Death To All Coaches!


Is there anyone in the NBA who gets criticized more than coaches?  It doesn’t matter who you are, how successful you are (or have been), or what players you have at your disposal — we can always find problems with you.  Earlier this year, Greg Popovitch was criticized for being unable to make his big off-season acquisition, Richard Jefferson, productive.  The other night, Phil Jackson, winner of more NBA titles than God himself, left himself open for target practice by choosing to draw up a play for Pau Gasol to attempt the game-tying three-point shot (Pau missed, which could cause the Lakers to lose home court advantage if they play the Magic in the Finals).

We, the fans and media, aren’t necessarily wrong in complaining about these points, but I think sometimes we not only expect too much, we also don’t always see (or know) the full picture.  For instance, maybe Phil was trying to make a point to Kobe about how the Black Mamba needed to give his body rest or it would cost the team (the previous possession Kobe missed two free throws that would’ve given the Lakers the lead).  If Kobe/Fisher/Artest/whoever hit a three for the tie, then maybe Kobe remains convinced that he can play through his injuries.  Sure, you can say this was a costly way to make a point (& I have no idea if Phil was trying to make this point), but if Kobe’s sitting out these two last games enables him to be healthy enough to lead the Lakers back to a championship, it’d be hard to argue with the results.

Or maybe Jackson’s trying to make a point to his players that they don’t need home court against the Magic: it’s just about us, the Lakers, and if we play well we can beat anyone, anywhere.  Other coaches stress wanting/needing home court advantage more, but then what happens if you don’t get it?  You’ve already established this as an important thing for your players.  If they go into game 1 and the opponent’s rowdy crowd helps the team rally late in the third, isn’t it gonna at least cross the player’s mind for a moment that, crap, we should’ve gotten home court?  It’s not that different from Jackson’s preference to not call timeouts when the other team goes on a run.  He wants his team to learn not to panic, to not expect to be “saved” by him, and to realize that they have to fight their way out of this themselves.

And it’s worked.  People say Jackson has won ‘cuz he’s had stud players like Jordan, Pippen, Shaq & Kobe.  What they don’t realize is that he also empowers marginal players like Derek Fisher, Steve Kerr, John Paxson, Rick Fox, and Trevor Ariza, paving the way for them to hit big shots when it counts most.  How many people (and I’ll be honest and raise my hand here) felt that Jackson should’ve demoted Fisher last year from the starting line-up and played him a lot less?  Yet in crucial playoff games, because Jackson kept confidence in Fish, Derek ended up hitting big threes, winning games for the Lakers.  Would he have been able to do that if he’d been reduced to playing 15 minutes off the bench?  Who knows?

That’s one of the reasons it IS so easy to critique coaches, ‘cuz who does know?  Maybe if Jackson had moved Jordan Farmar to starting point guard last year, then Farmar could’ve hit those big shots?  Or maybe he would’ve been such a big addition to the team that they wouldn’t even have needed any big shots ‘cuz they would’ve blown the competition away?  And maybe then this year Farmar would’ve taken his game to yet another level and the Lakers would have the best record in the league and look unstoppable?  Who can say?

Well, we, the fans and critics, feel we can say.  In Atlanta, Coach Mike Woodson has yet to receive a contract for next year.  He’s had more than his share of critics, but each year, for the last five years, he’s gotten the Hawks to improve and win more games than the previous season.  People think New Orleans’ Hornets coach Jeff Bowers did a poor job ‘cuz his team’s gonna miss the playoffs, but they’ve gone 33-39 while he was there, despite Chris Paul missing 36 games, Peja missing like 16, and them giving away last year’s starting shooting guard Rasual Butler in the off-season.  If the Miami Heat had lost Dwayne Wade for as many games as Paul was out, does anyone think they’d be in the playoffs?  And that’s in the much weaker East.

As Bowers points out in an interview, before he took over when the team was losing games, they’d often give up and end up losing by like 25 points.  He not only got this team to always keep fighting, but he managed to turn two-late-drafted rookies who were glued to the bench into productive guys who could play 35-40+ minutes a night.  Doc Rivers lead the Celtics to a championship just two years ago, but news that he might be leaving after this season has been met with squeals of joy by Boston fans.

Where’s this going?  Yesterday ESPNNewYork posted an article by Ian O’Connor condemning Knicks’ coach Mike D’Antoni.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I think D’Antoni has done many, many bad things as a coach.  After the season ends today, I plan on eventually writing evaluations for all the players and D’Antoni himself, but I already know the title for coach’s post (“The Trial Of Mike D’Antoni”).  O’Connor says D’Antoni failed to do his job, and cites two big complaints: 1.No improvement over previous coaches Isiah Thomas & Larry Brown, and 2.Well, let’s go with O’Connor’s words:

But during the painful rebuilding, it wasn’t too much to ask D’Antoni to […] inspire his team to play hard. To contest shots. To grind out enough blood-and-guts victories to challenge for the eighth playoff seed in Year 2 of the program.

O’Connor claims he was excitedly onboard when D’Antoni was hired, so I’m assuming he watched the Phoenix Suns and knew what he was in for.  They were a team that was all about offense, passing and moving, but not particularly good defense.  This was no secret.  The goal was for D’Antoni to make the Knicks fun to watch (which these days seems to translate into meaning a high-octane offense), not turn them into a slug-’em-out defensive monster (even though those teams still tend to win the rings in the end).  To complain about him not turning the Knicks into a defensive force is like complaining that your plumber wouldn’t fix the cabinet above the sink.  Yeah, he should have the fix-it knowledge to do it, but you didn’t hire him for that.

As for O’Connor’s point that the team’s win/loss record is no better than with previous coaches, well ya gotta look at the talent level.  The Knicks actually looked like they had a shot at the playoffs at the beginning of last season, but then, as planned, Donnie Walsh made trades so the team could get under the cap.  In essence, Walsh gave away Zach Randolph (one of the leading contenders for Most Improved this year who’s helped turn the Grizzlies into a dangerous team) and Jamal Crawford (who’ll most likely win the Sixth Man Of The Year award for having helped transform the Hawks from playoff regular to a Top 3 Team in the East).  In addition, D’Antoni lost two other 15+ point scorers that his predecessors had due to exile (Stephon Marbury) and injury (Eddy Curry).

If, two years ago before D’Antoni was hired, we were told that for most of this season he’d have a starting line-up of David Lee, Chris Duhon, Danilo Gallinari, Jared Jeffries, and Wilson Chandler, we would’ve thought it’d be the Knicks, not the Nets, who’d challenge for the league’s worst record in history.  I dunno if there would’ve been a single coach out there who would’ve felt confident he could coax 25+ wins from that group.

This isn’t to say that D’Antoni’s been great.  Or even good.  Or passable. Merely that it’s far, far too easy to point out shortcomings in a coach.  However, D’Antoni will have his trial soon.  And most likely the trial won’t finish until we see how he does next season when he gets a little more talent with which to work.  All coaches make tons of mistakes, and from the outside sometimes we perceive things to be mistakes that are part of a larger picture that we don’t fully see or understand.  The truth is that maybe we’re not qualified to judge from afar.

But I still think Phil Jackson should’ve drawn that last play up for someone who’s hit at least one three-pointer this season.