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Friday, December 23, 2016

Great Players Want and Need to be Coached

Kurt Streeter explains that Tyronn Lue got the best out of LeBron James by challenging him, not coddling him: at halftime of game seven of the 2016 NBA Finals, Lue declared to James, "LeBron, you gotta be better! If we're gonna win, you gotta be better!" James led his Cleveland Cavaliers in scoring and assists during the first half but Lue knew that basketball greatness is not defined by numbers but rather by attitude, impact and focus.

Lue hit James with specific critiques that had nothing to do with statistics: "LeBron, what's wrong with your body language? Your body language is terrible. You got to guard Draymond. You got to take the open shot. Quit turning the ball over. Fix your body language. Anything else you want me to tell you?"

Too many people have become so enamored with statistics--particularly "advanced" statistics--that they fail to understand what basketball greatness really is. It is possible to put up big numbers but not be playing great basketball, which is why Lue lit into James. It is possible to score four points on 1-9 field goal shooting and be the best player on the court (Scottie Pippen versus the Indiana Pacers in game one of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals). Bill Russell used to give the equivalent of doctoral dissertations on basketball when he served as a color commentator during CBS' NBA telecasts. One time during an NBA Finals matchup between the 76ers and the Lakers, he and Dick Stockton talked about how Julius Erving's greatness was not just defined by gaudy numbers but also by the timing of Erving's plays. Attitude, impact, focus--those traits define basketball greatness.

Kevin Loughery, who won two ABA titles in a three season span with Erving as his best player, raved about what it was like to coach Erving:

That man was the best. He was the easiest superstar you could possibly coach. He had more talent at that stage--we asked him to do everything. I really believe--and I've told this to Doc--that the NBA never saw the real Dr. J. I really believe that. In the ABA he did things that were incredible. We asked him to do everything. We won the (1976) championship playing against Denver when they had Bobby Jones, an All-League defensive player. He had the best playoff series in a championship series that I've ever seen one individual have. Beyond that, so easy to coach, total gentleman, great guy. He's the best. He treated everybody the way that a player should treat everybody--his teammates, the media, the other players, the fans. He's the best superstar to be around that I've ever been around.

"Easy to coach" is a key phrase in that quote. Erving was "easy to coach" because great players want and need to be coached. Look at the relationship that Tim Duncan had with Gregg Popovich. No one was going to act a fool on that team during the Duncan era because Duncan accepted Popovich's coaching. The same thing is true in the NFL with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.

In his book The Jordan Rules, Sam Smith describes how Doug Collins was reluctant to criticize Michael Jordan when Collins was the Chicago Bulls' coach. Phil Jackson, one of Collins' assistant coaches at that time, took it upon himself to chastise Jordan when Jordan did not play the right way. Before long, Jackson was the Bulls' head coach and the Bulls eventually won six championships. Collins was a very good NBA coach but in that particular situation he did not challenge Jordan the way that Jordan wanted and needed to be challenged.

Jackson later challenged both Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant with the Lakers, lifting a previously underachieving team to three straight championships. Jackson then left the Lakers before coming back to win two more titles with Bryant and Pau Gasol as the best players. I remember a film clip of a Lakers' practice during which Gasol said "It's hard" after Jackson gave him some instructions about how to execute a particular sequence and Jackson barked back, "It's supposed to be hard!" Jackson would not accept excuses. It is worth noting that great players do not make excuses for themselves or accept excuses from their teammates; Jordan and Bryant exemplify that trait.

We live in an era during which basketball is supposedly being revolutionized by "analytics," but regardless of how you manipulate the numbers the realities of human psychology and athletic competition are immutable. You cannot win with losers, no matter how talented those players might be. You can win some games, you might even win a playoff series here or there, but in the long run a team built around a loser is always going to fall short.

George Karl's autobiography Furious George will be on sale to the public in January 2017 but I just received my review copy. Here is what Karl wrote about Carmelo Anthony: "My ideal--probably every coach's ideal--is when your best player is also your leader. But since Carmelo only played hard on one side of the ball, he made it plain he couldn't lead the Nuggets, even though he said he wanted to. Coaching him meant working around his defense and compensating for his attitude" (pp. 191-192, Furious George).

The Nuggets eventually traded Anthony and Karl concluded, "...getting rid of Carmelo Anthony was a sweet release for the coach and the team, like popping a blister. I don't automatically hate a superstar, but he's got to buy in, he's got to play defense, and he's got to share the ball. And if his teammates don't like him and if he doesn't help you win a championship...what good is he, except as bait?" (pp. 214-215, Furious George)

The Nuggets had the best regular season record in their NBA history after trading Anthony but they have been a sub-.500 team since getting rid of Karl and Masai Ujiri, the general manager who wisely traded Anthony and has now built the Toronto Raptors into a contender.

Anthony is the anti-Kobe Bryant. It is highly unlikely that Anthony could ever be the best player on an NBA championship team, because he does not accept coaching and he does not understand the importance of attitude, impact and focus. Anthony's attitude is "I got my 25 points, so it's not my fault we lost."

James is fascinating, because he is as perplexing and confounding as any truly great player in pro basketball history. There is no question that he has quit during some of the most important games/series of his career, but he has also been the best player on three championship teams while authoring some of the most sensational performances in NBA Finals history. He needs to be coached but does he always want to be coached? James is not wired like Jordan or Bryant but he is a champion in a way that Anthony never will be.

"Stat gurus" often minimize and mock the importance of coaching but Tyronn Lue's direct approach with LeBron James is just the latest example of how much impact a coach can have when he delivers the right message at the right time to a superstar who is receptive to that message.  

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:02 AM



At Monday, December 26, 2016 2:58:00 PM, Blogger jackson888 said...

I have been waiting for an article on steph curry, especially after he has already won 2 mvps, and being the first unanimous mvp choice among balloters. Just wanted your thoughts regarding curry among the real greats (pantheon level). Maybe along the way, maybe you can evaluate him versus russ westbrook also. Would be a treat to pick your brains on this. Pd, i have tried not to miss any warriors and thunder games for the last few years already (not just head to head, but all) as i am a fan of both players.
My 2 cents... i share nick's opinion regarding russ's defense, though i believe he costs okc closer to 10 points a game than 25 points a game on the defensive end. Just watching how he lets shooters go unchallenged (not even extending 1 step and putting hand up to distract the shooter) and allowing back cuts due to inattention really makes me cringe. I see curry exerting more efforts doing the basic defensive stuffs and executing his team's defensive philosophies (ron adams probably plays a big role there) more than russ, but i do believe russ is more capable defensively. During this season's first 5 games, curry was reaching all the time (bogut and ezeli used to cover perimeter mistakes) but he was moving his feet and trying to stay in front of his man (minus the reaching) the rest of this season. His steals now come mostly from pass deflections and passing lane interceptions (must be team defensive philosophy mandating perimeter defenders to not reach and to stay in front of man unless switching occurs).

At Tuesday, December 27, 2016 12:35:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

Nice overview David. The article on Tyronne Lue's background is really interesting.

Karl's weakness as a coach seems to be an unfortunate propensity for personal feuds with his players but his points on Anthony are well taken since Anthony has not really distinguished himself since leaving the Nuggets. Anthony is a frustrating case since he has all the physical talents necessary for being an incredible all-around player and even shows flashes of that talent/focus from time to time but never with any consistency. As a player, kind of strikes me as a very one-dimensional version of James Worthy with a big ego/apathetic attitude.

At Friday, December 30, 2016 1:00:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Although I have not written an article exclusively about Curry, I have written a lot about Curry over the past few years. In a Jan 8, 2009 article about the ESPN announcer swap I predicted a brighter NBA future for Curry than Van Gundy did (JVG is very good but he is not always right and there have been times that I was right and he was wrong). I would take Westbrook over Curry but a legit case can be made the other way.

At Friday, December 30, 2016 1:02:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Karl has coached some real headcases, so I am not sure how much responsibility he bears for the "feuds." His basketball critiques of Anthony are on point and he should have left out speculation regarding Anthony's upbringing.

At Tuesday, January 03, 2017 6:12:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

I agree on the last comment - Karl was right in criticizing Anthony, but wrong to engage in coded speech about his background. That alone submarined his credibility.

Wasn't Karl the coach of that USA Basketball team back in 2002? They finished sixth in the World Championships!


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