to develop a strategy for a game without consequences.
The preparation pays off.
Erman, without the benefit of a first-round pick on the roster, went undefeated as head coach, bringing his lifetime Summer League record to 10-0. The entire scene is a microcosm of what Erman is about.
“He’s always looking for an edge, and he’ll do whatever he can to find it,” Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry said. “I was almost worried he wasn’t going to look for an apartment (in New Orleans) because it seemed like he was living in his office when he got here.”
Bestowed with the unofficial label of “defensive coordinator,” Erman took his responsibility seriously, immediately searching for an elixir to spur the franchise into at least the top two-thirds of the league in defensive efficiency, a feat it has failed to accomplish in four years.
When he wasn’t drilling for Summer League wins, Erman hit the road, most notably travelling to California to meet with Anthony Davis for private workouts. Within hours, Davis said he was defending differently, reacting more instinctively and with better precision in his movements.
“I think Coach Erman is one of the best, if not the best in the league, at coaching defense,” Davis said. “Every day when I’m on the floor with him, I can feel myself getting better. He just approaches it in a way that makes sense and knows where I need to get better and what I’m capable of.”
Unleashing Davis’ potential in all of his defensive facets, not just his league-best shot blocking, was Erman’s priority when he arrived in New Orleans four months ago. As a disciple of Doc Rivers and Tom Thibodeau, Erman learned from defensive coaches who knew how to use individual talent to help the defense blossom.
So there he was in small gyms, days after moving across the country, sweating it out on the floor.
“Consistent every day — his passion and his intensity, and his focus about defense,” said Brandon Bass, the former LSU standout who played for Erman in Boston. “That’s what you’re going to get, plain and simple.”
Erman’s ambition may have cost him a job with Golden State; coach Mark Jackson fired the architect of his team’s revitalized defense for reportedly recording private conversations when Erman suspected he was being undermined by members of the Warriors. It was a topic Erman has chosen to let stand without much comment.
Considering that days after his dismissal Erman was rehired by the Celtics, then became a top priority for Pelicans General Manager Dell Demps this offseason, any potential stigma seems to be forgotten.
“It feels comfortable here; it really does,” Erman said. “I hope it’s a long-term thing. Everyone is so good together, and the relationship between the whole staff is kind of perfect, and that starts with Alvin. But at the same time, we all work together with the front office, too, and we all communicate so well with each other. Everyone is included in everything, and the dynamics have been tremendous.”
Erman’s role in those dynamics is an obvious one. The successes or failures of the Pelicans defense will fall on him.
It comes with the territory of the “defensive coordinator” label. Erman takes ownership of the results that come with it and, considering the praise he has received from players just two weeks into training camp, the Pelicans are prepared for the challenge.
“I don’t fight that label; I embrace it,” Erman said. “I had a good friend (Thibodeau) who had that same label, and I told him, ‘Someone is going to want to hire you because they need a defensive guy, and you can build a reputation that way.’ He got a head coaching job and did a heck of a job with it, so it doesn’t concern me to have it.
“I think it kind of gives you instant credibility if that’s your label. If you have that, people will trust you until you prove otherwise. That’s something Kevin Garnett taught me: ‘If you know what you’re talking about, people will listen.’ ”