NBA Coaches: Assets and Liabilities Heading into Playoffs
by Trevor Whenham - 3/30/2015
The more I watch the NBA, the more I come to the conclusion that coaches matter more than any other factor. A good coach can elevate a team. A bad coach - and there are plenty of them in the league - can make it very tough for the team to reach their potential and can consistently turn victory into defeat. As we head towards the playoffs, then, it makes sense to look at coaches who are assets for their teams - they make the team better by their presence and have to be respected in the playoffs as a result - and those that stand in the way of their rosters being as dangerous as they could potentially be. Needless to say, being on top of which coaches fit into each category can be handy for bettors.
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For the sake of this discussion we are going to skip some of the guys who have been around and proven themselves. We know, for example, that Gregg Popovich is a pretty decent coach who knows something about playoff success. To lesser extents we can also rule out discussing the staffs in Dallas, Houston and Miami. Aside from those coaches, here are two coaching assets, and three liabilities:
Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta Hawks: I said we wouldn't talk about Popovich, but I didn't rule out a Pops clone. Budenholzer is only 45, but before becoming the head coach in Atlanta in 2013 he had been an assistant in San Antonio since 1996. It was the only coaching job he ever held aside from a year coaching kids in Denmark. No wonder the guy is off to a fast start in his coaching career.
A couple of things really stand out with this team and the job he is doing. First, this team is much better than when he took over and better now than at the beginning of the season. Consistent improvement - an obvious goal but a very rare accomplishment. Second, he has a remarkable balance on the team. They are sound on both ends of the court. Star players perform at a high level without letting their egos get in the way. They are a team in every sense of the word. Very impressive - and it won't be easy to knock this team off when the postseason starts thanks to what Budenholzer has built.
Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors: There is an obvious risk jumping on the bandwagon of a guy who has never coached a single playoff game at the helm of a team that hasn't really done much in the playoffs. I'm willing to make a big exception here. For one thing, Kerr knows a thing or two about winning titles. He won five as a player, including two in San Antonio with none other than Mike Budenholzer as his assistant coach. He knows what success takes as much as anyone. More striking than that, though, is the change he has brought to this team. There are some tweaks, but this is functionally the same team we have seen in recent years. There are almost no similarities in how they perform, though. This team believes in themselves like none other. They play with swagger without being cocky - something very hard to do. They are unquestionably and without fail professional. In short, they play just like Kerr did - though at a higher level. This team just keeps moving forward, and I don't see why it won't keep doing so. A very legitimate favorite this year heading into the playoffs.
Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City Thunder: Brooks is a divisive guy. Many would argue that he is a great coach who deserves a lot of credit for the success of his team and the development of guys like Durant, Westbrook and Harden into the superstars they are. Others, like me, would argue that his game management, and especially the way he uses players, has held this team back from their real potential. Right now, the biggest concern is his infatuation with stars. He has always put too much focus, too much offensive focus, and too much playing time on the pressure of his stars. With Kevin Durant officially out for the season, Russell Westbrook is the man in Oklahoma City. We have seen in the past what can happen to this team when he is lost in the playoffs. Instead of managing him effectively, though, Brooks will run him into the ground and hope he holds up. They are a fragile team with a high risk of disaster.
Dwane Casey, Toronto Raptors: The last two years have been played in four acts for Toronto. They were horrible before the Rudy Gay trade. Then they were a totally different team without him - a much better, surprising one. Out of the gate this year they were amazing - offensive, exciting, cohesive, egoless. Then something happened, and for the second half of the season they have been just painful - and seemingly headed for another disappointing playoff departure. A team can't be this manic unless the coach doesn't have the control he should. He focuses on different things at different times - they were an offensive team and then a defensive one. He is passive late in games. He isn't motivating his players at all. He is just not the guy to get the most out of this team right now. It's a shame, too - the team we saw in the first half of the season was built to do some damage.
David Blatt, Cleveland Cavaliers: I feel bad for including Blatt here because it isn't really his fault, Remember, he was hired to coach a team that didn't have LeBron on it. Still, Blatt has lost control. They are winning, so things aren't all bad. It's like the team is a high school, though, and LeBron is the leader of the mean girls. Posting pictures on Instagram and cryptically calling out teammates - it's childish. Erik Spoelstra had his issues in Miami, but you always felt like he had a seat at the table with the team despite the star power they had. James is treating Blatt like he is only tolerated because a team legally has to have a coach, and Blatt is letting him get away with it. The sad thing is that they have the talent to get away with this silly act if they want to, but Blatt certainly isn't making them better right now - at least not in ways that truly matter.
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