Do NBA coaches matter?
The NBA has a short leash for coaches these days. In the “win-now” era, coaches are given less than five years to produce winning results, and even less time in most cases. It’s honestly a tough job to have, one that few have mastered.
I can think of one current coach in the NBA that has actually made a lasting difference. Gregg Popovich. Think about it; he’s the longest tenured coach with a history of playing a specific style of basketball. No matter what players have moved into the San Antonio Spurs lineup, Popovich can create the same style of play in anyone. Pop is the anomaly.
My argument is that, beyond him as the exception, the rule is that NBA coaches don’t matter. And I’ll give you a few examples.
Let’s start with our very own coach, David Fizdale.
I like Fizdale. I think he did a pretty good job with this year’s Grizzlies. But if we take a look back at the last three Grizz coaches, Lionel Hollins, Dave Joerger, and David Fizdale, the results haven’t wavered much.
Fizdale won just one more game than Coach Joerger in the previous year (on a team that used 28 different players). Hollins had a good regular season record, the best of the three mentioned coaches. It’s worth mentioning that all three coaches have made the playoffs every year. The team hasn’t missed the playoffs since the 2009-10 season (which was Hollins’ first abbreviated season).
The result in the playoffs has been the virtually the same for each coach, with virtually the same core players. Aside from one conference finals, it’s been a first or second round exit each year. The Grizzlies have won at least two playoff games in each season with the exception of last year’s sweep.
Of course Fizdale is just beginning his tenure in Memphis. What I’m saying, though, is that the coaching changes had very little effect on the results. The culture is changing a little now with Fizdale at the helm, but the results haven’t changed all that much.
Let’s look at another example. Cleveland.
The Cleveland Cavaliers made the playoffs every year from the 2005-06 to the 2009-10 season. They missed the playoffs the next three seasons. And now they have made the Finals three years in a row. The difference? LeBron James. Obviously the best player in the world (debatable) is going to take you to the promised land, but that’s the point.
The NBA is player driven, player heavy, and the coaches can’t compete with that. LeBron James is carrying the Cavs to the Finals. Mike Brown wasn’t the reason in 2007 and David Blatt wasn’t the reason in 2015. Tyronn Lue now has the same result in the Finals as Blatt did with a loss. The players on the team are the reason for the results of the organization. The Grizzlies’ core four prove that in Memphis’ case.
How about a losing example? Brooklyn.
The Brooklyn Nets are not good at all, and haven’t been for quite some time. They have been through six coaches since 2012. That’s more than one coach a year on average. The problem is, each coach has had the same result. Remember Lionel Hollins’ success at Memphis? Yeah, it didn’t go so well in Brooklyn. The Nets have a different culture with a completely different roster. They haven’t had a winning record in three seasons, with four different coaches. It’s simple: the players aren’t very good.
A coach that has been with two different teams and different results? Mike D’Antoni.
Coach D’Antoni was the head coach of the New York Knicks from 2008-2012. The results weren’t impressive: three playoff appearances, including only one escape from the first round. The other two were a sweep and just one win the first round. That team struggled mightily in the weaker Eastern Conference of those years.
At the start of the 2016 season, D’Antoni was hired as the Houston Rockets head coach. This year the Rockets won 55 games, landed the third seed in the Western Conference, and took the Spurs to six games in the Western Conference Semis. I repeat, D’Antoni was in his first season. This team also set three-point attempt and make records with an electric offense. But those shots were made by the Houston players, and missed by the Knicks players in D’Antoni’s earlier coaching stint.
I can keep going. Frank Vogel was fired by the Pacers after six seasons, only missing the playoffs one time and reaching the conference finals twice. He missed the playoffs by 12 games in his first season with the Orlando Magic. Nate McMillian lost three more games than his predecessor in the 2016-17, McMillan’s first season with the Pacers. The Indiana roster has been anchored by Paul George for the last seven seasons. He hasn’t produced consistent winning with any coach and decent players around him.
Rick Carlisle has been the Dallas Mavericks coach since 2008. He won an NBA championship in 2011. Other than that, he made one Western Conference Semi-final in his first season. He has also missed the playoffs twice, and has lost in the first round in every other season, a first round record of 7-20 in his tenure for the Mavericks.
The players won that NBA championship, and they also missed the playoffs. If coaching was so important, how did the same coach win a championship but also never reach the conference finals again?
Obviously having coaches is necessary - they provide leadership and organization. Someone has to call timeouts and make substitutions. Practicing outside of games is also important. But when it comes to results in game and playoff production, the players are the root cause. History shows that trend, at least in the modern NBA. I’m not old enough to know any other NBA era well enough to make a case, but in my generation, players run the NBA.
It is as simple as that.