Tag Archives: Ray Allen

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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Be Where You Belong

Talking about LeBron – as many people have been doing recently – brings up lots of conversations that are worth exploring on their own.  When he was on the Cavs, lots of people said that his “supporting cast” wasn’t good enough to win with (a view that I disagreed with, as I’ve stated many times on this blog).  Then, when he joined up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, lots of people predicted that they’d be a dominant team, and, when they started the season slowly, lots of people spoke about the “chemistry issues” that the team was having.

In order to really delve into a discussion that tests the validity of any of those opinions, it’s first worthwhile to have a more general discussion about how to construct a good team.  I’ve already blogged about the importance of having players who fit particular basketball roles.  (Here.)  That’s an important part of the process, but it’s only part.

The other important part of the process of constructing a good team is having a roster of guys who, for a lack of a better phrase, “are where they belong.”  You want the best guy on your roster to be someone built to be the lead dog on a good team.  You want your second best guy to be suited to be second best, your third guy to be suited to be third best, etc.

True hoopsters undertstand that this is hard to accomplish.  Not everyone who’s suited to be a #1 guy on a roster can simply become a #2 guy on a roster successfully.  And not everyone who’s great at being a #2 can necessarily become a viable #1.  The same is true of players up and down the roster.  And it’s important to have guys in the right “slots”; if the players on a team are merely one slot “off” it can be the difference between a terrible team and a championship competitor.

Speaking generally, the guys who are best suited to fill the “lower roles” on a team are able to make contributions without dominating the ball on offense.  That doesn’t mean they can’t be scorers; some of them might be spot up shooters or guys who do most of their scoring in the paint.  Or, they can be guys who contribute without scoring much at all, usually by blocking shots and rebounding.

One of the players who illustrates this most clearly is Scottie Pippen.  Pippen was a great #2 – perhaps a perfect #2.  He was an adequate #1, but not fantastic, and certainly not great.  The Bulls teams he played on without Jordan never made the Finals, and the talented Blazers teams that he played on never did, either.  (Nor did the Rockets teams that he was on, but I don’t think of him as the “#1 guy” on those teams.)

In today’s game, there are multiple guys who illustrate the point.  To name a few:

Ben Wallace.  Not long ago, he started for – and was an important contributor to – a championship team.  But, put him on a bad team, and he’s not capable of making them competitive.  I think that, even now, towards the end of his career, there’s still a role for him to play on a good team.  But Detroit might be the worst team in the league, and having him in the starting lineup does next-to-nothing to make them competitive.

Ray Allen.  During his time on the Sonics, he was only a mediocre “top dog.”  (There’s a reason they traded him in his prime.)  On the Celtics, where he has generally been the #2 guy (while Garnett was hobbling and Rondo was ascending) or the #3 guy (since Rondo’s ascension), he is a great weapon.

Nate Robinson.  On a bad Knicks team, his inconsistency was crippling.  They didn’t have enough to win when he wasn’t scooting around the court like Sonic the Hedgehog, but he wasn’t consistent enough for them to depend on.  Coming off the bench for the Celtics, he is a valuable asset.

Moving “up” on the totem pole obviously has its risks; Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince are not nearly effective as a 1/2 punch (sorry, Rodney Stuckey) as they were when Chauncey was the top dog.  Going the other direction, Shawn Merion used to be an All-Star as the #2 on Phoenix, but isn’t making much of a contribution being lower on the Mavericks’ totem pole.

Seeing basketball through this prism helps explain the successes, failures, and difficulties of a number of NBA teams this season.  That’s the subject of the next posting.  In the meantime, I hope you’ll share your comments!

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