Matt Garrison did not set forth to reinvent the wheel when he was hired as the Niigata Albirex BB head coach for the 2011-12 season. So after replacing longtime bench boss Masaya Hirose, who was at the helm for 11 seasons in the team’s JBL and bj-league eras, Garrison opted to keep things straightforward.
The Montana native has stressed fundamentals and challenged his players to thrive as a group instead of as individuals.
These aren’t secrets to opponents.
“Just moving the ball and getting the ball to open guys . . . they are a team with guys that always step up,” Tokyo Cinq Reves center Jonathan Jones said, analyzing Niigata.
Garrison took the Albirex to the playoffs last season, with a 28-24 regular-season record. This season, the club is more consistently good: Through last Sunday’s two-game sweep over the Cinq Reves, Niigata (24-8) has the most wins in the Eastern Conference, including a 65-63 win over Tokyo in the series finale, and is in position to challenge for the conference crown and a spot in the Final Four.
The 39-year-old Garrison has traveled all over the world during his basketball career — he played in, he estimated, 15 nations, and even told Billings (Montana) Gazette columnist Joe Kusek in August 2011, “I just can’t remember all of them” — including with the Albirex and Takamatsu Five Arrows before his retirement in 2009. He was a 3-point shooting specialist, two-time winner of that All-Star skills contest in the bj-league with a well-rounded game based, first and foremost, on team goals.
For Jones, now 34, Garrison gives him a glimpse of what he plans to become some day: a head coach. So he closely watched his fellow American work the sidelines and make in-game adjustments during the teams’ four meetings this season.
“I try to look at the best coaches in the league and try to see how they interact with their players,” Jones told Hoop Scoop. “But I think the biggest thing that coach has is he demands respect from all of his players, and all of his players respect him. So as soon as they get in the game, they are going to play hard for coach, because they know if they don’t play hard for him he’s going to get in their behind.
Did it take long to notice that mutual respect on the Albirex?
“I think it’s body language and the way he speaks,” Jones said of Garrison. “You can tell just the way they play on offense and defense that he demands so much of them . . . and they all go out and play hard for him. And if I’m able to coach one day, I would love to coach like him or the coach from Yokohama (Reggie Geary, the 2011-12 bj-league Coach of the Year). . . . Both of them get mad respect from their players and their players go out and play hard for them every time.”
Niigata is the league’s best 3-point shooting team at 39.1 percent, and veterans Kimitake Sato, Yuichi Ikeda, Shuhei Komatsu, Hirotaka Kondo, Nile Murry, Chris Holm, Rodney Webb and Taj Finger form the nucleus of the team, with additional contributions from Takahiro Misawa and Yuki Sato.
Case in point: Kondo, not one of the league’s regular passing leaders, quietly shredded the Tokyo defense last Sunday, handing out 11 assists. But above all, Garrison has capitalized on the team’s depth and used it wisely.
Jones said, “I think the biggest thing is just they all play together, on offense and on the defensive end. On offense, they move the ball well, guys get open shots and they have confidence in passing the ball to each other, and the same thing on defense — they make their rotations good. . .”
Murry arrived in Japan for the league’s second season in 2006-07, and has spent all but one season since then here, having witnessed the league’s growth from eight teams to its present 21 in that span. He’s seen a lot of successful coaches on the job and ones who’ve struggled to lead teams to victories. And so his perspective of the league’s coaching establishment is as solid as anyone’s.
Sure, players often say nice things about their coaches when they are winning. Murry, however, went beyond that during our postgame conversation last Sunday at Komazawa Olympic Park Gymnasium.
“I think it’s really good for him that he’s coaching a good, veteran group of guys, guys that have played in the league for a number of years,” Murry said of Garrison, “and he’s coming into his own as a coach.
“He preaches defense. He’s really good at getting guys motivated. He’s always thinking of what he can do to make the team better, and he’s always a team-first guy, so it’s great playing for him.”
Ikeda, who has played for Niigata since 2006, said Garrison’s preparation for practices and games is always very detail-oriented.
“He has made step-by-step improvements in his two seasons as the coach,” Ikeda said of his former Albirex teammate.
“He’s successfully stepped up as a leader, too.”
Garrison attended hometown Montana State before a major injury ended his time at the Division I school. Then he moved on to lesser-known Biola University in Southern California to complete his collegiate career. Nowadays, he sounds like a basketball coach who’s been on the job for decades. He can blurt out all the usual phrases with passion and purpose — and does so during his talks with the Albirex or in discussing the team’s pluses and minuses with the media.
Take last Sunday, for example, when Niigata scored only 10 fourth-quarter points and shot less than 30 percent (29.7, 14-for-48) overall from inside the arc.
“We talked about getting the ball inside, we talked about penetrating as a way to get inside, throwing it in the post, making some movement, and we started the game going one-on-one,” he said, offering numerous details to paint a picture about his team’s shortcomings on the day.
“We started the game taking jump shots. We started the game not doing the things we wanted to do on offense. . . . We’ve just got to do a better job of doing what we’re supposed to do.”
Garrison offers no excuses after a loss. Never settles for complacency. Two traits of a good coach. Instead, he says, “win or lose the game, video will always be a good learning tool, especially for me.”
What characteristic best defines the Albirex? he was asked.
“I think right now we’re a good group of people,” Garrison said, “people that are trying to win, people that aren’t selfish, people that are patient with each other’s weaknesses on and off the court.”
Led by Holm, an elite rebounder, Niigata often wins the battle on the boards and plays tenacious defense. And Garrison credits assistant coach Fujitaka Hiraoka for his commendable work each week in preparing the team’s scouting report.
“That leads to easy transition buckets, and in the open court we’re pretty good,” Garrison said. “We’ve got four or five guys that can rebound and push it, three or four dribbles, so it’s hard to (compete) against us in transition.
“We’ve got good shooters, obviously. I’ve given them the freedom to shoot. They know what a good shot is and a bad shot.
“We’ve got a solid bench, guys that can come in, keep the tempo going or even improve the tempo of the game coming off the bench,” he continued. “And we’ve got guys that are making plays, guys that are finishing and making plays when it counts.”
The Albirex have more than 20 games left on their schedule before the playoffs commence. That’s a lot of time to improve in all facets of the game.
“We’ve got to work on halfcourt execution,” Garrison declared. “We’ve got to work on teams that are going to want to slow us down, foul us, slow us down somehow . . . so we’ve got to think about that. And then just game control, end of shot clocks, end of quarters we can do a better job.”
Is Garrison one of the best coaches in the bj-league?
“I definitely think so,” Murry said. “Our record reflects his work that he puts into being a good coach. You can’t take that away from him. He’s definitely improved from last year to this year.”
Garrison, however, is eager to get suggestions from his charges.
“He’s always asking for input on what he can do to be a better coach . . . and we give it to him. So it’s definitely a great working relationship with him,” Murry concluded.