A Closer Look: Coaching Matters

VDN UPSET!

This is a guest post by my buddy Julian, who writes the blog Comedy Landfill. Like me, he’s a huge NBA fan, so sometimes we have arguments that end up in one of us wanting to write a blog post defending our case. So, here ya go. Also, tell him to start tweeting again.

I recently had a discussion with the creator of this blog, about the effects of coaching on a team. VDZ wasn’t convinced that coaching had all that much to do with a team’s fortunes in the NBA. I agreed that the NBA, unlike many different sports in the world, was player-driven, where the teams with the best players, in virtually all cases, were the best teams in the league. Kobe, Pau Gasol and Odom on the Lakers? Championship. Phil Jackson (one of the greatest, if not the greatest coach of all time) tried and failed to make Kobe plus a bunch of scrubs successful in the mid-2000s. Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen? Championship, and that was with oft-disrespected Doc Rivers at the helm. The year before that, they were one of the worst teams in the league.

My argument, however, was that coaches DID play an important part in the success and failure of a team. I pointed to Stan Van Gundy as a guy who made a significant, real impact on the Orlando Magic, turning them from an also-ran eastern conference team into a legit contender through a great rotation, a great gameplan, and some expert play-calling. This debate intrigued me enough to do a rundown on coaching changes that happened last season, in order to get a better idea of how coaching can change a team, for better or for worse.

Mike D’Antoni (NYK):
Offensive Rating Before: 104.7 (23rd)
Defensive Rating Before: 111.9 (29th)
Pace Factor Before: 91.6 (15th)
W-L Before: 23-59
Offensive Rating After: 108.1 (17th)
Defensive Rating After: 110.8 (23rd)
Pace Factor After: 96.7 (2nd)
W-L After: 32-50

After several outrageously poor seasons under the helm of Isiah Thomas, New York Knicks GM Donny Walsh decided to bring the Zeke era to a close, by demoting him and hiring recently fired Phoenix Suns coach Mike D’Antoni. D’Antoni’s system is a pretty intriguing one, and judging by his statistics, it’s not hard to see why. Take a look in the difference between the pace of the Knicks before he got there, and after he got there. Going from middle of the pack to the second-fastest team in the league (only behind warp-speed Golden State) in one season is incredible. The offensive rating, while making a jump, obviously did not increase by as much as the pace. The problem here, in my opinion, is that while the offensive structure was re-vamped for the better, the team still didn’t have players that were efficient enough on the offensive end to complete Mike’s vision of a Pheonix Suns east. Defensively, they improved as well, but I think that I’m going to chalk that up to Isiah Thomas being terrible, and Mike D’Antoni steadfastly refusing to play notorious non-defender Eddy Curry, as well as adding a defensive scheme that made at least SOME sense. The win differential was +9. That’s pretty darn good, but with the caveat that they won only 23 games the prior season, and the improvement landed them 9 games under .500, which isn’t something you can brag about to your friends if you’re a Knicks fan.

Larry Brown (CHA):
Offensive Rating Before: 104.6 (24th)
Defensive Rating Before: 109.4 (20th)
Pace Factor Before: 91.8 (14th)
W-L Before: 32-50
Offensive Rating After: 104.7 (27th)
Defensive Rating After: 106.1 (7th)
Pace Factor After: 88.3 (27th)
W-L After: 35-47

Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown took the reigns of a struggling Charlotte Bobcats team, and incorporated the players into his well-worn system. His system, of course, being a no-nonsense, defense-first, play-call-on-every-possession, slow, deliberate game. He also got a big overhaul midway through the season, landing the dynamic Boris Diaw and tough as nails defender Raja Bell for the chronic underachiever Jason Richardson. As a result of both coaching and personnel changes, the team’s defensive efficiency skyrocketed from 20th to 7th in the league, and it’s offense languished from and already miserable 24th in the league, to a near-bottom 27th. To no-one’s surprise, their pace factor also went from middle of the pack to slower than molasses. Even with that massive defensive improvement, the Bobcats went 35-47, improving by a meager 2 games (unimpressive considering how inept the guy Larry replaced was) and missed the playoffs yet again.

Rick Carlisle (DAL):
Offensive Rating Before: 111.1 (8th)
Defensive Rating Before: 106.1 (9th)
Pace Factor Before: 90.2 (22nd)
W-L Before: 51-31
Offensive Rating After: 110.5 (5th)
Defensive Rating After: 108.4 (17th)
Pace Factor After: 91.5 (16th)
W-L After: 50-32

Mark Cuban, the fiery owner of the Dallas Mavericks, hates, and I mean loathes losing. If you’ve ever seen him on the sidelines playing your favourite team, you’ll instantly realize that he both takes the game waaaay too seriously, and also that he would do anything to make his Mavericks a better team. That’s the main reason why he sacked the former Coach of the Year, elf-voiced Avery Johnson after getting (Marv Albert impression) REJECTED by Golden State in the first round two seasons ago. Enter Rick Carlisle, another former coach of the year, and regarded by most as an all-around good coach, albeit with a reputation of alienating his players after a few seasons. In any case, as you can see, the team got a bit better on offense, and a lot worse on defense. One of the reasons for both of those things might be the acquisition of Jason Kidd during the offseason. Jason Kidd used to be one of the best defenders at the PG position in the league, but Father Time has waved his magic time staff and slowed Jason Kidd down considerably. Especially laterally. Father Time hates side-to-side movement. Anyway, they sped up marginally and won 1 less game. Pretty much treading water. What does that say about Rick Carlisle? I guess it says that he’s a mediocre coach? That may be a bit harsh, but I’m sure that Mark Cuban expects a better result than treading water. The huge drop in defensive efficiency from 2 years ago to last can’t be considered good, and it can’t all be blamed on personnel changes.

Vinny Del Negro (CHI):
Offensive Rating Before: 103.9 (26th)
Defensive Rating Before: 107.2 (14th)
Pace Factor Before: 93.0 (11th)
W-L Before: 33-49
Offensive Rating After: 108.4 (14th)
Defensive Rating After: 108.7 (18th)
Pace Factor After: 93.1 (9th)
W-L After: 41-41

After reading these stats to my friend, who hates Vinny Del Negro, he instantly said “THEY GOT DERRICK ROSE STUPID” (Ed.: That was me). Well, I suppose that’s true, but the Bulls still jumped up a very impressive 12 spots from 26th to 14th in the league, while only dropping about 4 spots on defense (which also might be “Derrick Rose stupid!” considering how poorly he defended last season). Another reason for the uptick in offense was the brilliant trade made halfway through the season, where the Bulls shipped out an underperforming and overpaid Andres Nocioni for the versatile and efficient John Salmons. The difference in speed between the two seasons was almost negligable, but the massive jump in offensive efficiency was enough to catapult them out of the basement of the Eastern Conference into the middle of the pack, and coupled with their relatively middle of the pack defense, gave them the ultimate middle of the pack record of 41-41. The reviews coming out of Chicago were mixed. Some were forgiving of Vinny’s rookie-coach mistakes, while others were not. They said that his rotations left a lot to be desired, and that the plays he drew up out of time outs rarely worked. However, the offense looked a lot better, and he put the ball in the hands of Derrick Rose and Ben Gordon, which seemed to work pretty well. He also wrung a pretty great season out of Joakim Noah, allowing him to play through his mistakes, while keeping a lid on the dressing room drama. While he may have his detractors in Chicago, he certainly had quite an impressive season for a rookie coach (making it to the playoffs, giving a shorthanded Boston a run for it’s money).

Scott Skiles (MIL):
Offensive Rating Before: 105.3 (21st)
Defensive Rating Before: 112.8 (30th)
Pace Factor Before: 91.3 (17th)
W-L Before: 26-56
Offensive Rating After: 106.7 (23rd)
Defensive Rating After: 107.9 (15th)
Pace Factor After: 92.6 (11th)
W-L After: 34-48

It’s interesting that we get to examine how an outgoing coach does on another team after analyzing his replacement, and we get to see that with Scott Skiles on the Bucks. Now, to be fair, Skiles is getting a bit of a raw deal here, because the ratings on offensive and defensive efficiency during his last season with the Bulls are tainted by a dreadful interim coaching job done by a man by the name of Jim Boylan, who coached the team for 56 games in 2007-2008. Milwaukee has been one of the worst run franchises in the league for a while now, and looking at the stats, it’s not hard to see why. Dead-last in defense, bottom ten in offensive efficiency, one of the worst W-L records in the league; Scott Skiles had his work cut out for him when he arrived. What happened was a pretty impressive turnaround, not unlike Larry Brown’s, where the Defensive efficiency went through the roof, and the offensive efficiency increased as well, but actually slipped in the rankings (I suppose the league in general was less efficient in 2007/08). Unlike Larry, they didn’t play at a super-slow pace; in fact, the pace went up under Skiles! In fact, in his time coaching the Bulls, the pace factor never dipped below 11th in the league. This may be surprising, because most people equate excellent offenses with speed, and speed with a porous defense, when in fact, it’s the opposite under Skiles. The formula worked, at least partially, because like Mike D’Antoni, his team improved by 8 games, from 26 to 34 wins. It’s amazing what a functioning system and identity can do for a team, isn’t it? With D’Antoni, the Knicks became a run and gun squad, and with Skiles’ Bucks, they became a gritty, hard-nosed defensive team, when before, they were simply floating around, amorphous and directionless.

Conclusions

From this list, I think you can make a couple of intriguing observations: one is how much a coach can change how a team operates. Mike D’Antoni’s system had a real, observable effect on how his team played. The pace went through the roof, as did the offense. Skiles increased the pace, and made the defense much stingier. Larry Brown slowed the game down to a crawl and instituted a defense that was one of the best in the league. These aren’t just small swings, some of them are 15-ranking swings, which can’t just be attributed to personnel changes. The style of ball changed when the new coaches arrived. In terms of actually winning games, the evidence is not as strong. Skiles and D’Antoni boasted large improvements in this category, but from god-awful to merely “poor”. A more impressive jump was Mike D’Antoni’s second season in Pheonix, where he took the team from under 30 wins to over 60. That is obviously a result of the system matching the players perfectly, as well as the addition of a pointguard that could actually carry the gameplan out.

I think that by looking at these new coaches, we can actually see that coaching does have an observable effect on the fortunes of a team. Sometimes dramatic ones. I think that it’s at least evidence towards teams performing better when they have an identity, rather than directionless. It’s certainly very strong evidence that coaches are very good at implementing their system. Most importantly, I think that this illustrates why the NBA isn’t just a “player’s league” like so many people seem to believe, and that coaching has a strong influence on how the game is played.

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5 Comments

Filed under A Closer Look, Charlotte Bobcats, Chicago Bulls, Coaching, Dallas Mavericks, Guest Posts, Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks, Stats

5 responses to “A Closer Look: Coaching Matters

  1. Pingback: Does coaching in the NBA matter?

  2. Nice post. I especially like Father Time’s hatred for lateral movement.

    My two cents: the league is filled with decent coaches who all know the same exact information. What separates the good ones from the bad ones are quality of roster and support from the front office.

    BUT this changes dramatically in the playoffs. You mention SVG as a good coach (and I kind of agree) but his decisions against LA in the Finals were fucking brutal. He killed the confidence of his entire guard rotation on the world’s biggest stage.

    In closing, I think coaching is kind of like playing. Sometimes, you’re hot. Sometimes, you’re not.

    And then there are coaches like Popovich, who luck into having Tim Duncan on their team for over a decade. He’s a great coach made even greater by talent and front office stability.

    • Tom L

      Very well said KneeJerk.

    • Vittorio De Zen

      Yeah, the Father Time line was my favourite too.

      About SVG in the finals – you’re saying Nelson shouldn’t have come back, right?

      I basically agree with what you said – coaches matter, but they all generally know what plays other teams run and what guys’ tendencies are. In the playoffs, coaching becomes more important because the talent level is often extremely close and the team that wins is sometimes just the team that made the best adjustments or had the best strategy.

      I think broader strategy is way more important than smaller tactics. It’s great if the coach can draw up an amazing play at the end of the game, but coaching in the pros is more about how players’ roles are defined, what lineups are used in certain situations, and most importantly what style of play/what system will be implemented. The best coaches get the most out of their players and their players and the players like and respect them. That’s why SVG was great last year – with that lineup, they couldn’t have won more regular season games than they did. They (arguably, I guess) couldn’t have done any better in the playoffs. Their weaknesses were hidden beautifully and their strengths magnified, on both ends. Plus, everyone seemed to be happy to play for him.

      Assistant coaches matter, too. You could argue John Kuester had as much to do with the Cavs’ success last year as Mo Williams did. Seriously.

  3. Pingback: Looking Forward: Milwaukee Bucks « Vittorio De Zen's Fast Break

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