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May 27, 2010

Abbott on Evaluating Coaches

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 6:01 pm

As it turns out, Tuesday’s column on the difficulty of evaluating coaches was just in time. Tuesday turned out to be coaching day in the NBA blogosphere, and there was lots of great work, like Rob Mahoney reminding us Stan Van Gundy has nothing to worry about and Kelly Dwyer making the case that Dwane Casey should be the next head coach of the Atlanta Hawks (and he should).

The best of them all, in my humble opinion, was TrueHoop’s Henry Abbott waxing poetic on Nate McMillan as part of the “You Be the GM” series on’s Blazers Blog.

The way to judge a coach is not to obsess over this or that little thing, but to look around the franchise and ask: Are the basketball players well-led? Do they give great effort at all times? Are the offense and defense generally efficient? Are the players on the roster well-deployed? Do the players believe in the coach as their leader? Is the staff on the same page?

The answer to all of those questions is hell yes when it comes to Nate McMillan.

Abbott’s piece reminded me of what might be the single column I’ve revisited most often in my life, the incomparable Bill James (guesting for Rob Neyer) on how to evaluate an organization.

Baseball organizations make thousands of decisions every year: A-level decisions, like “Who will be our manager?” and “Should we make a commitment to sign Johnny Damon?”; B-level decisions like “Who are we going to use as a leadoff man?” and “Who is going to be our first-round draft pick?”; and on down to Z-level decisions like “Should we use a pinch-runner here or a sacrifice bunt?” and “Is it time to move Tubby Poholsky up to Double-A?”

It seems to me that if you begin reviewing all of those decisions by a standard of “Is this the way I would have done this?” then you launch into a process that is, by its nature, neither fair, nor logical, nor constructive. Why? Because it is impossible, by doing that, to form a comprehensive picture of what the organization has done. You cannot hold 7,000 decisions in your mind while you think them through, so what you inevitably begin to do is pick and choose those which serve to advance your prejudice.

When evaluating a coach (or a GM or almost anyone), it’s sometimes easy to let the big picture slip away obsessing over individual decisions. That’s not a good way to make those evaluations, especially since it’s convenient to let the standard change from the average coach to what you would do in that situation. And while that’s inevitably part of the evaluation process, that’s a standard to which nobody else will ever entirely live up.

(Incidentally, Sean Meagher of was also nice enough to ask me to participate in “You be the GM,” and I wrote about how wrong I was regarding the Andre Miller signing.)

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