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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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One of the themes that will be explored here this season is that, today, championships have come to be over-rated, and competitiveness has come to be under-rated. To be clear, when I say that championships have come to be over-rated, I’m not saying it as one of the people who think everyone should get participation trophies just for trying. And when I say that competitiveness has come to be under-rated, I’m not saying it as an old crank lamenting that the game is not as competitive as it used to be. Yes, I liked the Knicks’ physical style of play of the ‘90s. (Go New York, Go New York, Go!) But, the truth is that I’ve only fouled someone hard once in my life, and when I did I felt so bad that I thought about sending him a box of chocolates the day after.

When I lament the lack of appreciation for being competitive, I’m talking about something else altogether. I’m saying that because we’ve come to view winning a championship as the only achievement worthy of any celebration, we’ve arrived at a strange place. Teams now “tank” somewhat regularly, on the theory that being extra-bad now will increase their odds of winning a championship later. The Sixers are the most egregious example, because they’ve been at it for a while and haven’t turned a corner yet. But other teams are tiptoeing on the line between rebuilding and tanking, and the game is suffering because of it.

The players themselves are a large part of the problem. LaMarcus Aldridge was on a Portland team that won 50+ games for a few straight years, and then he hit the free agent market this summer. He wound up on the Spurs, reportedly because he wants to win more. Along the same lines, Dirk Nowitzki consistently gives up millions of dollars of potential earnings, because he’d rather have more talent around him than compete on an even playing field with guys at his level who get paid what they’re worth. And I won’t get started on that “star” who used to play in Minnesota. You know, Kevin Love – a/k/a Kevin “Competing Is Not A Thing That I” Love.

The fans deserve plenty of blame, too. Many roast Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant, for making what they deserve, while celebrating the likes of Aldridge, Nowitzki, and David West. I’m supposed to be angry at the guys who make what they’re worth, and celebrate the guys who take less so they can win? Why don’t we just give up on the idea of competition altogether, put playoff spots and championship rings up for bidding on eBay, and give them to the players who are willing to pay the most?

In upcoming posts of this thread, I’ll argue not only that tanking teams are hurting the game, but that tanking is ineffective as a long-term strategy. I’ll also argue that fans should adjust the way they analyze and credit players, and that the NBA should make certain changes to its structure to address this problem. For now, if you disagree with any of the above, I hope to hear from you.

4 Comments:

  • Bret

    Tanking worked for the Spurs in ’97. They folded up shop after David Robinson got hurt that year and were rewarded with Tim Duncan. The decision to tank seems to have paid off nicely.

  • Damon Bailey's Ghost

    Tweener (if that’s even your real name): I can’t wait to hear your more fully thought out observations on this notion that the noblest goal of all NBA players is “making what they deserve” and, on the flip side, taking a pay cut to play with better players, winning more games, enjoying your career, and giving yourself a shot at winning a ring that you’ll cherish for the rest of your life are ideals that threaten the very fabric of NBA society. “Know your worth” as an ethos has limited value in most contexts outside of Drake and Beyonce songs, and is especially inapt when you’re trying to dictate how NBA stars “should” act in free agency.

  • Tweener

    @Bret, the Spurs in ’97 had David Robinson, who had won the MVP two seasons before, and had been named one of the 50 greatest players of all time. None of the current tanking teams have anything close. In any event, Robinson sat because he broke his foot. If the organization did anything that constitutes tanking, it involved not rushing back an injured great player, to play in a handful of meaningless games. The Sixers have been tanking for years, and the tanking activities pursued by other teams (or desired by their fan bases) go far beyond sitting a great player for a handful of meaningless games.

    @Damon Bailey’s Ghost, if you’re gonna make music references you expect me to understand, you’re gonna have to stick to Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer. Sorry.

  • 'House

    The sixers are awful. Can’t even tank correctly and think it’s ok to take flyers on injured big men year over year. NBA does control it by the ridiculous lottery process, which I will never understand. Philly fans should be ashamed. I know DrJ, Iverson and even Aaron Mckie are. ‘Ain’t not father to my style.

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