It’s been a whirlwind 36 hour period for NBA junkies, as news surfaced late Sunday night of a mostly shocking decision from the Sacramento Kings to fire coach Mike Malone, replacing him on an interim basis (for now) with Ty Corbin. Malone was in just his second year of a four-year deal coaching the team, and Sacramento’s success relative to expectations in a loaded West, despite recent struggles while missing superstar DeMarcus Cousins, makes the timing of the decision particularly strange. It’s clear there are some behind-the-scenes issues taking place within what’s looking more and more like an unstable front office in Sactown.
For Jazz fans, Corbin’s role in the story is the main headline. Not six months removed from rampant league-wide criticism, including plenty from this writer and others close to the proceedings here in Utah, Ty will once again be bench boss of an NBA team. I covered many elements of his performance near the end of last season for those interested in more general thoughts, but these recent developments give way to a more prudent present-day exercise. Namely, is Corbin a bad coach? To that point, can we even concretely label “good” and “bad” coaches in a vacuum without putting huge amounts of weight into their particular situations and personnel groupings1? And, most importantly, how do the answers to these questions pertain to Quin Snyder and the state of the franchise moving forward?
Ty was criticized most heavily for his team’s failures on the defensive end, and from a numbers standpoint, it’s hard to argue with the critiques. The Jazz were 11th in the NBA in defensive efficiency in the 2009-10 season, the last full campaign under Jerry Sloan. They fell precipitously the following year, to 24th, but Corbin takes most of the heat here – the team was 18th to the point of Jerry’s resignation, and a dreadful 28th once Ty took over2. They were 21st, 21st, and 30th over the following three seasons, showing no improvement in simple areas despite varying personnel. Corbin made some curious decisions, particularly last year – having Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors high hedge pick-and-rolls was one especially strange call – and his consistency and teaching in these areas always seemed to be lacking.
Snyder has taken a very different approach. He’s toned back the pick-and-roll coverage in ways that seem more conducive to his personnel, and has also leaned far less (basically not at all) on small-ball style lineups than Corbin did with his Marvin Williams experiment in the starting group. Quin comes with a pedigree for player development and has stressed this theme on the defensive end in particular. He’s also given far more court time to Rudy Gobert, already just 23 minutes short of the total he played the entirety of last season3.
But guess what? The process has changed, the results haven’t. The Jazz sit 29th defensively on the year and, per NBA.com, are actually a hair worse so far this season despite all of the above. Gobert’s increased role actually only makes this more worrying, as the fact that the team defends at a top-five league-wide rate with him on the floor for larger periods makes their overall figure even more damning. It’s early yet, and the team is even younger than last year4, but returns so far make it tough, at least in this specific case, to label these just coaching failures. Corbin has a very different team to mold in Sacramento, and how he fares with a group that was roughly league average before Cousins went down will be something to keep an eye on.
Another key element of comparison is team pace. Among Sacramento’s publicly stated reasons for Malone’s dismissal was this theme – owner Vivek Ranadive has stated he wants to play a more up-tempo game, and the team was 14th last year and 16th to this point this season5. Corbin has a mandate to push the tempo now that he’s at the reins; on the surface he’d seem like a strange choice, as his Jazz got slower and slower in each of his years at the helm.
Again, though, results so far this season cast real doubt as to whether this was his fault. Snyder was vocal about his desire for the team to push the pace upon his arrival in town, and all indications throughout the offseason confirmed these expectations. But once the regular season began and full-strength NBA opponents were on the nightly docket, the plan fell to shambles. The Jazz are even slower than last season, the 28th-ranked team in pace according to NBA.com. They’re doing their best when transition opportunities do arise, but bog down instantly when immediate scoring chances aren’t available and are frequently unable to initiate any remotely threatening looks before the shot clock winds down. The process, again, is there – a young team has heard his demands for a more team-oriented style, throwing over 50 more passes per game and leading the league here (per SportVU data), but have remained at roughly the same degree of effectiveness. Their passing, which by volume was still third in the league last year under Corbin, led to 43.7 assist opportunities per game last year6, and it’s nearly the exact same this year at 43.5.
None of this is an indictment of Snyder. He’s prioritizing process over results, something we discussed at length on last week’s SCH Radio show, and this is unequivocally the correct approach for a team without any realistic playoff hopes. He’s given the Favors-Kanter backcourt duo far more nightly run together, something Corbin was criticized routinely for not doing last season despite a pressing need to evaluate Enes in such a pairing as his contract runs out, and the two have been far less of a dumpster fire so far this season. He deserves real credit for continually expanding Gobert’s role and for the controlled (if still far too timid) game we’re seeing from rookie Dante Exum. The Jazz are up to roughly league average offensively after a 25th-place finish last season, and Quin’s work here deserves real praise, particularly for the way it’s lessened the overall burdens on Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors and allowed both to blossom into fringe All-Star hopefuls.
No, this is simply a reminder: Coaching is hard, and is never, ever black-and-white. There are so many factors to consider when evaluating them, a great number of which are fully out of their personal control. The game is still played by the guys on the court, and the NBA isn’t a video game with each team’s coach manning the sticks and wielding complete control over their players’ actions. A coach can never work with more than what he has, and Quin Snyder’s difficulty implementing some of his chief talking points is a prime example. Best of luck to you in Sacramento, Ty.