Real Talk About Media Coverage of NBA CoachingI correctly predicted the winner of seven of the eight first round series, including both upsets in the #4 versus #5 matchups; my only mistake was favoring Denver over Golden State: the Nuggets took game one on Andre Miller's buzzer-beating layup and then lost four of the next five games. I should have known better than to pick a George Karl-coached team in the playoffs: Karl has a .599 regular season winning percentage but just a .432 playoff winning percentage; compare that to the winning percentages of championship-winning coaches Phil Jackson (.704/.688), Gregg Popovich (.681/.613), Erik Spoelstra (.660/.633), Pat Riley (.636/.606), Rick Carlisle (.587/.515), Larry Brown (.568/.511) and Doc Rivers (.554/.529) and it is clear that neither Karl's playoff winning percentage nor the gaping differential between his regular season/playoff winning percentages suggest that Karl is an elite level coach.
Coaching matters in the NBA, even though some "stat gurus" dispute this. When I picked Chicago to beat Brooklyn I wrote, "This series features a huge coaching mismatch. TNT's Kenny Smith says that if a team loses by more than five points then blame the players but if it loses by less than five points blame the coach; the games in this series figure to be low scoring and close and I trust Chicago's Tom Thibodeau much more than I trust Brooklyn's P. J. Carlesimo; this is not just about in-game adjustments but also about elements of preparation that give one team an edge over another." Only two of the seven games in the Chicago-Brooklyn series were decided by five points or less--with each team winning one of those games--but five of the games were decided by eight points or less (including the triple overtime contest that Chicago won by eight points) and the Bulls went 4-1 in those games. Brooklyn's other two victories were both blowouts; there is no doubt that the Nets have a more talented team on paper than the injury-ravaged Bulls but the Bulls proved to be a more disciplined and focused squad: the Bulls did all of the "little things" that actually are quite important, such as setting solid screens, executing plays crisply and taking advantage of opportunities to score easy baskets on inbounds plays while also denying Brooklyn similar opportunities.
Bum Phillips once said that Don Shula "can take his'n and beat your'n or he can take your'n and beat his'n." The Chicago-Brooklyn series very much had that feel; in game seven, the Bulls were without the services of 2011 MVP Derrick Rose (who missed the entire 2012-13 season), All-Star Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich while the Nets had all hands on deck yet the Bulls took a huge first half lead and never trailed en route to a 99-93 road win: if everything else were kept the same but the head coaches switched sides, I'd be willing to bet that the Nets would have won the series.
Coach bashing is a favorite media pastime but most media members do not have a clue how to determine if a team is well coached or poorly coached. I respect all NBA coaches tremendously and I fully realize that even a bad NBA head coach knows more about basketball than the vast majority of coaches at any other level of the sport; Karl is a very good NBA coach but he seems to be better suited for rebuilding teams/coaching underdogs than he is at extracting the maximum out of 50-plus win teams. Carlesimo was an excellent collegiate coach and he served as an assistant on Gregg Popovich's San Antonio staff so Carlesimo obviously has a very good basketball mind--but as an NBA head coach he has not measured up well in comparison with the best of the best, a category in which Thibodeau clearly belongs.
When I critique coaches like Carlesimo and Karl I am not trying to suggest that I know more about basketball than they do or that I would be a better NBA head coach; in other words, I am not acting like Bill Simmons. I am just doing my job as an NBA analyst by pointing out that, as much as Karl and Carlesimo know about basketball, there are other coaches who are demonstrably performing at a higher level.
Media members do not like to admit being wrong and it is interesting to see the lengths some of them will go to in order to avoid such admissions. Simmons used to regularly bash Doc Rivers' coaching acumen but now Rivers is widely recognized as a great coach so Simmons had to stop degrading Rivers--but did Simmons admit that he was wrong? Of course not! Simmons' story is that Rivers has evolved into being a great coach. Rivers won the 2000 Coach of the Year award in his first season as an NBA head coach after leading the "heart and hustle" Orlando Magic to a 41-41 record with Darrell Armstrong, John Amaechi and Chucky Atkins as the top three players in the rotation. Has Rivers become a better coach in the intervening 13 years? I am sure that he has; I hope that anyone who does something for more than a decade becomes better at it--but the idea that Rivers was a terrible coach who then became a great coach is absurd. Simmons was dead wrong about Rivers and he should just admit it.
Simmons' arrogance is not unique; Cleveland media members still give the Simmons treatment to Bill Belichick, who took over a 3-13 Browns team in 1991 and transformed them into an 11-5 playoff team by 1994. During Belichick's entire tenure in Cleveland the media relentlessly mocked his coaching strategies and his public speaking style. The Browns have not won a playoff game since the 1994 team went 1-1 in the postseason, while Belichick has won three Super Bowls in New England. Belichick is now widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest coaches in NFL history--but do the Cleveland media members admit that they were wrong? Of course not! They insist that Belichick learned from his supposed mistakes in Cleveland and became a much better coach in New England. Sure, that makes sense: he was a dunce in Cleveland but he became a genius in New England--well, if ignorance is contagious then perhaps one could theorize that he caught it from those Cleveland media members! Smart people are much more apt to learn from their mistakes than stupid people, so there is no doubt that Belichick learned from some mistakes that he made in Cleveland but the record before, during and after his time there shows that he did a great job as the Browns' coach. A lot of those very same media members gave Mike Brown the Belichick treatment during Brown's first term as the Cavaliers' coach and they are no doubt gearing up to do so again as Brown takes over for the fired Byron Scott. We will be told that Brown should hire John Kuester as some kind of "offensive coordinator"--so that the Cavs can hope to replicate the awesome scoring attack that Kuester built during his tenure as Detroit's head coach when the Pistons ranked 29th and 22nd in points scored. Brown will be mocked for talking about his players letting him coach them, even though Hall of Fame Coach Chuck Daly said exactly the same thing; that statement has nothing to do with being a soft person or a bad leader and everything to do with understanding the nature of the culture in an NBA locker room: if a coach cannot elicit "voluntary cooperation" (Pat Riley's way of referring to the concept mentioned by Daly and Brown) then he cannot function effectively.
Mike Brown does not need me to defend him; he is well paid for his services and he is well respected by people who actually understand the technical aspects of the sport--I just wish that media members covered the league more intelligently, but we are all getting the media coverage that we accept/tolerate; perhaps some day editors and consumers will hold writers/TV talking heads to higher standards but it does not seem like that kind of change will happen any time soon.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:31 AM