May 16, 2014

NBA Coaching Hires: Experience vs. Potential

The philosophy of an NBA team comes from the coach. Coaching determines the way a team plays basketball, but some coaches don't do any more than create a loosely defined offensive and defensive system. When you can find one of those few coaches who can affect your team-whether it's with a perfected defensive system like Tom Thibodeau, an unparalleled motivational skill like Doc Rivers, or a supremely efficient rotation like Gregg Popovich-that is when you found a truly great coach.
Two available coaches really inspired massive buzz this offseason: Stan Van Gundy and Steve Kerr. SVG represents experience here. Here's a guy who's coached for seven years as an NBA head coach and almost thirty years in total. Van Gundy represents the traditional coach: he worked his way up through the NCAA ranks, then became an NBA assistant and then an NBA coach.  At least for a while, he was able to handle the explosive personalities of Dwight Howard and Shaquille O'Neal. We assume he's a great coach because he led a team to the NBA Finals and has a lot of experience. But looking back on his resume, what makes me have the initial reaction of thinking this is a great hire for Detroit? There's nothing unusually incredible about his career so far. He's certainly not a bad coach, and maybe the GM duties the Pistons are giving him will help him construct a team perfectly suited to his style. But somehow my gut reaction was to think that his experience, in and of itself, makes him great.
That brings us to Steve Kerr. When I heard that the Warriors had hired Kerr, my first thought that didn't involve the words "Phil Jackson" was that the Warriors might have needed an experienced coach after the firing of Mark Jackson. Grabbing another coach with no prior experience, I thought, might not work out so well for Golden State. But really, what does that matter? Every coach was a first timer at one point. Yes, there is something to be said for the fact that Van Gundy started in the relatively low-stakes role of a small college's assistant coach while Kerr will be starting in the NBA. Yet that neglects the fact that Kerr learned how to coach a basketball team from two of the best ever in Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich, and that Kerr knows all about chemistry and winning from being on one of the biggest chemistry successes ever, the late '90s Bulls. Plus, Kerr knows the inner workings of the league from his time as Suns GM. Kerr is a swing-for-the-fences hire: he has a chance of being a truly great coach. We have an idea of what the SVG era in Detroit is going to be like, but we don't know what Steve Kerr will do. That risk-reward factor, though it casts doubt on the Warriors' decision in one sense, makes this a great hire with great possibilities for a young team on the rise.
Potential and experience often come into conflict when making a decision to hire or not to hire a coach. Many teams like to hire young assistants from other squads or former players like Kerr in order to maximize the potential factor. Others are afraid to take such a risk and go after more experienced options. But a coaching disaster can occur regardless of the coach's experience. First-time coach Jason Kidd went though a rough stretch this year where it looked like he might be fired. But Kidd was able to learn from his mistakes and right the ship, while more experienced coaches like Mike Woodson and Mike Brown couldn't fix the issues that plagued their team. Woodson's and Brown's teams will be paying those two coaches to stay away from their team next season after firing the coaches in the middle of their contracts, while the Nets will still feature Kidd front and center. Sure, there are examples of inexperienced coaches being fired relatively quickly, but you can say the same for experienced ones. Coaches who came in with no prior experience may include failures like Vinny Del Negro and Kevin Pritchard, but they also include greats such as Don Nelson and Doc Rivers. At the end of the day, there are three types of coaches: coaches that hurt your team, coaches that have little to no effect on your team, and coaches that make your team better. With an experienced coach, you often times know which of those options you're getting, and since great, experienced coaches usually don't randomly become available, you usually end up with a mediocre or bad coach. With an inexperienced leader, you have a real shot at true greatness. That's why Steve Kerr's coaching potential was too much for the Warriors to pass up.

Find me on twitter @JGBHoops!

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