How NBA Coaches Have Weathered Injuries to Their Stars
A lot changes when an NBA star retreats to the locker room with what will later be officially revealed as a major injury.
Unfortunately, the 2013-14 season has given us plenty of chances to figure out what exactly "a lot" entails. With Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Al Horford, Tyson Chandler, Deron Williams, Andre Iguodala and so many other prominent players missing significant time, plenty of coaches have been forced into weathering the storm.
And yes, there's always a storm.
Some coaches are fantastic at navigating their teams out of the rough waters and into a patch of smooth sailing, while others just hold on for dear life. Others still immediately capsize their ships and watch as the roster drowns without so much as throwing out something inflatable.
There's no easy way to figure out what makes some successful where others fail. Every situation is at least a little bit different from the others, but that doesn't mean the overall landscape is devoid of similarities.
In order to identify them, let's begin with the coaches who can't adjust after injuries and work our way forward from there.
The Ones Who Can't Adjust
More often than not, head coaches in the NBA have trouble adjusting when one of their star players goes down. It's especially bad for the men pacing the sidelines when A) they lose their only star, or B) they don't have much experience calling the shots.
And it's a disaster when both situations blend together into one, as has been the case for the Atlanta Hawks ever since Al Horford went down with a torn pectoral muscle, knocking him out for the rest of the season.
Since Big Al was lost, Atlanta has gone 4-6, bottoming out in a blowout loss to the Brooklyn Nets in the London game. Well, the Hawks better hope they've bottomed out, but there's no way to be sure quite yet.
Head coach Mike Budenholzer was doing a great job creating a movement-heavy offense for his new team before Horford went down, but that offense has stagnated ever since the center was injured. Problem is, so much of the point-scoring and assist-generating machine revolved around his mid-range shooting and ability to distribute the rock to open teammates from the elbows and low block.
As Frank Vogel, the head coach of the Indiana Pacers, said to the Albany Herald's Chris Vivlamore, "You are less dynamic, (not having) a guy who can impact the game in so many ways like Al Horford can. It changes you. You have to be innovative in how you cover for it."
Problem is, innovation is hard, especially for a first-year head coach.
Such has also been the case for Jason Kidd and the Brooklyn Nets, who seemed to have every single relevant player go down at one time or another. Kidd was already having a tough time getting everyone to buy into his offensive and defensive systems, but it was downright impossible when he didn't have as much talent.
David Joerger of the Memphis Grizzlies had similar troubles when Marc Gasol hurt his knee and was knocked out of the lineup. He was having trouble implementing his fast-paced offense and movement-heavy defensive schemes, and losing a defensive centerpiece completely ended those dreams of success for the time being.
Mark Jackson is another example, though a slightly different one.
Even though he's developed into one of the better coaches in basketball, he still doesn't have enough experience to change things up when the occasion calls for it. The Golden State Warriors suffered when Andre Iguodala had a hamstring injury, especially on defense.
For all the wonder Jackson has done morphing the Dubs into a defensive powerhouse, he couldn't adjust when a key cog went down.
The Ones Who Maximize Talent
There are two true success stories related to injuries this year, the first of which involves Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls.
D-Rose was expected to come back from his torn ACL and immediately dominate, competing with LeBron James for MVP while elevating the Bulls up near the top of the Eastern Conference. Hell, the very top was considered a realistic possibility.
Everything centered around Rose, but there was one major problem: He played terrible basketball until another knee injury ended his season prematurely. With Rose in the lineup from opening night until the second half of a Nov. 22 contest with the Portland Trail Blazers, Chicago went just 5-5.
Since then, Tom Thibodeau has coached a limited squad, one that had to pick up D.J. Augustin and give him major minutes at point guard, to a 13-14 record. Yes, that winning percentage is slightly worse, but it's hard to argue with the job he's done, especially since Luol Deng was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers for absolutely nothing useful this season.
The other success story is another one still in progress: Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers.
When the league's best point guard went down with a separated shoulder, the Clips were supposed to fall well out of contention. Replacing him with Darren Collison surely wasn't good news, and it was highly unlikely that Blake Griffin would keep up his tour of domination for Doc Rivers.
When CP3 was injured on Jan. 3 while driving the lane against the Dallas Mavericks, the Clippers exited the game with a 23-12 record. Since then, Griffin has gotten even better, and LAC now sits at 27-13. That 4-1 record with Collison at the helm gives them an even better winning percentage than when Paul ran the show.
So, what gives? How have these two coaching geniuses been able to hold off the downfall that is supposed to be associated with losing such key players?
It's all about defense and having an established style of play.
Thibodeau and Rivers both specialize on that less-glamorous end of the court, and they have systems that players are comfortable in. The former has been preaching the same pack-the-paint strategy in the Windy City for years, and though the latter just arrived at the Staples Center, he had 35 games to get everyone on the same page.
After the Clippers' first game sans Paul, Griffin told NBA.com's Tim Price the following:
In the first half we had no emotion. In the second half we communicated with one another. That's all we needed. We didn't need someone to talk like Chris (Paul). That would be our biggest mistake, to try to replace him with some one or some thing. Everybody has to step up and do their job a little bit better.
That's exactly what these coaches preach. It's not about replacing the player but rather having everyone else elevate their games while playing in the same system. Notice that Griffin doesn't talk about personnel or playing adjustments, just communication.
Communication within the same system.
Need for Making Adjustments
No matter how established a system is, though, adjustments are still necessary.
That's what Scott Brooks learned from losing Russell Westbrook not once, but twice. He was tasked with keeping the Oklahoma City Thunder afloat while the dynamic point guard missed the beginning of the season, and then he got a second chance when arthroscopic surgery right after Christmas knocked Westbrook back out.
The first try didn't go so well.
Oklahoma City lost one of its first games of the 2013-14 campaign to the Minnesota Timberwolves, putting up only 81 points in a 19-point loss. Corey Brewer and Derrick Williams shut down Kevin Durant from start to finish, holding him to only 13 points on 4-of-11 shooting. That was only the second time since 2009 that Durant had failed to top a baker's dozen.
It was a carryover from last season's playoff failure, when the Thunder lost Westbrook after a collision with Patrick Beverley and were subsequently subjected to an early exit.
After that, RealGM's Jonathan Tjarks wrote, "Brooks has consistently left points on the board in each of the last three seasons and has shown no ability to learn from his mistakes. Worst of all, his refusal to adjust his rotation reveals a potentially fatal flaw in how he evaluates players."
He also advocated that the Thunder fire Brooks, even though he was coming off a 60-win season.
But that's changed.
Brooks is no longer refusing to adjust, and it's allowed the Thunder to at least stay afloat since losing Westbrook again. While OKC has struggled to win games, thanks to a lackluster supporting cast for Durant, we're no longer seeing him drop 13-spots.
Durant is putting up MVP-caliber numbers, and a large reason for his success is Brooks' ability to adjust. No longer is he asking the small forward to serve as a point forward on every possession, but he's instead calling for more plays to be run, many of which result in Durant touching the rock.
Plus, even though Durant is as en as possible, not everything needs to run through
"By the time KD scored his first bucket, out of a post up on Parsons, it gave the Thunder a 17-10 lead," reported NewsOK.com's Darnell Mayberry after the victory over Houston Rockets on Jan. 16. "Not sure you can expect that every night. But if you can get anything close to that type of productivity from everyone else, things will run much more smoothly."
Brooks made adjustments, and it made life easier for the Thunder. Not every team is going to make the same kinds of changes, though, so don't expect that.
The OKC head coach also had the luxury of being granted multiple tries (I'm trying to look at injuries with the glass half full here), something that isn't often afforded to the men pacing the sidelines.
But it eventually worked.
Not Tough to Keep Pace, Harder to Elevate Level
The longer the duration of the injury, the tougher it is for a team to keep winning.
Now this might immediately seem counterintuitive but dig a little bit deeper before you make up your mind.
At first, the team with the injured player has a slight mental advantage. Not only are they the ones no one believes in, but they have the luxury of understanding what changes a coach is going to make. In the game of chess that is a coaching battle, they have the first couple moves, and it's up to the other team to react later on.
But after a few games, the scouting report is out.
Essentially, this is the same development that happens when a team is shocking the NBA at the beginning of the season. It's relatively easy to have a hot start, but it's more difficult to maintain that scorching pace once you're facing teams for a second or third time.
So, how quickly have the coaches who can't adjust seen their teams decline? Let's turn back to Mike Budenholzer for part of the answer.
The Hawks went 2-1 right after losing Al Horford, and their victories came over playoff contenders in the Eastern Conference. Since then, the team has been just 2-5, and the wins were against the Lance Stephenson-less Indiana Pacers and Chandler Parsons-less Houston Rockets.
Now this isn't always going to be the case, especially so early in the season.
Small sample size rears its ugly head, and you'll see the trend develop over the course of an entire campaign. But it's the truly elite coaches who are able to keep their teams competitive for a prolonged stretch, even after opposing coaches have a grasp on the new systems that are being run with less talent.
Is This Really on the Coaches?
Just as is the case with any and all questions about NBA coaches weathering the injury-related storms, there are no definitive answers.
When a team like the Oklahoma City Thunder struggles, even without the services of an All-Star, it's largely on the coach. The same goes for talent-laden squads like the Golden State Warriors or Atlanta Hawks—compared to the rest of the Eastern Conference, they have a lot of talent.
But it's not the case with one like the Los Angeles Lakers.
Do you really want to pin the team's struggles on Mike D'Antoni? If you do, you haven't been paying enough attention.
Because MDA has an established system, one that revolves around uptempo offense, lots of ball movement and plenty of three-point shooting, even if it comes at the expense of defense, every role player has thrived.
Nick Young looks like the favorite for Sixth Man of the Year, Jodie Meeks and Xavier Henry are playing fairly well, and Kendall Marshall has even made a successful jump from D-League journeyman to bona fide NBA starter.
In this case, the blame rests with Lady Luck.
Could any coach survive injuries to Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Jordan Farmar and Steve Blake? After all, the accumulation of those woes left the Lake Show without a single healthy point guard, prior to the acquisition of a certain southpaw from North Carolina.
Another coach who deserves to be free from too much blame is Mike Woodson of the New York Knicks.
Well, kind of.
You can yell at Woodson all you want for failing to properly manage his rotations and instill discipline within his ranks, but he couldn't do too much to help out New York when Tyson Chandler went down.
Even though Carmelo Anthony is still the team's best player, Chandler is the most important. He's the one who the Knicks can't afford to lose, as he's the clear centerpiece of the defense, which is increasingly important on a team without much chemistry and depth of talent.
In this case, the front office deserves the blame for failing to properly build a supporting cast for 'Melo.
Brad Stevens is another example here, though the Boston Celtics have intentionally minimized the amount of talent he has on the roster so that they can jump-start the rebuilding process. Same goes on a smaller scale for the Philadelphia 76ers' Brett Brown, who struggled without Michael Carter-Williams running the show.
As you might have noticed, surviving an injury is all about having an established system and making small tweaks to maximize the remaining talent. But even that can't be done in every situation.
Sometimes luck and the front office are too much to overcome.