Why Coaching Matters in the NBA

How many times have you heard that coaching doesn’t matter in the NBA, that it’s all about the talent on the floor? Probably somewhere between a few and a few hundred, depending on how closely you follow the game. There’s obviously a fair amount of truth to that sentiment.

Sean Spicer could have been coaching the last three Cavs teams and they still would have made the Finals all three years. Luke Walton stepped into a ready-made situation and went 40-1 in Steve Kerr’s place with a loaded Warriors team. And Larry Bird won three titles in five years in the early- to mid-’80s without a single coach worth writing about.

But think about it the other way: Would MJ and the Bulls really have won six titles if they’d been coached by Doug Collins? Did the Lakers win more titles than the Celtics in the ’80s because they had Pat Riley at the helm, pressing them never to lay off the gas? And although LeBron can get ANY team to the Finals, would he have been better or worse off the past three years with truly good coaching?

The last question is the most relevant to today’s NBA and currently at the forefront after the Celtics beat the Warriors last Thursday night at home in Boston. It’s generally accepted as fact that the less talented team is better off limiting the pace and the total number of shots so that the opponent has fewer chances to capitalize on their superiority.

Makes sense. The Mavericks would have a better chance of beating the Warriors in a game to five than a 48-minute game. On Thursday, Brad Stevens did just that, slowing the game down and only allowing Golden State to score 88 points on 82 shots (the Celtics got up even fewer shots, 79, at a worse percentage, but basically won it at the free throw line).

Flash back to Game 1 of last year’s NBA Finals. Ty Lue let LeBron push the pace and play up and down with the Warriors. It basically worked behind a huge first half from LeBron, and they were STILL down seven points. The Warriors thrive playing up and down and blew them out in the second half when LeBron, predictably, tired.

The second game they did the same thing and were only down three at halftime, before predictably getting blown out of the gym in the second half when LeBron tired and the Warriors were all still fresh. In Game 1, Golden State got up 106 shots total. In Game 2 they only got up 89 shots, but almost half of them (43) were threes, and they shot a high percentage. They also shot more free throws and scored more total points.

These numbers are revealing. They were taken after Game 3, not Game 2, but they still paint an accurate picture of LeBron’s effectiveness during the first two (key) games in Oakland.

There are several reasons for this discrepancy. For one, LeBron played way too many minutes in the regular season. Presumably that was to secure a good regular season record, but the Celtics ended up with the one seed, and the Cavs destroyed them in a one-sided series that could have been played on the moon and ended up with the same result. Therefore, it was idiotic for LeBron to play so many minutes (he finished 14th overall, 2.5 minutes off James Haden’s league-leading number) to secure a home-court advantage that didn’t matter and that they ended up losing anyway.

LeBron is also getting older, and logic says his play would naturally drop off later in games, especially at the end of a long year (really, a long seven-year period of Finals appearances). However, the effect clearly could have been mitigated. The obvious play was to slow the game down and make it an ugly, physical, walk-it-up affair à la Brad Stevens and the Celtics on Thursday.

Base the offense on LeBron and let him either shoot an open jumper or go to the rim, and either take a high-percentage shot, get fouled, or find a man for an open three. Let him dribble the ball into the floor on every possession and have Tristan Thompson crash the offensive boards on every miss to deny Golden State fast-break opportunities. Wash, rinse, repeat. On defense, use bench players to take hard fouls, play Curry and Durant very physically, occasionally hedge against Curry, and basically do everything you can to slow the game down and mess with the Warriors’ rhythm.

By slowing down the pace they would have taken the Warriors out of their game, put less wear and tear on LeBron’s legs, and maybe even given LeBron a chance to rest on the bench. In a fast-paced game, a 90-second LeBron bench visit can result in a 10-12 point swing, but during an ugly, slow-paced game it wouldn’t be as risky to take him out. Come the second half, LeBron would have had fresher legs, giving the Cavs a much better shot of staying in the game.

Stevens’ impressive tactical adjustments shouldn’t be surprising to anyone. In case you don’t watch the Celtics every single night, the guy is the complete package. Great X’s and O’s, great overall system at both ends, tremendous at dealing with players and getting them to buy in, and on top of it all – perhaps most importantly, given that it’s a players’ league – Stevens and his staff are especially sublime at individual player development.

Ty Lue’s stubbornness isn’t shocking, either. He’s a strong-willed guy who was the perfect antidote (at the time) as David Blatt’s replacement, mostly because he was willing to stand up to LeBron. What is surprising is that he so badly mismanaged the pace to begin last year’s Finals, and it is surprising only for one specific reason: He already had the answers to the test.

In case you forgot, the Cavs WON the title in 2016, coming back from 3-1 down to win an ugly, slow-paced Game 7 at home in which they allowed precisely 89 points on 83 field goal attempts. Sound familiar?!?!

In Game 7, at home, with everything that could possibly matter to a player or coach at stake, Ty Lue chose to slow the game down, holding the Warriors to almost the exact same points/shots output as Boston did last Thursday. Just under a year later, on the road, he forgot every lesson that he should have learned, and in the process handed the title to Golden State on a silver platter.

Writers and fans aren’t the only people judging coaches and their tactics. Players around the league know exactly who the best coaches are, and intelligent players with the power to do so make every effort to play for the few elite ones. When Kevin Durant chose the Warriors, he specifically cited their system, leaving unsaid how much he hated the uninspired hero-ball he played with Westbrook in OKC.

At least for a while. Until this offseason, to be exact, when he made it clear via a sleep deprivation-fueled Twitter binge exactly what he thought of Bill Donovan:

More direct – and relevant to the Ty Lue/Brad Stevens discussion – is the case of Kyrie Irving and his much-criticized demand for a trade this past offseason that eventually landed him in Boston. Clearly Kyrie had an issue playing second fiddle to (and basically being treated like a younger brother by) LeBron. Another worry was #23 potentially leaving after this season and leaving Kyrie holding the bag for a maxed-out, aging franchise with no first-round picks. But how much did coaching play a role in his exit from the The Land?

If you consider this quote from Kyrie’s discussion with Geno Auriemma – and then consider the fact that the three other teams on his wish list included his hometown Knicks and two defense-first coaches who are brilliant but hard to play for in Popovich and Tom Thibodeau – it appears that the correct answer is quite a bit:

“Brad fits perfectly in terms of that because he has an intellectual mind and is an intellectual human being. It was something I was unbelievably craving in terms of what I wanted for my career.”

Those are the words of someone who wasn’t comfortable playing the rest of his prime for Tyronn Lue.

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