Wednesday, May 07, 2014

NBA Coaches & The Effects Of Likability

(originally published elsewhere)

Three weeks ago, a story came out that the New York Knicks were determined to land Steve Kerr as their next head coach. Despite Kerr having no coaching experience of any kind at any level, it appears he is the white hot candidate for the vacancy - so eager are the Knicks in their pursuit that the story broke even before they had a vacancy, having not then announced the future of the incumbent lame duck coach, Mike Woodson.

Two weeks ago, it was reported that the Knicks were accelerating their pursuit of Kerr, trying to tie him up before the first round of the playoffs were over in anticipation of other vacancies becoming available later on.

Last week, the Lakers parted company with former Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni.

And this week, the Warriors fired former Knicks point guard Mark Jackson.

In his time with the Lakers, nothing went right for Mike. In the best part of two years with the team, D'Antoni went 67-87 on a team that, the summer before he was hired, was thought to have a two year title window. The team were rolled out of the playoffs easily in 2012-13, swept aside by a Spurs team that made a laughing stock of the one time rivalry, and worse came with this season's 27-55 record, the second lowest winning percentage in franchise history.

On paper, that is a terrible return. In reality, however, there was not much he could do.

D'Antoni came to a team that was supposed to have four Hall of Famers, and had the very same point guard he had himself once used to revolutionise the game. Steve Nash. But Nash was old, and Nash got hurt, recording only 50 appearances last season and 15 in this. Nash was supposed to be a lynchpin of what D'Antoni would provide, but Nash himself provided very little, finally succumbing to the aging process he had somehow staved off until now.

D'Antoni also had the services of the long-anointed best centre in the game, Dwight Howard, the man supposed to give D'Antoni the interior presence he has never had and one the Lakers have not had since Shaq. But Dwight did not want to be in Los Angeles as much as he thought he would - he feuded with Kobe, he was hurt all season, he never connected with the fans, and he noticeably played at half speed all season. As easy as it is to lay the blame for this dysfunction at the feet of the head coach, grown men are more responsible for their own actions than any other.

D'Antoni had Pau Gasol to go along with Dwight, of course. But D'Antoni didn't want Pau Gasol. Pau Gasol didn't fit with D'Antoni's system, and everyone knew it. And thus Pau Gasol could not be Pau Gasol.

And D'Antoni also had Kobe. That one was the problem.

In practice, D'Antoni was dealt an endless series of bad flops. The 56,000 different lineups over two years were forced by injury and massive roster upheaval, much more pertinent factors than any tinkering on the coach's part. The defense was not good, but nor were the chances of defensive success on a roster featuring a Steve Blake/Nick Young backcourt with Chris Kaman as the defensive anchor. And if the offense was not good enough to overcome it, the same reasoning applies.

D'Antoni's major crimes were not winning, not at least looking good while doing it, and not being liked enough. Coaches are normally judged entirely on the first of those categories - especially in Los Angeles, where titles are the metric by which all others are judged - and a playoff-less season certainly counts as not winning. But that last one was the clinching factor. Kobe did not like him, and that was enough.

Bryant has been the de facto general manager since at least the Chucky Atkins era, and, with a still-fresh $48.5 million two year extension in his back pocket that he has yet to even begin, nothing has changed. What Kobe says, goes. Kobe did not like D'Antoni, and now D'Antoni is gone. No matter what he did, the Bryant factor was always the trump card. Kobe, of course, did not like Phil Jackson at one time either. But Phil Jackson had the leverage to overcome it. D'Antoni, pawn that he was, did not.

This is not to say D'Antoni was free of any fault. He certainly made mistakes, some being ones he keeps making wherever he goes. A coach's system should be as adaptable to his players as the players should be to it, and D'Antoni has never demonstrated this. (This is particularly true of Pau Gasol. If a player of his quality is unable to fit into your system, your system is broken.) His system was proven to be effective in Phoenix, lacking only perhaps that one anchor in the middle and some better luck with minor bench rules infractions to make a true title run, yet the Suns also had the perfect roster for its implementation. Ever since then, D'Antoni has taken the same system to less fitting rosters and tried to force on a fit, rather than adapt to the weapons at his disposal, creating only a terminal mismatch of ideology and results. The coach should also have culpability beyond selling his players down the river, as D'Antoni did to Gasol. And moreover, he simply did not get any results. Ultimately, and irrespective of everything else, this is always the only reason needed for a coaching change.

However, D'Antoni's faults with regards to coaching minutiae and his player relationships were still never the real issue with the Lakers. The real issue was always the talent on the team, and will be for the foreseeable future. Put simply, there isn't much.

Jackson, in contrast, was loved by the players. The players called him coach of the year. They defended him through the back teeth, repeatedly, endlessly, and to the very end. The Warriors are coming off two seasons with Jackson at the helm that rank amongst two of the best in the franchise's admittedly underwhelming history, and were finally getting a taste of quality, fun basketball. The players wanted to be there with that coach and were playing very well for him. And yet the front office fired the coach anyway.

The players liked Jackson, so much so that they defended him without being asked. But no one else did. The former of these is an incredibly tough thing to come by in a head coach. But the latter is more important to a man's tenure. It is hugely difficult to find a coach who not only has the nuances and basketball understanding to best enhance a team's chances of success, but also to be liked and/or respected enough (the two are not the same thing and need not both be true) to actually relate them to players willing to be taught. Jackson had at least half of the likability battle down, undeniably endeared to a roster of players who enjoyed his unfailingly confident, praiseful ways. But Jackson needed the front office and fellow coaches to like him just as much as D'Antoni needed the players to. Without them, he had no chance.

Without Kobe, D'Antoni had no chance. Mitch Kupchak said it himself: "Given the circumstances, I don't know that anybody could have done a better job than Mike did the past two seasons." That is a strong statement that, you would think, speak highly of a coach's future. And yet they would not guarantee his contract anyway, largely because Kobe didn't want it. Such is the fickle and volatile nature of the coaching profession in an era of heightened player power.

D'Antoni was destined to be a lame duck like Woodson. He walked away from the money and the security so as to not be indefinitely on a hot seat he could do nothing to cool. Probably noble. Definitely brave. Meanwhile, Jackson, long since a lame duck for different reasons, stood defiant, well aware that he stood to win in the unspeakably valuable PR stakes by not walking away, saying nothing but the professional things, and going down as a martyr. Both are out of work for different reasons related more to politics than their results, because both were disliked by someone important.

If only there was someone out there that everybody liked.

As a player, Steve Kerr always appeared to be universally liked and respected. As an announcer, he commandeered similar general praise and acclaim. As a one-time writer, the same rang true once more. And in his short time as an executive, it would seem the simpatico Kerr planted enough seeds of good will and strong rapport to have now put himself in prime position for a role in which he is undeniably inexperienced.

The grass is always greener on the other side, and every fired NBA coach has some baggage that will always count against them. For every Terry Stotts-like successful retread, there are countless others who continue to make the same mistakes and whose number, eventually, stops being called. Yet those considered coaching candidates without ever having tried and failed, the unsullied ones free from any established negatives, ripe with potential and wistful thinking...those are the ones we yearn for. The great unsullied are particularly in vogue right now, none more so than Kerr, as seen in the opening. Kerr is the hot prospect, made ever hotter by the fact everyone keeps talking about how hot he is. It seems to matter not that he is a broadcaster with no coaching experience of any sort at any level.

Jackson once did the same, of course, leaping from playing to broadcasting to coaching while bypassing the tricky learning-to-coach part altogether. Maybe Kerr will do it better. Everyone seems pretty sure that he can. After all, he's highly likable.

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