J.B. Bickerstaff learning on fly as Rockets' rookie coach

Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff says he's learning something new every day in his first stint as an NBA head coach. AP Photo/Brandon Dill

HOUSTON -- Dwight Howard and J.B. Bickerstaff entered the NBA at the same time in 2004. Howard was a 19-year-old center fresh from high school, one of the last of a preps-to-pros generation. Bickerstaff entered as a 25-year-old assistant coach with the then-Charlotte Bobcats and at that time was the youngest assistant coach in the NBA.

Each has endured success and failures in this league, but one thing is certain: You can never stop learning in the NBA.

For Bickerstaff, it's ever important as he continues his rise as the interim coach of the Houston Rockets. When the Rockets fired Kevin McHale 11 games into the season, the thought was that Bickerstaff, a young and talented assistant coach who improved Houston defensively, could fix things.

With Bickerstaff at the helm, the Rockets have gone 15-12, which includes a three-game winning streak heading into Tuesday night's game against the Memphis Grizzlies.

Yet, there is still plenty Bickerstaff must learn as the man in charge.

"Every day you learn something," Bickerstaff said. "That's the same as assistant coach and the same as a head coach. You should continue to learn. You watch so much basketball you should see something somewhere from somebody different all the time. I hope I continue to learn. If I don't then I know everything."

Bickerstaff doesn't know everything, but has been around such a long time he remembers playing against Kobe Bryant in a high school all-star game, attending a basketball camp hosted by Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford, and working camps overseas.

"Being in diapers to now, I know pretty much everybody," Bickerstaff said.

But not everything, hence the daily conversations with his dad, Bernie, currently a scout for the Cleveland Cavaliers. The night J.B. got promoted to interim coach, Bernie, who coached 937 games in his career, didn't offer a quick congratulations -- he wanted to know what the plan was for fixing the team.

Bickerstaff had to delegate duties. Assistant coach Chris Finch was moved to associate head coach, and he not only had to continue running the offense but help with how the team played defense as well. Greg Buckner (big men) and T.R. Dunn (guards/forwards) did more pregame work with players as Bickerstaff had to handle increased media responsibilities. Brett Gunning, the assistant coach/director of player development, continued his work with players on the computers, showing them what's good and bad with their games.

Veteran guard Jason Terry, who has been to two NBA Finals, said Bickerstaff started holding players accountable more often, whether it was benching guys for poor play or cussing people out at halftime. One such occurrence was in Salt Lake City, Utah, with the Rockets trailing the Jazz by 10 points at halftime. After a few salty words from Bickerstaff, things got better in the second half and the Rockets won with a late fourth-quarter push.

Bickerstaff doesn't believe cussing out players always motivates them, especially now at this stage of the season.

"For me that's what it's about now," he said. "It's the beatdown. The guys don't need it; the guys need to be lifted up. We're here to support them. We're going to be positive, we're making gains. We're better now than we were a month ago, obviously. We haven't gotten the results we like to see with the W's, but the more we work at it, the more we stick with it, the more we stay together with one another, the better we'll be."

J.B. Bickerstaff has several mentors he can call for help. For six years, it was McHale, and he probably could call him if need be, yet, his dad is always there.

"Always talk daily, since they've been out of the household," Bernie Bickerstaff told ESPN.com. "We talk basketball on all levels. It's just for him for me to be a sounding board. You take something from this person or that person and you have to be yourself. You learn and you listen and you watch."

J.B. Bickerstaff isn't afraid to teach not only the rookies and young players but the vets as well.

During a recent Rockets practice, Bickerstaff went into the post to show Howard had to spin past a defender to the glass. There's always communication with the players and assistant coaches to make things better.

"He's definitely growing and learning like any rookie," veteran forward Trevor Ariza said. "They have to take their bumps and take their bruises. You learn from them. J.B. has done a great job with learning with hard work. He's here all the time even before me, improving game by game."

Whether Bickerstaff's work leads to the job full-time is uncertain. Rockets management will evaluate Bickerstaff at the end of the season, and a deep playoff run could help his cause. But the constant maneuvering during the season won't change.

Bickerstaff isn't alone in making changes and learning.

Jazz coach Quin Snyder has lost several key players this season to injuries, including star center Rudy Gobert, who missed 18 games with a sprained knee ligament.

"It's my job," Snyder said when it comes to making adjustments. "I think the way you approach it is everything. We've tried to adjust to some of the things to fit our team."

Bickerstaff can relate. He benched Ty Lawson for Patrick Beverley, then lost Lawson to two NBA-related suspensions due to DWI arrests. Bickerstaff made adjustments for the loss of Donatas Motiejunas (back) and Howard (rest and sore back), limited the minutes of veteran Marcus Thornton for another vet in Terry, and moved Clint Capela into the starting lineup over Terrence Jones.

Of course, Bickerstaff also had to manage the minutes of James Harden, the Rockets' best player, so he wouldn't wear him down.

"You go with what you got," Bickerstaff said. "That's the thing about having a system, then you plug guys into your system."