At the start of the 2014-15 season, at least 18 teams—more than half the league—will have a different coach than they did at the close of the 2012-13 season. Depending on what happens with Kevin McHale (Houston Rockets), that number could be even higher.
It’s not like there are 20 terrible teams in need of an overhaul. Just look at the West, where 10 teams nearly won 50 games, a reliable benchmark for “this coach is not screwing things up completely.” But coaches get fired. That’s what they do. They don’t get traded; they don’t get benched; they just lose their jobs.
But why do so few solid coaches hang on to their jobs?
There are many theories for why coaching positions are so transient. It could be because they are scapegoats for poor front office decisions, or because they hold less leverage than players who make more money than them, so when things go south, they get canned. But I think the real reason coaches lose their jobs is that, in our increasingly precisely quantified world, no one seems to really know whether they are doing a good job.
You know how many people retweet every tweet. You can track how many steps you take in a day. That burger? You know the exact calorie count. But you don’t know much about what a coach does day in, day out, and whether it works.
Take the NBA Coach of the Year award. George Karl won the award for being the best coach and he was immediately let go after a disappointing first-round playoff series. Doc Rivers was named NBA Coach of the Year in Orlando, where he was a far worse coach than he is today.
So the big thing is expectations, and how they frame perceptions. Nate Silver nailed this at Five Thirty Eight, where he showed it was more important to beat Vegas odds than just about anything else if a coach wants to keep his job. But coaches don’t control those expectations, those come from fans and media. It’s not Mike Woodson’s fault that anyone thought that roster would win 54 games again. The smarter statistical analyses out there at the start of the year pegged them at under 40 wins.
Guess what? Woodson’s not a terrible coach, just a coach who can’t turn a 37-win roster into a 54-win team.
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There are some ways to tell whether coaches are doing smart things. Lineup data provides a pretty good clue as
to why Kendrick Perkins shouldn’t play much unless there is a specific frontcourt matchup, like Z-Bo, that he needs to defend.
But this isn’t special insight. Just about any basketball nerd can tell you that. The data is public! Which is why Scott Brooks looks so bad when he coaches against what seems like plain logic. Again, perception versus performance.
Fans and media know relatively little about what a coach is actually doing, and some coaches will even restrict front office personnel from viewing practices. So when there is information that seems obvious, like public lineup data, coaches who don’t follow that info seem especially dumb. And worthy of firing.
There are literally hundreds of people, many who are actual coaches, who can read data, and make decisions with that information. Which means that specific ability, the tactics, the lineup information, may not really matter. If anyone can do it, you shouldn’t pay that much for it.
Players will tell you Lawrence Frank knows everything about which plays work when, but his players don’t want to play for him.
What matters is the ability to sell that good information to players, to make them feel, in the words of Mark Jackson, “like running through a wall.” Now, if a coach has bad principles, the wall they won’t run through will be the first round, but the rarest thing any NBA coach can provide is genuine inspiration. Lionel Hollins, former coach of the Memphis Grizzlies, had that special something to connect with players. Whatever warts he has, Mark Jackson has “it” too. It’s not just former players; guys like Erik Spoelstra and Tom Thibodeau have it too.
You can always find someone smarter. But facts don’t convince N.B.A. players, men who are the best in the world at what they do, to do it differently, better.
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There’s a personal element to coaching that may be impossible to learn. But perhaps the second most important quality, assuming you can connect with players, is being open to outside influences. This is no single person can know all there is to know. You need to delegate, be curious, and be willing to learn on the fly. Doc Rivers is the perfect example. Coaching with Thibodeau, he led a brilliant defense in Boston. With Alvin Gentry in Los Angeles, his team has adopted an up-tempo style reminiscent of Gentry’s teams in Phoenix.
Rivers has given credit to his assistants and built staffs that trust and support each other. All the while, Rivers has maintained the motivational qualities that made him Coach of the Year when he inspired a derelict Magic team to play their asses off and make the playoffs. Contrast that with Jackson, who has overseen the ouster of two key assistants who have both shared with reporters that they felt excluded and demeaned on his staff. Contrast that with Hollins, who flipped out at assistant general manager John Hollinger for joking around with a player during practice.
These are coaches who have not reached their full potential because they have not been open to the insights of others. That will lose you games. And that can get you fired, despite other successes.
One of the most striking things Doc Rivers did this season was admit what he didn’t know. You didn’t hear the bluster and bombast characteristic of Jackson’s media sermons. “I have zero experience in a lot of ways with this group,” said Rivers before the playoffs began. “I think we all know as a group who we are, but you still really don’t know.”
That attitude won’t always make your job safe. Dave Joerger was brought in to be more collaborative with the front office and won at a 56-win pace with Marc Gasol healthy. But when the front office gets revamped, being a collaborator with an ousted regime can be like holding political office after violent revolution. Your head ends up on the chopping block.
Those kinds of dangers will always be out there for the NBA’s most fungible commodity. We don’t know how well a coach is really doing, so we don’t know their real value. We just know a really good coach is really valuable.
And we’re learning that the most important thing a coach can know is how to motivate, to let players know you care. After that, the best thing is to know that you don’t know everything.