Taking charge: Matt Nielsen on coaching in an uncertain G League bubble season

Nielsen was a first time head coach, thrown into the madness of a G League bubble in Orlando. Here's how the experience went.

Credit: NBA

Matt Nielsen knew the drill: he was hired to win games. Working for the most renowned basketball franchise on earth, there is no getting around that fact.

The Austin Spurs may not have the public resume of their NBA counterparts in San Antonio, yet they are identical in every other way. The culture, creed and expectations established by Gregg Popovich’s thirty-year tour through the NBA flows down to the organisation’s feeder team. There are competing interests, sure, for the G League is an environment that attempts to thread the challenging needle between player development and team success. But one’s profession fortunes cannot survive solely on the growth of their players - team success must follow.

“I am a first-time coach, and we need to win,” Nielsen told The Pick and Roll, on a recent media call.

The Spurs have mastered that balance between the present and future better than most. It has fuelled their reputation for a “Spurs culture” that has fuelled the careers of players like Patty Mills. Nielsen was well aware of this before taking the job in Austin. He moonlighted as an assistant with San Antonio’s Las Vegas Summer League teams, while working with the Perth Wildcats.

“I have known the Spurs culture for a long time,” Nielsen says. “They put people ahead of everything else and it is real.”

In ways that truly matter, the Spurs have lived out Nielsen’s comments, for him and his family, over the past 18 months. The 43 year old Australian says he will forever be grateful for the support given by his employer, after moving his family across the world just months before a pandemic arrived. Like very human alive, Nielsen admits to the struggles over the past year. But again, he is a basketball coach, living in America, with a job to do: win basketball games. That is why the below video matters so much.

On February 10, Nielsen entered a locker room as a victorious head coach for the first time. His Austin Spurs had just defeated the Memphis Hustle. On paper, it will go down as just another win for a franchise that has run the basketball world since the turn of the century. Although, it was anything but just another day for their leading man. In the moments before greeting his players, Nielsen allowed his mind to wander. To think and stress, actually, about he should do next.

“I am thinking, ‘what am I supposed to say now in my speech, after the game, about the next game.’ I stood outside the locker room and was thinking about all that. Then I walk in and get absolutely drenched. I think I called them a couple of bad words and we put our hands in.”

The characteristics that make Nielsen a blossoming coaching prospect come flowing out, as he talked about this moment.

“It was a nice experience,” he adds, “but it is a compliment to this group, because that is the way we have been throughout the ups and downs of the six weeks in [the Orlando G League bubble].

“It was a cool experience, and I will be forever grateful. For what I was asking of those guys, and the way they felt about that situation, it was nice.”

In many ways, this was his moment. A small, yet powerful, reward for 18 months of travel, isolation and more recently, separation from his family. Yet the moment was gone as quickly as it arrived. Austin played their next game 24 hours later. In total, they played 15 games in 24 days during a truncated G League regular season, before being eliminated in the first round of the postseason.

Nielsen’s head coaching debut came in the midst of a league attempting to outrun a global pandemic. There was no time to mentally release. Like Phil Connors in Punxsutawney, the emotions of one day would customarily just roll over to the next. But the memory of Nielsen’s first victory will live on. The Spurs family allowed him that much.

“I really took that in and was like, ‘that was pretty special,’” Nielsen mused.

What Nielsen asked of his players was akin to a cutthroat, turbocharged basketball boot camp. In form and appearances, the G League bubble was identical to its NBA counterpart. A league descended on Walt Disney’s backyard, as it attempted to outrun a pandemic. But the G League has never operated in the same sphere as the league it sits underneath.

The G League is transactional in nature. It is an experimental playground for NBA franchises to test the mettle of their prospects. That is a truism that applies equally to both players and coaches.

A normal G League campaign brings together an assortment of athletes are fighting for their NBA dreams. It’s a coaching challenge that is difficult to navigate at the best of times. When you throw in a global pandemic, mix in a truncated training camp, and place that in the hands of a first-time head coach, challenges are guaranteed to follow. No matter how prepared that coach is – and make no mistake, Nielsen was beyond qualified to get his chance – there is nothing like guiding a group of millennial athletes as the leading voice for the first time.

“It was hard to decipher being the head coach in a bubble and being the head coach to start with because it is all new to me,” Nielsen said. “On the coaching side, trying to develop players and relationships is something I have always taken pride in. This entire season is on the fly, and we were trying to put together a team and build team concepts in four days. We practiced four times and then had two scrimmages. It isn’t much of a preseason.

“It was an interesting feeling as it went on. Everyone was in the same boat and it wasn’t like we were the only ones. But that was a steep learning curve for me. Making sure you aren’t wasting time on things you shouldn’t be wasting time on.”

Nielsen’s coaching debut ended with a 10-5 regular season record – good for the fourth best mark in the 18 team tournament. A loss to the Delaware Blue Coats in the first round of the playoffs abruptly bounced Austin out of Orlando and ended their bubble experience.

The six-week experience had its positives and negatives, according to Nielsen. Striking the right balance between basketball activities and downtime, in such a monotonous environment where vices were taken away, was a challenge. Not just for Nielsen and his Spurs, but the entire G League community. Listen to Nielsen speak, however, and you get the impression that any inconveniences were a small price to pay. Everyone was given a chance to return to their field of passion. Everyone could enjoy being back on the basketball court again.

“2020 took basketball from everyone,” Nielsen said. “Regardless of whether you were 19 years old, my age or even older.”

“I have been around basketball for a long time, and it was taken away from us in a feeling that it has never been before. Everyone is appreciative to have this opportunity and be back out there.”

Credit: supplied

After retiring in 2013, Nielsen became a coach with the Perth Wildcats. His opportunity came when his former Australian Boomers head coach Brett Brown, who was then a San Antonio Spurs assistant, helped him get a job in player development with the Spurs after the 2013-14 season. In Nielsen, the Spurs have yet other international basketball mind with a thirst for player development.

“He is perfect for us with his developmental skills,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told the San Antonio Express News last month. “He played a gazillion games for the Australian national team. He has been around our program. He knows what we want to do and is able to instil it. He’s got a great way about him. He’s a people guy, and it’s worked out very well.”

Nielsen admits he is very fortunate to be surrounded by the Spurs’ organisational excellence. While Popovich is a central figure for this organisation, the likes of Will Hardy, Mitch Johnson and Chip England – all of whom Nielsen mentioned by name during our interview – have combined to make San Antonio a basketball haven. Absorbing a basketball education from these coaches has given Nielsen confidence. It has instilled a reminder on the importance of remaining authentic in the role, even as the stakes grow higher.

“The Spurs organisation is fantastically set up for this exact situation,” Nielsen explained. “I am lucky enough to be exposed to the coaching staff in San Antonio who are fantastically helpful in different ways. They are very important for my development.

“The coaching staff that has been put together here in Austin is high level. I have really appreciated their help and work. We are a team. I don’t care what that sounds like. It’s a fact. We enjoy it and we work so well together. We have got to this point in what we are doing, and it is all hands-on deck. It has been a great time and I have enjoyed that as much as anything else.”

With his maiden head coaching experience now over, Nielsen will remain in the United States before shifting his attention to the Boomers upcoming Tokyo campaign.  The national team will become his short-term focus, but the draw of a coaching career in North America continues to gain momentum.

Could he be Australia’s first NBA head coach? It’s a question Nielsen masterfully evades during our interview, but there is no dodging the coaching career of Matthew Nielsen. He is a man on the rise.

“I want to keep developing and getting better,” he says,

“The past four weeks have shown me that I have a long way to go, to be where I want to be. The beauty is that, when you sit down in a chair and five professional athletes are looking straight in your eyes and wanting them to give you directions. You want to be on point. I feel like over time I have learned to navigate that and be as honest and upfront as I can.”