It was Christmastime in 2015 and Steve Forbes was “miserable.”
In his first season at East Tennessee State, Forbes’ team lost its sixth game on Dec. 22 at Tennessee. The Buccaneers led by four with four minutes left and lost 87-78, dropping them to 5-6.
In Forbes’ previous two seasons as an assistant at Wichita State, the Shockers lost six games. Total.
In the two years before joining Gregg Marshall’s staff, Forbes’ two seasons as head coach at Northwest Florida State netted 62 wins and — yep, six losses. Total.
So the start at ETSU brought an unfamiliar feeling for Forbes. And he knew where to place the blame.
“The first semester I was trying to run this very complicated system that we ran at Wichita, and I didn’t have Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, you know?” Forbes said, recalling the names of the Shockers’ top players while he was there. “It just wasn’t me and it wasn’t helping the players.”
He also knew how to reverse the course.
“I made the decision as soon as they came back (from break), we’re only going to run five plays,” Forbes said. “And we’re going to run — we’re going to play faster and we ended up winning 24 games and I think we ended up winning 19 after Christmas.
“It wasn’t the kids’ fault. I was over-coaching them, I think.”
Indeed, ETSU finished that season 24-12. A six-game winning streak after the simplification stands out, as does a seven-game winning streak bridging the regular season and Southern Conference Tournament.
That season, and the adjustment that turned it into what it became, is the example that comes to Forbes’ mind when he talks about his preferred style of play.
“You know, we expect our players to improve. I think as coaches you have to evolve and improve, too,” Forbes said.
There’s cloudiness to pinpointing specifics of playing style for Wake Forest under Forbes because, at the root of it, Forbes has evolved over time. He’s applied what he’s learned along the way, whether those lessons have come as a head coach, assistant coach or from suggestions from others in the industry.
Forbes isn’t a branch of any one coach’s tree. He spent a combined seven seasons on the staffs of Billy Gillespie and Bruce Pearl, went to Northwest Florida State and applied what he’d learned, and then picked up another couple of years with Marshall. A stint with Porter Moser at Illinois State means Forbes has been on the staff of three coaches to reach Final Fours.
“I’ve worked with some really great coaches, OK? And early on, being a JuCo coach and a coach at a very young age, I was able to make a lot of mistakes. … And learn by trial and error,” Forbes said. “And it wasn’t jobs that were do or die, like if you didn’t win 20 every year you were getting fired.
“I was fortunate in that respect.”
While he was a young coach who was learning along the way, Forbes befriended a coach who also grew up in a small Iowa town.
Forbes and Nick Nurse, coach of the reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors, go way back. Forbes still recalls a night when the two of them, both in their 20s, made career choices. Forbes left a head coaching role at Southwestern Community College to be an assistant at Barton County Community College; Nurse had been at Grand View University and South Dakota, but opted for a path in professional coaching and went overseas.
It’s a friendship that was the foundation for the latest evolution of Forbes’ offensive style at ETSU.
Last summer they met in Chicago for a vacation and Nurse suggested Forbes adopt the five-out, motion offense that spaces the floor and puts a premium on ball movement.
“I was curious and interested in playing five-out motion, kind of position-less basketball,” Forbes said, “giving everybody the opportunity to touch the ball, share the ball, which really bleeds into what I believe in, identity wise.
“We talked about it, we studied it, I asked a lot of questions. I studied the Bucks and the Nuggets, too.”
At this point, you know the results.
“We put it in (last) summer. Went to Europe in August and really, that’s all we ran,” Forbes said. “We liked it and kind of continued with it toward going 30-4 with our team. I think it allows for better spacing, it allows for guys to be able to make plays off the dribble, get to the basket, try to draw and kick.”
Forbes’ style isn’t going to include a specific offense — rather, the style is that it will evolve. Like the five-out offense, it’s constantly moving.
Just as Forbes pointed out that his tenure at ETSU wasn’t off to the best of starts, he’s quick to point out that the offensive shift last season wasn’t the sole reason for winning 30 games.
“Good players can run about anything. Everybody says the Triangle made Michael Jordan. It probably helped, but I bet the flex would’ve worked pretty good with Michael Jordan, too.” Forbes said.
There’s an inverse to ETSU’s adaptation to the five-out offense that runs congruent with what Forbes wants to establish as a program identity.
“I do believe it makes you better defensively, because you have to guard it every day in practice and it’s not predictable,” Forbes said. “I think, when you run a lot of sets — I mean, the kids know them. They’re your sets. And so I think you get lazy defensively in practice because it’s predictable.
“And you start playing the play and not just playing principles. When you have to guard motion, it’s unpredictable. There’s cutting, there’s screening, there’s all kinds of quick decisions that have to be made.”
ETSU’s defensive efficiency, per KenPom, jumped 50 spots, from 115th in 2018-19 to 65th this past season.
“I’m not a my-way-or-the-highway guy when it comes to philosophy. Now, I am on certain principles and my identity,” Forbes said.
That’s an identity forged through trial and error — and one that’s likely to continue to evolve throughout Forbes’ tenure at Wake Forest.