The following is a guest post from friend of the site, Mike Lucas. You can follow him on Twitter at @mlukes14.
Basketball is a players’ sport.
In football and baseball, schemes, preparation and game-planning are usually the difference between winning and losing. When NFL teams lose their starting quarterbacks, their on-field product suffers. That is unless you’re Bill Belichick, who continues to win regardless of who’s under center (Dak Prescott is doing wonders in Dallas this year but look at the Cowboys record in the last decade when Romo is out…not very good). Belichick adapts his schemes to fit his players and more often than not, they work.
In baseball, a manager has more impact on the game than any coach in any other sport does. Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon has an unparalleled feel for the game and a knack of putting his players in a position to succeed. For years he managed a subpar roster in Tampa Bay, and he’s currently a reigning World Series Champion. Terry Francona is magician with his bullpen. He’s unorthodox, but his strategy of bringing in his closer at any point of the game helped him push the Cubs to extra innings in a winner-take-all World Series Game 7. It’s not a coincidence the two best managers in the league met in the Fall Classic, even though the two teams playing weren’t the two most talented.
In basketball, coaching makes a difference, but it’s usually not a determining factor when it comes to crunch time. The Cavaliers won the 2015-2016 NBA Championship because of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Harrison Barnes (sorry not sorry), not because of Tyronn Lue. That’s not to take any credit away from Lue, whose impact on the team was evident after taking the reins from David Blatt midway through the season, but that’s the reality. The Warriors started off their 2015-2016 campaign with 24 straight wins, even though head coach Steve Kerr wasn’t on the sidelines.
Throughout the history of the Association, there have only been a handful of coaches who truly made a difference in winning and losing. Red Auerbach, John Wooden, and Gregg Popovich are surefire locks on that list, and a couple other coaches could be in the conversation. But the bottom line is that coaches don’t win championships in the NBA—superstars do.
But that doesn’t mean coaching isn’t valuable in the NBA. Coaches can elevate a team from horrible to bad, bad to okay, okay to entertaining, and even entertaining to pretty good. Looking around the league right now, that theory is proving true with a number of teams.
There are 11 head coaches across the NBA starting their first full seasons with a new team: Jeff Hornacek (NYK), Mike D’Antoni (HOU), David Fizdale (MEM), Frank Vogel (ORL), Nate McMillan (IND), Dave Joerger (SAC), Luke Walton (LAL), Scott Brooks (WAS), Tom Thibodeau (MIN), Kenny Atkinson (BKN) and Earl Watson (PHX).
Of those 11 teams, four are on pace to win more games than they did a year ago (Rockets, Grizzlies, Lakers and Knicks), three are on pace to win fewer (Pacers, Magic and Wizards) and four on pace to finish within a game or so of their previous seasons’ records (Nets, Kings, Timberwolves and Suns).
But two teams in particular have taken on completely different personalities under their new regimes, and the dividends are obvious.
The Lakers are one of the more entertaining teams in the league to watch, which is ironic because with almost an identical roster a year ago, they were basically unwatchable. Luke Walton has his team playing fast (4th fastest pace in the NBA — http://stats.nba.com/league/team/#!/advanced/?sort=PACE&dir=1) and sharing the ball at a significantly higher rate than they were a year ago. Call it addition by subtraction; without Kobe Bryant, this Lakers team is spreading the floor and D’Angelo Russell is picking apart defenses with high pick-and-roll sets. This year, Los Angeles ranks 10th in the league in Offensive Rating (105.8). Last year, they ranked 29th (98.6), which is the biggest jump any team has made this year.
Byron Scott was in a predicament last year. He had to balance Kobe’s season-long farewell tour while still preparing for the future. To say Scott failed at that task would be an understatement. The Lakers were a laughing stock, and Scott’s incompetence set the team back a few years. Walton has accelerated the process back to the level it needs to be. With a young nucleus featuring Russell, Brandon Ingram, Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle, LA should remain competitive this season and only continue to improve as the group gets more experience playing together.
If the season ended today, the Lakers would make the Western Conference playoffs with a 9-9 record as the 8th seed. To put that in perspective, the Lakers didn’t win their 8th game of the season until January 12th a year ago.
And the improved record isn’t even Walton’s most impressive coaching feat of the young season. Nick Young is actually committing to the defensive end of the court. Swaggy P has played for a handful of coaches throughout his long career and he’s had his fair share of ups and downs, but he’s always put scoring above getting stops. Now, he’s often drawing the assignment of the Lakers opponents’ primary wing, and Walton deserves a 747-Boeing-sized load of credit for that turnaround.
Across the country, the Brooklyn Nets are going through a complete organizational turnaround. Their record from a year ago is nearly identical (4-12 in 2016, 4-13 in 2015), but their on-court product could not look more different.
A year ago, the Nets were about as boring a team to watch as humanly possible. Brook Lopez was a force on the block but outside of their center, Brooklyn didn’t have a single player on its roster that could create offense for themselves or their teammates (excluding Joe Johnson who was traded midway through the season). Their offensive scheme was nonexistent, and they weren’t any better on the defensive end of the court, allowing 106 points per game (T23rd-http://www.espn.com/nba/statistics/team/_/stat/team-comparison-per-game/sort/avgPointsOpponent/year/2016).
Fast-forward a year, and the Nets still rank near the bottom of the league in just about every important statistical category, but numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Kenny Atkinson is implementing a system in Brooklyn that’s pointing the franchise in the right direction; something that’s been absent since the team recklessly mortgaged its entire future to Boston for two aging superstars in what will most likely go down as worst trade in NBA history.
Atkinson has his team playing fast. In fact, they push the pace more than any other team in the league outside of Phoenix (http://stats.nba.com/league/team/#!/advanced/?sort=PACE&dir=1), averaging nearly 104 possessions per 48 minutes—roughly 8 more possessions more per game than a year ago. They utilize every inch of the court, shooting 3-pointers at a franchise record rate.
Perhaps no player has benefited more from this up-tempo, open-space change than Lopez. One of the league’s last mastodon-sized centers is playing farther and farther away from the basket. Prior to the season, Lopez had only attempted 37 3-pointers in his career and connected on just two of those attempts. In just 14 games this year, Lopez has knocked down 28 triples while shooting above the league average 35 percent (http://www.espn.com/nba/player/stats/_/id/3448/brook-lopez).
Throughout the offseason, Atkinson continuously preached about winning on the defensive end of the court. So far, Brooklyn hasn’t been able to stop a nosebleed, but that’s more about a lack of talent than a lack of scheme. Watch the Nets play and you’ll see a group of five players hustling their backsides off for each other. Defense is more about effort than anything else, and they’re sacrificing their bodies for the betterment of the team.
These little nuances in coaching build a winning foundation. The Lakers and Nets aren’t ready to start competing for the Larry O’Brien trophy quite yet, but their new coaches have them on the right path for success.
I played three years of varsity basketball in high school for two below average coaches, and then played three of my four years of college ball for a man who shared the 1999 National Coach of the Year award with Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Calhoun.
I’ve seen firsthand how a coach can simplify the game for his players. I’ve also seen how he can complicate it and throw off the chemistry and continuity of a squad.
We didn’t lose 90 percent of our games in high school because of coaching, we lost because our center was barely 6-feet tall and while most schools were playing with an Olympic-sized talent pool, our school’s talent pool was 3-feet deep.
On the Division 3 level, having Coach Jim O’Brien on our bench was our biggest advantage over our opponents. Out of every timeout, he’d draw up a play that was guaranteed to work if we could execute it. Before stepping on the court, we knew our opponents’ plays better than they did. Coach OB single-handily won us a handful of games, but even the best D3 coach in the country couldn’t make us National Champions.
In basketball, players win championships, but coaching builds the winning infrastructure.