In the Arena

No coaches were fired this season. That shouldn’t be so notable, and yet it is. Why?

“What do you think, Ben?”

I had been waiting for him to ask me the question. We were in a coaches meeting the morning of a game, sitting around a table in the glass-enclosed conference room at the Portland practice facility. I tried in these meetings to be relatively circumspect. Sure, I had a gut reaction to most topics that were brought up, but my job was to help the coaches make decisions based on the data, and if the data didn’t point clearly in any direction then I wasn’t going to make a strong case. But this time we were debating a strategy for that night’s game and there did seem to be a good answer, so when Coach Stotts turned my way I seized the opportunity to lay out my argument.

About 15 minutes after the end of the meeting, as I was walking by his office, Coach Stotts called out to me. “Ben, come in here for a second!” He was finalizing his personal notes for that day’s film and shootaround. “So you’re sure about this, you really feel that confident?”

I nodded. “Yeah I think the evidence is pretty strong.”

He thought for a second. “OK, so here’s what I’m going to do.” There was a twinkle in his eye. “After the game, whether this works or not, I’m going to tell the media that it was your call.”

My eyes widened and my heart leapt into my throat. Scenes of angry fans blaming me for a loss played out in my mind. I backpedaled out of his office, stammering something along the lines of “um, OK, wait one second, let me just double check a few things” and took off for my desk to run the numbers one more time.

Terry was joking, of course — working with him meant constant doses of playful ribbing — but his comment made me realize, if even for a brief period of time, what it’s like to be held responsible for all outcomes. Only the GM and Head Coach are judged in this way, blamed for any failure, praised for any success, and the Head Coach has to endure this scrutiny on an almost everyday basis. Each decision second-guessed, rarely given the benefit of the doubt, the goalposts constantly moving. At this time of year in particular the coach takes on an outsized importance: in the world of playoff chess matches we carefully examine each coaching decision, eager to proclaim the winning coach a Grandmaster and the loser a lowly novice.

It’s no wonder the position often feels like a revolving door in today’s NBA. Only four coaches have been in their present spot for more than five years and it was actually notable this season that no coach was fired. There has to be something else going on here besides coaches being properly dismissed for their failures — it seems a stretch to assume that you can count the number of good coaches in the NBA on one hand.

The most obvious answer is that the coach becomes the scapegoat. If a team isn’t meeting expectations there are, broadly, two reasons for it: the players aren’t good enough or they’re not being coached right. Since a GM generally controls the hiring and firing of the Head Coach, the easiest way to deflect the blame is to say that the roster is fine but the coach needs to go.

And this is surely a large force behind the continuous spin of that revolving door. But I’d also argue there’s something else that skews our perspective of coaches and makes it hard for us to judge them on their merits.

Coaches are Like Players

It has always baffled me how superficially we discuss coaches. Follow the public debate and you mostly hear arguments about whether a coach is good or not, with no room for much in between. Perhaps you’ll hear general criticism of their offense or defense, or that they’ve lost the players in the locker room. But even that level of evaluation of coaches feels cartoonish.

Think about everything a coach has to be good at. They need to be cool under pressure, able to make quick decisions in the moment. They need to be strategic thinkers, able to design schemes and rotations and decide how to tweak them before each game depending on the opponent. They need to be adept at managing players, motivating and meshing a variety of personality types. They need to be charming with the media, have strong relationships with the GM and front office, and get the most out of their coaching staff. They need to effectively teach, calm, and inspire — all at the appropriate times. And that’s just to name a few of the requisite skills. In short, they need to be superhuman, to possess a combination of qualities that themselves are each fairly rare.

Imagine if we did this with players, if we analyzed them in such an imprecise fashion and focused only on their shortcomings to determine whether they were good or not — it would seem ridiculous. But that’s exactly what we do with coaches. We don’t acknowledge that coaches, like players, have different skillsets; that, like players, they can improve over time; that, like players, the context in which they operate can have a big impact on their production.

Perhaps Ty Lue’s strength is in steering a LeBron-captained ship while Kenny Atkinson’s is in developing young players — they might both be suited for their jobs in the same way a good big man is needed on a team without size and a good point guard is needed on a team with no ball handling. It’s possible that Mike Brown’s experience in Golden State is one he has learned and grown from, and that, like a player who adds more to his game over the offseason, Brown’s next season will be better than his last. Just as a great shooter thrives when playing with a great passer, a coach like Mike D’Antoni is more likely to succeed in an environment that matches his style (like the Rockets’) than one that is ill-fitting (like the Knicks’).

And yet that’s not how we talk about coaches. Instead, we evaluate them with a different standard. The surprise is not that some coaches fall short of the impossibly high bar we set for them. The surprise is that we set it there in the first place.

Everything is Obvious Once You Know the Answer

Terry’s joke wasn’t the only time I felt an increased weight of responsibility for the impact of my analyses. A similar situation played out during the 2012-13 season, my first year working with Coach Stotts, when the team faced off with the Rockets in an early February matchup. The staff was debating how to guard James Harden and one proposal was to give him a little bit of a cushion, go under screens, and dare him to beat us with the jumper. A look at the numbers leant support to this idea. Harden’s damage was done with his penetration: through scoring at the rim and the foul line, through drawing help and finding teammates. He could clearly shoot the three, but it wasn’t hard to justify the idea that Harden shooting threes was the lesser of two evils. I strongly supported the idea.

Harden went 4 for 5 from three in that game. We lost by 15.

Toggle slow motion in the video using the “SLOW” button. Jump back in the clip using the button.

Clearly there was more to the loss than just this decision or Harden’s four made threes. But it was hard to watch the game and focus on anything besides that. I tried to quiet my own second-guessing somewhat by saying that of course it wasn’t my call, I was just a part of the decision making process. And clearly 4 for 5 was fluky shooting and not something we’d expect to repeat – so maybe it was the right decision, it was just bad luck. But what I drew from that experience wasn’t anything about how to guard Harden pick-and-rolls as much as it was a visceral perspective shift.

If you’ve never been the one to make the decision, never been able to envision multiple outcomes for each choice, never felt submerged in doubt about how it will all play out, then things can seem very clear. If you always wait to see what happens, the job is easy.

As Teddy Roosevelt said1:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming…”

I won’t go as far as Roosevelt — critique is important. Analyzing the past and seeing where others’ successes and mistakes came from is important. But it’s a very different practice than being the one making the decisions, and without the perspective of what it’s like to make the call before you know the result, it’s easy to get the critiques wrong.

This post hoc commentary is perhaps nowhere more pronounced than from TV commentators. Take one of my favorite examples: saving the ball from out of bounds under the opponent’s basket. Whenever a player successfully saves the ball to a teammate in this situation the announcers will praise the player’s hustle and savvy; whenever the ball goes to the other team he will be derided for not following one of basketball’s oldest dictums. But left unanswered is how the announcer would actually coach a player to behave in that situation when they encounter it again: let the ball go out of bounds or make a risky attempt at a save?

It’s a similar situation when a defender fouls a jump shooter. “Never. Foul. A. Jump. Shooter,” the announcer proclaims, their voice heavy with disappointment. But fouls on jump shots are the almost inevitable byproduct of aggressive closeouts. And if a player goes the other way and doesn’t contest the shot aggressively enough the announcer points that out (sometimes with a catchy line).

If all you did was listen to the announcers’ opinions of in-game decisions you’d think NBA coaches were bumbling Mr. Magoos, making mistake after mistake and somehow keeping their jobs through the grace of benevolent basketball gods. This, of course, is not the case, but the reason it seems to be is because of the temporal disconnect between the coach’s job and the announcer’s: one talks before the result, one talks after. Who do you think is going to seem smarter? After all: everything is obvious once you know the answer2.

In the Arena

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would argue that coaching doesn’t matter. On the other hand any basketball observer knows that even the best coaches can’t do much without talent. These two factors are intertwined in a complex relationship that even those inside the organization find tough to tease apart. There have been efforts to try and quantify a coach’s impact3, but they all tend to run into this problem. It is very difficult to draw a line from cause to effect, from a coach’s work to a team’s record, and to apportion credit and blame appropriately.

This, I think, is the fundamental reason why we mis-evaluate coaches. Since the boundaries of a coach’s impact are not clearly drawn, we end up with hazy assessments and often see what we want to see. We reduce the complexity of coaching to a simple proclamation that this is a good coach and that one’s a bad one. We forget that coaches have strengths and weaknesses — that they, like every other human, are not good at everything. We overlook the fact that our comments are made after we’ve seen the result while the coach’s decision is made in the darkness of the past.

Criticism is valuable. Coaches are decision makers, and decision makers should be held accountable for their decisions. But when assessing coaches we should always remember that the critic’s perspective is very different than the one from the sidelines, than the one in the arena.

  1. Read the full quote here
  2. That line taken from the title of Duncan Watts’ fascinating book
  3. For example, see David Berri’s work which found it hard to distinguish the differences amongst coaches. This work could be said to be problematic in that it looks only at quantifiable player performance and not team performance or other aspects of player performance missed by box score statistics, but it’s an example of the difficulties in measuring coaching impact. 
Get notified when I publish something new: