Grading coaches is notoriously more difficult (if not impossible) than grading players. The statistical revolution sweeping through the NBA has given fans hordes of new ways to quantify how good players are. Yet talk of a coach's value has not advanced at the same rate.
We talk of a coach's value apocryphally (I heard he focuses on this), and often a coach's results (read: wins) are used to confirm the value of their processes (which is sort of like saying David was the best warrior in the world the moment he beat Goliath). With stats like most used lineups and team shot charts, we can begin to quantify a coach's value, but it is only in relief - like viewing a shadow of a thing, rather than the thing itself. Something is lost in translation.
Unfortunately, this will not be a definitive vetting of Coach Joerger. Instead, it will focus on three areas I consider important to a team's success.
1). Did the team (and each player) their maximum potential?
Most fans would be hard pressed, given the litany of injuries, to label the 2013-2014 season a failure. The Grizzlies exceeded their Vegas win total despite losing forty-one to their starting four of Conley, Prince, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. They lost another twenty-seven to starter turned sixth man Tony Allen. They lost Quincy Pondexter for the season. Only one player - the rejuvenated Mike Miller - played in all 82 games.
As for each player performing to their maximum potential, that is a mixed bag. One of Joerger's strengths seems to be empowering unproven players - a vital muscle for an NBA coach to flex, and one that has been in short supply in Memphis of late. Though some of this is a product of injuries creating opportunity, one can point to the improvement Nick Calathes showed as the season wore on. Calathes was one of the worst rookies in the NBA through the winter. Joerger had every right to crush Calathes' soul in the backup point guard scrap heap. Yet Joerger stuck with him, and a weird thing happened: Calathes got good.
James Johnson exploded on the scene, buoying the team for a stretch before playing time became scarce. Similarly, when Ed Davis found playing time, his numbers went up. Some guys are like that, though they are not "like that" for coaches who make it clear they are an afterthought.
Unlike the previous three young players Jon Leuer never found playing time easy to come by. Yet he largely produced when called upon (compared to the role he was asked to fill).
One season is not indicative of a trend, but the different routes these four young players took to productivity gives me the sense that Joerger will keep every tool in his belt (and by "tools" I mean "competitive super athletes who are among the best in the world at what they do") sharp.
Finding the Fourth Grizzly King
Though TA is certainly a key part of the Grizzlies' roster as long as he is in Memphis he is not the 4th "Grizzly King" who can start and be consistent on both ends of the court. Getting that 4th piece may be the final one in the championship puzzle.
Mike Conley enjoyed his best season as a pro. Zach Randolph's stats suffered only the most minor of slippages, which could be attributed to carrying a larger role. Kosta Koufos - in a new offense facing decreased minutes - filled his role admirably. Only Tayshaun Prince and - to some extent - Ed Davis disappointed this year relative to their role. That's a pretty decent track record.
2). Did the Grizzlies have a plan? - Commonly called identity, the Grizzlies seemed confused as to what that was early in the year. Amidst reports that players were not on board with the quicker offensive pace, the Grizzlies crawled out of the gate. While reports of the Grizzlies faster pace were greatly exaggerated, the players clearly were not buying everything Coach Joerger was selling early in the year. And sometimes that's the only thing that matters.
Attaining an identity - at least one that wins - is hard to do. Changing a winning identity breeds mistrust, and must be done subtly. Clearly Joerger's approach was not subtle enough.
3). Do the Players Play for This Guy? - This can only be answered with speculation. Joerger's detractors will point to the fact that he tends to come off as if overly positive, as if he is trying to be their friend. His detractors will also point to the fact that it is difficult to see Joerger tearing into his team when they need it.
Joerger's advocates will point to the Quincy Pondexter altercation and how it was quickly quashed (both by the coach and by the players who had the coach's back). Joerger's advocates will say that veteran teams think they have it figured out and will chafe against micromanagement from a first year head coach.
The best way to answer this is that whatever happened this year, Joerger will be better at handling it next year.
It's About What They Did Together
Basketball is dictated by large forces. Superstar players like Lebron James and Kevin Durant bend the league around their gravity.
To a lesser extent, coaches are the same way. There are a few superstar coaches who add wins to their teams. Coaches like Gregg Poppovich, Rick Carlisle and Tom Thibodeau have a demonstrable track record for adding wins to their teams (though Thibs maybe gets less flack than he should for grinding his best players into dust).
There are also an ignominious few who, for a variety of reasons, hurt their teams.
The rest are somewhere in the middle – each coach brings a unique combination of strengths and weaknesses to the table. For most coaches, their attributes are simply not enough to demonstrably improve their team’s performance relative to their peers.
That last point is critical. It is true that players are responsible for most of a given team’s success. In my opinion, this is true - but not because coaches don’t matter. Coaches matter. A lot. But each coach can only impact his team relative to his competition. There are only thirty NBA head coaches, and the lion’s share of them seem to be pretty close in skill level.
Think about it this way: there are somewhere around four hundred and fifty NBA players. If only two percent of that sample is truly a superstar, that means there are nine superstar players in the NBA. If those players are distributed evenly across the league (rather than grouping together on the same team) as much as thirty percent of the league has a superstar player edge relative to their competition.
If the same two percent of the thirty NBA head coaches are truly superstars, not even one team has a superstar coach. The problem with coaches mattering may not be quality, but scarcity.
Where does Joerger fit into this landscape? Comfortably in the middle. A first year NBA coach will make mistakes, and Joerger made his share. I could write 10,000 words talking about end of game scenarios he clearly botched. And every minute Tayshaun Prince played is an indictment in its own right.
But when word of his potential exit leaked last week, I was not eager for Joerger to leave. Joerger performed admirably in his first year as an NBA head coach, in a season rife with injuries and overflowing with expectations. We were talking, un-ironically, about tanking - in January. By February, that talk was a distant memory. Joerger could be a great coach some day. Perhaps soon. For now we can look back at this season and know it wasn't about what the players did, and it wasn't about what the coach did. It was about what the players and coach did together.