Micah Nori deploys the English language like a balloon artist. With a few windy sentences and a couple of squeaky twists of his rhetorical wrist, he can transform benign, bulbous concepts into a delightful dachshund, a bunny, or a circular hat.
The 48-year-old lead assistant coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves instantly charmed fans by lacing the staid format of the halftime report coming out of the locker room with ingenious, often comic analogies on Wolves telecasts. Viewers were treated to Nori playfully denigrating his team’s play by calling it a flip phone defense in an iPhone era, or saying it was full of holes like SpongeBob.
In a later, “Wolves Plus” interview with Marnie Gellner on Bally Sports, Nori conceded that some of his concoctions were in response to dares that he couldn’t say a certain word or phrase during his report. But even as he was luring in casual basketball watchers with his light-hearted irreverence, he was making die-hard hoop fiends take notice with a barrage of information that went deep inside the game.
Nori’s halftime report in Portland during a Jan. 25 game against the Trailblazers is a case in point. “On our matchups, we’re getting beat on the first dribble and that activates losing the basketball. We’ve got to make sure we take care of it, number one, and then get back and help each other,” he began.
“But our problem lies more on the offensive end. You know, we go up 9-to-4 when they take that time out and then they go with their zone and we’re like salmon fighting upstream. We’re fighting the game, only 10 assists, playing a shell offense, KAT (Karl-Anthony Towns) only has three shots, we’ve got to get him involved. This is probably the worst offense and the most selfish offense that we’ve played in the first half in a long time. And hopefully in this second half starting with our first possession we can get that rectified.”
With a lightning-round cadence that condensed his report under 30 seconds, Nori had identified the turning point of the half and five interlocking issues the team needed to address, using phrases chock-full of basketball lingo and brutal honesty — while squeezing in a salmon analogy for rhetorical seasoning.
A shared approach
Nori’s combination of depth and the levity immediately appealed to Wolves head coach Chris Finch when Finch joined the Denver Nuggets staff as a fellow assistant with Nori for the 2016-17 NBA season. You don’t have to know the two men very well to realize they are kindred spirits, both temperamentally and analytically. Their single season together in the Rockies convinced Finch that heading into his first full year as Wolves head coach, five years later, that he wanted Nori as his trusted confidant and lead assistant coach and with a broad range of authority.
“He and I connected in those coaches meetings, trying to keep the mood light,” Finch remembered. “We had a shared sense of humor and approach, and viewed the game somewhat the same. He advocated playing in a free-flowing style. He had a phrase, ‘If the clock is running, so are we,’ that I really liked. I hadn’t heard it before.
“You know, the best transition teams play in transition like 55 percent of the time. That still gives the coach 45 percent to call the plays and control the game. And even in that, if it is not a stoppage in play you still want to play with some sort of fluidity. It is less about play calls and more about shots and shot selection.”
Nuggets head coach Mike Malone had entrusted the formation of Denver’s offensive scheme to Finch, whose work as an assistant in Houston had put him on the cutting edge of getting away from set plays and into more planned improvisation. Finch was impressed by how thoroughly Nori grasped the concepts and by some of the drills he devised to hone them.
“I have always said in those situations you are usually arguing or educating with staff in terms of what you are trying to do. But that wasn’t the case with Micah — we were philosophically in line. So now we were able to think beyond the basics, to, ‘Hey, how do we maximize all these little pieces of what we are trying to do?’” Finch said. “With Mike’s (Malone) blessing we were able to create a template where these types of things could flourish.”
“Exactly,” Finch replied. “He’s at a whole other level at being really, really good thinking through all the small pieces through the game; from subbing, end of quarters, maximizing defensive possessions at the end of the game, when to foul, when not to foul, all these things.”
A student of the game
Micah Nori was never a distinguished basketball player. Born on the same day that Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record — April 8, 1974 — he gravitated to baseball, to the point where he was captain and a middle infielder on an Indiana University team that made it to the NCAA Tournament in 1996. But injuries and a self-professed lack of athleticism discouraged him attempting to climb his way through minor-league baseball. Instead, he was ready to take a job as a high school athletic director when Butch Carter called.
Nori and Carter both grew up in Middletown, Ohio, and attended Indiana University 16 years apart. Nori’s father was Carter’s football coach in high school and became something of a father figure to Carter and his brothers, who were always around the house. Carter starred in basketball under Bobby Knight and played six years in the NBA before getting into coaching. At the time of his call, he had been named head coach of the Toronto Raptors for the 1998-99 season after serving out the previous season in an interim capacity.
The Raptors had one of the lowest payrolls in the NBA and Carter had discovered that precious few Canadian kids were interested in a bottom-rung slot on the coaching staff. Would Micah be interested?
“I was fortunate enough to live with Butch for two years in Toronto,” Nori said. “We would look at film and he would talk out loud. He’d say, ‘They are doing this and this and we are doing this, this and this.’”
It so happened that in many ways, Carter was a forerunner to Finch. “Like Finchy, instead of calling a play and hoping it works, Butch would say, ‘We are going to run this, this is what they are going to do and this is where the shot is coming from. They look at things, I wouldn’t necessarily say outside the box, but deeper into the box.”
“I had a certain way of breaking down the game and Micah would be right there with me on the couch,” Carter said. “He was a really good student. I told him I have an analytical system that puts things into quarters. I told him there are blind spots where the other coach doesn’t know what you are running, like after quarters and out of time outs. He also learned about the tactical decisions you make at the end of games and preparing backwards from the end of the game.”
Carter had a number of other fascinating benchmarks. His numbers told him that the team that won the first and third quarters by being immediately ready to engage had a huge advantage both on the scoreboard and with the officiating. He also learned that maintaining scoring runs on offense and stopping them on defense was vital to winning. Today, he is the lead mentor for the NBA Assistant Coaches Program, teaching a course that lasts for many months.
Beginning nearly a quarter-century ago, Nori lived with him and sat behind him on the bench for two years, charting the things that were important to him, including time outs, scoring runs, preparing for end-of-game situations and other organic elements of Carter’s philosophy. In addition, “I told him he needed to learn and master one assignment; the video room and advance scouting,” Carter said.
Today, this is how Finch describes Nori’s resume with the Wolves: “As lead assistant he kind of has oversight on everything. But he drills down on offensive and defensive special situations; end of quarter management, end of game management, also substitutions, that kind of stuff. He and Pablo (Prigioni) share the offensive responsibilities as a 1-2 combo. Sometimes one is working on our concepts and our flow and the other one is working on our set plays, and they go back and forth. He does about a half-dozen scouts on teams where he is already super familiar with the personnel. And he has oversight over the video room, just because we have lot of young people there, and he’s been around the league for so long and has a great feel for best practices and how to develop a young crew.”
‘I know what he wants’
By the time Finch and Nori met each other in Denver, Nori had spent a decade as an advance scout for the Raptors following the departure of Carter, and then another year as director of scouting and two more as an assistant coach. He spent two years as an assistant coach in Sacramento, during which time Malone was fired, and Nori followed Malone to Denver. Finch likewise had paid his dues, be it coaching in Great Britain or with the G-League team in Rio Grande near the Mexican border, or as a longtime assistant coach with the Rockets.
Both Finch and Nori left Denver to eventually coordinate offenses in New Orleans and Detroit, respectively. Finch would also coach for a half-year in Toronto before then-Wolves president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas plucked him in midseason as head coach in Minnesota. All the while Finch and Nori kept in touch. And the template they had designed in Denver continued to evolve.
“Yeah, we both were working on things when we were on our own,” Nori said, but he leaves little doubt about the mentor-pupil aspect of the broader philosophy. “When I was in Detroit, there wasn’t two days that went by that I didn’t call him, either for reassurance or questions. And he was always great with me, an open book.
“That has really helped make our time on the bench now more efficient, because I know him so well and kind of know what he wants. I’m not saying we’re always making bullseyes, but we’re hitting the dartboard. I don’t mind giving him something a little bit out of the box, but it can’t be outside the yard.”
“Now it helps, because our time on the bench and during games, it makes it more efficient because I have been around him and had a relationship with him. I know what he wants … I’m not going to make a suggestion where you just don’t have time to do that, where it wasn’t worked on or we didn’t have time with it.”
‘He’s always got the same voice’
The in-game conversations between Finch and Nori seem fairly constant. So, what exactly is going on?
Asked if the nature of their exchanges are more general or specific, Finch replied, “Probably more specific but it is very kind of conversational. Like, I’ll sit down and say, ‘I really don’t like this lineup on the floor, what do we need to do next?’ And he’ll go boom boom boom (offering options). Or he’ll say, ‘This lineup is going to get us to a closing lineup of boom, but we have to get this guy out at whatever time, so why don’t we stay ahead of what is going on in the game?’
“Once in a while he’ll give me tips on what to run, but Pablo does more of that. Micah handles a lot of the substitutions: when to get a guy out or in, when to take a time out near the three-minute mark (when the team would otherwise lose it).”
Not surprisingly, Nori answered the same question in a little more detail. “Some of it is just suggestions I think might be meaningful and some of it is game management. It might be, ‘Hey they scored three or four straight possessions, what do you think about maybe, zone?’ Or it might be, ‘There are five minutes to go in the first, this group has been out there awhile, we need to get somebody in the game. Do you want Beas (Malik Beasley) for DLo (, or Jaden for Vando?’ And he may say, ‘Hey, let’s go Beas for Vando,’ you know?
“So a lot of it is a pattern and some of it is suggestion. ‘KAT hasn’t gotten a touch in a while, why don’t we post him up?’ Or, ‘Hey, they’re switching 1-2 screens, so why don’t we do something to get the matchup we want?’ But toward the end of the quarter we are talking about when to take time outs and how to use them to get our best offensive or defensive groups on the floor. A lot of that stuff he already knows; it is almost just speaking out loud for him.”
Bottom line, Nori has been charting situational analytics for as long or longer than anyone on the bench of an NBA team. Although reflexively modest about most aspects of his work, Nori will concede to having an excellent memory for this minutiae, blending arcane but potentially relevant data with the fundamentals of game management that are by now second nature. All delivered with helpful deference.
“He always gives me all the meaningful options at the end of game,” Finch said. Like, ‘Hey we can get DLo (D’Angelo Russell) out and put in Vando (Jarred Vanderbilt) for defense.’ Or ‘we can get KAT out and we can switch everything.’ But I still have that ‘feel’ quality, that executive decision-making. Like, ‘No, I’m not pulling KAT here.’ But he takes it in stride. He’s got such a great temperament. Even if I’m wrapped up in the game or mad or emotional, whatever, he’s always got the same voice.”
Ninety-nine out of 100
The other gleaming virtue in Nori’s skill set is player and overall personnel relations. “One of the best I’ve seen,” Finch raved. “He’s funny, he’s direct, he’s disarming. He’s been around a long time — he coached Charles Oakley so he’s not going to be afraid of a third-year pro. His language and his humor get through a lot of the white noise players hear and begin to tune out.
Early on, Nori adopted one of Butch Carter’s precepts — you can’t tell a player to do something without also telling him why. He admits he has had to have some brutal conversations with different players over the years, including Beasley and Taurean Prince this year; two proud veterans who don’t have a role as large as they might have anticipated or expected.
“You have to be honest and you have to make sense when you explain to them why we are doing what we are doing. You have to know them as people and understand their situation and your situation. That is the only way you are going to get their trust and that’s what really matters, if they understand you are truly trying to do what is best for them and the team.”
Humor and modesty help. Nori’s ability with language is so adroit that sometimes you wonder if a malapropism is a mistake or a sly joke, as when he told me the difficulty of “putting round holes into square pegs.”
At the end of the day, it also helps that Nori is a good dude. “Just a wonderful person, able to get along with all colors and kinds of people, and he’s been that way his entire life,” said Carter. “On a human being scale of 100, he is a 99.”
A human being who has a lot of clout in terms of the operation of this roster. After a home game just before the All Star break, I realized I had forgotten my phone in the interview room where the postgame press conference had been held. It took me a while to gain entry back into Target Center. After finding my phone and walking the hallways to get out, there were precious few people to be seen. But there were Chris Finch and Micah Nori, saying goodnight to a member of the communications staff and heading off to their vehicles together, talking basketball.