Thursday, November 12, 2009

The (Un)Importance of Coaching

One of the biggest frustrations in my daily life is trying to persuade my friends and family to watch the NBA. Somewhere between 99.9 and 100.00 percent of the people I know are fans of college basketball, yet have no desire to watch professional hoops. The majority of them have a valid reason: they're fans of Kansas basketball. Who wouldn't follow a team who has championship aspirations ever year? But even all the fans of K-State, Missouri, Witchita State or whoever still haven't made the jump. I used to think it's because Kansas City doesn't have a team, but we haven't had a baseball team in two decades yet they still watch the World Series. I think the problem is coaching.

No coach does less than a baseball manager. One or two pitching changes, perhaps a pinch-hitter, and that's it. Perhaps tweaking the lineup every now or then (or if you're Trey Hillman, every single day). Yet the coaching is still present. We know when Joe Girardi is over-managing, it's tangible.

In the NFL, coaching probably matters less than it does in baseball, yet the perception is that coaching is the end-all be-all of professional football. But if it matters that much, how come Bill Belichick's tenure with the Cleveland Browns was unsuccessful yet his reign in New England is nearly historical? Well, the Browns didn't have Tom Brady, for one. Neither did they have the Lennon-McCartney duo of Belichick-Pioli. I think it's safe to say that Belichick's job as part-General Manager has had more to do with the Patriots' success than his ability to coach. It's all about the players, and when The Hoodie finally got full rights to his own, it ended with three rings.

The NBA is different in this regard: not only does coaching matter very little, but its common knowledge. Sure, a coach can single-handedly kill a team (see: Karl, George). But to actually make a team better? Doc Rivers coached the Celtics to a 24-58 record in 2006-2007, second worst in the league. In 2007-2008, the Celtics were 66-16. That's 42 more wins in one year. The difference? Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. The point, as always, is that talent is the most important factor in a team's success, not the coaching staff.

This is crucial because most fans want to be a coach. Fantasies of playing quarterback are just that, fantasies. We couldn't do it if given the opportunity. But every fan thinks they could coach a team. Aw, we shouldn't have tried a field goal there! I would've taken Pedro out an inning earlier, this guy is a boob! This is what you hear from Joe Sports Fan.

Coaching in the NBA is different. It's the players' game. Whereas baseball and football and all college sports are (seemingly) dictated by coaches, the NBA is dominated by LeBron, Kobe and Howard. They are the ones who make the difference. The best coaches right now (Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich) aren't known for their mastery of the Xs and Os. It's their ability to bring personalities and egos together. They excel in psychology and philosophy, whereas most of the sports arena is dominated by math and statistics. And even with that being said, all of Jackson's rings where with guys named Jordan, Pippen, Bryant and O'Neal. Philosophy means nothing if Kirk Heinrich is running the point.

Which brings me to Byron Scott, who today was fired by the New Orleans Hornets after a 3-6 start. On a poll on, 36,040 people voted nearly 3-1 in disapproval of Scott's firing. The reason being that injuries and bad personnel decisions were to blame, not Scott. Which is true. But then what, I ask, is the point of a coach? If he can't make the team better when things go wrong, then what is his purpose? That, I suspect, is to hold things together when things are going right. To not make mistakes is the only way to do anything right.

Pat Williams once said coaching in the NBA is like a nervous breakdown with a paycheck. Now, who wants that job? I feel this is why I can't seem to convince my fellow KU fans to jump to the NBA. Unless you're a basketball junkie (Kansas fans are mostly winning junkies if anything), there's really nothing in it for you. There simply is nothing to fantasize about. With the growing popularity of fantasy sports, I do believe that the element of being involved is the #1 reason to watch sports anymore. Luckily, there are enough true basketball fans to keep the NBA alive and well. It's just not that none of them seem to live in Kansas City.


heartlandjeff said...


I would like to say I get it now. But.... I still don't get it. A fair-weathered Jayhawk fan I am, but I think it's because of the purity of college basketball. Egos dont come into play. At least not on a Bill Self team (or Roy W. for that matter)I don't see the NBA in my future when there's still perfectly good paint needing to be watched drying.

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