Can We Quantify Coaching In The NBA?
The general discussion surrounding coaches and coaching in the NBA is maddening. Not only do coaches get criticized unfairly, praised for the wrong things, and scapegoated when a team feels the need to make a change, but there is not generally agreed-upon metric by which to evaluate coaches.
For players there are quantifiable statistics – not that stats should be used as a conclusive determination of superiority, but you generally know that someone who shoots 60% is better than someone who shoots 40%. The only 'metric' that coaches can be judged by is wins, which is as effective of a quantification for basketball coaches as it is for baseball pitchers. A 20-win season for a pitcher is impressive and probably means that they're to some extent good, but also means that you have incredible run support and a great bullpen who isn't going to blow your pending win. But at least for pitchers we have things like park-adjusted ERA and fielding-independent pitching, which attempt to disentangle the outcome of the pitch from the actual pitch itself. There is no such remedy for coaching.
In the flow of the game, the decisions that a coach makes are seemingly on full display, readily available to be assessed and critiqued. After all, that's all we really have to go on. We don't see the pregame prep, the scouting reports they put together, how they develop young players, or how they motivate their teams – all of which have nonzero importance. But basketball coaches have the least possible impact during the game, making the only thing we judge them on somewhat misleading. And that's probably because we're used to coaches being important. In baseball, the manager suggests pitches and controls the rotation, while the base coaches can dictate the baserunning strategy. In football, the coach dictates the primary play option and handles play-by-play substitutions. But in basketball, most of these things are predetermined.
While there are facets of the game that would ordinarily be considered moving parts, many of them have been made static by repetition or learned behavior. Substitutions for the first three quarters are largely pre-set – for example, star players will usually come out with 3 or 4 minutes left in the first quarter, and come back in with 8 or 9 minutes left in the second quarter. Offensive sets are in accordance with the team's strengths, with the point guard initiating the set and the players reacting in real time to the defense. Any coaching to be done is saved for the last few minutes, where timeout use and out-of-bounds play-calling is magnified. While these moments are surely important, they are but a fraction of the entire game, a game that should not even come down to those moments if it was managed well throughout.
By what we see in the game (which is, again, not really that much), coaches usually get pigeonholed into one of a few categories. They can be great developmental coaches, the right fit for a young team on the rise. They can be excellent motivators, able to get the best out of players that may have been unsuccessful on other teams. They can be skillful play designers, using the x's-and-o's on the clipboard to craft gorgeous offensive schemes. They can be intense aggressors, imparting the importance of defense unto their players and getting them to play with effort. Or they can be personality managers, able to leash the worst instincts of their players and foster team chemistry. But regardless of which bucket you put them in, there's still no way to reliably gauge success.
This construct can help classify every coach in the league right now. The Milwaukee Bucks moved on from the much-maligned Jason Kidd to the proven Mike Budenholzer, increasing their win total by 16 to be the best team in the NBA. Coach Bud was a hybrid of a chemistry coach and a motivator, having previously coaxed 60 wins out of an Atlanta Hawks team whose best players were Paul Millsap, Al Horford, and Jeff Teague. But the Bucks improved their personnel too, with the signing of Brook Lopez and trades for George Hill and Nikola Mirotic. Their best player, Giannis Antentokounmpo, evolved from an All-Star to likely MVP. But how much did Coach Bud enable Brook Lopez to be better than he was before? How much did he contribute to Giannis' development beyond his natural progression as a player?
Or consider Gregg Popovich, widely considered the best coach in the league and one of the greatest coaches of all time. Last season, he took a team that only had one All-Star (the only one on the team to score more than 12 points per game) to 47 wins and a 7th place finish. This season, he effectively added an All-Star in DeMar DeRozan (acquired in a trade for the previously injured and still-dickish Kawhi Leonard), and again finished in 7th place, this time with 48 wins. Now this isn't an indictment of Pop – it probably means that the Spurs overachieved last year, and played to expectations this year. But the only reason we can confidently say that is that we have a track record of Pop as a winning coach.
The ultimate litmus test for a basketball fan's view of coaching is their opinion on Doc Rivers. In his eight seasons coaching before 2007, he had a losing record of 273-312 and only made it to the playoffs in just half of those seasons, never making it out of the first round. That offseason, the Boston Celtics were gifted Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, making them instantaneous title favorites and eventual title winners. Over the next six years with that nucleus, he went 314-161 and "became" one of the best coaches in the league. He transitioned immediately from that job to the leader of the Lob City Clippers, posting four straight 50 win seasons and two second-round appearances. At that point, it was easy to point out how he had been blessed with talent, with multiple All-Stars every year for a full decade. You could perhaps argue that the Boston team should have had more than one title, and that the Clippers team should have made it to the conference finals. Or you could suggest that the Boston team had no business even making it to the finals a second time, and that the unreliability of playoff Chris Paul in retrospect made extended success impossible.
But this year, Rivers took a Clippers team without any All-Stars (or any other Rivers) to the playoffs and had a respectable showing against the full-strength two-time champion Warriors. Even if the regular season feels like a fluke, winning two playoff games is no joke. But even given all of this history, I still don't know whether Doc Rivers is a good coach. Should I focus on the fact that he was never able to properly utilize someone as dynamic as Blake Griffin? Or should I hone in on his masterful blending of Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell?
The Lakers just concluded a coaching search by hiring defensive-minded coach Frank Vogel, who has quite an interesting record. He did take the Pacers to two straight conference finals and steered the team through a lost Paul George season, but he wasn't able to get out of the first round after that. He did have two deal with a horribly constructed Orlando Magic roster for two seasons, but the team was able to make the playoffs just the year after he left. Is he a good coach? Are his successes too far in the past to make him an effective coach in today's NBA? I have no idea!
On the road to Vogel were Monty Williams and LeBron James' former coach Tyronn Lue. Lue took over team that was already in first place in the Eastern Conference (!) midseason, and won an NBA title. Wouldn't his predecessor David Blatt have been capable of doing the same? The next two seasons spawned two more Finals berths, but that probably had very little to do with him. In his first LeBron-less season, he went 0-6 to start and was promptly fired. Is it on him that players like George Hill and Rodney Hood are suddenly good again after moving to different teams? Williams, meanwhile, had five years of Anthony Davis (and no one else) and made the first round of the playoffs twice. Should that be considered a success, since the following four years have produced only a single playoff appearance? Or should it be considered a failure, since you know, that sucks?
By conventional wisdom, none of these coaches – Vogel, Lue, or Williams, should even be eligible for another job! Vogel and Williams have recent losing records, while Lue has literally never won a game without LeBron James.
This becomes especially problematic when evaluating young coaches, because we don't have a long track record to judge from. The former Lakers coach Luke Walton led the Warriors for half of the record-setting regular season campaign, seemed like he was on an upward swing with the young Lakers, and was handed an impossible job this year before being fired and immediately hired by the also-young Sacramento Kings. The general consensus seems to be that he is good for a young team and not for a veteran team with championship aspirations, but how did we get to that conclusion? He coached a veteran team in the Warriors and did amazingly wins-wise, and coached a young team in the Lakers and did… okay wins-wise. Does that mean we gave the Warriors players more credit and gave the Lakers players more blame? Did the Warriors somehow underachieve because of Walton, and did the Lakers overachieve from his presence? I watched Luke Walton coach hundreds of games, and *still* don't know whether he's a good coach.
The best current case study for this is Brad Stevens, who at one point was (and probably still is) considered a top-tier x's-and-o's coach. He oversaw a steady improvement in five seasons with the Boston Celtics and his signature out-of-bounds plays, going from 25 to 40 to 48 to 53 to 55 wins. Two seasons ago, he took a team without its best player (Isaiah Thomas) to the conference finals with the help of a timely Rajon Rondo injury. Last season, he took a team once again without its best players (Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward) to a Game 7 in the conference finals. But this season, with a team almost universally expected to seriously contend for a championship, he only got a 4th place finish and a somewhat meaningless first-round win against a team missing *its* best player before being obliterated by the Milwaukee Bucks. Is Jayson Tatum just naturally destined for superstardom, and if we credit Stevens for his amazing rookie year, do we penalize him equally for his stunted sophomore campaign? Was Kyrie's overall difficult personality a result of Steven's mismanagement, or did it dominate despite Stevens' best attempts to rein the team in? Pretty much any team's fanbase would swap their coach for Stevens in a heartbeat, but why? Sure he can draw up a neat play for a game winning shot, but does that matter if he can't control a rogue player?
You can go on and on and on – you could argue that Phil Jackson's triangle offense was only successful because he had the two greatest shooting guards of all time, or that Tom Thibodeau's wear-you-down defensive style only works when you have a defensive player of the year, or that Mike D'Antoni will break down in tears if you aren't always running. Each of those coaches, who are generally considered good, had horrible spells – the non-playoff Lakers years for Phil, the Wolves years for Thibodeau, and the Knicks/Lakers years for D'Antoni. Or you could argue the exact opposite, that their good years demonstrated their true selves. This warped evaluation of talent leads to poor decision-making when it comes to choosing whether to bring on and retain a coach for your team.
Brett Brown, the coach (as of writing this) of the Philadelphia 76ers, will almost surely be fired in the coming weeks because of his team's second-round exit, which is an objectively dumb way to evaluate a coach. The Sixers lost a Game 7 on the road on a miraculous buzzer-beating shot, but if that shot had not dropped in and the Sixers had won in overtime, would Brown's job have been saved? A conference finals appearance – the first since 2001 – would have made it hard to justify a firing, even if it ended in a sweep. But all of that is the wrong way to think about it. Either Brett Brown is the right coach for this team, or he is not. There are 500 games of evidence you can use to come to whatever conclusion you want. The result of one game, despite how badly mismanaged at the end, shouldn't dictate the fate of a coach.
It's reminiscent of last year's panic-firing of Raptors coach Dwane Casey (the reigning coach of the year!) after a first-place finish but second-round sweep at the hands of LeBron James. It felt like they had to make a move after being so thoroughly annihilated, even though they would end up making a player-related move in trading DeRozan for Leonard anyway. If they had lost in 7 games instead of 4, would Casey have been axed anyway? What about 6? Casey's replacement, Nick Nurse, guided the team to an almost equivalent record and a lower seed despite having more overall talent. But, because Toronto has reached the conference finals, Nurse will get a grace period of a few years before eventually getting fired, just like Casey did after making it that far in 2016.
So is coaching actually *that* important? At best, it's random. Wouldn't it be smarter to hire a coach who doesn't get in his own team's way, knows the basic rules of basketball, and is able to read a box score… and then keep that person? It can't be that hard. If a player is not good at shooting, work with them on their shooting mechanics. Until then, design plays that don't involve that player as a shooter. I'll take that five year, $25 million contract, thanks.