May 20, 2016, 7:02 pm
Coaching is hard. There are only a handful of guys that truly get the credit for everything they do while everyone else turns into some bum who you’ll never win with.
There are definitely many coaches that you’ll never win with, though that could result from a combination of their capability, the capability of their roster and simple probability; only one in 30 teams wins every year.
It’s the harsh reality of professional basketball, and it makes evaluating who is and isn’t ‘A Good Coach’ pretty difficult if you allow room for the nuance that this sort of decision requires.
There are lots of things that go into any job. Say you keep coming up short on your monthly sales quotas. There’s probably a solid chance that you’re going to be let go eventually; at least more so than if you keep jamming the copier or forget to refill the coffee filters in the break room.
Now imagine if a bunch of people on Twitter called for you to be fired if you jammed the copier. That’s how I imagine NBA coaching would translate, especially around this time of year.
In the playoffs, there’s a giant microscope on every decision. For as good as you can be in the regular season, the playoffs are a different animal. Stakes are high and one or two bad calls can completely change the course of a franchise. The time you get to craft a comprehensive gameplan and adjust it over a full series helps separate the wheat from the chaff, because obviously some coaches are better than others.
It just seems like during the playoffs we can’t see the forest for the trees. Coaching is a big job with lots of stuff to handle at both the macro and micro levels. The importance of each game calls major attention to any deficiencies in the micro, and rightfully so. It’s just really hard to maintain perspective when your evaluations swing so wildly from game to game, quarter to quarter or even possession to possession.
Odd substitution patterns, mismanaged personnel, and poor timeout usage will all get you put on blast. And for the love of God, do not dare think about running a play that results in a missed bucket. Every play better have at least three actions too, otherwise your offense is too simple and you need to go.
So how do you measure coaching success? The short answer is I don’t know. Everyone has their own definition of ‘success’ so I won’t force mine onto you. All I know is that it’s tough to balance the macro and the micro, and there’s really only a handful who can master both.
You can be great at the small stuff, but if you suck at the overarching things you wind up with Chip Kelly instead of Brad Stevens (sorry for crossing streams). I got the idea for this piece after writing up some of the coaching news over on our blog, and the more I thought about it the more names popped into mind so I’m going to run through the guys and traits that really made me think.
Obviously Steve Kerr is a great coach. He’s an adept playcaller and helped unlock Golden State’s full potential. Beyond that, think about the big picture stuff that Kerr has brought to the Warriors. He listened to Nick U’Ren, a 28 year old who was serving as a special assistant to Kerr, when U’Ren suggested that the Warriors go small against Cleveland in the Finals. That’s nuts. The fact that a head coach would listen to a 28-year old on the biggest stage in the game.
That’s the macro at play; Kerr has worked to build up a culture of communication and open mindedness that encourages people to think freely and collaborate to get better. It’s that kind of environment that props up Golden State’s joie de vivre.
I mentioned that Kerr unlocked Golden State’s potential, but this was still a good team under Mark Jackson. MJ was undone by politics and front office headbutting, but he was still a reasonably fine coach. I don’t think he’s as good at the micro aspects of coaching as Kerr, but there’s something to be said about the fact that former players still go to bat for the guy. The fact that he’s earned that lasting respect and support of guys who’ve gone on to immense success in part because of his departure is remarkable.
Getting the support of your guys is one of the biggest obstacles and is extremely hard to judge since we’re not in the locker room. Look at Cleveland under David Blatt and Ty Lue for another example of the player-coach relationship mattering big time. You need that respect and you probably need to be liked, and sometimes we forget that cuts both ways.
Dave Joerger did a hell of a job with the warm bodies Memphis put on the court by season’s end. They were short on talent but long on guts, and even though it wasn’t pretty the Grizzlies went out there and competed under Joerger until the bitter end. Sure, the Grizz didn’t win a whole lot in the second half of the year and Joerger probably isn’t some X’s & O’s genius, but there’s a lot to be gleaned from how hard his teams play.
If you can, seek out the emotional postgame presser after they were eliminated by San Antonio. Joerger is clearly a guy who cares about his players, and it’s easy to play for someone when you know that ‘I have your back’ is more than lip service. Imagine the difference between playing for a guy like that and working with someone who calls out effort every night. Wait a year and ask your friendly neighborhood Kings fan.
It’s long term stuff like that that lays the groundwork for success, even if you aren’t a coaching savant. The Kings are an interesting case study for pretty much any kind of dysfunction you want, and obviously the coach-player relationship is a big one there.