Generals of the Floor
Issue   |   Tue, 02/12/2013 - 21:44

Of the 313 individuals enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame, 89 are coaches. So more than a quarter of the people who made basketball the way it is today did it from the sidelines. Well, in fairness, I suspect many of them spent their careers standing, yelling and waving their arms animatedly. But for the most part, pacing up and down the sidelines is as close to the action as they could have gotten. Granted, coaches have the ability to call timeouts, to call plays and to engineer overall strategy. But come game time, the hollering and hooting of coaches is background noise. For all their responsibilities, the moments when a basketball game centers on the head coach are few and fleeting.

Head coaches really only take center stage in the huddle, when they’re busy pleading and prodding with their team to pull out the win. The best coaching I’ve seen, or at least the most impactful, came in lopsided games when teams seemingly had nothing to lose. But more on the value of coaching a lost cause later; for now, suffice it to say that because of their limited roles during games, for a long time I thought coaches were like a good air conditioner — their job was to keep everyone cool and calm, without being noticed. But is it fair to say that whatever the difference between great and terrible coaching, the impact on a game isn’t all that discernable? There are some in-game coaching moves that reveal savvy, or alternatively naivete, of course. And if the multi-million dollar difference in salaries amongst NBA head coaches is any indicator, the answer to this question has to be no. More precisely the question is, how much of a coach’s ability is reflected in the abilities of his players? Given that coaches get fired so often as the cause of a team’s failure, it’s at least fair to question the size of the role the men and women on the sidelines play.

Head coaches are essentially managers — their job function is to supervise the performance of the team, and specifically to do so in the manner most conducive to winning. That entails knowing when to push which buttons to produce the most wins, whether that be managing players, devising game strategy, or tinkering with locker room chemistry. Coaches sit at the intersection of all the resources made available by team ownership, and the basketball abilities of the players on their team. Everything from assuaging personalities to earning the respect of the team’s veterans falls to the coach. The list goes on of course, but enumerating it here isn’t what we’re after. While it is undoubtedly difficult to codify the calculus by a coach can affect a team’s ability to win, gaining a sense of how much of the “winning formula” coaches can affect is nevertheless insightful.

And so most important for our purposes, our definition above implies that a coach has to make the best of the hand he’s dealt. So to equate a coach’s value with his winning percentage is to miscast the role. Make no mistake; good coaches win games. But because the mechanism by which coaches guide their teams to wins is managerial and therefore indirect by nature, to understand the impact of coaching we’ll need to take a deeper dive. If winning percentage is the only yardstick we have for coaching prowess, it has to be put in context — it’s tough to win with a bad team, and perhaps even tougher to lose with a good one. For starters, then, we can simplify our definition of good coaching to encompass exceeding expectations.

Thus the metric we seek for coaches should be how much improvement they cultivate — in essence, how many more wins they garner than another coach would have with the same team. Remember that even our simple definition of good coaching is based on the ability to manage a team to wins. Ideally, there would be a statistic we could look to for a team’s expected win total. And in fact such statistics do exist; given the total number of points a team has scored, as well as the number of points that the team has given up, there are pretty accurate formulas for the team’s expected record. But alas, those expectations are useless for our purposes, because they are built on team tendencies that the coach necessarily has a part in.

Our next-best bet is to look for a naturally-occurring NBA experiment; a situation where nothing on the team changed save for the coach. Roster turnover is a natural part of the NBA, but there is a team this year that can fulfill our purposes: the Charlotte Bobcats. Over the summer, the Bobcats made headlines for forgoing proven names in the NBA coaching ranks and instead hiring Mike Dunlap to be their new head coach — a well-respected college coach with no NBA experience. The Bobcats were the worst team in the NBA last year, finishing with 7-59 record in the lockout-shortened season. This year, they have a record of 12-39 — still abysmal, but miles ahead of where they were last year. In the interim, the Bobcats shed some of their role players, and picked up two bench players and acquired their starting small forward via the draft. Changes to be sure, but in terms of their roster, this year’s Bobcats are more or less the same team they were last year. And in fact their two most-improved players this year were on the roster last year. So can we safely hand Dunlap the Coach of the Year award?

The two players in question are both former first-round picks, but neither Byron Mullens nor Kemba Walker looked particularly noteworthy last year. Undoubtedly their improvement this year is due to their own hard work, but Dunlap deserves at least a share of the credit. Whereas Walker was a top-10 draft pick with rcognized talent, Mullens didn’t show exceptional ability in college, and was drafted in large part due to his potential. What I mean to say is that Walker was more likely to succeed in any given environment than Mullens was. That Mullens has improved so drastically this year, however, is a surefire sign of Dunlap’s ability to manage not only overtly talented players, but also those whose talent may take some fleshing out.

The Bobcats example is also a lesson in the fragility of coaching calculus. When it’s clear that a team is going nowhere, as was the case with the Bobcats last year, even if coaches continue in earnest to win, their players may check out on them. Earlier this year, Avery Johnson, previously the head coach of the Brooklyn Nets, was fired after the team sputtered out of the gates.

In the days leading up to his firing, as reports of his demise circled, Johnson readily experimented with his offensive scheme and his lineup, but ownership nevertheless dismissed him on the grounds that the team simply needed new leadership. Desperate times call for desperate measures, right? In that sense, the case of Dunlap and the Bobcats shows that having a terrible team can actually be a blessing, freeing coaches up to experiment without the fear of repercussions.

It isn’t easy to gauge the precise impact of a head coach because a manager is doing his job well when things are running smoothly, and he doesn’t get noticed. But coaches only have the ability to help players reach their potential; every team is necessarily still limited by the amount of talent it has on hand. So if good players are a reflection of good coaching, then it’s only fair to point out that good coaches reflect on wise owners. Every so often, there’s the perfect troika of organization, coach and team. Management and ownership are decided from the beginning on what they want their future to look like, and so coaches get locked into long-term deals. Strapped in for the long haul, coaches have an easier time enticing players to work harder, and perhaps take risks they might not otherwise. The result is a team that makes the most of its resources at every level.