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The Importance of Coaching

   by Bryan Leonard - 01/11/2011

“Anybody can coach the Lakers or the Spurs and win 60 games.”
How often have you heard comments similar to that? There is some truth in that, when you compare basketball to other sports. For example, it would be extremely difficult for a great NBA head coach like Red Auerbach or Phil Jackson to take over the Nets or the Cavaliers right now and turn them around in time to make the playoffs. And they certainly wouldn’t be able to go deep into the playoffs – in basketball, you need to have the horses.
Football is different. Bill Parcels once said that it’s not that difficult a trick to take a 2-14 team and, through discipline and hard work, turn that bunch into an 8-8 or 9-7 team. He’s done it, too, several times. Parcels took consistently losing teams like the Giants, Patriots, Jets, Cowboys and Dolphins and turned them into contenders in the blink of an eye. He’s taken two of those franchises to the Super Bowl, took the Jets to the 1999 AFC Championship game, won a division title in Miami one year after a 1-15 season.
Parcels took a 2-14 Patriots team to the playoffs in just two seasons and had them in the Super Bowl in four years. He then took a 1-15 Jets team and went 9-7 the next year and 13-5 the next before losing to Denver in the AFC title game. Bob Stoops took a floundering Oklahoma program and in just his second season (2000) went undefeated and won college football’s national championship.
Basketball is different because there are so few players. You have five starters and one or two role players off the bench. If you don’t have some top-notch talent among those few players, even a great coach can’t get them to be an elite team.
However, coaches can be very significant in basketball in more subtle ways that can help a team and help bettors who are looking for edges against the spread. Jackson was the missing piece a talented Lakers team needed in 1999 and he taught them how to play defense, something that was severely lacking. LA went 56-42-2 against the spread in his first season with the Lakers. Shaq and Kobe were grateful, because they were able to taste champagne instead of disappointment, celebrating the first of three straight titles once Jackson came aboard.
Contrast that with Shaq’s first coach, Brian Hill, who was in over his head when Orlando made it to the 1995 NBA Finals, but got swept by Houston. Hill was axed a year later, had a brief stint with the Grizzlies before he was fired again and hasn’t come close to seeing an NBA head coaching job since.
Good coaches can bring such assets as defense, like Jackson and San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, motivation, or the ability to teach young players subtle fundamentals that lead to winning.
Yes, coaches can make a difference. When Rick Pitino resigned from the Celtics a few years ago, the team suddenly began winning under Jim O’Brien’s and Doc Rivers’ no-nonsense guidance. We’ve also seen teams with good young talent in recent years – Charlotte, Chicago, Orlando – fire their head coaches because the players were underachieving. Watch carefully how the players respond for their new coach, and look even closer for subtle changes – like improved defense and good or bad road play. Identifying tiny subtleties can help you cash some big tickets at the betting window!

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