The Sons of Pop and the Zen Master: It’s Time to Properly Measure the Value of NBA CoachesDoug Pensinger/Getty Images
NBA teams are increasingly addicted to 3-point shooting. That’s been common knowledge for a while. The feeding of this addiction has changed the way entire offenses are run. Out with the ball-stoppers, in with the ball-movers.
The sneaky thing about NBA 3s is that they demand cooperation. While only 52 percent of the league’s 2-point field goals involve an assist, 84 percent of 3s involve an assist. As the league increases its appetite for long-range shooting, it must also ramp up its passing. Moving the ball has never been more important, and systems that keep the ball in motion effectively have never been more successful.
Tuesday, the Denver Nuggets fired Brian Shaw. There is no shortage of indicators that point to Denver’s failures; the Nuggets rank 24th in offensive efficiency and 25th in defensive efficiency — however, given the trends highlighted above, that they also rank last in 3-point efficiency seems particularly salient.
Overall, the Nuggets convert a measly 31.3 percent of their 3s. How bad is that? Well, out of 103 qualifying players in ESPN’s 3-point efficiency standings, only five players shoot below that mark. So, that’s pretty bad.
There’s no doubt you need great players to win in the NBA, but as the league’s obsession with spacing and 3-point shooting continues to grow, so does the importance of sideline tacticians. After all, defenses aren’t exactly obsessed with handing out all of these open 3s. Still, while our hoops intelligentsia is wont to dissect the effects of great players on the floor, it’s much less eager to examine the drastic effects that coaches and coaching have on these same players’ performances.
Nobody knows more about coaching trends than Warren LeGarie, an agent who represents seven NBA head coaches and many more potential coaches. I asked LeGarie this week about the interactions between the obvious stylistic evolution of NBA offense and the less obvious shifts in the coaching market.
“These last couple of seasons, the game and style of play has really changed for the better, exemplified by the Spurs’ domination of Miami in last year’s NBA Finals; the winners have been the fans and the coaches who play that way,” LeGarie says. “The star-ball era, which has dominated the game and major portions of the salary cap for much of the last 10 years, finally seems to be going by way of the dinosaur.”
Mike Budenholzer and Shaw landed first-time coaching gigs in the summer of 2013. Before landing in Atlanta, Budenholzer wrote a dissertation on hardwood egalitarianism at Popovich University; before his time in Denver, Shaw diligently studied Zen and the Art of Superstar Maintenance at Triangle Tech.
While both apprenticed under legendary masters, their paths have been extremely divergent since taking their helms: Shaw is out of a job, while Budenholzer’s Hawks own the NBA’s best record. Maybe it’s unfair to look for symbolism here, but in the pace-and-space era, coaches are more important than ever. You don’t have to be LeGarie to notice that Budenholzer’s dharma is more in tune with how millennials are playing the game right now.
Pop quiz, hotshot: Who’s the best shooter in the NBA?
A: The open shooter.
Perimeter success in today’s NBA is as much a reflection of shot quality as it is shooter quality. Just ask Danny Green, whose career has gone from the waiver wire to spot-up legend largely by switching systems. But, if we believe in this “Danny Green effect,” we must also allow for an opposite phenomenon, where players seemingly devolve after changing systems. Shaw’s tenure provides us with a few examples, and just days after his firing, it’s fair to ask whether Denver’s embarrassing 3-point efficiency has more to do with talent or opportunity.
Consider the plight of Wilson Chandler, who has played in Denver for years. In George Karl’s last year in Denver (2012-13), he shot 41 percent from beyond the arc. This year, that figure is way down to 33 percent. Maybe Chandler simply got worse at shooting — or maybe his looks got worse under Shaw. This is not unique to Shaw, and you don’t have to look far to find other examples: Channing Frye’s overall effectiveness in Orlando immediately comes to mind.
When looking at teams’ 3-point efficiencies, you’ll notice that Budenholzer’s Hawks are near the top of the list, trailing only the Splash Brothers under Steve Kerr. Does this mean Atlanta has the best shooters in the league? Well, having Kyle Korver certainly doesn’t hurt, but he typically doesn’t create his own shots. They also feature players like DeMarre Carroll, who shot just 29 percent on 3-pointers two years ago — he’s up to 40 percent this year, essentially exhibiting the inverse effect as Chandler.
Baseball was the first sport to obsess over individual statistics. As a result, the way we talk about player performance is heavily influenced by the way we evaluate baseball players. But baseball is essentially a series of individual encounters, and with a few exceptions, those numbers generally reflect who can do what well. Unfortunately, you can’t bring that same isolationist logic to basketball, and the cases of Carroll, Chandler, and Green scream that. The shooting efficiencies of NBA players are obviously affected by teammates and coaches (see Nash, D’Antoni, et al. in 2007), but we still are much more comfortable saying “Chandler is shooting 33 percent from 3 this year” than “Shaw’s system is last in the NBA at getting sharpshooters the open looks they need.”
And while spot-up threats like Korver have experienced heightened value, what about the coaches who are able to architect a system that allows these guys to flourish? After all, 95 percent of Korver’s 3s this year involve an assist, and though we’re good at teasing out how many of those assists belong to Jeff Teague, we’re less inclined to investigate how many of them belong to Budenholzer. Perhaps just as baseball accounts for “park effects,” basketball should account for “coach effects.”
In 2015, the NBA’s best coaches might be the most undervalued human resources in the league. Should Jeremy Lin or Eric Gordon really earn more money than Gregg Popovich? Should Kerr, Budenholzer, and Dave Joerger combine to earn less than Omer Asik? Maybe we’ve traditionally overvalued the impact of players relative to coaches, or maybe the way the game is played now has just heightened the import of tacticians. Either way, the current valuations seem out of whack.
As Kerr and Budenholzer have most recently demonstrated, sometimes changing the coach can be as effective, or more so, as adding a superstar player or two. But coaching prospects come with tremendous amounts of uncertainty. Shaw was one of the most talked-about candidates in the league for years, while many questioned Kerr’s lack of coaching experience. Kerr has obviously proved the doubters wrong, and the Shaw hype looks unwarranted.
Every summer we fawn over the fates of potential free agents, while coaching transactions assume a much lower profile in the news cycle. But as the Hawks and Warriors are suggesting this season, it’s time we reevaluate these obsessions and the valuations underpinning them.
There’s no arguing that Phil Jackson and Popovich, like Jobs and Gates in the computing industry, loom large over the future of the NBA. Both guys deserve loads of credit for not only winning, but also shaping the way we think about the league. Still, it’s hard to look at the diverging fates of the Nuggets and Knicks versus the Spurs, Hawks, and Warriors and not hypothesize that Popovich’s legacy will have a longer tail, at least stylistically.
Jackson can always say, “count the rings,” while Pop can always say, “count the proteges.”
Shaw failed to get his players to coalesce into anything more than a collection of random NBA parts. Certainly, this failure is not unique to him, but that lack of coalescence is nonetheless evident not just in the wins and losses, but also in his team’s low defensive efficiency and terrible perimeter shooting rates.
Meanwhile, the Hawks have terrific long-range efficiency and the best record in the NBA. All five of their starters average double figures and none average more than 34 minutes per game. This kind of wealth distribution flies in the face of the capitalist ethos associated with the starry reigns of Phil, Jordan, Shaq, and Kobe. The casteless, cooperative movement fueled by coaches like Popovich, Budenholzer, and Kerr is not only antithetical to the philosophies of Kobe Bryant, who recently characterized his proletariat coworkers as do-nothing “motherfuckers,” but it’s also becoming more prosperous within the emergent pace-and-space economy.
Thirty-five years after the league adopted the 3-point line, Bryant’s generation is headed for the exit, while the league is full of upstart millennials who are not only keenly aware of the fact that 24-foot shots are worth 50 percent more than 22-foot shots, but also ready and willing to exploit that margin, no matter what it takes. Well, it takes ball movement, and the league’s best coaches are willing and able to implement tactics that help provide just that, while its struggling coaches are either too stubborn or too out of touch to achieve that perimeter nirvana. To hear LeGarie tell it, the “challenge will be to find the ball-movers instead of the ball-stoppers.” It’s unclear if he’s talking about players or coaches. It is probably both.