Tag Archives: Kevin McHale

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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The rant developing deep in my soul continues to take shape.  It now has some words, but no sentences yet.  Lots of numbers, though.  Lots and lots of numbers.

For starters, some numbers about the Miami Heat… The Heat were were well positioned to compete for a championship before LeBron signed.  Last year, they finished 47-35, good for 5th in the East, carried almost entirely by Dwyane Wade.  Their second-leading scorer was – I kid you not – Michael Beasley, at 14.8 ppg.  Their third-leading scorer was – I couldn’t make this up if I tried – Jermaine O’Neal, at 13.6 ppg.  (Complete stats here, in case you’re interested.)

Yes, Jermaine O’Neal.  The same Jermaine O’Neal, who, as the 5th guy in the Celtics starting 5, constituted their weakest link.  He was the third leading scorer on the Heat last year.  Yet, they were 47-35, because Dwyane Wade is Just That Damn Good.

The Heat team of last year, though, is not the team that LeBron joined.  No.  He joined a significantly better version.  See, before LeBron signed with the Heat, they had already signed Chris Bosh.  Bosh had just completed five straight seasons of averaging more than 22 ppg, and two straight seasons of averaging more than 10 rpg.  (Stats here.)

In other words, a team that was 47-35 had retained its superstar, Wade, and had upgraded from Michael Beasley to Chris Bosh – a legitimate star (I’ve knocked him before, but he’s probably one of the top 30 players in the game, and is, unquestionably, significantly better than Michael Beasley).  They were clearly on their way to a 50-win season.  That’s before LeBron came on board.

Generally, this point of a discussion about LeBron is about the time when LeBron defenders say something like “Well, all championship teams have multiple great players.  Magic had Kareem and Worthy, Bird had McHale and Dennis Johnson.  Michael had Scottie.  LeBron isn’t getting more help than those guys got.”

This is line of thinking is, um… what’s the word???? Oh, yeah… ASSININE.  That’s the one.

Let’s get specific.  We’ll start with Magic, and the notion that the help he got from Kareem and Worthy was the same as the help LeBron is getting from Wade and Bosh.  Kareem, whose greatness is undeniable, was injured during the 1979-80 Finals, and Magic, then a rookie, turned in one of the legendary performances in NBA history, going for 42 points, 15 rebounds, and 7 assists.  (Details here, in case you want them.)  I’m not saying that Magic carried the team that season, I’m just pointing out that one of his defining games came without Kareem.  By the time Magic won his fifth title in the ’87-88 season, the tall dude lumbering around the court in a jersey that said “Abdul-Jabbar” on the back averaged less than 15 points and played less than 29 minutes per game.  (Kareem’s stats here.)

As for Worthy, Magic had already won two titles before Worthy got drafted.  You’re familiar with the legendary North Carolina team that won the ’82 NCAA Championship with Jordan, Perkins, and Worthy, right?  Well, that was the season Magic won his second NBA title.  So don’t waste my time with the “Magic had Worthy” nonsense.

Now let’s talk about Bird.  Yes, he had McHale.  You know how many points and rebounds McHale averaged in 1980-81, the year of Bird’s first championship?  Guess.  What do you think, 15 and 8?  Lower.  12 and 6?  Lower.  10 and 4?  Yup.  (Check here, if you want details.)  On the ’83-’84 championship team, Bird averaged more than 5 points per game more than the next highest scorer on the team (Robert Parish), AND he had 182 assists more than the next best passer on the team (Dennis Johnson).  (Go look here, if you want.)

Translation, for those who aren’t interested in numbers: Bird carried a much larger share of the burden for the Celtics than LeBron carries for the Heat.  It’s not even close.

That brings us to Michael.  Actually, we’ll save that for tomorrow.  The contrast between what Michael did and what LeBron is doing is so stark that it deserves its own post.

For now, to close this portion of the statistical analysis, I simply note that, while it’s true that Magic and Larry had multiple great teammates, it’s also true that there were fewer teams back then, diluting the talent in the league.  The talent around Magic and Larry only seems comparable to the talent around LeBron if someone looks at them all in a vacuum.  But when one looks at the talent around those guys relative to the talent on the other best teams, it becomes clear that the Celtics and Lakers were not ready to compete for a title without Larry and Magic.

Back then, Raptors were an extinct species of dinosaur, not a mediocre team in Toronto.  Wolves, Grizzlies, and Bobcats were running around the jungle, but they weren’t diluting the talent pool in the NBA.  The Hornets, Magic, and Heat weren’t around yet, either.

In today’s game, where Dwayne Wade and a bunch of spare parts is good enough to win 47 games, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh together is a championship contender, and, with the right role players, possibly even one of the top favorites.  Without LeBron.

No more for now.  Tomorrow, MJ.







1 Comment:

  • Jones

    Great post- really enjoyed the information, compares & contrasts to the old greats- especially ShowTime Magic. The extra link of Laker history was the best I’ve ever read.

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