Saturday, February 07, 2009

Why Do Veteran Teams Hire Inexperienced Coaches?

This NBA season has seen the decline (and will see the fall) of two of the league's more consistent franchises in the last five years: Phoenix and Detroit. It has been painful to watch on many levels, and for me personally, it has been especially so: Detroit had to start sucking the year AI went there, and Phoenix went from the team everybody loved to watch to a team that's just sort of sad.

While we can say a lot about the trades (Shaq/Marion), draft picks (Darko over Melo/Wade/Bosh) and free agent decisions (letting Joe Johnson go) that have led these two proud franchises to this juncture, I would like to concentrate instead on the coaching hires that were made last summer, with Michael Curry going to Detroit and Terry Porter going to Phoenix.

Both of those decisions reflected a violation of one of NBA's core axioms: thou shalt not hire a young coach to lead a veteran team that has enjoyed success with a former coach. The issue here is simple: the NBA is a player's league, and unless the coach enjoys the players' respect as a coach and as a man (i.e. NOT simply because the coach has the GM's backing, as both Porter and Curry do), he will fail. And because young and inexperienced coaches by definition have enjoyed no prior success, they will not have the players' respect when he gets there.

Recall Shaq's contrasting reactions to when (a) his Lakers hired Phil Jackson and (b) Pat Riley fired Stan Van Gundy and hired himself as Heat coach. When Phil Jackson - then of the mere six rings - came on board, he instantly had Shaq's ear. Why? Simple: he had the rings, and the adulation of Michael and Scottie. Shaq respected Phil Jackson before he even got to the Lakers, which is why their relationship worked. By contrast, recall Shaq's reaction when Riley stabbed Van Gundy in the back. It was something to the effect of "A marquee team needs a marquee coach". Despite the fact that Van Gundy was (and is) a fantastic coach, he simply did not have Shaq's respect. Why not? No rings.

This phenomenon explains some - though by no means all - of the Pistons' and Suns' struggles this year. The Pistons don't play hard for a number of reasons, but one of them is simply the fact that they don't care what Michael Curry says (the way they did when, say, Larry Brown was around). Similarly, you get the feeling the half of the Phoenix team tuned out Terry Porter before Mike D'Antoni even left the building.

The question then becomes: why did the respective GMs of these teams hire these coaches? I understand Steve Kerr's philosophical differences with D'Antoni, and his desire to go in a different direction, but why not hire someone defensively-oriented with a sterling reputation with the NBA's elite, like Jeff Van Gundy or Larry Brown? Why did Joe Dumars go with Curry to coach a team of notoriously hard-headed and stubborn players? It really makes no sense.


Anonymous said...

Your article says it all! It is so frustrating. This year is a wash as much as I hate to admit it. They are out of sync and have no offensive or defensive philosophy.I like Curry and had hopes, but he is not up to the challenge of a team of all stars who believe they run the show, not the coach.

Joe Dumars is the most overrated GM in the league.He has made a bad decision by hiring Michael Curry, a rookie head coach,fully knowing that it will be very difficult for an inexperienced coach to motivate headstrong, savvy team of veterans.How come he didn't realize that Curry is not the right fit?

Bring in Brown! He is one of the best coach in NBA history.I am also a big Van Gundy fan.He is a decent coach.

JJY said...

I'm not saying Terry Porter has done a fabulous job, but why would you wish Jeff Van Gundy on Steve Nash? That's just mean. Just because he's a likable color analyst, I think you've forgotten the basketball his Knicks and Rockets teams played. Effective, but horrifying...sort of like Route 1 football.

supersizeme said...

er, is it only me who's noticed, or does the guy in the 2nd pic have a weird shaped head?

Ahsan said...


I agree that Joe Dumars is enormously overrated.


I think you give JVG too little credit. Remember that year in NY when Ewing got hurt and they started running? His slow methodical style has a lot to do with the personnel he's been given over the years (Ewing, Yao, grandpa McGrady). I think he would be a smart enough coach to understand the strengths of Nash et al, and also provide an emphasis on the defensive end the way Kerr would want him to.


Yes, Terry Porter has a weirdly shaped head. That is the least of his problems right now.

zeyd said...

Oh my god, a post on the nba!

I don't know why you're worrying mate; you do know that Allen's winning it all this year right?

Just like he was close to doing with the big dog, c-webb, and melo.

Wait I forgot Keith Van Horn! Wait...

Ahsan said...


Ah, yes, Keith Van Horn. The good old days.