10 Recent Teams That Made Daring in-Season Adjustments
Coaches and general managers spend countless offseason hours trying to nail down their rosters, set their rotations and devise the perfect schemes or game plans. But the most successful franchises are not afraid to make in-season adjustments at the risk of disrupting team chemistry.
Too many teams sabotage their seasons by refusing to bench a struggling starter or failing to make adjustments to an ineffective system. Coaches and GM’s, frankly, hate to admit that they made a mistake, but that stubbornness can eventually cost them their jobs.
Here are 10 teams that bucked tradition and swallowed their pride in an attempt to turn their seasons around. These bold, in-season moves did not always pay off, but the organizations deserve respect for throwing caution to the wind and risking public scrutiny.
10. North Carolina Tar Heels Thrive with New 4-Guard Lineup
North Carolina men’s basketball coach Roy Williams is known for his high-powered offenses. But following an 87-61 loss at then No. 8 Miami, he knew he needed to make some changes to his starting lineup.
Beginning with the Tar Heels' next game, at No. 2 Duke, Williams switched to a four-guard lineup that emphasized three-point shooting. This was a drastic change to the fast-breaking offense that has won him two national championships at Carolina since 2005.
The Tar Heels lost that game at Duke 73-68, but they rattled off six straight wins following that defeat.
UNC made the tournament as an No. 8 seed, defeating Villanova in its second-round matchup. The Tar Heels would lose to No. 1 seed Kansas in the third round, but they would have not even been in that position without the aforementioned adjustment.
9. New York Knicks Embrace Defense Under Mike Woodson
Firing the head coach in the middle of a disappointing season is a frequently used strategy designed to motivate a team through a change in leadership and/or tactical approach. Rarely, however, has an in-season coaching move worked as well as the New York Knicks’ decision to roll with the defensive-minded Mike Woodson late last year.
An atrocious 16-24 start to the 2011-12 season was a clear sign that D’Antoni had lost the team. With their sights still set on a playoff berth, the Knicks turned to Woodson to turn the season around.
New York responded by going 18-6 down the stretch and entering the playoffs as the seventh seed. Although the Knicks suffered a 4-1 series loss to the Miami Heat in the first round, Woodson was praised mostly for his ability to convince All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony to be a two-way player.
The change has carried over to this season, as New York has gotten off to a 42-26 start, the third-best mark in the East.
8. New York Yankees Bench Alex Rodriguez During ALCS
New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez had been struggling mightily all postseason. So when manager Joe Girardi made the bold decision to pinch hit for Rodriguez in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, it was a surprise in name only.
The Yankees entered the ninth trailing 4-0 and had cut the lead to 4-2 with a man on first when Rodriguez was scheduled to hit. Girardi decide to use Raul Ibanez to pinch hit for A-Rod with New York down to its final out.
Ibanez made Girardi’s move pay off by delivering a two-run homer off of Detroit Tigers closer Joe Valverde, sending the game to extra innings.
While the Yankees would go on to lose that game in the 12th inning and the series 4-0, that move set the precedent for Rodriguez to be benched again later in the series.
7. Kobe Bryant Channels His Inner Magic Johnson
The Los Angeles Lakers were struggling after a four-game losing streak left them at 17-25 entering a home game against the Utah Jazz in late January. That’s when all-world shooting guard Kobe Bryant decided that changes needed to be made.
Bryant delivered a career-high 14 assists in a 102-84 win, the first of three straight games in which he would record double-digit assists. The Lakers would, of course, win all three games.
Kobe’s decision to get his teammates more actively involved on the offensive end has been a catalyst for the Lakers’ midseason turnaround. Los Angeles is now a game above .500 at 36-35, and they are 19-10 since Bryant decided to play more like Lakers legend Magic Johnson.
The Lakers are also a game ahead of the Utah Jazz for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
6. Boston Celtics Improve Without Rajon Rondo
When Boston Celtics All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo suffered a season-ending ACL tear in a game against the Atlanta Hawks on January 25, everyone rightfully assumed that the team’s playoff hopes were dead. Boy, were we wrong.
Not even a diehard Celtics fan like myself could envision Boston actually becoming a better team in Rondo’s absence, but that is exactly what has happened.
While the adjustment was not voluntary, coach Doc Rivers deserves credit for getting the team to play better perimeter defense and increase ball movement over the past two months. Small forward Paul Pierce also gets props for becoming a more willing distributor and accepting a larger role in carrying the offense since Rondo’s absence.
Thanks largely to their new approach and role players like Jeff Green and Avery Bradley stepping up in a major way, the Celtics are 16-10 since Rondo’s injury (they were 20-23 beforehand) and sitting in seventh place in the Eastern Conference.
5. CHUCKSTRONG-Inspired Indianapolis Colts Shock the NFL
Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano was undoubtedly excited to get the post-Peyton Manning era started in his first year as an NFL leading man. So it had to make his diagnosis of leukemia that much harder to accept last September, knowing that he would not be around to lead his team every Sunday.
The Colts were expected to struggle last season, led by a rookie quarterback and a first-time head coach and coming fresh off a 3-13 season. Indianapolis said to heck with expectations, responded to the leadership of interim head coach Bruce Arians, and rallied behind Pagano’s battle with cancer to finish 11-5 and make the playoffs.
With Pagano’s cancer in remission and 2012‘s No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Luck showing veteran savvy as a first-year QB, the Colts have a bright future ahead of them.
4. San Francisco Giants Move Tim Lincecum to the Bullpen
San Francisco Giants starter Tim Lincecum suffered through the worst regular season of his six-year career in 2012. The talented right-hander posted a 10-15 record and a 5.18 ERA over 33 starts last season.
Because of Lincecum’s struggles, Giants manager Bruce Bochy moved the two-time National League Cy Young Award winner to the bullpen during the playoffs. Luckily for San Francisco, Lincecum not only embraced the role, but thrived in it.
In six postseason appearances, including one start, Lincecum posted a 2.55 ERA, striking out 20 batters in 17.2 innings pitched. His performance was crucial in helping the Giants win their second World Series title in the last three seasons.
3. Chicago Blackhawks Soar During Lockout-Shortened Season
The Chicago Blackhawks have dominated this abbreviated NHL season, rattling off a record 24-game unbeaten streak (21-0-3) to begin the year. This streak is even more impressive considering that teams were given only a one-week training camp, and many of Chicago’s players did not play overseas during the lockout.
Although the Blackhawks have come back down to earth recently, they still lead all NHL teams in points. Their adjustment to this season’s NHL schedule has been nothing short of remarkable.
2. Miami Heat Ride Positionless Approach to NBA Championship
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade deserve the lion’s share of the credit for leading the Miami Heat to the 2012 NBA Championship. However, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra’s ability to design a system based around their unique talents is equally as important.
Beginning last season, Miami began to master a scheme that effectively eliminates the traditional positions we are used to seeing in a basketball lineup. Having uniquely skilled players like James, Wade and forward Chris Bosh makes this system easier to implement, but the Heat have thrived over the past year without a traditional center or elite point guard.
Spoelstra’s scheme does not receive as much attention as the triangle offense that Phil Jackson used to win 11 titles with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, but it is no less innovative. Now, the coach that many people thought should be fired is looking like the smartest guy in the NBA.
1. San Francisco 49ers Turn to Colin Kaepernick
San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh raised eyebrows when he benched starting quarterback Alex Smith in favor of the untested Colin Kaepernick. Smith had led the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game the previous year and was first in completion percentage and third in passer rating at the time.
Harbaugh felt that Kaepernick—a second-year player who had yet to start a game in his professional career—gave San Francisco the best chance to win the Super Bowl, so he followed his instincts. Kaepernick handsomely rewarded his coach’s faith by leading the 49ers to within one play of winning the Lombardi Trophy this past February.