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?
Other than the Sixers, who else among the playoff-missers could be characterized fairly as “tanking”? What if some franchises just don’t get it–because of limited resources, bad management, disinterested fan base? With the lottery system revamp, any geek with a calculator should be able to tell management that playing for ping pong balls isn’t a good strategy. So maybe “tanking” is being conflated with “poorly run” or “unlucky” or “indifferent” in this analysis.
@ Steve Alford’s Kid, I guess you weren’t listening to sports radio in NY last year, when folks were mad every time the Knicks made a game competitive, because they were in a race for the Knicks to be as bad as possible as quickly as possible.
Also, the Lakers have been, to some extent, tanking. I acknowledge that there isn’t always a bright line. But if we define it loosely as “a team not making every effort to be as competitive as it could be now, while stopping short of unreasonably restricting its flexibility in the future,” then the Lakers are there. They essentially pushed Pau Gasol out the door without any veterans who could come close to replacing him, and focused their offseason moves on adding high draft picks who weren’t ready to contribute. Sure, Gasol left as a FA so it’s unclear how responsible the Lakers were for it, but it’s not like the Lakers moved heaven and earth to get him to stay. He was benched for large parts of his final season there. And sure, maybe they simply misjudged Randle and Russell. But, if you’re pushing out productive veterans, and replacing them with 19-year-old rookies, that’s some degree of tanking. For all I know, Randle and Russell might turn out to be great years down the road, but right now the Lakers are terrible and there’s no indication that they’ll be competitive any time soon.
You’re right – tanking is never the right way to go, however, let’s look at the top 3 teams in the NBA right now. Not sure if they got extremely lucky or their scouting department is just superior to others…
Spurs – landed Duncan when they didn’t have the best odds in the lottery. Stuck with what everyone thought to be an average coach in Popovich (he was fired previously). I like to think picking Parker and Manu was smart scouting. But Kawhi – the 15th pick! He couldn’t shoot a lick in college and now he’s almost a 50% 3 point shooter. He’s the best defender in the league and probably a 1st team all NBA player. The Spurs (mainly Pop) deserve tons of credit for developing him, but they got a little lucky right? You’re telling me 14 teams looked at Kawhi and said, eh he’s not that good, but the Spurs scouts knew something else? I don’t believe that. Of course Pop gets the most out of nobodies (fat Boris, Patty “lights-out” Mills and BOGAN) and that is HUGE, but the Spurs aren’t the dynasty that we have come to love without a ton of luck.
GSW – Curry fell to them at 7 in the draft. The Wolves picked 2 POINT GUARDS ahead of him (Kahn). That was ridiculous when it happened and still ridiculous. And no one thought this little Davidson shooter was going to be this good…no one. And Draymond – 2nd rounder who really freaking competed but had weight and height problems. Turns out he’s the absolute perfect fit for this Dubs team. And you’re totally right – no chance does Draymond make a terrible team great, but on this Dubs team, it’s the perfect harmony. Again – lucky?
Cavs – besides for the obvious luck of Lebron being born in Cleveland and feeling the need to bring a championship to his hometown, they’ve won the lottery how many times? 4 – which has netted them Lebron, Kryie and Love (via Wiggins). (Sidenote, because I know you hate Love, – there’s a lot of talk about what he can’t do, and that’s very valid – below average defender, can’t rim protect, sometimes hangs out on the 3 point line too much, etc. But let’s talk about what he can do – he’s a double double machine, excellent defensive rebounder, excellent passer and elite stretch 4 on offense (which is quite possibly the most important position in today’s NBA). Oh and his basketball IQ is well above average. All this talk about trading Love is nonsense.
My point is – I don’t know. But I do know that tanking is clearly not the right strategy, but not tanking is also not going to get you there. Maybe my point is – luck plays more of a role than we’d like to think?