Coaches DO Matter

Mark WIllard on KSPN radio, the Los Angeles ESPN radio outlet, today on his show said that the NBA is a players’ league, and that coaches matter little and have little effect on team performance.

Hogwash, to put it very mildly.

Where was Willard during the last three of the Del Harris years, where the Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O’Neal Lakers never won as much as a Western Conference title*? What changed the following season, when the Lakers won the first of three consecutive NBA titles? Hm, What? Oh, PHIL JACKSON became the head coach, that’s what.

The NBA is now seeing a major turnover in coaching talent, as Jackson, Larry Brown, Pat RIley, and other dominant coaching names of the past two decades now are retired, seemingly for the long run. New coaching faces are this year making their mark. After an expected (at least in my mind) “slow” start, Miami’s Erik Spoelstra seems to have not only massive media attention, but also the attention of LeBum and the rest of the Miami SuperStars, and to my mind, now has his team over-achieving.

As they now face Chicago, we’ll see if that continues, or if another young coach, Tom Thibodeau, NBA Coach of the Year in his first year as a head man, shows Miami how a championship-caliber team handles a conference playoff series. My bet is on Chicago and Thibodeau.

In the West, however, we find the real coaching giants of the next decade. They have accomplished little so far, but their accomplishments this season bode very well for future success. What Lionel Hollins has done this year with the Memphis Grizzlies is utterly astounding. While it is hard to call him a “young” coach at age 57, prior to this season he had been an NBA head coach for only parts of three prior seasons, and one full season. (Contrast that with Spoelstra who at age 40 has coached only 20 less games than Hollins.) But the job he did in bringing Memphis to within one game of playing for the conference title is astounding. How could a team with only three NBA caliber starters get that far? Winning as the Grizzles did with borderline NBA players TIm Allen and OJ Mayo in starting roles, after having lost star Rudy Gay, is beyond contemplation.

Hollins’ Memphis team, however, lost to THE BEST young coaching talent in the NBA, Scott Brooks, who somehow has molded a superior team out of a collection to immensely talented but so, so young players. The Oklahoma City Thunder is now in the conference finals, with a starting lineup that averages 23.6 years of age, and who has three top reserves that average 22.6 years. For this super young team to be where it is today is a testament to the talents of Scott Brooks, who may very well be the dominant coach in the NBA for many years to come.

But not to Mark Willard, who thinks coaches do not matter.

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*The Lakers never won a single Western Conference title under Harris, but the Bryant-O’Neal combo only played for Harris for his last three seasons.

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