In the eternal quest for the NBA title, teams will go to extraordinary lengths to earn the right to hoist the Larry O?Brien trophy at the end of the season. Front offices spend years assembling the best team they possibly can, all in the search for that elusive title.
General Managers may mortgage their future by trading young talent for veteran superstars (see Ainge, Danny) in the hopes that by doing so they will be vaulted into title contention.
Other teams look to ?clean house?, trading all their veterans for young players and draft picks, hoping to build a team from the ground up (see Presti, Sam).
Now either method, or any other in between those extremes, may be a perfectly viable method of building a championship contender.
That said, no matter the method by which General Managers choose to build their teams, there is always a singular focus on one facet of the team: the players. Now this may seem an inane statement; obviously, the players are the ones winning the championship.
However, in today?s world of superstar, Prima Dona players, an important facet of a winning basketball team seems to fall by the wayside. This is, quite obviously, the coach.
Perhaps tellingly, there are only three active NBA coaches with titles to their names. Those three are Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, and Gregg Popovich. Granted, these coaches have had the good fortune of coaching some of the best players in modern times, and many a bitter Jazz or Sonics fan would swear up and down that their grandmother could coach a team led by Michael Jordan or Tim Duncan or Magic Johnson to a title. Still, any sane and sober fan of the game would admit that those three Hall of Fame bound coaches possess some talent, some quality that none of the other twenty-seven coaches in the league possess.
At first glance, this pantheon of modern championship coaches features an odd juxtaposition of styles and philosophies. Gregg Popovich, the grizzled disciplinarian whose steady, veteran teams consistently beat out younger, more athletic opponents year after year. Riley, the legendary coach come out of retirement to lead the team he assembled to the Promised Land. Of course, finally, there is Big Chief Triangle, the Zen Master, Phil Jackson; the master of the egoistical NBA player. Yet despite the wide variety amongst this elite group, they all share one common trait.
Every one of them, Popovich, Riley, and Jackson all won their first title within THREE YEARS of getting their first head coaching jobs.
That?s right. Three years.
That is a staggering statistic. And although it certainly doesn?t mean that any coach with more than three years' experience should be fired, it does bring up some interesting questions.
Taking a look at coaches around the league, out of twenty-seven coaches without a title, thirteen have been in the league more than five seasons. Some of them are very good coaches that have just been put into difficult situations. Examples of this would include such well regarded coaches as Nate McMillan and Scott Skiles. I think one would be hard pressed to find anyone calling for the firing of those two excellent (and still young) coaches. Still, that leaves about ten coaches whose performance must be closely examined.
Looking back to our original thirteen, several names jump out amongst those without a title. Coaches such as George Karl, Flip Saunders, Rick Adelman, and Mike Dunleavy all have more than TEN years of head coaching experience without winning a single title. While Dunleavy?s tenure as coach of some awful Clippers' teams may give him some breathing room here, the other three have all coached some very talented teams in recent years. Karl in Milwaukee, Saunders in Detroit, and Adelman in Sacramento have all failed to capitalize on the talent put under their control.
So then why exactly do teams constantly hire these coaches? Adelman was let go by the Kings and essentially took a year vacation before signing a deal with the Rockets. If Adelman couldn?t take advantage of the very good teams given to him in Sacramento, what can he be expected to do with a similarly talented Rockets team?
The answer comes down to familiarity. If a team has a coaching vacancy and hires a well known coach (usually paying an excessive amount in the process), then the fans are typically pacified, content with the idea that their team is doing all they can to build a winning franchise. Conversely, teams like the Bobcats are ridiculed for hiring such an unknown quantity to lead their team (Sam Vincent). Yet if we look at the statistical trends of the past, the Bobcats are, in fact, the team making a positive move towards a championship ball club. Does this mean the Bobcats should win the title this year? The answer, of course, is no. However, they are taking steps towards building a strong franchise.
Despite all the evidence in favor of fresher, younger coaches, teams still continue to hire the same old retreads. In fact, only five teams will start this season led by coaches with less than three full years under their belts. The GM?s and owners of Charlotte, Cleveland, Memphis, Milwaukee, and Sacramento deserve to be applauded for thinking outside the box, rather than derided for it.
The league today is experiencing an influx of unique talent, and more and more GM?s are showing a willingness to experiment with how they build their teams. However, to successfully utilize that talent, those same GM?s must also be willing to experiment in their coaching choices.
The Boston Celtics ?Big 3? is without a doubt the most talented trio in the league, and Danny Ainge should be applauded for the talent he has assembled. Yet what can Doc Rivers (still without a title after eight seasons as a head coach) be expected to do with this exceptional collection of players, beyond what we have seen from him before?
And what can PJ Carlesimo, with six years of coaching experience, be expected to do with the unique talent that is Kevin Durant?
The league is witnessing a mismatch of fresh unique talent and stale veteran coaches. Forward thinking GM?s around the league must realize this and compensate by hiring young coaches with new ideas as to how players should be utilized. Only then will the talented teams being assembled realize their full potential and move one step closer to being true championship contenders.
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