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May 10, 2012

In Defense of Coaches in the Playoffs

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 12:24 pm

I had forgotten it was this time of year again. The playoffs being upon us, it’s about the point where fans and analysts alike lament that coaches that led their teams to successful regular seasons suddenly seem unable to coach. In the past, Oklahoma City’s Scott Brooks (the 2009-10 Coach of the Year) has been a popular target for this criticism. This year, it’s been applied to Lionel Hollins of the Grizzlies, who finished fourth in voting for Coach of the Year.

My suspicion is this line of analysis says a lot more about the level of observation than the coaches themselves. By any measure, this hasn’t been Hollins’ finest series. Too often, the Memphis offense has struggled to exploit the advantage Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph offer in the paint. Still, if the Grizzlies went through a stretch like this in February, would anyone outside of Memphis notice? Instead, during the playoffs, every available eyeball is glued to the game.
What troubles me, especially in the Twitter era, is that big-picture perspective is lost in favor of overanalyzing every individual decision in the playoffs. The great Bill James once wrote that the trouble with discussing organizations is that we pick out a handful of moves, good or bad, out of the thousands that each team makes. James was pointing out how easy it is to cherry-pick examples that fit a preset conclusion. Except in the case of Vinny Del Negro, I don’t think that’s the problem here, as people begin the process with the best of intentions. Still, I think James’ message fits.

Two issues exacerbate this problem. The first is that, much of the time, coaches are choosing between flawed options. Late-game offense is an excellent example. No matter what play is called from the sideline, teams aren’t going to score against a set defense that is completely locked in more than about 45 percent of the time, making it easy to second-guess any decision because we overstate the chances of scoring in the unknowable alterative. This only increases as the playoffs go on and the defensive competition gets tougher, making it increasingly difficult for any coach to succeed.

In addition, I think it’s possible there is a disconnect between the areas of coaching that get the most scrutiny and what really matters. Skills like player development and building a positive culture naturally get more attention during the long regular season than the crucible of the playoffs. Beyond that, even areas that are invisible to outsiders–like how well a team prepares in the film room for what it’s about to face–are evident during games only in terms of the results we see. As a result of this vacuum, in-game adjustments and moves are blown up into the entirety of a coach’s role, which is a dangerous mistake.

None of this is to say we should stop analyzing moves in real time, which would certainly be a hypocritical position for me to take. I merely think it’s necessary to add perspective to that commentary.

You can contact Kevin at Follow his coaching criticism on Twitter at @kpelton.

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