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Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Importance of Coaching

There is a tendency among those who don't understand the NBA game very well to dismiss the importance of coaching. Phil Jackson is sometimes derided for winning titles with the Hall of Fame caliber duos of Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen and Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant but leadership, strategy and motivation are important elements for team success. Keep in mind that in order to win a championship it is vital not just to get the maximum out of the team's stars but also to squeeze as much productivity as possible out of the other players on the roster. While Jackson's star players could undoubtedly have had great individual statistical success playing for any NBA team, Jackson came up with offensive and defensive plans that made sure that his stars did not have to carry all of the burden by themselves.

Before Jackson took over in Chicago, many people thought that Jordan was too focused on his own scoring exploits to lead a team to a championship. Before Jackson took over in Los Angeles, O'Neal had a history of not working hard on defense and of getting swept out of the playoffs. Jackson did not just make those teams a little bit better; he turned them into powerhouses: the 1996 Bulls set the all-time record for regular season wins (72) and the 2001 Lakers set the all-time record for playoff winning percentage (15-1).

Of course, in this year's Finals Jackson's Lakers lost to Doc Rivers' Celtics. Just last season many people were saying that Rivers is a terrible coach and even now there are people who act like Rivers was some kind of accidental tourist along for the ride during the Celtics' championship run--but accidents don't last for 82 regular season games and four playoff series. Rivers is a very good coach. As a former All-Star guard he knows the game and he also has a good rapport with his players, which is very important. After the Celtics came back from 24 points down to win game four of the Finals--the turning point of the series--Kevin Garnett spoke about Rivers' leadership:

Doc is not afraid to tell us when we're messing up. I've been around for a while and I've seen some coaches sort of say the 'right thing.' He gives it to you straight, lets us know and he's probably one of the best motivators I've been around in a while. He gives up hope through his words and we believe it. We go out and try to do what is asked of us. He gave us confidence and just told us, 'Cut it to 10, cut it to 7, get it to 3.' We just continued to fight.

Garnett spent his whole career in Minnesota before joining the Celtics this season and while I suppose it is possible that the "some coaches" remark could have been in reference to Bill Blair's brief tenure or Kevin McHale's interim stint on the bench or the short reigns of Dwane Casey and Randy Wittman, I suspect that Garnett was referring to Flip Saunders. Saunders is a good NBA coach who designs some of the best out of bounds plays in the league. However, I see no evidence that he is the kind of coach who can lead a team to a championship. He inherited a championship team in Detroit and the Pistons spun their wheels for three years until Joe Dumars canned Saunders in favor of assistant coach Michael Curry. Check out what Curry recently told Jim Rome:

Give the Celtics a lot of credit. They played extremely well. They played extremely well the entire season. We have to figure out a way and we have to get better at playing harder, more focused and more consistent throughout the year--taking care of a lot of the little things as far as taking care of our bodies and little things out on the court so that when we do get into situations in which we are under duress when we are playing a team that is just as good or better then we can perform at a high level and hopefully we can take care of those situations when we get back to the Eastern Conference Finals again.

Rome asked Curry if the Celtics were better than the Pistons or just more focused and Curry offered a very telling reply:

I think that having focus is part of being the better team. Throughout the regular season the Celtics have shown that they were the best team in the league. They played with the focus, with the understanding and the desire of the importance of each game. They've done a tremendous job. Give the coaching staff credit, give the players credit--they've done a tremendous job. At the end of the season, everyone says that they want to win a championship but you want to be in a position where you feel you deserve a chance to win it because you've outworked everybody that you're playing against. We did not outwork them.

Rome asked Curry about the Pistons' reputation for acting as though they can "turn it on and off." Curry plans to change that:

That's a label I do not like and we're going to get rid of that label as far as the team turning it on and off...We're going to do it the championship way...We're going to have more accountability and do the little things to make sure that we can be a more consistent team. That starts with the way we practice every day, the way we prepare for games every day and the way we approach games during the regular season, understanding that if we want to be there in the end it will be because of all the work we have done along the way.

Basically, in those brief replies Curry summarized every criticism that I have had about the Pistons under Saunders' regime--and since Curry was on Saunders' staff he obviously knows exactly what was going on behind the scenes on a day to day basis. Clearly, Curry believes that the Pistons were taking shortcuts in their preparation and were not as focused as the Celtics were. Casual fans have the mistaken belief that the most important coaching takes place during games but the reality is that the most important coaching takes place during practices and in the interactions that take place before the game. It is the coach's job to prepare the players as well as possible and then it is the players' job to execute. Some of the greatest coaches of all-time--Jackson and John Wooden, to name just two--are renowned for having calm, placid demeanors during games. That is because they know that the most important work is done before the game and they were not interested in grandstanding for the TV cameras. Do you know why Red Auerbach started lighting victory cigars? He once explained that he never understood why other coaches were jumping up and down and making spectacles of themselves on the sidelines, particularly if one team had a big lead with very little time left; smoking the cigar was his way of saying that the game is over and there is nothing more that he needs to do.

Curry has no track record as an NBA head coach, so I don't know whether or not he will be able to implement the program he described to Rome--but Jackson and Pat Riley had no prior NBA head coaching experience when they took over in Chicago and L.A. respectively but their focus on doing things "the championship way"--as Curry called it--paid off quickly.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:10 AM

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At Saturday, June 21, 2008 12:00:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Doc Rivers convinced me of his competence at the end of last year during the "drive for the ping-pong balls". The Celtics were supposed to lose, and they probably would have lost anyway, but those teams lost in the fourth quarter, not the first, and they lost a number of games by close scores.

They didn't get the ping-pong ball, but they did end up with a bunch of players who either proved valuable in the big trade, or who stayed with the team and helped win the championship.

Contrast this with Pat Riley, who basically abandoned his team and the season and put in a bunch of CBA refugees while he went off to the horse races.

 
At Saturday, June 21, 2008 8:12:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

That is an interesting take, although it is not exactly what I meant when I said that coaching is important.

Doc Rivers won the Coach of the Year award after his first season as a head coach, when he led the "heart and hustle" Orlando Magic to a 41-41 record in 2000.

 

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