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Kevin McHale Proves Coaches Get Too Much Everything

David T. Foster/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

We spend a lot of time discussing NBA coaches. We call some good, others wretched, a few as mental superiors to their colleagues, but all of it seems rather arbitrary. Aren’t almost all coaches’ success correlated to their rosters? To elaborate that thought more simply; all of the “geniuses” haven’t had the luck of coaching a version of the Philadelphia 76ers.

This isn’t a new thought. Nor is it strictly limited to the NBA. Major League Baseball managers seem rather trivial — outside of them being grown men wearing a uniform as if they’re about to pinch hit. Many of them, just ask the Mets, are relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things. A similar thing can — to a lesser degree — be applied to NFL coaches, as someone like Bell Belichick didn’t find Hall of Fame-level success with a wretched Cleveland team, but sure as heck found it with Tom Brady behind center.

He looks excited to be there, at least.

He looks excited to be there, at least.

More of a delicate balance than that is needed when discussing the importance of coaches. No one will ever know if the New England Patriots would’ve been great for more than a decade if it were another competent coach calling the shots. Then again, we do have Belichick’s history at Cleveland to tell us that he needed a great quarterback to win. Honestly, that’s not too complicated to figure out. One probably needs the other to help be great.

For the NBA, though, it’s different. There’s no comparison for the guys in that sport designing plays in any other sport. The closest sporting colleagues they have is college basketball, but the game is vastly different. College coaches are world famous micromanagers. They recruit their own players, not guys fed to them by way of a general manager, and those players have no choice but to play in that coach’s system.

It’s the players in college basketball that are disposable. In the NBA it’s the complete opposite. It’s truly a players’ league. Only MLB rivals it in scope in that way. Part of that is why the Houston Rockets used Kevin McHale as the team’s scapegoat — as it’s far easier to blame/fire him than it would be to unload the roster as it is.

Using McHale exclusively, he’s an odd talking point to use. Few gave him any credit for Houston’s success last season. Now that he’s been shown the door, stories have been published in mass over he and Daryl Morey’s inability to agree on the latter’s foundation of basketball success belief being based off fancy stats. So it’s odd that Morey continues to get hammered, while McHale wasn’t given any credit for last year’s successes and this season’s failures. People want it to be all and none of it at the same time.

It’s only odd, however, because people mostly know why Houston was good last year and is suffering through a string of calamities this season. It’s the players on the roster who have the most direct impact on wins and losses. The roster has failed the Rockets more than McHale has. That’s not to say he shares the blame, but by no means is he the largest reason for their lackluster start.

Golden State is a better example, because we now have a core group of guys who’ve been involved with three different coaches — Mark Jackson, Steve Kerr and now Luke “Lil Wheats” Walton.

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Jackson’s time with the Warriors was weird. Only because the team at the time wasn’t thought of with the same reverence they are now. It wasn’t even so much that the Golden State front office felt he was failing the roster which resulted in his firing, either. It had more to do with the coach’s belief structure AND the idea that the team had maxed out with him at the helm.

Enter Steve Kerr and the Warriors have become a cheat code. Oddly enough, like Mark Jackson, Kerr had no previous head coaching experience when he took over the gig. That didn’t stop him from taking what Jackson had, making it better and winning a title. But how much better did “he” make it that way?

I ask because we currently have a Luke Walton Golden State team destroying souls. Luke Walton — also no prior head coaching experience — wasn’t on anyone’s radars as far as being the next great NBA head coach. Well, at least not this soon. Yet he’s currently dominating the NBA.

Does any of the Warriors’ successes and failures with these three coaches have as much to do with on the court coaching as it does with a mentality set into place? Could a yoga instructor put the same calm into place that Kerr did, while displacing the structure Jackson implemented which may have resulted in some weird religious tension, and won the first 12 games of this season with Golden State?

We almost all acknowledge that the Warriors have such transcendent talent that — at this point — anyone could coach the team and win the majority of the games (side note: this won’t stop a team from making a run at Walton).

Golden State could be the complete opposite of the Houston situation as far as reasons for success and failure, but in both instances no one thinks the coach matters all that much. To be fair, I may have overstated it a bit with the yoga instructor gag, but what’s a Luke Walton anyway?

The only time — to the only people, it’s worth adding — the “mattering” of a coach seems relevant is when a fan base feels like their team isn’t getting over the hump because of him. Stan Van Gundy is a great example of this, because the Miami Heat fan base felt like he was a huge reason why they weren’t getting over some fictional hump. Luckily for them, Pat Riley was more than happy to oblige their wishes, fired a guy who’s now considered a good coach, then led Miami to a title.

Don’t get confused, though. Riley didn’t lead the Heat through the rest of that regular season and playoffs because he was still some sort of basketball genius. He wasn’t that far removed from implementing the ugliest basketball in the world with the New York Knicks a few years — and an era’s worth of style difference – prior. It had more to do with everyone on the roster — again, the players — buying back in because of Riley’s aura. It was still very much the players who won that title. Had Riley fired Van Gundy if he had the Sixers’ current roster, then took over, they would continue to stink.

Not an apples to apples comparison, but look at Stan look like his dad is embarrassing him on a date with his lady

Not an apples to apples comparison, but look at Stan look like his dad is embarrassing him on a date with his lady

That’s not to say coaches have zero impact on a team’s success. It’s to say that any team’s success is relative more towards the roster than a coach — almost without exception. It could also be said, for what it’s worth, the guys who do a great job of coaching lesser talent will pay for it later (re: Brad Stevens in Boston). So the whole thing is a cluster{expletive} regardless.

NBA coaches are less coaches, more managers of egos, playing time and logistics as a whole. It could be said that NBA coaches more closely resemble a branch manager of a rental car company than some sort of basketball genius.

It’s why Phil Jackson is held in such high regard. Sure, he has approximately eleventy-billion rings, but he also got to coach Michael Jordan, Shaq and Jelly Bean Jr. in their primes. That’s not to undersell what he did, but as much as the “Triangle” gets a ton of credit, the Bulls and Lakers’ successes had more to do with Jackson’s ability to keep things calm, while caressing the egos which needed stroking and laying the hammer down on those who needed a more disciplined approach.

He was a third mentor, a third logistics manager and a third basketball coach. You can say all of those things make up what a basketball coach is supposed to be, but you’re doing a disservice to how many coaches DON’T have those qualities — which is likely what helped (along with players) set Jackson apart from others. So is Jackson a basketball coach or a good manager? These things seem different.

Phil would make a great retail manager, imho

Phil would make a great retail manager, imho

It probably wasn’t always this way. When the game was less of a players’ league, giving coaches more of a rope via having more power than players, it’s safe to assume their decisions had more of an impact. But coaches today aren’t even the most important non-players in an organization. That title belongs to general managers. After that, hell, it could be argued ho-hum scouts could be more important than a coach.

That’s all based off the foundation of *my * argument that the players are responsible for about 90 percent of a team’s success. The other eight percent or so essentially has to go to general managers and scouts, because how else would the players who have such a direct impact on games be on the hardwood for that team? I’m leaving the mere two percent for the coaches because managing minutes, egos, etc. is still a hard thing to do…just ask Tom Thibodeau.

Thibs is truly a great example. He went from a defensive genius and a guy who gets the most out of his players to a dude who couldn’t manage Jimmy Butler’s minutes, drove other players to the ground, possibly alienated Derrick Rose and whatnot. Thing is, it wasn’t that he became a bad coach or never was a good one. It was that we were putting too much stock into him as a coach.

Who cares? Seriously…the Bulls were going to Bulls with that roster no matter who the coach was. Going forward, with dreamy Fred Hoiberg now leading the helm, it’s a chance to showcase how much a coach matters. More importantly, it’ll highlight how much the logistics of being a coach matters more than a guy scheming up players. Sure, Hoiberg brings in a more offensive-friendly system, but the biggest difference between he and Thibs are their ideas of how to manage minutes — which is less a thing about being an NBA head coach basketball genius and more about knowing how to play with numbers. (No, an accountant shouldn’t be a head coach…I don’t think?)

I admit I’m probably too hardly overselling the lack of importance of having a good coach. Yet, a large part of me feels like NBA coaches are mostly interchangeable, with very few exceptions (yes, there’s exceptions), which is part of the reason why there are so many retreads in the NBA (there’s another reason for that, but I digress).

How is Stan Van Gundy a failure in Miami, but a savior in Detroit? Why doesn’t it seem to matter who coaches the Warriors? Who the hell is the coach of the Atlanta Hawks? If Gregg Popovich coaches the Sixers and Brett Brown coached the Spurs during their prime, what would happen?

There’s no numerical value that can be pinned on a coach’s worth — though, I tried with the two percent. How many wins/losses are they responsible for in the season? Even if we could answer that, their contribution to those numbers would only be valued to a small degree because it can only be attributed indirectly. Try as hard as we might, coaches who draw up last-second plays aren’t the ones hitting the shot to win the game.

For every time we call Doc Rivers a genius for drawing up a beautiful play out of a timeout which results in a score, we call a coach on a team with a losing record a dope because his players failed to execute the play as designed. Why? Because talent. Those with it are geniuses and those without are dumb. It’s not complicated.

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