The NBA Finals start, finally, on Thursday night. So now you’re probably thinking either A.) “About time, eh?” or B.) “The NBA what?”
But, yes, the NBA Finals begin Thursday, and with them come the usual pants-load of “storylines” and “narratives.” All with Big Question Marks and Drama Promising to Unfold Before Our Very Eyes.
(I feel like I need to put this whole next paragraph in italics.)
Can LeBron James, the greatest player on the planet, bring a championship to his semi hometown, title-starved Cleveland? Can MVP Stephen Curry, the MVP and now regarded as maybe the best shooter ever, get title-starved Golden State a ring? Will point guard Kyrie Irving be ready to go for Cleveland? Can Mark Jackson, ABC announcer and Golden State’s coach last year, be unbiased in his call of the games? Is Cleveland backup point guard Matthew Dellavedova a dirty player? How many tattoos can J.R. Smith fit on one body? Will anyone watch a finals between a team from Cleveland and one from Oakland?
To me, though, one storyline pops out. It isn’t a question. It’s a fact. Kind of.
This series will mark the first time in NBA history that two rookie coaches will meet to determine the title.
OK … technically, it’s the second time. In the Basketball Association of America’s inaugural season, 1946, the Philadelphia Warriors (you can trace that franchise straight to these Finals), coached by Hall of Famer Edward Gottlieb, beat Hall of Famer Harold Olsen’s Chicago Stags for the first title. Obviously, neither Gottlieb or Olsen had coached in the league before because of the very technical fact that the league did not exist. So, technically, they were both rookies.
Today, seven decades later, first-year NBA coach Steve Kerr trots out his Warriors (who moved to San Francisco in 1963 and became the Golden State Warriors in 1972) against NBA rookie coach David Blatt of the Cavaliers.
This says so much about the state of coaching today. Mainly, I think, it points out — like a madman stomping his feet on the sideline, bug-eyed and screaming, sweating, pacing up and down and up and down, it points out — that coaching at the professional level is overrated. In many ways, it’s waaaay overrated.
This isn’t limited to the NBA, of course. It’s just that the Association, as it’s known around the association and few other places, is simply taking the lead in showing everyone the relative unimportance of professional coaches.
How important can a coach be when two rookies are in charge of the league’s two best teams? How important are they when half of the league’s 30 teams have changed coaches in the past year?
The league has 29 guys right now in head coaching positions. (The Denver Nuggets, clearly, don’t see the need.) You know how many have been on the job more than five years?
Rick Carlisle of the Dallas Mavericks. Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat. Greg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs.
Three. Out of 30 spots.
How important can they be?
Coaching, of course, has always been a volatile profession, if you want to call it that. (If you want to call it a profession, I mean. It’s volatile, for sure, whatever you call it.) Owners have always found, and they always will, that it’s much easier to fire a coach than to kick out a multimillion dollar player or admit that they have a screwed-up roster.
What teams have come to realize is that coaching on the professional level is less about basketball and strategy and stomping feet than it is about making sure everyone gets along. Because, even if your team is a winner, if everyone doesn’t get along, the coach is toast.
Ask Jackson, who clashed with his owners and was booted after winning 51 games last season. Ask Tom Thibodeau, whose hard-headed ways rubbed on his players and the Chicago Bulls’ upper management so much that he finally was fired last month, despite an impressive winning record.
Jason Kidd irked the owners in Brooklyn. Longtime Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan lost a power play with one of his players a few years ago.
To be a successful coach in the NBA — meaning, to stick around — you have to get along.
Managing to manage
These coaches all have skills. They know basketball. They have a pretty good idea of how to draw up a play out of a timeout, or when to use a timeout, and when to go to their bench, and the importance of the 3-pointer and a rim protector.
But all that is secondary these days to little, non-basketball stuff, like keeping the players happy and playing nice with the minority owners and not sounding off to the press too much.
Now, the non-game duties are part of coaching, too. For sure. But they are more about managing time and people and egos. Professional coaches are, almost by definition, middle managers. And, as in most of corporate America, middle managers are eminently replaceable.
So the league now is filled with young coaches who may be unproven in the pro ranks but who know (supposedly) how to work a team when the basketballs are bouncing and, more importantly, when they’re in the rack. Guys like Brad Stevens, who left a successful job as a college coach at Butler to take over the Boston Celtics. Billy Donovan is leaving Florida to coach the Oklahoma City Thunder. Fred Hoiberg (Iowa State) will be the new coach in Chicago.
And if they don’t work out, soon, we all know what happens.
The NBA, as it should be, still is much more dependent on its stars than its coaches. It almost doesn’t matter how much Cleveland’s Blatt knows about coaching basketball or managing basketball operations because he has the league’s biggest star and best player. LeBron is there to help Blatt overcome a slow start or cover for him when the coach botches a timeout.
For those coaches without James, all they can hope for is a little bit of talent and that their teams get a little better every year. And even that may not help. Ask Monty Williams, ex of the New Orleans Pelicans. Ask Scott Brooks, ex of the Thunder.
Coaching will continue to be a volatile job. Owners will always be on the lookout for something better. But for coaches, it’s something they’ve all come to accept, if not embrace. And there is a bright side. There’s always a job open somewhere.
(A well-worn story from my time in Cincinnati: A former basketball coach there, from a team I won’t name, was asked about another coach from a rival team. “That guy couldn’t coach that hat to sit on that chair,” he said. Among scribes criticizing coaches, we always said, “That guy couldn’t coach his hat.”)