As I read the previews for each of the NBA teams for the upcoming season, occasionally the evaluation will say something to the effect, “They used to be a defense first team but look for Coach _____ to go to an uptempo attack.” Or “They liked to pound it inside last year but Coach _____ will be counting on his guys to make threes this season.” Don’t forget the “Coach _____ needs to give ______ a bigger role.” And the assessment, “Coach _____ has the luxury of playing big or going small.” Then there’s the doling out minutes and exploiting match ups that writers and talking heads print and speak of so intelligently, as if hoops was football or baseball.
Let’s analyze these appraisals, some of which are even plausible. I’ve never been an NBA coach but don’t think for a second that NBA coaches are some sort of creatures who dwell in a divergent profession. There’s no question the NBA is composed of better players than college buckets (heck, NBA players are the best athletes in the world). Plus there are more games, player trades, somewhat different rules and no academic issues. NBA coaches make more money (than nearly all of their college counterparts) but their shelf life is quite a bit shorter (although the buyout sets them up pretty well – until they’re recycled to another club).
All that said, the basketball coaching profession is much more alike then it is different. Most coaches played, even if it was just at the high school level. All of them were “smitten” by coaching. Few of their former coaches or friends are shocked when they decide to enter that particular business. Every coach had a mentor or, most likely, several mentors who instilled in them a certain belief in how the game should be played. The baby boomer generation of college coaches was strongly influenced by coaches like John Wooden, Bob Knight and Dean Smith. Prior to them, Henry Iba was the coach who “young coaches” modeled themselves after. In the NBA it was Red Auerbach, Red Holzman and Jack McKinney who had the clout while Hubie Brown held all coaches in a trance at every clinic in which he spoke.
What all that means is that, as a coach grows in the profession, he or she develops a philosophy of how the game is to be played. Basically, there are two theories about how to play basketball – decide how many points it will take for your team to win and keep your opponent under that number or decide how many points you’ll give up and execute a game plan to score more than that number. Tom Thibodeau is an excellent example of the former while Mike D’Antoni is a perfect illustration of the latter. Imagine Thibodeau deciding to launch threes (and freely substitute to give some guys bigger roles) because his players didn’t have the quickness to defend. When, exactly, do you think it would cross D’Antoni’s mind that, in order to win, the best system would involve “locking people down?”
While most coaches aren’t are so rigid in their beliefs of how the game is supposed to be played as Thibs or Mike D’ are, the truth is coaches just aren’t all that flexible with their approach to the game either. The NBA is a player’s game. When a team has lost because it gives up too many shots close to the basket, they don’t design a defense to solve the problem, nor do they just jack up threes in an effort to play three-for-two. They trade for a shot blocker. Need to score more? Get guys who are hard to guard. Practice time is limited (once the season starts, don’t expect your favorite team’s bench guys to show a marked improvement. Even in the off-season, a small percentage of NBA players are going through rigorous player development programs (don’t for a minute think that the work put in by Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant is typical). P.S. In college, it’s called recruiting. Deciding when to go with a big lineup or a small one depends either on your team being more talented than the opponent you’re facing that night (so you get to dictate lineups) or whether you need to gamble because the game’s not going your way – and not making a change of some sort would lead to a sure loss. The game goes just too fast to be able to employ all the possible strategies media members and fans discuss.
Now, new coaches will change styles (Chicago Bulls being one example) but a specific coach making what amounts to a 180 degree change in belief (even 90 is a stretch)? Ain’t happening. Same in football. Chip Kelly isn’t going to the “three yards and a cloud of dust” philosophy any time soon, nor will Pete Carroll become conservative.
For the record, the only coach I ever knew who would totally change his strategy was my last college boss, Jerry Tarkanian. He won playing 1-2-2 zone at Long Beach State (and his final year at UNLV), full court pressure, half court pressure and amoeba zone at UNLV and half court, with a little amoeba, at Fresno State. Yet, even Tark was unyielding in his offensive outlook. When it came to running set plays, continuity or even using passing game rules, his favorite phrase was:
“The more a player thinks, the slower his feet get.”