On Basketball Mutiny

Basketball is freedom. Five players, improvising within a framework that, ideally, harnesses all of their talents. And yet, since that ideal is so rarely achieved, and since five human beings can rarely agree on what to eat for lunch, much less who comes over to help from the weak side, rebellions against the framework flare up from time to time. The architect of the framework, the designer of its movements, the author of its themes, is the coach. And when the coach is perceived to be standing in the way of his players’ freedom to express their talents, then it is only natural that the players would seek redress in the form of the coach’s scalp.

On the surface, the overthrow of a coach is a fait accompli; the NBA is, as the saying goes, a player’s league. With the exception of those coaches at the most rarified, 11-ring-having, Zen-koan-spitting level, the world is absolutely lousy with dudes who can draw on a whiteboard, and they are all expendable in the face of objections from their players.

Stars, on the other hand, just aren’t being born at a high enough rate to allow every team in the NBA to have one. Simple supply and demand; when the rubber hits the road, the coach gotta go. So, the mutiny itself is easy enough to carry out. It’s the fallout from the act that complicates the matter, because The Coach (Brian Phillips describes this dynamic much better than I ever could) is more than some scowling, infinitely depressed, gravel-voiced old fogey, gesticulating over his finely tuned triple-screen not getting executed correctly. The Coach, to the mainstream consumer, is a symbol of control, of law and order imposed on the chaotic, And1 predilections of a bunch of young-gun millionaires. Without The Coach, NBA ball would just be an endless series of attempts to make SportsCenter in between blown defensive assignments. It is not by accident that the term “inmates running the asylum” is so often used to describe this power imbalance.

So, for many fans, what separates a legitimate firing from a society-shaking attack on the top-down structure of the social order, a.k.a a coach killing, is a very thin line. But, from time to time, the playbook of liberty must be refreshed with the pink slips of coaches. The trick, then, for the freedom fighter players seeking to overthrow a tyrannical regime, is to do it in a way that wins the hearts and minds of the fans and keeps the players’ hands as clean as possible. That means, in addition to working the dark channels behind the scenes (complaining to agents, managers, front-office executives, and sympathetic reporters), the liberal deployment of euphemisms for “this coach sucks.” Here’s a translation of some recently used strategy critiques and well-worn tropes, aimed at ousting a coach while avoiding the coach killer tag.

We Didn’t Make Adjustments

Example: “They made that adjustment. We didn’t make the adjustment back to it.” — Carmelo Anthony, in the wake of the Knicks’ nationally televised immolation at the hand of the Indiana Pacers.

Translation: Mike Woodson got outcoached.

This Team Doesn’t Have an Identity

Example: “You look around the league, you’ve got some teams that are defensive teams. You’ve got some teams like [Houston] and the Warriors that are offensive-minded, like Portland and Denver, they’re going to get up and down, spread the floor.

“You’ve got teams like Memphis, Chicago, physical, defensive-minded. Here we are at Game 40, we don’t know what we are right now. It’s going to be hard to collect wins when you don’t know what to expect.” — O.J. Mayo

Translation: This team would be better if our coach had a plan.

Praising the Opposition

Example: “They outschemed us. They played to our defense as far as their offensive scheme, knowing our rotations, putting us in vulnerable situations. [They had us] switching a lot and taking our help guy out of the rotation, which led to a lot of corner 3s.” — Tyson Chandler

Translation: Other teams are playing three-dimensional Star Trek holodeck chess while my coach is playing tic-tac-toe with a dull pencil on the back of a matchbook from Denny’s.

That’s Up to Management/the Front Office/Ownership

Example: “I’m here to play ball and have fun, and that hasn’t been happening. I’m not here to get anyone fired. I’m not management, I’m just a player like everyone else. I run laps and get fines, too.” – Magic Johnson in 1981

Translation: Everyone in the world loves when I smile except for Paul Westhead, and you all want to see me smile, don’t you? Bonus points for having the self-awareness to invoke the employee-boss structure that sports fans love, especially during the Reagan era.

The Nuclear Option, a.k.a. What Not to Do


Filed Under: NBA

Jason Concepcion is a staff writer for Grantland and coauthor of We’ll Always Have Linsanity.

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