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Insight on New NBA Coaches

   by Bryan Leonard - 12/29/2007

NBA coaches are in the news again with Scott Skiles getting the axe in Chicago. Skiles said, "Today was my day to be held accountable." This team had underachieved and Skiles had tried all different kinds of combinations the last two years to try and jumpstart the team. This brings up an interesting handicapping dynamic. The players on the court have to defend, pass the ball and know what to do in every situation, but the coach has to be able to teach, motivate and lead, as well.

After a recent loss, Skiles said, "Across the board we didn't have the energy, the execution, the ballhandling, all the things you need to stay in the game let alone win against a team like that. I don't know if confused is the right word. We were unsure of ourselves out there.â€쳌 The Bulls starting unit seemed numb and in shock, so give Skiles credit for being up front. The big problem was he couldn’t get the players to change, so now he’s gone.

The Sacramento Kings have a new coach this season in Reggie Theus. Theus likes an uptempo attack, similar to what he ran at New Mexico State, and their offense is strong, but they are not a great defensive team. One thing, from a wagering viewpoint, that stands out about the Kings is that they are strong at home, starting 8-5 SU and 9-4 ATS. But on the road they are a poor 3-10 SU, 5-7 ATS.

Coaches can make a difference in the way a team plays, either through style changes, motivation or improved emphasis on defense. I recall a few years ago when the Denver Nuggets brought in George Karl in mid-season, the Nuggets proceeded to catch fire, going 21-5 straight up. The team went on a roll against the spread, too, carrying on a 14-1 SU, 13-2 spread run.

Certainly Karl deserved his share of credit. Analysts pointed out that Denver's defense improved after he took over. Attitude and clubhouse chemistry also improved immensely, with players buying into Karl's team-oriented philosophy. At one point, Karl sat Carmelo Anthony down late in a close game, something that bothered Anthony at the time. After which Karl explained that Anthony coasted too often, and he wanted to teach the young lad a lesson.

The Houston Rockets were tired of Jeff Van Gundy’s slow-down, defensive approach so they axed him in the offseason. Former Kings coach Rick Adelman was brought in because of his uptempo style. However, the Houston offense hasn’t improved much. They have been a huge disappointment. Despite adding Steve Francis, the Rockets are still in need of a legitimate point guard and consistent No. 3 scorer. Bonzie Wells said, "Coach Adelman has been on us to clean up our game and really move the ball around so that everyone can touch it and make us more effective." At least they still play excellent defense at home, allowing 91 ppg there (7-3 under the total at home). But at 11-16 against the spread overall, this team is better in the eyes of oddsmakers than on the court. They are also a miserable 6-13 ATS as a favorite.

One guy who puts in the hours and is obsessive about winning is Indiana coach Jim O'Brien. He admits he watches lots of tape, recapping what went wrong. Every day starts with a 6 a.m. film session. He preaches details -- defensive stance, running through on the fast break -- and effort. O'Brien arrived in Indiana with a no-nonsense reputation. His Celtics teams overachieved after replacing Rick Pitino, and Allen Iverson, who had his best season under O'Brien with the 76ers, told the Rocky Mountain News that his former coach is a "big-time disciplinarian, throw-back coach." The Pacers have a winning road record, both straight up and against the number, which is impressive and a 10-8 SU, 11-7 ATS record as a dog.

Sometimes teams respond to a coaching change and play better....for a while. Players can get burned out on a coach, too, and can stop playing hard for him. This has happened to Karl, too, when he was coach in Cleveland and later Seattle. Bill Fitch won 60-plus games his first three years as Celtics coach in the early 1980s, which included winning the 1981 championship. Two years later, the players had tuned out the demanding coach and he resigned after an embarrassing 4-game playoff sweep as a favorite. Those same coaches can look brilliant one year, and then be identified as the problem a short time later.

Sometimes players don't respond at all to coaching changes, such as Minnesota the last few years. Sports bettors need to pay close attention to coaching changes. The important factor to look for is when players overachieve (and cover the number) for a coach, and when that same group may start to underachieve and fail to cover. You can ride a spread streak a long way when you identify these spots where coaching/team chemistry is involved.

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