The coach is one of the most scrutinized individuals in all of sports. Whether it be football or basketball, college or professional, a team’s success or failure is often attributed to the coach. Two weeks ago, Los Angeles Lakers head coach Byron Scott was fired after completing his second year. Although Scott’s record was a brutal 38-126 in his time as head coach, his firing came as a surprise to many individuals, including myself, since the Lakers were not expected to perform well this season with a roster filled with inexperience. It was the final season for one of the all-time greatest players to play the game, Kobe Bryant, and going into the year it was known that the “past-his-prime” Bryant would be using the season as his farewell tour. Scott gave Bryant the key to do as he pleased, and nobody blamed him for it. So why did Scott get fired for doing exactly what anyone else would have done had they found themselves in a similar circumstance? The greater issue is: Do NBA coaches really make an impact?
The NBA is known as the players’ league. Superstars such as Lebron James are thought to have just as much power over the team as the coach himself. For example, when James played for the Miami Heat, head coach Erik Spoelstra was not given much respect. Spoelstra would draw up a play in the huddle, and Lebron would simply draw up something different as Spoelstra stood by, a mere observer. This was also a recurring theme with recently fired Cleveland Cavaliers’ head coach David Blatt. Blatt was fired for showing favoritism to the star players over others, and basically allowing Lebron and Kyrie Irving to run the team. Tyronn Lue, former Cavaliers assistant coach, took over the job because the Cavs’ front office believed he had the ability to hold his players accountable.
The NBA in years past has lost several fans due to the increase of individuality. The pure talent of each individual on the court is overwhelming, but players use this talent to go one-on-one rather than passing the ball and trying to get the best shot for their teammates. When this brand of basketball is played, the NBA coach is thought to be useless. He decides when to make substitutions, and he might have to draw up a play at the end of the game, but at the end of the day, when the egos of the players outweigh the confidence of the coach, the coach is useless.
So yes, for the most part, NBA coaches don’t impact a team nearly as much as the players do. But there are exceptions, like a young and inexperienced team with players who are willing and wanting to play the game the right way. An example of this were the Milwaukee Bucks in 2014-2015. In 2013-2014, under head coach Larry Drew, the Bucks went 15-67, giving them the worst record in the NBA. Just a year later, with new head coach Jason Kidd, the Bucks were able to win 41 games with a pretty similar roster. The Bucks also had the youngest team in the NBA that year. Coaches can have the most impact on a team that does not have a true superstar. Another example of this is Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. In three years as head coach of the Celtics, Stevens has transformed them from a bottom-feeder to a playoff contender. There was no major personnel change, but the Celtics had a young team willing to learn, and in that environment, a coach can thrive.
Arguably one of the greatest coaches of all time is San Antonio Spurs legend Gregg Popovich. Popovich has had many great teams in the past, and much of his success stems from his ability to keep the main core of stars together. Players such as Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobli are certainly superstars, but you would not know it by the way Popovich treats them. What has made him so successful is that he holds all of his players to the same standards, whether it is a star or a benchwarmer, which leads to getting the best out of every player who steps on the floor.
All of these coaches have one main thing in common: a passion for the team. The best teams, no matter the sport, are the ones that look at each other as family, not just as colleagues. As a result, the best coaches need to be willing to go to battle for their team. A man who exemplifies this is Grizzlies head coach Dave Joerger, who got the most out of his injury-filled team, making it to the playoffs. Joerger is by no means a household name, but his press conference following the season showed what it means to be passionate about your team.
So why go through the drama of firing your head coach? This brings us back to Byron Scott and the Lakers. Scott didn’t do anything wrong. But the Lakers aren’t looking for the coach that can sit back and give the key to the players. They are looking for the guy who isn’t afraid to call out a superstar and who truly cares about his players. Being able to find the coach that fits all the character traits of what it takes to be a great coach is a formidable task. The reality is, most replacements will produce similar results as their predecessor, but teams will forever hold out hope that they can find their exception.