The NBA coach is one of the more tenuous positions in the professional sports world. Every sport has their legendary coaches, but in basketball the legendary coaches seem to bounce around more than most.
Sure, thereís your Jerry Sloans and your Gregg Popovichs who stay with their team for extended periods of time, but coaches move on quite regularly. There have been 236 coaching changes in the league since Jerry Sloan was hired in 1988, or an average of 8 per team.
And thatís why Iím here to let you in on a little secret: coaches are essentially useless.
Donít believe me? Well then take a look at this little tidbit: Before Mike Brown won the NBA Coach of the Year award last year, only Gregg Popovich, winner in 2003, is still with his team.
Except for Hubie Brown, who left the Grizzlies because of health reasons, each one of the last eight winners was fired within a year or two of earning that award.
Why is that? Because itís the players who make the team. Mike Brown is an absolutely terrible coach. And I mean terrible. The man couldnít draw up an offensive play to save his life.
But heís been blessed with LeBron James, who took him to the Finals and won him the Coach of the Year award.
Now, when I say coaches are essentially useless, there are of course exceptions to that. They are useful in that you have to have a coach, if not to just have an older gentleman (or woman, someday) whom everyone can agree has the final say on basketball matters.
There are only certain coaches who have an impact that is better to or equal than good players.
Phil Jackson is clearly one of those. The man just wins rings.
Now, the cynic in me says that Phil certainly knows a good thing when heís got it. After all, he only had the best player of all time for six of those rings, and he had the most dominant center of the decade in his prime for three of them, and then he had Kobe at the absolute peak of his powers for the tenth one.
One could say that Jackson never won a title without at least two Hall-of-Famers (Iím guessing Gasol gets in). But then again, almost every championship team has one, unless youíre Larry Brown in 2004 with the Pistons.
But clearly, itís not just about that.
Jackson, while not an Xís and Oís guy, is a successful coach because of his personality. Much has been made about his relationship with Michael Jordan and his ability to motivate the troops.
And who doesnít like Phil Jackson? He looks like an old hippie uncle of yours, one that probably has great stories about Woodstock, but also clearheaded and smart enough to give you great advice.
Much has been made of his controversial motivational techniques, such as comparing Rick Adelman (then coaching the Sacramento Kings) to Hitler, or Jason Williams to Edward Norton from ďAmerican History XĒ.
Whatever the means, the ends speak for themselves, as Jackson can put a ring on each finger of both hands.
Gregg Popovich is another difference maker. With a military background that includes the Air Force and possibly some Cold War espionage in Russia (or so the rumor goes), he is a notoriously hard coach to play for, but like Jackson, the results speak for themselves.
He is known to be especially hard on point guards, as Tony Parker can surely attest. During the Spursí 2007 title run, stories would emerge about Popovich getting all over Parker like stink on a monkey.
Popovich initially wanted to turn Parker into a Popovich clone, which Parker clearly isnít meant for. Iím sure it was tough getting him out of that mold, but Parker has even admitted publicly that as tough as Pop was on him, it made him a better player.
Popovich is the rare coach who seems to have an eye for talent as well as skill in both motivation and Xís and Oís. He was the one who found Parker, and he scouted players like Roger Mason, Jr. and DeJuan Blair.
Given his relationship with Spursí GM R.C. Buford (Buford was hired by Pop in 1994 to be the head scout for the team), they form a duo that is probably the best evaluators of personnel in the league.
Pop also has that famously dry sense of humor, which seems to appeal to players more than bluster or volume.
Other than those two, and of course a few coaches throughout NBA history, itís safe to say that coaches are essentially useless.
I mentioned Mike Brown, and Doc Rivers is another one. He was known as a lame duck coach until Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen came, and all of a sudden heís a champion.
Now, I said coaches are ďessentiallyĒ useless, that is, without talent around them, they canít do anything. The best coaches find the talent to put there, but not every coach has that much trust from his owner/GM.
But there are things that coaches can do to help their team, while theyíre not the kind of things that win championships, they do help their team to a certain extent.
Timeouts are crucial. A good coach knows when to call them, and when not to call them. If the other team is in the midst of a run, the coach needs to call the timeout, particularly if the home crowd is starting to get fired up.
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle is good at doing just that. If the other team is creeping up on the Mavs, or the home crowd is starting to get fired up, Carlisle knows the best place to take a timeout to stop the bleeding.
As a former player, he seems to have more of a sense about when the momentum is starting to shift out of the Mavericksí favor, and he takes his timeout to do that.
Thatís something that canít really be taught, and former players turned coaches seem to be more in tune to those subtle swings of emotion than non-players.
Coaches can also help their teams in terms of substitutions. When a player, particularly a low-post player gets into foul trouble, the coach has to make a call to pull the player out, saving them for later, but also putting a backup big man in for extended minutes.
Dwight Howard is a player that Stan Van Gundy wants on the floor as much as possible, but as a center, he can get into foul trouble. Van Gundy is lucky in that he has Marcin Gortat to back Howard up, but without a valuable backup, the dropoff from someone like Howard to a normal backup center is pretty steep.
Itís such a fine line between keeping players on the court, but also out of foul trouble, and itís sort of a thankless job in that respect, because if your team wins, no one notices, but the second guessing always comes after a loss.
Mike Dunleavy Sr., easily the worst coach in the NBA, is terrible in both of those respects. He has a knack for taking timeouts several possessions too late, which hurts his team in a lot of ways. He also tends to put ice-cold players in at clutch times, like bringing in a guy for the first time on a late possession, and drawing a play up for him.
The Clippers clearly have talent on their team, but a coach like Mike Dunleavy shows us the number one impact that coaches can have on their teams: they screw the team up.
When it comes to coaching, they tend to do more harm than good. You donít particularly hear about good coaching performances, because a coachís job is to not screw up. If theyíve done their job right, they stay well out of the spotlight. Usually a coach only gets discussed when they blow the game.
Theyíre like NFL placekickers. They just come out and do their job. The ones you remember, like Scott Norwood or Ray Finkle-turned-Lois Einhorn, always get remembered for missing big kicksóor becoming a woman and heading up the police force in Miami.