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?
Thinking about role players is interesting. Boston got it right when it found Rondo and Perkins to complement their 3 stars. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem that Miami has found what it needs. I think of role players as guys who are useful because they do one or two things really well, but don’t have enough other skills to become stars. The key is putting a role player in a position to succeed – a situation where he is asked to do what he is good at and not asked to do what he is not good at. The Pistons asked Ben Wallace to rebound a play D – that worked and Wallace was great. Team USA asked him to score – that didn’t and Wallace looked like a guy who would have had trouble in the NBDL. Now thinking about Landry Fields, I don’t see what his one or two things that he does really well are. He’s ok at everything, but great at nothing. I think he was just lucky to fall into a situation on pre-Carmelo Knicks where his hustle and team play were valued and his skills were secondary. Carmelo changed the vibe on the Knicks. Team play isn’t the priority anymore, the individual is what’s valued now. The Knicks are about getting Carmelo his shots and A’mare his, and then worrying about the team after that. In this new environment, where Fields best skills are no longer valued, he’s lost and thus no longer a useful role player. If Fields can find a team that needs a hustle player or “glue” guy, he may still make it in the NBA.
Good stuff, Novak. I generally agree with you, up to your comment that, on the current Knicks “team play isn’t the priority, the individual is what’s valued now.” I don’t think we can test that statement until we see what the Knicks look like after surrounding Carmelo and Amar’e with the right kinds of role players (e.g. a center who rebounds and blocks shots on D, and operates down low on offense, a shooting guard who can shoot, and a healthy point guard who creates good shots for his ‘mates).