Too Easy To Blame The Coach
The Cleveland Cavaliers fired head coach Tyronn Lue after six lackluster games into the 2018-19 NBA season. While the adage in coaching circles for some time has been that “coaches are hired to be fired,” the quick trigger on an underperforming team seems to be getting easier and easier to rationalize.
There are a lot of factors that go into firing a coach, and while people like to rationalize a firing down to one thing, its often many things that lead to a coaching change, especially in the NBA.
The biggest job of a head coach in the NBA isn’t the X’s and O’s. NBA teams employ an army of coaches to help craft the X’s and O’s, and while some coaches are far more adept at scripting plays, that’s nearly as important in the NBA as you might think. The biggest job of an NBA coach is being able to deliver a message the players can understand, relate to and ultimately buy into.
The NBA’s history has been littered with poor X’s and O’s coaches that players would run through walls for, and equally, there have been coaching masterminds that lose the players in the first team meeting.
Being able to organize and lead is the primary role for a head coach in the NBA , and it’s typically when players stop listening or buying in that a coach is on his way out.
The one thing that’s easily overlooked is how smart, and savvy, elite level NBA players are. Most star level players understand the game at an extremely high level, and when coaches deliver plans that don’t line up to what player expect, things typically go sideways. It’s a big reason why buy-in of the plan is so important.
The Philadelphia 76ers used the concept of “The Process” to keep their guys bought in while they endured losses. If the players on the roster don’t believe in the vision of the team, and more importantly their role in that vision, it rarely works out.
While it is often the front office that sets a direction for a franchise, the head coach is the day-to-day voice of that vision. If there are gaps, and there usually are, that’s when things tend to go sideways in the NBA.
The players don’t believe in the coaches, and the coaches don’t believe in the vision, that’s usually when the floor falls out from under the situation.
There is no doubting that how an NBA team’s roster is constructed plays a factor in what kind of coach is required. When the Cavaliers signed David Blatt back in 2014, the plan for the Cavaliers was to build around Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins; then the unexpected happened – LeBron James came home.
Anyone that followed the day-to-day of that situation saw how quickly a slow, methodical rebuild flipped into a mad dash to win a championship. Blatt was never the right coach for that roster because he never got the buy-in from his players.
Lue was named head coach, mainly because the roster believed in him a lot more than they did Blatt.
Coincidentally, Lue’s undoing was more about a different direction with the roster and inability to reach a LeBron-less Cavs roster in the same way he did even just a year ago.
They say great coaches can adapt to whatever situation they find themselves, but NBA history has shown that the characteristics needed to rebuild a team around young guys are very different than the characteristics needed to get a veteran NBA team to a championship.
Houston coach Mike D’Antoni was deemed a colossal failure with the Lakers and the Knicks, but has been a franchise savior in Houston. Did D’Antoni somehow just figure out how to coach, or were the rosters he was aligned with in LA and New York not aligned with him?
It is also important to say that the cheapest and easiest change an NBA team can make is at head coach. With guaranteed contracts and the rarity of talent, firing a coach is a quick and easy change.
The last factor and, this usually is the biggest, is how coaches interact and relate to the front office.
It’s been well publicized that Lue and current Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman didn’t have a great dynamic. Lue was hired and ultimately re-signed by former Cavs GM David Griffin while Altman was on the staff. At the time, the team dynamic was very different, and Lue had a lot of clout. As things started going south this season, the lack of a positive dynamic ultimately cost Lue his job.
Some have wondered what Cleveland’s front office expected. Did Altman expect the Cavaliers to be good after a LeBron departure? The answer is yes. Altman believed that with so many proven veterans on the roster – and an extended Kevin Love – that the Cavs had enough to at least be a playoff team. Time will tell if they can be.
It is easy to forget that an NBA teams have more than 50 people on the basketball operations side. How they all interact and connect is critically important to team success. Gaps in that connectivity are usually why good teams fail to achieve or why rosters that look great on paper often fail to achieve.
The dynamics of all of that are a huge factor, and usually, those dynamics are the things that break down and lead to coaching changes.
It’s also been suggested that if it was so easy to make a coaching change after six games, why wasn’t that change made in July?
When the Raptors opted to part ways with Dwane Casey, a highly placed source said that Casey’s job was in serious jeopardy 12 months earlier, but that there was hope that Casey would evolve. And 12 months later, that proved to not be the case in the eyes of management. Casey has gone on to do pretty well in Detroit, and the Raptors got what they wanted in Nick Nurse.
As for the Cavaliers, the hope was that Lue would do better without the pressures of LeBron and a roster he was still very familiar with, however after training camp and several exhibition games, it became clear he wasn’t going to be the guy. Keep in mind, it wasn’t what changed in six games. The front office has had almost two months judge whether this was working on not, especially when you consider coaches and players start doing informal things in early September.
As they say, coaches are hired to be fired, and Lue will walk away with what’s been reported as $15 million in salary. He brought Cleveland its first NBA championship and is still just 41 years old. The likelihood that Lue won’t coach in the NBA again is pretty low, even if he latches on as a lead assistant. There were many things Lue did right.
As for the Cavaliers, they are negotiating to name Larry Drew the interim head coach, and that usually works itself out, although Drew seems to be playing hardball with the Cavs.
There is a lot of time left in the season for the Cavs to find their way, that’s also way making the change this quickly into the season made sense.
Time will tell if the Cavs are the team Altman believed they could be, he’ll get a chance to try thing his way, with his guy going forward.
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