There's an anecdote from Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point that I've been thinking about throughout the playoffs. It goes like this:
"In one experiment [...] a group of people are told to watch two sets of similarly talented basketball players, the first of whom are shooting baskets in a well-lighted gym and the second of whom are shooting baskets in a badly lighted gym (and obviously missing a lot of shots). Then they are asked to judge how good the players were. The players in the well-lighted gym were considered superior."
What Gladwell is illustrating is how much observers struggle to account for context when evaluating performance. I think about this when we talk about Paul Pierce's slump against Cleveland or Dwight Howard playing poorly in the Eastern Conference Finals. It's difficult to disentangle context and skill, and generally speaking what happens is we assume that people have more control over their performance than they really do.
This also makes me think about coaches. Outside of the context of playoff series, player performance usually evens out. Advanced statistics can also help us with this task in terms of distributing credit and blame. When it comes to coaching, however, the APBRmetrics community generally comes up empty, and coaches just don't get enough opportunities to distinguish their ability from the talent of the players they're given in all but the extreme cases.
As far as rating coaches, a study by Dave Berri with Michael Leeds, Eva Marikova Leeds and
Michael Mondello has gotten some renewed attention since its results were detailed in Berri's book co-authored with Martin Schmidt, Stumbling on Wins. The study shows that few coaches have a statistically significant impact on player performance.
As I outlined in the fall of 2008, when the study was first discussed in the media, the results are interesting and suggest that player development probably should not be a primary consideration when picking a coach. However, the study does not demonstrate that coaches are largely interchangeable, as Berri asserts, because it does not consider many other aspects of coaching--installing a defensive system and allocating player minutes foremost among them.
So where does that leave us? Often, confused. Take the case of Mike Brown, who was fired by the Cleveland Cavaliers Sunday, just in time for the Cavaliers to avoid paying him the entirety of his salary for the 2010-11 season. By all the usual measures, Brown was enormously successful. He was a year removed from winning the NBA's Coach of the Year award, had led Cleveland to the 2007 NBA Finals and helped the Cavaliers post the league's best record in the regular season each of the last two years.
Yet Brown could never entirely shake the notion that he was relying largely on LeBron James' talent, especially at the offensive end of the floor. When Cleveland's postseason runs flamed out earlier than expected twice in a row, Brown was an obvious scapegoat.
Was that fair? I'm not sure. Brown has shown the ability to mold an elite defensive squad, which makes sense given his background as an assistant coach with Indiana and San Antonio before being hired by the Cavaliers. Cleveland finished fourth in the league in Defensive Rating in 2006-07 with relatively little in the way of elite talent, and boasted the league's third-best defense last season before slipping slightly to seventh in 2009-10.
At the other end of the floor, the Cavaliers ranked as below average in both 2006-07 and 2007-08 despite James' prodigious talents. Then Cleveland improved dramatically, finishing fourth in Offensive Rating each of the last two seasons. An upgraded supporting cast with the addition of Mo Williams was certainly a factor, but Brown also empowered his coaching staff with more responsibility on offense, which may have helped.
Ultimately, what doomed Brown was not just that the Cavaliers lost to the Boston Celtics--a defeat that looks more understandable with each passing Boston victory--but how the team lost. Besides Cleveland's dispirited Game Five performance, Brown simply didn't seem to have any answers on the sidelines. Then again, that too seems more understandable as the Celtics confound Stan Van Gundy, whom I consider one of the league's finest coaches. Playing against Boston might just be the coaching equivalent of shooting in a poorly lit gym.
If you're looking for a tidy conclusion on whether firing Brown made sense, you're in the wrong place, but I will say this: I don't think Brown was one of the league's best coaches, and I thought his Coach of the Year selection was a bit of a reach, but that's different from saying that the Cavaliers will upgrade the position by firing him. The available replacements are often available for a reason, and Cleveland is taking a major, major risk.
The other coach making news in the past week is Doug Collins, who is finally leaving TNT and returning to the sidelines with the Philadelphia 76ers after flirting with several other teams in recent years.
Revisiting Collins' coaching record gave me a more positive impression of him than the one left by two Michael Jordan-related books in which his style is discussed. The late, great David Halberstam's Playing for Keeps touches on Collins' run in Chicago, while he figured prominently in When Nothing Else Matters, Michael Leahy's account of Jordan's two-year comeback in Washington. The portrait painted of Collins is one of a skilled Xs & Os coach whose relentless criticism quickly wears out his players. That Collins lasted no longer than three years in any of his three NBA head coaching jobs (in between Chicago and Washington, he coached Detroit) solidifies this conclusion.
What I think I underestimated is how positive Collins' impact was before players began to tune him out. Yes, the Bulls improved during Collins' tenure largely because Jordan rapidly developed into a superstar, and he inherited another budding star with the Pistons in Grant Hill. But both teams made immediate and major strides at the defensive end of the floor. Chicago went from 23rd in Defensive Rating under Stan Albeck to 11th in Collins' first season and second in the league in 1987-88, when the Bulls won 50 games. Detroit jumped from 27th in defense under Don Chaney to seventh as part of an 18-win turnaround in Collins' first season at the helm.
The 76ers, who ranked 23rd in the NBA in Defensive Rating during Eddie Jordan's lone season in Philadelphia, are primed for improvement. Depending on what changes are made after the Sixers landed the No. 2 overall pick in last week's lottery, there's defensive talent on hand in terms of promising young point guard Jrue Holiday, Andre Iguodala and center Samuel Dalembert. That improvement, however, will likely come at a cost. In both Chicago and Detroit, Collins' teams regressed during his third season as head coach, dramatically so with the Pistons. He never even reached year three in Washington. For a Philadelphia team that is relatively young, hiring Collins might not be the right fit over the long term.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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