The year of coaching narratives and the right fit
I’ve made a handful of posts regarding the value of coaches in the NBA. My general belief is coaches are more often than not overrated. There is usually no escaping a team’s talent level in the NBA. Furthermore something I’ve been fascinated by is the connection of offense and defense in the NBA. I do not favor isolating team ORTG and DRTGs, because I believe teams can have “identities” or push their energy and planning towards one side of the court, elevating either the ORTG or DRTG, but at the cost of the other end. As a good example this year’s Indiana Pacers are 1st defensively and 29th offensively. Why so futile offensively with talents on that end like Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert? They’re probably playing below their heads offensively for the same reason they’re playing above their heads defensively: Because they’re a defensively orientated team. On the other hand, the Houston Rockets are 9th offensively and 19th defensively despite having one of the best defensive centers in the league in Omer Asik and little offensive talent outside of James Harden. Chances are with a different style of play they could be better defensively but at the cost of offensively. The end result of the Pacers and Rockets is that they’re playing almost exactly as expected, the Pacers in the mix for the 2nd-4th seed and the Rockets in the mix for the 8th. While I respect Frank Vogel and Kevin McHale, I see little reason to believe they’re coaching has made their teams better. It makes more sense to say Pacers are great because they have 3 all-stars at SF, PF and C in George, West and Hibbert, the Rockets because they have one of the league’s best players in Harden along with a few decent supporting pieces like Asik, Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin – and the coach and system did enough for these rosters to play up to their ability, no matter whether it was with offense or defense emphasized.
Despite this being my general philosophy with coaching, there hasn’t been a year recently where coaching has seemed more relevant than 2012-2013. Coaching has been a crucial part of the story of the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, and Brooklyn Nets, 3 high profile markets and situations. Let’s start with the New York Knicks. A year ago they fired Mike D’Antoni with the middling results under him and have been playing like a top 3 seed ever since. Woodson’s approach has been to simplify the team. The Knicks understand that to win, they play defense first and then move the ball on the offensive end, from Melo to the array of 3pt shooters to Tyson Chandler finishing inside. A similar simplifying has happened in Brooklyn. Avery Johnson micromanaged his point guard Deron Williams and wanted to run a system heavy team. With Carlisemo the Nets seem freer to make their own decisions on the fly. What’s important about the Knicks and Nets improvement to me is that both teams seem happier. On the surface, to me much their improvement has been emotional. The Knicks have a perfect culture in the style they play. They seem to have great chemistry, share the ball and all commit on defense. The Knicks are now a bonded team in a way that should be emulated by other franchises. Likewise the Nets are playing together on both ends since P.J. took over. Importantly, Deron Williams is a player who’s numbers have greatly improved under their new coach. The freedom in style of play seems to have rubbed off well on him.
Another good example of a “free play” coach is Scott Brooks. Brooks has been criticized at times for being hands off on his players and letting them play. He doesn’t pull in Russell Westbrook’s boundless energy by making him walk up the court and run pick and rolls. He lets the players figure it out and makes sure they play hard and move the ball and this seems to fit their team the most.
But compare this to Tom Thibodeau’s Chicago Bulls, who are the posterboy for elite coaching in the NBA. What’s interesting is that Thibodeau has the mentality of a coach, that the Knicks and Nets arguably succeeded by abandoning. He’s the uber-intense, micro-managing system coach. Yet his style works perfectly for the Bulls. Perhaps it’s because they have the roster to pull it off, mainly thanks to the psychotic competitiveness of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah leading the way. Tom Thibodeau on another team may not have found any more success than Doug Collins in Philadelphia or Scott Skiles on the Bucks, but for the Bulls he is perfect.
Now let’s talk about the mess that is the Los Angeles Lakers. Mike D’Antoni has undoubtedly failed his second franchise in a row. If recent reports are to be true, they are a chemistry disaster. Pau Gasol is a headcase who’s gone off the deep end and the Kobe Bryant-Dwight Howard relationship sounds like it’s going as well as the one between Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano’s characters in “There Will Be Blood”. I believe D’Antoni is the wrong fit for this system that reasons that have little to do with his strategically system. He’s a bad fit because of how he’s clearly not the type who could keep Kobe’s ego, Dwight’s lack of assertiveness and Gasol’s sensitivity from sprawling the team into mental chaos.
One thing this situation made me appreciate is Phil Jackson’s greatness. Look at that Lakers core from a few years ago with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum and Metta World Peace. Based on what we know about those players, that’s a ticking time bomb mix of alienating ego (Kobe), mental fragility (Odom and Pau), distracted immaturity (Bynum) and an actual crazy person (World Peace). Kobe, Odom, Pau and Bynum have befallen to the absolute worst of their character flaws without Jackson, while MWP funnily enough has been the most sane. Phil managing to keep a team with THOSE 5 players afloat from a chemistry and emotional perspective, has to be one of the most underrated coaching achievements of all time. And this is not the first time Phil has done a great job keeping locker-rooms with big heads together, turning the uneasy Shaq-Kobe relationship into 3 titles, as well as keeping Scottie Pippen on board with playing #2 for 6 titles with Michael Jordan (and later, getting Dennis Rodman on track after he had gone off the rails in San Antoni). This is ultimately why Phil Jackson is the greatest coach of all time. Although he had more talent than any coach in history, he did an amazing job playing caretaker to some situations that may have blown up without him.
What this all tells me is that coaching is important, but perhaps coaches shouldn’t be judged in a vacuum. Instead it’s about fitting the players to the coach. Both in style of play and in the way those players approach the game. Sometimes you need a Scott Brooks to leave his hands off and sometimes a Tom Thibodeau to put his hands on.
But with that said. While he’s not in the right spot, let’s face it. Mike D’Antoni is still doing a really, really bad job.