Culture of Hoops

NBA Championships: The Coaching Factor

Image courtesy of Phil Jackson/Twitter.

Image courtesy of Phil Jackson/Twitter.

Brought to you by our friends at Fantasy Basketball Money Leagues.

We know that Michael Jordan won six NBA titles, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan each have won five, LeBron James has won two, and Dirk Nowitzki one.

We also know that the Boston Celtics won eight straight NBA titles in the ’60s and the “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers won four. Of course we can’t leave out the Chicago Bulls winning two three-peats in the ’90s, while the Lakers won a three-peat and a back-to-back in the 2000s .

Winning NBA titles is associated with teams and players much more than the coaches who steered those teams. However, how much of a factor is coaching when it comes to winning the NBA title?

Formula for Success

An article by BleacherReport.com on July 7, 2012 gave the formula for NBA success:

Let’s break down the equation of an outstanding team, shall we?

Two or more superstars + a coach with a Harvard IQ in basketball + team experience= Championships

“The Zen Master,” also known as Phil Jackson, was able to construct a holistic team with a mind-blowing offense. With his intelligent basketball strategies, he won 11 NBA Championships, six with the Bulls and five with the Los Angeles Lakers. By a holistic approach, coach Jackson emphasized the importance of a team as a whole and incorporated the interdependence of its parts as one. A complete system with components that coincide with one another will allow a team to excel.

The article also talked about the Celtics:

The Boston Celtics have won the most NBA Championships (17) than any other team. Boston’s basketball organization has been and always will be held by an expert structure of recruiting, coaching, and fan support.

Phil Jackson definitely qualifies as a coach with a Harvard IQ in basketball. So does Red Auerbach and the work he did in Boston. Auerbach was the architect of a dynasty in pro sports that has not been matched until now. In ESPN.com‘s biography on Auerbach, the site wrote:

Regarded as a coaching genius, he was known for picking the right players, coaching them and keeping them in line with his system. Employing a fastbreak that often led to easy baskets, he ran only seven basic set plays throughout his Celtics coaching career.

Sure, Auerbach had a lot of stars, but he focused on team, not individuals, and that’s what made his Celtics great by winning an incredible eight consecutive NBA titles from 1959-66. In all, the Celtics won nine NBA titles in his final 10 years as coach.

Adds the ESPN.com report:

Auerbach said that the Celtics represent a philosophy that in its simplest form maintains that victory belongs to the team. “Individual honors are nice, but no Celtic has ever gone out of his way to achieve them,’ he said. ‘We have never had the league’s top scorer. In fact, we won seven league championships without placing even one among the league’s top 10 scorers. Our pride was never rooted in statistics.”

Jackson in Chicago and LA, and the great Red Auerbach in Boston had all three: superstars, coaching, and experience. While superstars and coaching are pretty clear to us now, let’s look at experience as a factor in winning NBA titles.

Getting Over the Pistons Hump

Jackson and the Bulls did not become world champions in a snap of a finger. As detailed by Starter.com on September 5, 2013, the Bulls had to go through the Detroit Pistons, a.k.a. the Bad Boys, over and over again:

In the 1989-1990 season, the Bulls took a chance on an emerging coach in Phil Jackson. The team attacked “Jordan Rules” with the emergence of their triangle offense, making supporting stars out of Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. As only the stranger-than-fiction way that sports work, this third consecutive Eastern Conference Finals progressed exactly one game—going to seven. For the third straight time, the Pistons won. But the NBA had a stinging rivalry that was far from over. Meanwhile, two weeks later, the Bulls watched the Pistons’ second consecutive championship parade in Detroit.

The following season, the Bulls finally got over the hump known as the Pistons, which was the start of a dynasty. As we all know now, Chicago won six NBA titles (two three-peats), but this was not after they gained much experience from being eliminated by the Pistons for three consecutive seasons.

Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth

During the 1999-2000 NBA season, there was one team that caught the NBA’s eye, because it was so talented. Many swore by their grave that the team should have been unbeatable.

BleacherReport.com had their take on that team on December 22, 2009:

1999-2000 Blazers (59-23)
Steve Smith (1 All-Star appearance)
Scottie Pippen (7 All-Star appearances)
Rasheed Wallace (4 All-Star appearances)
Detlef Schrempf (3 All-Star appearances)
Jermaine O’Neal (6 All-Star appearances, but all after leaving Portland)
Damon Stoudamire
Arvydas Sabonis
Greg Anthony
Briant Grant
Bonzi Wells (before he went crazy)

The players named above are not players I selected for my fantasy team, nor are they a team I built in NBA Live or NBA 2K and no they are not an All-Star team. That my fellow readers is the core of the 1999-2000 Portland Trail Blazers.

Disregard the writer for saying Bonzi Wells went crazy, because that’s just hyperbole. However, look at that lineup, it does look like an All-Star team. No, not really great players, but all are stars from top to bottom.

They won 59 regular season games and reached the Western Conference Finals. However they folded in that memorable Game 7, when Shaq and Kobe’s fourth quarter rally started a Lakers dynasty in the early 2000s.

Portland had the better lineup, but Phil Jackson’s triangle offense made use of role players like Robert Horry, Brian Shaw, and Derek Fisher, who complemented the dynamic duo of Shaq and Kobe.

It wasn’t really a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth, because losing wasn’t due to the “cooks.” It was about not having a “recipe” for winning. It was about not having the experience of playing as a team.

That Portland Trail Blazers team had almost everything. They had the money to spend on players and they assembled the best pieces possible. Yet talent is not enough to win an NBA title, not without experience and coaching.

Let’s use another example. This time, let’s use one that has Phil Jackson on the opposite end, because not everything that glitters is the Zen Master.

The Lakers in 2004 added Karl Malone, Gary Payton, and Bryon Russell to their already formidable lineup, which won a three-peat from 2000 to 2002. That being said, they lost to the Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals 4-1. The talent was definitely there, and so was the Harvard IQ coaching of Jackson, but they did not have the experience and chemistry of playing with each other.

Pop the Magic Dragon

Now let’s move on to the mystical Gregg Popovich. Pop may not have as many titles as Jackson and Auerbach, but he’s as magical as a dragon.

He’s led the Spurs to five titles in three different decades, and with one consistent superstar on all his teams: Tim Duncan. Of course, credit Duncan’s greatness and longevity too. Timmy is the only NBA player to start on a championship team in three different decades.

Sure, the Spurs never won back-to-back NBA titles, but their consistency is incredible. Considering that aside from the first title, where they also had the Admiral on board, the rest of the title teams only had Duncan as the anchor, with demigods like Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker at his side.

Let’s just use the latest Spurs title squad as an example here. No player on that team averaged more than 30 minutes of playing time during the regular season.

Now who would have thought that would make a team successful?

Only Pop.

Who would have been able to motivate a team that lost a seven-game NBA Finals series the previous year to win it all?

Only Pop.

The players did their share, but according to the great Jerry West, it was all about Pop, in a report from NBCSports.com on June 18, 2014:

I’ve never seen a better coach than Gregg Popovich. He does less than more. But having said that, when he gets less, he develops it into something really good. They have a great development program down there. For a coach coming into this league, if they don’t hire people who are really competent, to take these young kids who haven’t made it somewhere but have talent and build a system they can prosper in, but more importantly to get these kids shoot the ball. When they got Kawhi Leonard, he was not a shooter. It tells you the significance of what they’ve done internally to improve their team.

Pop took in those kids and blended them well with Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker. The rest is history. Again, that team had all three: Talent, coaching and, experience.

Statistically Speaking

ESPN’s Scoop Jackson wrote on October 3, 2013:

I believe in coaches. I believe in coaching matchups. I believe that coaches in the NBA are just as important as (almost) any player on the court and that coaching to a large degree is the main reason certain teams go deep into the playoffs every year. I believe a great coach can put any team into the championship conversation.

If you want this important factor quantified, let’s just say that coaching is 33.33 percent of winning an NBA title, based on our formula. So it’s at least one-third of the key to success, but it won’t work without the other two factors.

To end, Phil Jackson gives the perfect picture of winning the NBA title, as reported by WallStCheatSheet.com on April 20, 2014:

“I know that being fixated on winning (or more likely, not losing) is counterproductive, especially when it causes you to lose control of your emotions. What’s more, obsessing about winning is a loser’s game: The most we can hope for is to create the best possible conditions for success, then let go of the outcome.” Jackson admits that personally, he hates losing, but he knew that it was of greater importance to emphasize “the journey rather than the goal. What matters most is playing the game the right way and having the courage to grow, as human beings as well as basketball players.”

Coaching is crucial, but it’s also not a guarantee. After all, as Ron Jacobs once said: Players win games, coaches lose them.

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