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Listen Up Chicago - NBA Coaches Don’t Matter Very Much

Chicago Bulls LogoSay what you will about Chicago Bulls GM John Paxson and his recent coaching hire, but I think ol’ Johnny got it right. Why pay top dollar when coaches don’t matter very much anyways?

While one could argue there are a few top notch coaches that could make ANY NBA team good, like Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, Jerry Sloan, and Gregg Popovich, it’s a tough make your argument stick. After all, each of those men enjoyed the services of elite players like Bill Russel, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, and Tim Duncan (along with a slew of other greats) during their most successful seasons. It’s true that no one wins without talent, but it’s hard to prove that coaches really make much of a difference.

Don’t get me wrong - I’m not saying that a bum off the street could coach an NBA team with decent success. Far from it. You still need to have the right experience, the right background, etc. All I’m saying is that a guy like Vinny Del Negro has just as good of a chance of leading the Bulls as does Mike D’Antoni because coaches are a pretty small part of the picture. Here’s why:

1) Coaches can’t “motivate” anyone. There’s a common misconception in the business world that a good manager can motivate his or her employees. The same goes for any coach in any sport. If your employees (or players) aren’t motivated to perform, there’s absolutely nothing you can do to change that. Successful people all share one trait: A drive that comes from within. Neither Mike D’Antoni, Phil Jackson, or Tony Robbins has figured out how to make people REALLY care.

2) Coaches can’t really change playing time. One of the great myths of the basketball business is that players have to work for playing time. While it is true that a lot of role players have to work very hard to get decent run, a coach rarely has the ability to bench whoever he wants. Top talents MUST be played - the economics of the NBA demand that top players spend lots of time on the court. Most NBA fans don’t enjoy coming out to see role players execute crisp offense and play stifling defense. Fans come out to see Mr. Wonderful make some outrageous play. Even if Mr. Wonderful hurts his team by being selfish and playing no defense, his minutes will not be effected.

3) The NBA is dominated by talent. Teams without big-time talent can achieve decent results (see the ‘05-06′ Chicago Bulls), but ultimately success in the league is determined by the game’s superstars. Unless you’re fortunate enough to enjoy a roster full of almost super-stars (like the Pistons), you’re going to struggle to make it past the first round of the playoffs without majorly talented players, regardless of your coach. Put another way, ANY lesser-known coach (Mike Brown) will enjoy success if he has a top notch player (like Lebron James).

4) NBA coaches have no leverage. Ninety percent of NBA coaches have no power over their players ninety percent of the time. NBA players have guaranteed contracts that result in big paychecks regardless of performance. NBA players are difficult to trade. NBA player egos often exceed rational thought (see Latrell Sprewell). Add it up and you quickly realize that an NBA coach has no leverage over his players. There is a brief period of time right after a coach is hired when he has the ability to convince the team’s ownership to make a change and trade a player. The threat of a trade can be motivating, but after a year or two the coach’s influence with the ownership is usually gone.

5) Games are ultimately decided by players. Until the NBA institutes some sort of “coach deathmatch”, where each NBA team sends their coach out to battle the other team’s coach for the win, NBA coaches don’t decide the game. Granted, all things being equal, better coaching will prevail in a close game. But all things are rarely equal in the NBA.

6) Most NBA players are too immature to be ‘coached’. Let’s put our make-believe hats on and pretend that we’re 22 years old, playing in the NBA, and a multi-millionaire. We have arrived. Now, let’s also pretend that ’some old guy’ is telling us our jump shot is weak and that we don’t play enough defense. Can you imagine yourself responding to that coaching positively? While I think there are some players who have enough maturity and humility to accept coaching, I think that is the exception rather than the rule.

So where does that leave us? I would contend NBA coaches don’t really matter. Unless they have a top-notch championship pedigree (Riley and Jackson), complete financial control (Auerbach), and/or the total confidence of ownership (Popovich and Sloan), NBA players aren’t likely to pay much attention. I would argue that the team management’s commitment to a coach is equally as important as a coach’s knowledge and skill. At least a coach with the owner’s backing can trade players and influence contracts.

Ballhype: hype it up!

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  1. 8 Comment(s)

  2. By Jeff V on Jun 13, 2008 | Reply

    “Top talents MUST be played - the economics of the NBA demand that top players spend lots of time on the court. ”

    Have you watched the Knicks lately?

  3. By admin on Jun 13, 2008 | Reply

    The Knicks don’t have much in the way of “top talent.” Marbury was the top dog, but he ruined his image. Following Steph, you’ve got one Zach Randolph (not a fan favorite), a couple of SGs (Q-Rich and Crawford) that most fans don’t care too much about, and then it gets significantly worse from their. Don’t get me wrong - Balkman, Robinson, and Lee are all popular and worth watching. They’re just not considered top talent.

  4. By Gerry V on Jun 13, 2008 | Reply

    you’re out of your mind ! coaches establish alot of what goes on..some of your takes left me howling with humor…GV

  5. By admin on Jun 13, 2008 | Reply

    Coming from a guy that loves Byron Scott, that really doesn’t surprise me. Byron Scott is about as over-rated as they come.

  6. By jauxmama on Aug 2, 2008 | Reply

    Your take on coaches misses some very important points:

    1. You only refer to what coaches do during the game and omit all the coaching AND teaching that goes on in practice. This is probably why you left out Larry Brown from your list of successful coaches who win without tons of talent.

    2. You ignore the role that coaches play in bringing in players who compliment their systems and who can add skills needed on any particular team.

    3. There was a coaches “deathmatch” this year in the Finals where Doc Rivers beat the crap out of Phil Jackson by motivating his players to play defense and by the smartest substitution rotation seen in decades. He got the maximum mileage out of every role player on the squad and the results were a Ring.

  7. By PLBT on Aug 4, 2008 | Reply

    Doc Rivers had Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen on his team, for some reason I feel like that played a MUCH larger role in that championship than coaching did.

  8. By JL on Aug 8, 2008 | Reply

    juaxmama - I like your comments - very good stuff. Thank you.

    However, I’ve got to disagree. Starting with your first point, I would direct you to my assertions in points 4 and 6. Egos being what they are, most NBA players (at least the ones that can make a big difference) won’t accept any real teaching or coaching. Shaq’s free throw shooting might be the best example - here’s a guy who could have been the BEST center ever if he would have just worked on his free throws. Instead, he ignored all his coaches and just kept throwing up bricks. Granted, the role players can be coached, but they rarely impact a game the way a star player can.

    Your second point is correct. I didn’t put much weight into that because most NBA coaches are victims of the GM’s choices. I’m sure they have a voice, but on most teams GMs sign players - not coaches.

    The third point - seriously? Doc Rivers a good coach? This was the first year the guy ever won a playoff series. As PLBT said, KG, PP, and Jesus Shuttleworth had a lot more to do with winning than Doc. I like Doc - I admire him greatly - but great coach he isn’t. You mention great substitutions, but I watched Doc struggle with playing Cassell and Rondo. He didn’t know when to pull either one of them.

  9. By jauxmama on Aug 23, 2008 | Reply

    Points 4 & 6 in your “Assertions” contain just enough truth to lull you into thinking that you’ve got it nailed, but not enough truth to make them relevant.

    #4. coaches who have winning records exert powerful leverage over players at the professional level since they have track records of success that all players want to tap into. Younger coaches often have had successful playing careers and carry with them reputations that demand respect from current players.

    PLAYING TIME is the ultimate leverage. You don’t listen…you sit. I’m sure you’ll point to the pressure to play that management puts on a coach so that the zillion dollar player gets minutes. But, not all minutes are created equally. Meaningful minutes are what every player on a team wants. And, it’s the coach who controls the who, when and where of playing time.

    #6. Basketball is a kids game. Seldom does any athlete, at any level, want to listen to someone criticize their game. It doesn’t matter if your in Junior High or playing the 2 guard for the Lakers. ALL players chafe under that kind of tutelage. The smarter ones somehow come to the realization that there just might be something they don’t know about the game and that maybe, just maybe, they might learn a trick or two from the coach.

    Doc Rivers IS a good coach. all the super stars mentioned earlier had to come to a meeting of the minds about how to approach the season and the crafty blending of their skills and personalities. Doc Rivers was the facilitator of that meeting.

    As far as his “struggles” with Cassell and Rondo…it was they that were doing the struggling. All he could do was try to intuitively understand when each might be ready to rise to the occasion. The results speaks volumes about his efforts.

    Is he a Great Coach? Not yet. But, there can be NO doubt that he out coached Phil Jackson, who leads him in rings 9 to 1. Don’t think so? Look at the scoreboard.

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