Coaching is an immensely undervalued aspect of success in most sports, especially on the professional level. The talented players are the ones who step on the field or court and perform; therefore, they are the ones who get all the attention . . . as long as it’s positive. For whatever reason, fans and members of the media are quick to praise players whenever they are thriving, yet typically divert their negativity towards the player’s coach when things are going wrong. That’s an insane double standard. Whenever the Thunder or Warriors are playing well, we praise Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry. However, at the slightest chance of the Thunder or Warriors struggling, Scott Brooks and/or Mark Jackson are immediately “on the hot seat” and allegedly in jeopardy of losing their jobs. How foolish.
Let’s get something straight: the success or struggle of a team, whether in the regular season or playoffs, is the combination of player results and coaching results. It’s never either or. Surely, a team can be succeeding with slightly bad coaching or with their star-player struggling. However, a team can also be losing with a star thriving or a coach doing a good job. The Thunder, who finished with the 2nd-seed out west, barely escaped out of the first round against the Memphis Grizzlies. Regardless of what you may or may not think about Scott Brooks – and I personally think he’s not a good coach – why is he to blame and potentially be fired (?!?!) for the Thunder’s playoff struggles?
Let’s be honest, whether Brooks was doing a good job coaching or not, Kevin Durant was locked down by Tony Allen most of the series and Russell Westbrook was not excused either. In four periods of overtime, Russell Westbrook went 0-14 from the field. That struggle is not Scott Brooks’ fault. Brooks is to blame for his reluctance to give more minutes to the guys that brought them success in the regular season such as Lamb and Adams. Brooks is also to blame for the horrendous and stagnant offense that OKC sometimes runs. However, when your star player – who came into the playoffs as the frontrunner for MVP and is highly regarded as the best scorer in the league – is missing easy, wide-open 18-footers, that is not on the coach.
The reality is, even if Brooks is doing a horrible job coaching, Kevin Durant was still struggling and Russell Westbrook wasn’t helping the cause. So, if Brooks is doing a poor job of coaching and should be fired, should OKC be looking to trade Durant or Westbrook? That was rhetorical. The Warriors also looked a bit disappointing in the playoffs. However, Curry struggled on occasion – having recorded an 8-turnover game – and they were without their center Andrew Bogut. The latter of those two, the loss of Bogut, is huge considering the talented paint-presence of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Despite this vital injury, because the Warriors lost to the Clippers, the media and fans everywhere – and I don’t think he is a good coach either – are undeservingly blaming Mark Jackson for their loss. It’s not his fault that they lacked size inside and it was not his fault when Curry was struggling to shoot or turning the ball over.
We need to start criticizing coaches for their coaching, not just for the struggle of their star players – which can be their fault. A perfect example of this double standard can be seen with Mike Woodson and the Knicks over the last two seasons. Two seasons ago, Mike Woodson – despite his atrocious coaching – led the New York Knicks to a 54-win season and did not hear a single word about his horrible coaching. Instead, we praised Carmelo Anthony for having a great season, J.R. Smith for becoming extremely productive, and Tyson Chandler for being a defensive anchor. He was coaching horribly and did not hear a single word! Some may ask: well, what proof was there of his bad coaching, considering their regular season record? See the playoffs, please.
It wasn’t until the Knicks missed the playoffs during one of the weakest eastern conferences in league history this year that people began to criticize Woodson’s horrendous coaching. His coaching did not worsen nor change from 2013 to 2014; what changed was the result. Only when the results are bad do we credit a coach, which is wrong. It seems like the only two coaches in the NBA who receive somewhat proper credit are Thibodeau and Popovich. But, even our criticism of them is wrong because we only praise them when they succeed; rarely do we ever scrutinize Thibodeau or Popovich for their errors, and yes, they commit errors too. When the Spurs came up short in that crucial Game 6 to the Heat last year . . . that was on Popovich. He foolishly went to a small lineup and had Duncan on the bench, making their chances of grabbing a defensive rebound nearly impossible. As history has it, Miami eventually grabbed an offensive rebound, hit Ray Allen, and, well, you know the rest from there. That was Popovich’s fault, yet neither the media nor fans said a single thing about that poor decision.
It’s time we start evaluating coaches for their actual coaching. Take Kevin McHale, for instance, who just handed over his team’s shot at a title to Portland and, to quote Chris Herring from the Wall Street Journal, basically threw his team under the bus afterwards. McHale has not changed since the first day he took over in Houston. From the start, he has done a horrible job of using players properly, runs one of the worst offenses in the league (it’s pretty in the regular season, but let’s be honest, totally unreliable in the slow-paced playoff tempo), and is easily one of the worst coaches coming out of timeouts. I don’t really know what he does in his timeouts, but his team’s actions following a timeout are subpar. Simply put, the guy is plain ol’ bad. With nine tenths of a second left in the game and a two-point lead, his players don’t even know if they’re supposed to be switching, and the defender on the player inbounding the ball has his back to the rim encouraging a pass to the perimeter. Just exactly how many errors can your team possibly make in nine tenths of a second during the most important possession of your season? Ask Kevin McHale.
McHale, who led the Rockets to a 54-win season in the west, received little criticism throughout the regular season and playoffs. Yet, here we are, with Portland moving on to the next round because of poor coaching in less than a second of basketball action. Then again, he did that all series. He allowed Aldridge to torch them from the left side of the floor (he shot 64-120 from the left side of the floor and the paint; he shot 4-21 from the rest of the floor!); he also realized how lethal a Harden-Howard pick and roll is a little too late. Kevin McHale should be on the hot seat, not Scott Brooks who is just starting to get production from his stars. Yet, ESPN reports that Kevin McHale is expected to return to Houston next season.
But remember, a team doesn’t just fire a head coach; a team replaces a coach. It’s not always ideal to fire your coach if there are no better available options anyway. A lot of different variables go into the decision of whether a coach should be released or not. We need to do a better job collectively of fairly critiquing coaches for their coaching, not just the play of individuals on their team. The criticism Mark Jackson is receiving is uncalled for – despite his horrendous rotations, poor offense, and play-calling – because of their lack of size inside with Bogut injured. The reality is that as bad as his coaching was, this Warriors team makes it out of the first round with Bogut in the lineup. Yet, because the Warriors lost to the Clippers, Mark Jackson is being unfairly judged for not being able to get them out of the first round. It’s time to start critiquing coaches for their actual coaching rather than a bunch of intangibles that may or may not pertain directly to them.