Tag Archives: Los Angeles Lakers

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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Energy Is A Talent

Watching the Lakers lose to the Mavs was quite a trip.  In my mind, the Lakers were the favorite to win the whole thing — the only team with a superstar on the perimeter, and multiple quality big men.

My theory made perfect sense.

Until the games started.

Watching the Lakers big men be so inconsistent reminded me of a conversation I had during last year’s playoffs, with my friend JZ.  JZ is a wise old hoopserver.  In fact, he’s a member of the Jedi Council of Hoopserving Masters.

Around this time last year, I told JZ that I just couldn’t understand why some players were as inconsistent as they were.  I can’t think of a different profession where someone who performs at a superstar level sometimes, an average level sometimes, and below average the rest of the time is still regarded as useful.  Yet, in basketball, it happens frequently.  We simply accept such players as “inconsistent.”  It was flabbergasting to me, I told him, that such “inconsistent” players get paid millions of dollars and do not even exert 100% effort every time they play.

JZ explained that energy is a talent.  I think it’s an excellent hoopservation, and would only add two points of clarification:

1.  “Energy,” for purposes of this discussion, includes the thing we call “focus.”  The inability to devote the same effort to every game includes “energy,” which refers to the physical component, and “focus,” which refers to the mental component.

2.  When someone like, say, Lamar Odom, or Andrew Bynum, or Pau Gasol, looks like a superstar on Friday and a scrub on Sunday, it’s not because he isn’t trying, or stayed out too late on the Sunset Strip on Saturday night.  It’s just that energy isn’t one of the talents that made him a professional basketball player, so, even though he is exerting 100% effort on Sunday, it is 100% of a different energy level than he had on Friday.  In other words, the players who have the talent of high energy wake up every day with a high energy level, and when they exert 100% effort, it is 100% of an energy level that hardly changes.  The players who do not have the talent of energy do not wake up with the same energy level every day, and when they exert 100% effort, it is 100% of a different energy level on different days.  People who resent these players for not trying their hardest every game are missing the point.

Put a few guys on the same team who do not have the talent of high energy, and you’ll wind up with a team that looks like it has a personality disorder.  Like, for example, the Lakers.  The Lakers won two championships in a row, and looked, at times, like a juggernaut on their way to a third.  But, when their superstar (Kobe) started to slip just a little bit, and one of their other high-energy players (Artest) lost a half a step, then, all of a sudden, the team was heavily dependent on its low-energy guys.

It can work, if a few of those guys are playing at a high level each game, but it’s a risky venture.  There are lots of ways to try to win in the NBA, but talent usually wins out.  And energy is a talent.

 

2 Comments:

  • Champ

    I find the concept of energy being considered a talent an interesing one. How does one distinguish between those with varying energy levels and those who simply don’t give 100% on a daily basis though? Is the assumption that all professional athletes give 100% of their energy every day? More than half the players in the league barely play defense so how could those players be giving 100%? On another note, maybe the Lakers didn’t win the series because Kobe isn’t as good as everyone says he is. If Lebron were in his place, they certainly wouldn’t have lost.

  • ZackNovakJr.

    I think your point that energy/focus has a mental component is a crucial one. Unlike height or athleticism which are god-given talents, energy is primarily a learned skill. Some can learn it on their own, but others need coaching. Teaching players how to consistently focus is a coach’s most important job. The Lakers loss to the Mavs because of a lack of focus is therefore an indictment of Phil Jackson. One could argue that Gasol, Odom, Bynum, etc. are uncoachable, but I’d disagree. Almost all players are coachable, the coach just has to figure out how to reach each one or get rid of the ones that are truly obstinate. However, few truly obstinate individuals ever make it to highest level of their field. Gasol, Odom, and Bynum are all coachable. Phil Jackson just failed. Good thing for the Lakers that they will probably have a new coach next year.

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