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Who’s A Good Coach?

I’m old enough to remember when Jeff Hornacek was an exciting young coach, and Derek Fisher was given a big multi-year contract. Now, armed with all the wisdom and experience that go along with being my age, I look at trends in the way NBA coaches are analyzed and wonder Does anyone know how to spot a good coach when they see one?

In the last year:

  • Tom Thibodeau was fired by the Bulls, after bringing them to the second round of the playoffs last season, where they lost to a better team;
  • Scott Brooks was fired after barely missing the playoffs with a team that played without Durant or Westbrook for most of the season;
  • Fisher was fired by the Knicks, who were showing signs of improvement, and had become a team kinda-competing-for-a-playoff-spot even though Jose Calderon was their best point guard;
  • David Blatt was fired when his Cavs were atop the Eastern Conference standings (the season after his team beat Thibodeau’s Bulls in the playoffs);
  • Kevin McHale was fired less than 20 games into the season following his team making the Western Conference Finals; and
  • Hornaceck was fired by the Suns, who were terrible, and had no business being anything better than terrible due to the lack of talent on the roster.

To be clear, I don’t claim to be able to give a deep, thorough analysis of a person’s ability to coach at the NBA level. I have some clues of what to look for, sure. For example, if you choose to play Sasha Vujacic any time there are 5 other living humans in the building, I know enough to question your lineup decisions. Fisher did that – repeatedly – so I have my questions about his ability to coach at the highest level. Or, if you decide, as Thibodeau did, to play Jimmy Butler for an average of 39 minutes per game, I question whether you’re overworking your players. Or, if you have Kevin Love, one of the game’s best offensive players, standing stagnant behind the three-point line, I question whether you’re getting the most out of the talent on your roster. But, in general, I don’t know enough about coaching at that level – or have enough time to watch – to give a detailed X’s and O’s analysis of why one coach is good and another is not.

That lack of knowledge seems to situate me to run an NBA team, because apparently none of the people hiring and firing coaches knows how to spot a good coach when he sees one, either. Consider this, hoopservers: the only coaches whose teams consistently win in the NBA are coaches with top level talent on their rosters.  In fact, the active coaches who have won NBA championships all had Hall of Famers on their title teams. That’s Pop (Duncan, and probably others), Carlisle (Dirk and Kidd, while acknowledging that Kidd was past his prime), Spo (LeBron, Wade, and Bosh), Doc (KG, Pierce, Ray Allen), and Kerr (Curry, and, at the rate the Warriors are going, maybe 7 or 8 other guys). Nobody else who’s coaching today has won a title.

Even among those guys, there are reasons to doubt their collective coaching brilliance. I’ll put aside Pop and Carlisle, and stipulate that they’re excellent coaches. Still, Doc’s Clippers teams have hardly overachieved, Spo missed the playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference last year, and Kerr’s Warriors opened their season with a better start than any team in the history of the NBA, while Kerr sat out and Luke Walton coached them. Maybe Luke Walton’s the next great coach. I dunno. Or, maybe the Warriors were so good because of what Kerr had taught them previously. But if we’re inclined to give Kerr credit for what the Warriors did without him, we at least have to consider whether Mark Jackson deserves credit for what they’ve done since he left.  At that point, we have good reason to question whether the Warriors are great because of coaching, or because they have the best shooting backcourt of all time, and a roster that fills out perfectly around them.

I’m not saying that any of those guys is not a good coach, just that their teams’ results seem to be more directly connected to the talent level on the roster than anything else.

The current coaches who have raised their team above the level we’d expect based on talent seem to be Brad Stevens, Mike Budenholzer (last year, at least), and, um… uhh…. I don’t know. Maybe Steve Clifford?  Even among those guys, Bud’s Hawks are 31-25, and Clifford’s Hornets are 28-26. That’s what excellent coaching counts for? Meanwhile, 2006-07 Coach of the Year Sam Mitchell has the Wolves at 17-39, 2007-08 Coach of the Year Byron Scott has the Lakers at 11-45, 2012-13 Coach of the Year George Karl has the Kings at 23-31, and 2009-10 Coach of the Year Scott Brooks has the Thunder at… oh, wait, dude got fired.  (If you’re reading this, thinking “I’d like to see a list of Coaches of the Year,” I gotcha: Coaches of the Year.  It’s what I’m here for.)

If given the choice, I’d rather have an above-average fourth starter on my team than a purportedly excellent coach.  But, hoopservers, maybe I’m overlooking someone.  So, I ask you: any coaches I’m overlooking, who have proven that they can consistently make their team competitive without top level talent on the roster?

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Comparing Kobe

Hey! Been a while. Sorry about that, internet. I’m glad to see you held up nicely without me for a few weeks. Now that David Blatt’s firing in Cleveland is generating all types of internet chatter, it looks like you’re going to be just fine even after I abandoned you.

I might have some hoopservations about David Blatt one day, but it looks like just about all the angles are being covered. Today’s hoopservation is about Kobe Bryant, who announced his retirement recently. Since the announcement, I’ve heard lots of folks engaged in hoopservations about his legacy. His career is really a fascinating one, because it provides evidence for a wide range of opinions. Hate Kobe? You’ll be able to point to his lousy record without Phil Jackson, and hanging on for what now looks like about 3 years too long. Love Kobe? You’ll be able to point to the unparalleled (I think, but invite all 8 of you readers to correct me if I’m wrong) career path of winning 3 championships as the second-best-player, then emerging as the best player on 2 other championship teams. At the rate this season is going, the Lakers’ win percentage will fall below .150 somewhat soon, and Kobe’s career shooting percentage will fall below 35% shortly thereafter. Before either of those things happens, I submit a few guidelines for comparing great players:
 
Let’s be realistic about evaluating the teammates of a champion – I laugh when I hear people say “yeah, Kobe won two without Shaq, BUT LOOK WHO HE HAD! He had Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.” Pau Gasol’s a nice player, but he hasn’t won anything significant without Kobe. And Andrew Bynum? C’mon. Kobe Bryant’s achievements are diminished because he was carried by Andrew Bynum?

The career arc matters – Kobe came into the league as a sort of phenom, with talent that was recognized as unique. He wasn’t selected at the top of the draft largely because there wasn’t precedent for a guard coming straight from high school and excelling. But, when he did excel, it wasn’t a shock. Thus, it can’t be diminished as the consequence of playing with great teammates, or for great coaches. It’s an important distinction between the great ones like Kobe, and guys who are drafted lower, wind up in a great situation, and excel. To name a few such guys, I’m thinking of Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green. Nobody compares those guys to Kobe, but the point is more general. Part of the analysis of a player’s career requires us to look at what he was expected to be, and also the situation he stepped into. Before we get carried away saying a second-round pick is better than a consistent All-Star, because the second round pick makes important contributions to a winning team, we should consider the career arc. The guys who we regard as the best in the league should be the ones who made a bad team competitive or a mediocre team great. Making a good team better is a meaningful achievement, but if nothing in the career arc points towards superstardom, we shouldn’t regard those guys as superstars. I think what Kawhi and Draymond are doing this season is remarkable, but before I rank them among guys who have shown the ability to be the best player on an otherwise mediocre team (Carmelo, CP3, Bosh), I need to see them join an otherwise mediocre team and make that team good.

The entire career matters – Kobe is now in his third season of not being an impact-making NBA player. It doesn’t erase his achievements over the rest of his career, but it’s not irrelevant, either. Every season a great player decided to play is part of his legacy. Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki are boosting their legacies by playing at a high level after so many years, while Kobe is hurting his. Kobe can’t be blamed for his injuries during the past two seasons, but at some point you’re simply playing past the point of being effective. Better to call it a career after 17 years and be judged on those achievements than to stay for 3 more ineffective years. At the same time, a short career is harder to view as a top-10-of-all-time career. Larry Bird, for example, played 13 seasons. Comparing Kobe to Bird, the fact that Kobe was in his 17th season before his production really declined is a feather in his cap. But, this is one of the hardest cross-era comparisons to make because the longevity enjoyed by modern athletes is the result of nutrition, training, and rehabilitation advancements that simply weren’t available previously.

The circumstances matter – All a player can be asked to do is win with the team he started with. If he doesn’t win, there are circumstances that might excuse coming up short. If, say, his teammates are always terrible, there’s room to speculate about what would have been accomplished with better teammates. If he wins, there might be factors that diminish the shine. If, say, he never won with his original team, and then went ring-chasing to a better team, the shine is diminished. Kobe’s career achievements are boosted by the fact that he stayed on one team for 20 years, through some great times, some challenges, and some disappointments. Most will respond “why would he leave? His team was awesome.” That’s valid, to a point. Yeah, he needed Shaq to win his first three titles. Then Shaq left. And Kobe stayed. Over 20 years, he battled whatever adversity was in front of him, with varying degrees of success. When the dust settles, it’ll be clear that he had some lousy years, fell just short a few times, and accumulated 5 rings along the way. Those circumstances matter, the same way it would matter to the legacy of a different all-time great if he – GASP! – quit on his team, signed with a team that already had, say – hypothetically of course, because nobody would ever do such a thing – Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and then won two. Wanna be considered among the absolute best of the best? Then go earn it. Kobe certainly tried to.

Where he ranks on the list of all-time greats will be the subjection of conservations – ahem, hoopservations – for many years to come. But why wait? I hope to hear your thoughts in the comments.

2 Comments:

  • HowMyAzzTaste

    I’d like to hoopservate Kobe dying in a fire. All Kobe has ever cared about is Kobe, and trying to make people compare Kobe to MJ. Because that was the measuring stick which he himself defined, and he came up way short, I think we have to conclude that for all its sparkle Kobe’s career was a failure.

  • JGrub

    I think you have to respect what Kobe has done. Never mind his last 3 yrs of injury. Jordan had Pipen, Magic had Kareem and Worthy, Lebron with Wade and Bosch, Kobe had Shaq and Gasol. Bynum is a bum and a fat over rated one at that. He was what Eddie Curry was to the Knicks. Lots of potential even some flashes but never consistent. Also some would say Kobe was selfish etc.. but aren’t we judging on his Bball skills and what he had done. If we had to throw in the personal lives and pass judgement then do we bring up Chambelin being a man whore and using women, Jordan’s gambling? I’m not saying I like Kobe but you have to respect what the man has done. Even more impressive is he did this straight out of HS. I have to put him in the conversation of top 15 probably, maybe 10.

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