Monday, July 21, 2008

Coaching Circles

Chip and I were discussing the recent article by ESPN's Ric Bucher about the need for there to be chemistry between the General Manager and Head Coach in an NBA organization. The fact that the Grizzlies hired Marc Iavaroni prior to Chris Wallace hasn't gone unnoticed by me or the majority of the fanbase. That has long been considered one of the cardinal sins of a professional sports franchise, given how closely the coach and GM have to work together in order to put a successful product on the floor.

Nevertheless, as we continued our conversation, we began to talk about the portion of the article where it stated that Celtics' assistant Tom Thibodeau didn't even receive cursory interest this offseason due to his reputation as a "(Jeff) Van Gundy clone" who is "stuck in his ways". It seems that GM's prefer to deal with coaches that can adapt to a fluid situation, rather than insisting on doing things according to their system, no matter what pieces are given to them. But what successful coaches aren't "stuck in their ways"? After all, I don't see Phil Jackson, Jerry Sloan or Larry Brown being lauded for their ability to readily adapt to the changing NBA landscape. In fact, all three of them are known for having a defined system where players can either do what they are told or rot on the bench until they accept that. Greg Poppovich is known for sticking up for his players against the league and the press, but there is no question that his players also know that it is his way or the highway in San Antonio.

Here in Memphis, Hubie Brown was praised for teaching a young team how to win after years of futility. Of course, Hubie also insisted on continuing to run his legendary 10-man rotation, even as it caused fractures in the locker room over playing time, eventually leading to his decision to leave a mere 12 games into the 2004/05 season. This was a familiar pattern for those who had followed Hubie's prior coaching efforts, as he had a well-known reputation for getting results upon taking over a team, only to have the players grow weary of his hard-nosed approach after a few seasons. This is the same reputation that Mike Fratello, the coach that succeeded Brown in Memphis, had also gained over his career. Subsequently, Fratello was also gone in the same span of time (2 years) that Brown stayed. After the interim stay of Tony Barone (i.e. a move that didn't require any extra money to be spent), the team went out and hired the biggest name on the market in Marc Iavaroni last offseason. Is Iavaroni the answer for this floundering team? I think we first have to determine what kind of coach this team needs, which means we need to categorize coaches.

Category 1: Drill Seargents
This coach yells...a lot. They also know how to teach young players how to win. Unfortunately, this approach only works for so long before the players grow immune to it. That typically means their lifespan on one team is only 2-3 years before they have to move on to another team of young players. Of course, on occasion the coach gets a few veterans on his side and they "help" him to keep everyone in line. Examples include Mike Fratello, Scott Skiles, Jeff Van Gundy and Doug Collins.

Category 2: The Motivators
When you hire this coach, you need to "get over the hump". That hump might be getting into the playoffs or achieving further success in the playoffs. This guy gets the absolute most out of his players. He knows how to maximize his team's strengths and minimize their weaknesses just long enough to win a few more games than the team probably should have expected. Like the Drill Seargent, he also tends to wear out a welcome with veterans, but at least he has some success while doing it. Examples include Larry Brown, Hubie Brown, Byron Scott and Jerry Sloan.

Category 3: Eye Candy
Some coaches have just enough success to keep teams interested, but never seem to be able to win "the big one". They look good on the surface, but there's really not enough substance there when it really counts. Typically, these are known as "players' coaches" due to a laid-back approach and a tendency to let things flow, rather than being seen as meddlers. Examples include Rick Adelman, Flip Saunders, Mike D'Antoni and Maurice Cheeks.

Category 4: The Artists
These coaches wind up having carte blance from their teams after taking a tremendous amount of talent and "molding" them into a championship team. These guys usually become legends in the process. They are very good at what they do -- but they also benefit from ready-made situations. Examples include Phil Jackson, Greg Poppovich and Pat Riley.

Obviously, some coaches fit into more than one category or are part of another subset altogether. But by and large, I think that these 4 categories encompass the majority of coaches out there. So what kind of coach do the Grizzlies need right now?

I believe that the team made the correct hire when they tabbed Hubie Brown to become the head coach. He was a teacher, first and foremost. He taught a young team how to win games, which was something they weren't familiar with after a history of epic failure. Sure, they tuned him out after 2 seasons, but he took a 23 win team and turned it into a 50 win team. That is a mini-miracle in itself. However, I think that the team's misstep was to hire a disciplinarian in Mike Fratello as a replacement for the departed Brown. At that point, the team probably needed a more successful "Motivator/Eye Candy" hybrid to take them to the next level after their first taste of the postseason. Someone who had taken teams to playoff success, but had a reputation as a "players' coach". Perhaps someone like George Karl or P.J. Carlesimo -- a "name" coach who might not be able to win the big one, but was able to get his team in position to at least achieve a few playoff series wins.

Of course, hindsight is always 20/20 and I'm not all that interested in rewriting history. So what does this current team need? I am of the opinion that they once again are in need of a "Motivator/Eye Candy" hybrid. They need someone who can lead them to success while getting the most out of them at the same time. Is Marc Iavaroni that coach? To this point, I have my doubts. I cannot figure out which category Ivy fits in yet. On one hand, he is not a yelling, screaming tyrant (like new assistant coach Kevin O'Neill), so he's not a Drill Seargent. On the other hand, he's not a player's coach either, given that there were rumblings of him having an elitist attitude with an air of superiority this past season, so he's not Eye Candy either, even though he did come in with a lot of hype and disappointing results to show for it. Given his status as a rookie head coach last season (he had never been a head coach at any level), I'm inclined to give him one more season to see what he's made of and whether or not his system (whatever that may be) can be successful. This will also help me to figure out if he and Chris Wallace can make it as partners, or if they will become adversaries engaged in conflict. This is just one more question that needs to be answered as we wait to see what this collection of talent can ultimately achieve.

Here is a post I made on the Grizzlies Message Boards last night that I believe is germane to the situation:

I don't believe that Iavaroni's future with the team is tied to his won/loss record as much as the improvement of the team based on some key criteria:

1) Defensive presence - This team has been a sieve for the past two years on that end of the floor. That has to improve, which is one of the key reasons that Kevin O'Neill was brought in. If they show a good understanding of defensive principles, that will go a long way towards retaining Iavaroni.

2) Sorting of the roster - We have too many "talented" guards and not enough minutes to go around. Throw in the fact that we now have two young PF's and two fairly young C's and we're either looking at a return of the 10-man rotation or some upset players. One way or another, some decisions need to be made about who is the "big dog" between Conley/Lowry, Mayo/Crittenton, Warrick/Arthur and Gasol/Milicic. That's not to say that the "loser" of that battle won't have a place on the team, but clearly defined roles will help the growth of the team over the next 2 seasons.

3. Display of intensity and effort for 48 minutes and 82 games - Too often in the past two seasons, we have been treated to a team that played hard for anywhere from 30-45 minutes, but then fell apart and didn't seem to care about winning at the end of the game. On some occasions, they seemed to take the entire night off, which I know is a reality of a long NBA season, but it happened too often for an organization with a dwindling fanbase. If we don't believe that they care, then why should we? That directly affects Heisley beloved bottom line, so I'm sure that it will be a point of emphasis.

4) Good rapport between players and coaches - We heard too many rumors about Ivy having an "elitist attitude" towards others to dismiss it as nothing. If the players don't respect the coach and believe that he respects them in turn, then there can be no relationship between them. Even though Larry Brown and Phil Jackson get under the skin of many of the players they coaches, they still command respect from their players because of the results they produce and because the players know that their head coach understands how to best utilize them.

Those things, more than an improvement in wins, should be the keys to Ivy's season and future with the Grizzlies. Of course, I believe that if the majority of those things come to pass, the wins will take care of themselves.

Addendum: One of my new favorite blogs is Eric Mussleman's blog. Mussleman is a former Grizzlies assistant coach under Mike Fratello and head coach with Golden State and Sacramento. Today he referenced another site which had the list of Hubie Brown's coaching principles. I hope the Grizzlies fans enjoy it as much as I did.

BallHype: hype it up!

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good post, Josh.

I'm with you: give Ike some slack. It was a crapshoot to think last year that with a rookie coach and a ton of young raw talent that we were going to win a lot of games (and yes, I was one of the ones shooting craps).

But I think with more seasoning for Ike and the youngsters, we'll have a better year. I still think that the offseason move that will pay off the fastest is hiring Kevin O'Neill. I just keep thinking about all those close games that we could have won with a little defensive skill and grit. If he can get our guys to play even respectable defense, it'll be a good year.

L3E

Jason said...

Excellent assesment. Category 3 describes John Calipari to a T.

As for Iavaroni, I don't even think he knows what he is. Thats the problem. It's sink or swim time.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, building two non-BCS programs from nothing (considering where the school was after Tic Price) and taking them each to the Final Four is totally proof of how little substance Calipari has. That great defense is all smoke and mirrors.