Coach Class

Reggie Theus is no longer the handsomest man in the NBA.

Don’t worry–he’s still handsome. But he joins Mo Cheeks, P.J. Carlesimo, Eddie Jordan, Sam Mitchell, and Randy Wittman as coaches who find themselves teamless one third of the way into the NBA season. That’s six coaching changes so far, after eight last year.

Former coach/mythic imp Jeff Van Gundy drops some insights on the matter in this NYT article. As JVG points out, underperforming teams are quick to replace coaches, but are much less* likely to do the same for players or general managers. Theus was let go after only 1 1/2 seasons, 2/3 of which were spent squeezing a surprising 38 wins out of a 2007 Kings team that saw Orien Green battling Quincy Douby for serious minutes.  Which is to say, ie., not bad coaching. Plus, ok fine yeah the Kings are pretty much not what anyone would consider good this season thus far, but they are missing their two best players from last year–Kevin Martin (injured) and Ron Artest (crazed). So, it’s not like there’s indisputable visual evidence that Reggie Theus is a bad coach.

*Much less?

The unemployed coaches seem to fall into two categories: those whose teams are performing just as bad as last year, and those whose teams are performing worse than last year. Theus is in the second category, as are Jordan, Mitchell, and Cheeks. Carlesimo and Wittman are in the first. Let’s take a look at that one first.

Carlesimo’s Oklahoma City Thunder, née Sonics, are historically inept. Wittman’s Timberwolves aren’t much better. The then SuperSonics finished the 2007-08 season with the second worst record in the league, and then in a totally amicable and orderly way moved to a place rich with basketball tradition. The Wolves managed to outpace the Sonics by two wins, placing them third to last in the league. On the bright side, the greatest player in each franchise’s history did win a championship last year.

Point being, both teams are the suck. Unlike college hoops, pro coaches can’t recruit, and pretty much have to make do with whatever ragtag assemblage of misfits and castoffs the front office supplies them with. And, if that same front office is going to decide things like job tenure based on how many wins a coach produces, then the coaches of OKC and Minnesota probably shouldn’t worry about whether their unused vacation days accrue to next year.

Now think about that  second group of teams–ones that are performing significantly worse than last year. Washington, Philadelphia, and Toronto were all playoff teams in 07-08, but all finished the season with essentially .500 records.  In firing their coaches, the management of these teams is presuming that last year’s records were a true indication of their teams’ ability, and that they are currently underperforming this standard.  

Research of previous years’ records shows that the Wizards have been mostly better than .500 since 04-05, and that this year’s trouble, like that of  the Kings, may be partly attributable to a difference in personnel–though, unlike the Kings, the injured player and the crazed player are the same guy.

The Sixers and Raptors, though, have mostly been well beneath .500. The Raptors, in particular, finished with a .327 winning percentage as recently as 05-06, though they followed that with 47 wins the next year, earning a division title and Coach of the Year award for Sam Mitchell, who they just fired. Which seems so implausibly contradictory, we should all be thankful our government isn’t run that way.

So maybe these teams aren’t underperforming, they’re just regressing to the mean after a season of overperformance. In which case I might argue that, if one is to blame a coach for a team’s theoretical underperformance, one would also then have to credit that same coach for that team’s theoretical overperformance.

But wait! One might then say, “Teams that have midseason coaching changes are known to experience an at the very least modest improvement in winning percentage! See–the Wiz started out 1-10, but once they replaced Eddie Jordan, they roared to 4-18!” Well, that might be true, but consider this–if the Wiz are truly a .500 team, then, just like a flipped coin, it’s not unreasonable that they will have extended winning and losing streaks. Once they play enough games, their actual record will tend to converge with their predicted one–and also since coaching changes tend to be precipitated by losing streaks of unusual length, it’s statistically probable that the Wiz would have won at a better rate for the remainder of the season with or without Eddie Jordan.

So if changing coaches is unlikely to have a significant result on winning, the question arises whether coaches have any affect at all on winning. This Slate article does a nice job rounding up a lot of the current research and addressing the difficulties of answering that question. Is Phil Jackson a great coach, or just lucky to have coached MJ, Shaq, and Kobe? Does Larry Brown’s peripatetic guru shtick actually turn a team’s fortunes around, or does he just get conveniently “restless” before suffering any long-term failure? Among professional sports leagues, NBA coaches have the least in-game decision-making to do–other than substitution patterns, there aren’t many things they have direct influence over. And yet they are the primary escapegoat for any failure.

Which is probably to a large degree exactly what their job is. Here’s a thought: professional sports are predicated on a tacit promise between owners and fans, a promise that business interests will not be pursued to the detriment of winning. On the shadowy southwest corner of the intersection between sports and business is the ever lurksome threat that this promise is just an illusion. Sometimes winning is too expensive, and sometimes losing doesn’t hurt the bottom line. Most fans understand this bargain, and are only really offended by the most egregious breaches of their trust. In return for this understanding, owners must perform ritual upkeep of the illusion–like, for instance, if a team is really in the dumper, somebody’s got to walk the plank, if only to show you care.  It’s not going to be the players–they’re way too valuable commodities, and anyway their contracts are guaranteed by the Collective Bargaining Agreement. It usually can’t be the front office–they aren’t publicly recognizable enough for their dismissal to satisfy the fanbase. So, it’s left to the coaches. Paid a lot for a job of debatable importance, they’re the obvious, expendable option when looking for a public sacrifice.

Which isn’t to say that no coaches provide real value to their teams, nor that most of them aren’t devoted in good faith to improving their teams. Nor is it to suggest that, since they are bred to be sacrificed, we shouldn’t mourn their passing. Like, for instance, the honorable, the brave, the sweet Mo Cheeks:

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