What a first round, right? I’m sure I’m not alone among basketball fans who feel as though they’re in something of a daze, still recuperating from nearly two weeks of ingesting three or four mostly riveting games a night. Beyond the spectacle these playoffs have been so far, though, have been games absolutely chock full of intriguing material for analysts and interested fans. We’ve all become accustomed to the second season being an entire different animal, and this one has been no different, as the intensity and precision have ratcheted up several notches right out of the gate. And while vital in this process, one element that’s received some cursory attention, but not nearly enough, is the chess match taking place between coaches.
The league is collectively at a place where coaching has likely never been generally valued so highly. The Clippers gave up tangible assets last summer to procure Doc Rivers from Boston, and there’s talk swirling that any number of teams may be interested in a similar deal for a reportedly disgruntled Tom Thibodeau in Chicago. Elite coaching has never been such a valuable commodity, and this postseason is starting to show us why. For my money, I’ve never seen a first couple weeks of a postseason contain more tangible examples of the vast importance of coaching at the NBA level. Series that are otherwise insanely close are seeing real swings as a result of the bench bosses involved. Want to see what I’m talking about? Of course you do. Let’s take a look at a few specific scenarios from the recently completed first round within a coaching context and see what we come up with:
Vogel was on his way to a negative mention here and likely a job search this summer, but he redeemed himself in a big way in games six and seven for Indiana in the first round. After stubbornly refusing to alter his “two bigs all the time” strategy he had been so lauded for earlier in the season, Vogel looked a likely firing from Larry Bird right in the face, swallowed hard, and begrudgingly made changes. In both the final two games against Atlanta, his first two substitutions were Chris Copeland and CJ Watson. He played long stretches of small-ball, finally combatting the style the Hawks had been throwing their way. For some telltale in-game numbers on how these changes impacted Indiana’s results, check out links here and here from PopcornMachine.net. It’s concerning that it took so long for him to realize the areas where he was at a major disadvantage, but give him credit for being willing to do so and swallow his pride long enough to keep his team alive.
McHale, while by all accounts a decent guy and a personable head coach, was simply torn to shreds by the less experienced Terry Stotts in a six-game loss to the Blazers. The Rockets and Blazers were separated by two total points over the six games – by this and several other measures, it was one of the most closely-matched playoff series in a number of years. As a result, then, it’s tough to attribute the loss of the series to any one thing, but several confusing errors by McHale certainly appeared to contribute. For starters, can someone, anyone, explain to me what is happening here?
Yes, those are clips of James Harden, considered among the league’s worst defenders, matching up with Robin Lopez in the post defensively. Those are consecutive plays from the fourth quarter of an elimination game. With just over nine minutes left and his team trailing by four with their season on the line, McHale removed Omer Asik for Harden, leaving the latter on the floor with three other wings in Pat Beverley, Jeremy Lin, and Chandler Parsons along with center Dwight Howard. This unit had played 23 minutes together up to that point in the series, and during that time had been outscored by over 23 points-per-100 per NBA.com, an awful figure and easily the worst among Houston’s regular units for the series. Small sample size, right? Welllllll, that same unit was the Rockets’ sixth-most used five-man group for the regular season, as well, and was also badly outscored, to the tune of over 12 points-per-100. Of Houston’s regular lineups, they were easily the worst offensively and among the worst defensively, and were a particularly awful matchup against a Portland team that mostly stays big in the frontcourt with two capable post players. So why in the world does McHale put them on the court during perhaps the most vital point of the season, and leave them out for nearly four minutes? Your guess is as good as mine.
To make matters worse, McHale chooses Harden, of all people, to take the bad defensive matchup against Lopez. The clips above weren’t instances of switches gone wrong or confusion; McHale consciously lined his defense up that way. Would Parsons, significantly longer and known to actually be aware of the existence of the term “defensive effort” (unlike Harden), not have been the better choice? Frankly, it’s hard to imagine any of the other four players on the court for Houston doing a worse job.
If it seems a bit like cherry picking, consider again that these teams were separated by two points over six games. They lost the game in question by a single point. McHale made several other consistent errors, including bad clock and timeout management as well as poor lineup and matchup choices throughout the series, but this one stands out for the raw confusion it seems to align with – there’s just no rational explanation here. Every action or decision in a given NBA game adds up to a cumulative result, and in a series decided by so little, McHale was a big disappointment.
The first-year coach gets a mostly good review here, as he avoided many of the beginner potholes. He stuck to his guns from the regular season, running mostly small lineups with Paul Pierce at the four with solid results, even when Toronto had both Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas on the court together. He recognized the serious matchup issues his wings created for Toronto and attacked them, with Joe Johnson in particular going wild from the post against a Raptor team that had very few answers.
He was mostly passable from a game management standpoint, but one glaring error stood out here that I want to point out, not as a shot at Kidd but as yet another example of the inherent value of coaching in the postseason. With 6.5 seconds remaining in Game 5 and down three with the ball, Kidd drew up a play out of the timeout. Brooklyn had no further timeouts and both teams were over the foul limit. But for some strange reason, instead of lining the floor with only his best three-point and free-throw shooters1, Kidd sent out three of his best – Deron Williams, Joe Johnson (inbounding), and Alan Anderson – along with Mirza Teletovic and, most surprisingly, Andray Blatche. Teletovic is a strong three-point shooter, so his below average free-throw percentage can be overlooked, but…Blatche? He’s a 71% career free-throw shooter and miserable from beyond the arc, and his inclusion over Paul Pierce here is very confusing. Even worse, Kidd designed a play with Blatche as a legitimate inbound option, an option Johnson ended up taking with nothing else available – the Raptors smartly fouled Blatche immediately and locked up the game moments later:
It didn’t end up costing them the series, but such a decision is very strange coming out of a timeout, and who knows what sort of long-term consequences it could have? What if Brooklyn could have finished the Toronto series a game earlier and had a couple extra days before a tough matchup with the super-rested Heat? Everything counts.
Ah, yes. Let me start with a disclaimer: Many folks, absolutely including myself, are guilty to some degree of overstating Brooks’ incompetence in moments of frustration on Twitter. The phrase “the guy runs NO plays” is obviously an exaggeration, and his love affair with Kendrick Perkins is slightly overstated2. He’s personable with his players (too personable, in the opinion of some) and has at least some feel for the ebb and flow of a game.
But with that said, Brooks has done a pretty terrible job in the postseason during his time with the Thunder, and this year is no exception. They do run plays, sure, but it’s a very small playbook 3 filled with predictable actions designed almost exclusively for the same two players. When their first action breaks down, the entire team to a man is clueless – regardless of time left on the shot clock, the offense immediately devolves into a Russ/KD dribble-around-then-iso-fest. There are countless examples here that have been broken down in many places, so I’ll spare you the clips – broadly put, Brooks has clearly spent virtually no practice time on these sorts of issues, this despite them plaguing the Thunder in each of the past two postseasons.
This is the crux of the issue here: Brooks has a “system” that works during the season, relying on his team’s insane skill advantage to utilize his simple schemes well enough to win most games. But when he gets to the second season, against an individual opponent scouting only his system, he’s shown a disturbing lack of adaptability. He continues to run the same bland, predictable offense and the same useless Perkins-centric lineup combinations. He has no backbone, afraid to go with anything outside the box until his team faced the brink of elimination, and afraid to put his foot down with his star players4. He continues to be dragged to success by his uber-talented squad, and Westbrook’s injury last year gave him an out for an entire season. But the longer this team underachieves given their talent, the harder and harder it becomes to point the finger anywhere else.
Coaching is a vital element of NBA basketball, and it only becomes more so in the playoffs. An elite coach may not be able to drag a 2014 6ers-style roster to a title, but when the margins become more and more thin at the top, they can absolutely make the difference. Look for more chess games to take place as the playoffs go on, and don’t be surprised to see a coaching decision or two continue to swing results.