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Coaching Truths

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Dwight Jaynes wrote an interesting column for Tuesday's Tribune this week about Nate McMillan and his comments after Saturday night's loss.  (In fact this is a common theme to the Trib coverage this week, as Kerry Egger's article shows.)  Let me state up front that while I don't necessarily agree with the conclusions Dwight is drawing, I am not arguing against what he's saying.  Me not agreeing with it and it not being true may be two quite different things.  (That happens sometimes.)  Perhaps there is even a lot of truth in what Dwight says.  But having had my interest piqued by the column, I'd also like to share some truths about this whole coaching thing I've observed after watching and listening to coaches (and fans who talk about coaches) for a couple decades.  They might provide a counterpunctual complement to Dwight's truths, but I think they can also stand alongside them.

You see, coaches do absolutely no least not in any tangible way you can point to.  If the team wins, it's because of the heroic actions of the players.  Every once in a while you will hear about somebody being "outcoached", which seems to attribute a win to some kind of coaching prowess, but this is largely illusion.  First of all, you hear it maybe once in fifty wins at most.  Second, it's almost always applied to the coach who lost, not the victorious one.  A guy can get outcoached, but he never outcoaches the opposition.  Coaches are not responsible for victory...players are.

Similarly coaches are never responsible for successful player development.  If a player excels it's for one of two reasons:  he was either destined for greatness from the start (whether anybody realized it beforehand or not) or he worked his butt off to get where he is.  In neither case is the coach to blame.  Brandon Roy's meteoric rise to All-Stardom is solely and completely due to his talent, his character, his intelligence, and destiny.  It cannot in any way be attributed even in part to any of the following:

--His talent being recognized, depended upon, and taken advantage of in Portland
--Him being encouraged and groomed to take a leadership role
--The offense being changed, molded specifically around his skills
--Him having a constant, firm, and unyielding example of good leadership, work ethic, and NBA success even on this team full of incredibly young players
--The specific work the head coach has put in with him

In other words, even if Brandon were in...say...New York or Miami he would clearly be playing this many minutes, having this level of success, and the Knicks or Heat would being having at least as much of an exponential jump in record as the Trail Blazers have...more in fact, as they're in the weaker Eastern Conference.  It has nothing to do with the environment and even if it did the environment has nothing to do with the coach.

On the other hand coaches are absolutely responsible for losses.  This is largely because coaching is so darn obvious and simple.  Every loss comes down to one or two basic, binary decisions.  It's black and grey.  You make those decisions right, we win.  You make them wrong, we lose.  You don't have to be a genius or know a down pick from a nose pick to understand this game.  I, myself, am particularly skilled in identifying those critical moments.  I can see them in every game, along with the two possible choices, as well as how obviously right the correct one is and how obviously wrong the one the coach chooses is.  I only get a chance to talk about them in hindsight, of course, but if you asked I could certainly tell you even before the game starts when and what they will be.

I'll give you a hint about those moments:  most of them involve intangibles.  Pre-game motivation, timing your time-outs, how long you spend with the players in the actual timeout huddle compared to talking with your assistants...these are far more important than X and O items like what defenses you're employing, what your options are for dealing with screens, whether you double on the catch or on the dribble, who's running and setting your double-screen sets, and which opposing defenders you're trying to involve in the high screen and roll.

Without a doubt the most obvious, glaring mistakes coaches make involve substitutions.  I have access to the best advance scouting reports and watch game tape until four in the morning.  I spend long plane rides and nearly every meal of the day honing my perceptions with some of the brightest minds in the business.  When I'm on vacation in the Bahamas over the summer I'm drawing next year's playbook in the sand, much to the chagrin of my wife.  And I know for sure that if you just put in the right guy--the "rebounder" or the "passer" or the "shooter"--every aspect of the contest is going to fall in line, even if that means a radical change in the course the game has taken since the tip-off.  There is always one, magic player and one, magic moment that will make all the difference.  I do not understand why that is not put in the coaching manual.  It will be Chapter One in the one I write, along with a cross-reference to NBA Live so you can definitively quantify these players' skills.

And speaking of substitutions, let's talk about player development.  What a joke!  I have watched a lot of games and even imagined a few practices.  I know for sure the reserves we never see on this team are far better than the guys the coach chooses to play.  Whether they're a young draft pick or a trade throw-in or some guy we picked up off of waivers doesn't matter.  Don't these coaches know that those guys are automatically the best?  I mean, come on...they don't show "Rudy" on those team flights anymore?  Hey, if these guys don't develop--or don't develop as rapidly as I think they should--it ain't their fault.  That's the coach holding them back.

Let's get serious here.  Player development is a piece of cake.  You just have to follow these simple instructions:

--Make sure you say kind words to support the developing players or get tough on them so they'll shape up and fall in line.
--Give them plenty of time out on the court to find their way or restrict their court time so they take it seriously and know they have to earn it.
--Always play them at their natural position or switch them to a different position because they'll add a new wrinkle there and have a surprising advantage.
--Never criticize them in public or you'll hurt their confidence but always let the fans know exactly what's going on with them, how they're progressing, and why they're not playing more.

I don't get why it's so hard for people to identify the truly good coaches in this game.  Isn't it obvious?  You know them by the nine championship rings on their fingers, earned by having some of the greatest Hall-of-Famers the game has ever known on their rosters.  But unless or until I can get one of those coaches (or the coach that I have is sitting in the head seat when my team wins a championship) I am going to lose patience with every coach I have after no less than two and no more than four years...finding fault after fault until I've left myself no option but to demand a change.  This is providing, of course, that we don't get an extraordinarily bad coach that I want out after the first year.  In any case, the only way to ensure good coaching is to recycle them in less time than it takes the average person to finish high school.  Technically this also provides us more opportunities to talk about getting one of those great coaches, so it's a win-win proposition.

Be aware that there are some people who will question all of this.  My best advice is to simply, as they say, "Shun the non-believer...shun!"  But if you just can't shake them, if they call you into question, remember this phrase:  "You mean it's never right to question a coach at any time?"  This will make any argument all but bulletproof.  Don't ever let it enter your mind or anyone else's that it might not be about questioning or analyzing, but examining how you question and analyze, who you're questioning and analyzing, and what assumptions you're making as you do so. There is no difference between thoughtful analysis of options/strategies/philosophies and cheap criticism. That distinction is for sissies. Besides, who has all day to think about this basketball stuff? I've got a real job, you know! Calling the coach an idiot sums up the matter sufficiently, and it's a lot quicker too!

When you understand all this, Grasshopper, and when you can dribble on rice paper without leaving a mark, then you will be a true fan...and a great coach too.

--Dave (