Championships over Compassion?
Issue   |   Wed, 05/07/2014 - 02:54

For coaches in today’s NBA, simply winning is not enough. Teams are increasingly aggressive and impatient in evaluating coaches. Last season, after being named the NBA’s Coach of the Year, George Karl — a great coach — was unceremoniously let go by the Denver Nuggets due to a lack of postseason success. Vinny Del Negro — a bad coach — improved upon the Los Angeles Clippers’ record in each of his three years in charge before the Clips announced they would not be extending his contract. Lionel Hollins took a sub-.500 team and did the same thing with greater playoff success before Memphis declined to renew his contract.

On Tuesday morning, the Golden State Warriors fired Mark Jackson after the Clippers defeated the sixth-seeded Warriors in a seven-game first round series. Prior to the season, Jackson had unsuccessfully pushed the Warriors to pick up an option for the next season and extend his contract. There were reports throughout the season that Jackson had created an environment of dysfunction, and his tenure was not without setbacks.

Off the court, in 2012, Jackson, father of four, revealed that he had been a target of extortion by a stripper with whom he had maintained an extramarital affair. More recently and relevantly, Jackson fired two assistant coaches in the weeks preceding the playoffs. Brian Scalabrine was demoted to the NBA Development League due to a “difference in philosophies.” The other assistant, Darren Erman, was reportedly fired for recording conversations in which Jackson actively undermined his authority.

Regardless of the controversies, Mark Jackson undeniably brought sustained success to the Warriors. Their record improved each season under Jackson, from .348 in his first, lockout-shortened year to .573 to .622 this season. 2013 marked just the Warriors’ second time advancing past the first round of the playoffs since 1991. Prior to this season, Golden State had never made the playoffs in two consecutive years. This year’s record of 51-31 was the Warriors’ best in 22 years.

There are a multitude of factors that make up a coach’s performance. The criteria upon which coaches are judged certainly vary from team to team. Some teams may desire a winning record or continued improvement. Others may search for the right fit in offensive or defensive schemes.

Mostly, front offices want a coach who will work within the franchise’s philosophy. The San Antonio Spurs management and head coach Gregg Popovich are a perfect fit, working in tandem to bring in players that fit Pop’s system. The Atlanta Hawks are in the process of replicating the Spurs Model, hiring offensive whiz and Popovich acolyte Mike Budenholzer, while implementing shrewder methods of player development and scouting.

General managers typically want to hire their own coaches in order to better mold their team. This leads to a host of lame duck coaches stuck coaching out the final year of their contracts in some sort of demonstration.

However, a coach not only must fit a team’s philosophy, he must also meet their current needs. The Bucks, a terrible team, hired Larry Drew after Danny Ferry because the Hawks did not extend his contract. In his time with the Hawks, Drew — civil activist — showed (some) improvement and (some) ability to improve a team. Much of that improvement came from unwitting player development. Whether the Bucks got it right or not, they saw a coach who could one day bring them sustained success.
Mike Woodson would probably have been a better fit had he been available. However, Woodson, another Hawks alum and odd (well, it is the Knicks) exception, was hired by the Knicks because of his total willingness to cede control to the front office rather than his season-to-season improvement with the Hawks. Woodson brought a bad team to mediocrity and a (fairly) good one back.

At different stages in its development, a team needs a different type of coach. A young rebuilding team values player development skills more and the ability to coach up veterans. Teams slightly further along the development curve will more likely be satisfied with a string of winning seasons. Teams in contention for an NBA title need something else — some combination of game management and tactical skill along with more intangible qualities. Someone like a Popovich or a Phil Jackson. How many rings will it take for Erik Spoelstra’s name to belong in that sentence?

Still, one often wonders how much of this improvement is due to the coach’s performance and how much is down to player growth (pretty unclear). Jackson had the benefit of the one and only Steph Curry, who came into his own as one of the best players in the league. Klay Thompson has also flourished under Jackson — first as a pure shooter and then as more of an all-around offensive player. Steph fully credited Jackson as a major influence on the team’s improvement, saying, “His experience and guidance has helped each of us grow in this league … Can’t thank him enough for all he did for me.”

Indeed, all of the players swear by Jackson. To his credit, he has demonstrated nothing but respect and humility in leaving the Warriors’ franchise. Taking to Twitter Tuesday afternoon, Jackson tweeted out thanks to the organization, fans and players, wishing them luck in the future. It says something that Steph, the most influential player in Warriors headquarters, was unable to help Jackson keep his job.

It’s hard not to feel sorry for Jackson and coaches in general. Jackson was given little opportunity to prove that he could, or could not, perform in the postseason. The Warriors’ starting center, Andrew Bogut, was lost just before the playoffs and Golden State still took the Clippers to seven games — the same Clippers that just routed Kevin Durantula and the Thunder in Game 1 of the second round.

At the same time, teams are trying to win NBA championships at all costs, and compassion is one of these costs.

If they don’t believe a certain coach is the right fit to win a ring, there’s little point in teams keeping him around. Maybe Jackson is capable of winning a title; maybe he creates an atmosphere of discord. There is so much insider information we as fans are not privy to that it’s difficult to pass judgment either way until we have more information.

Maybe good records are simply indicative of good players, especially due to the outsized impact of star players on the NBA game, and coaches are the main beneficiaries. It’s also possible that coaches specialize in a set phase of the team development cycle. That is, some coaches may excel in establishing success — turning a bad, young team into a mediocre team unlikely to contend. Other coaches may be able to develop that mediocre team into a perennially strong team in contention. Still other coaches can take this contender and win rings.

Coaches today, without the addition of veteran stars, rarely take teams from the bottom all the way to the top (maybe Drake doesn’t belong in the NBA). Scott Brooks turned the worst team in the league into one of the best while developing an incredible core in Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka. He has yet to show much in the playoffs.

The aforementioned George Karl, one of the best ever, rebuilt the Bucks into a strong team, but never won a title. The Nuggets reached the playoffs in all nine seasons under Karl but only advanced past the first round once.