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Coaching Questions?

How can one NBA coach be so unsuccessful in a situation, and another coach in that same situation be fantastically successful? I was thinking this through recently, with the Denver Nuggets coming to town; those Nuggets who were 17-25 last year under Jeff Bzdelik (and Michael Cooper), and 32-8 the rest of the way with George Karl at the helm. George did a great job last year; he instantly turned that team into a terror that nobody wanted to play as they were trying to make the playoffs. George performed similar magic in 1992, taking over a lethargic Sonic team mid-season and going 27-15 the rest of the way. George has always been one of my favorite coaches. He wears his emotions on his sleeves, and ever tries to say the more correct thing, usually failing, saying instead the thing that gets everyone all stirred up.

Yet George’s success this year hasn’t been as forthcoming; they are just 2 games over .500; Injuries have taken their toll, and the team doesn’t yet appear to be playing with the fire they showed last year.

Winning and losing is not always compounding. A team one year can have great success, and fall flat the next; or even within a season have great stretches and poor stretches. Rare is the team that can go through a season without a hot or cold streak. There are so many nuances (I stole that word from John Kerry) in the dynamic that makes up any team. With all of the personalities involved, it really seems pretty remarkable when a team can come together as one and play with an undivided focus. Injuries happen, free agency, trades and the like change a team between seasons and during them.

Take New York for example. The roster is a mess; but it seems like it has always been since Isaiah Thomas has been in charge of the personnel decisions. Yet this year it is being coached by Larry Brown, one of the stellar coaches in the NBA. He has usually had success wherever he has been, but they are 14-35 and last in their Division. Why can’t Larry pull a rabbit out of his hat and coax more wins? Did Larry suddenly forget how to coach? In 2004 the Knicks started the season with Don Chaney as coach; they went 15-24. Then Isaiah brought in a different coaching legend in Lenny Wilkins, who went 23-19 and made the playoffs. Lenny and Isaiah looked like geniuses. The following year, after some roster moves, the Knicks went 17-22 and Isaiah fired Lenny. Now they both looked like goats. Did Lenny suddenly forget how to coach? Winning and losing don’t always continue seamlessly from season to season as the Sonics are finding out. A great win loss record one year does not automatically provide a foundation for greater success the following year.

Sometimes this works in reverse. In 2004 the Phoenix suns were 8-13 under Coach Frank Johnson; they fired him and brought in Mike D’Antoni who was something less than a coaching legend at that time. He had one stint as a head coach with Denver in 1999 and went 14-36. D’Antoni went 21-40 as the coach of Phoenix the rest of the ’04 season. Phoenix made some personnel moves (Marbury out, Nash in), and Phoenix in 2005 went 62-20 with D’Antoni. Did D’Antoni just suddenly figure out how to coach in 2005? I think we would all agree that most any of these coaches that coach in the NBA can coach a team with a measure of success if there is a nice mixture of talent, sprinkled in with character guys and leadership. I don’t think great coaches suddenly forget how to coach.

In the fraternity of NBA coaches, there are those coaches that have earned legendary status; I think Larry Brown, Phil Jackson and Pat Reilly are in this group; guys who nearly always seem to do a masterful job year in year out, and have won championships. Then there is that second tier of coaches just below the first group. These coaches have records that bear out the fact that given the players, they will produce; but are not legendary year in year out winners. This group would have Rudy Tomjanovich, Mike Fratello, Jeff Van Gundy and George Karl. If you give these guys the horses, they will run. You could probably add more names to this group like Jerry Sloan and Flip Saunders. They have been around the block many times, and usually find a way to win. Then there would be that third tier of coach. These are guys that have more often than not had success, but not always. These are the coaches that will win with the right mix of talent, but may not always “wow” you by out-coaching their adversary. These guys have been fired one place, but have success in another. Into this group I would put Rick Adelman, Mike Dunleavy, Byron Scott, and Paul Silas and maybe even Lenny Wilkins and Nate Macmillan. In my opinion, you could place Bob Hill in this third group.

We all have heard of coaches that are loathe to play a rookie, or very inexperienced player because of the inevitable mistakes that they will make as part of their development; this comes at the expense of the win now mentality that some coaches have. George Karl has had this label in the past; so has Phil Jackson. That is why I so much appreciate what Coach Bob Hill is doing now with the Sonics. He is trying to balance out the development of the young guys (Robert Swift, Johan Petro and Nick Collison), with building a winner. He realizes that his young guys will make mistakes, but they either are, or will be very foundational to what the Sonics want to do in the next few years. He is taking the long view of his job as coach. A true Sonic fan would have to love this. Some fans follow the winner. They leave when the wins do. The true fan loves his team and wants them to be great now, and down the road also.

How can we develop our players if we don’t play them? Can we still win if we do play them? This is why the pool of successful NBA coaches is rather thin. It is quite a challenge (the list of coaches that you could place into a fourth or fifth tier of coaches would be huge). It is a really special thing to see a coach have a vision for the future of the franchise, and do the things that will pay off long term. When you build a house, you start with the foundation.

In closing, it seems to me that given a bit of time, a key personnel move or two, the continuing development of our young guns, and coach Hill, who I think has the right attributes and vision for the future of our team, we will all be happy with the outcome down the road a bit.