When the Golden State Warriors fired Keith Smart after just one year, they weren't doing anything out of the ordinary. But the culture of NBA's "coaching carousel" is a dubious one that neglects the very real fact head coaches have a minimal impact—in terms of wins and losses—relative to the quality of roster, which are managed by decision makers and player evaluators in the front office.
Moreover, qualifying the impact of a coach is an inexact science, to put it mildly. And the NBA is, first and foremost, a player's league, where star players have the clout to make their coaches—in practice, not in theory—subservient.
Whenever an NBA franchise demonstrates sustained futility like the Warriors have, the roster will almost always tell you why. When it comes to roster decisions, the buck stops with the vice president/general manager.
The front office, arranged differently depending on the franchise, chooses the head coach and the roster; yet fans and professional journalists seem to fixate on the drama surrounding head coaching moves as if such a thing really warrants our attention and scrutiny when it comes to our hopes for success. All it does is deflect attention from the inadequacy of management—and sports culture eats it up with a spoon.
Warriors general manager Larry Riley, who just two weeks prior to firing Smart was awarded a contract extension through 2013 despite having accomplished absolutely nothing, has told Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle that the 2010-11 Warriors was "not a (playoff) roster."
Riley added, "I think next year we should be in the playoffs...It will be a playoff roster." By this standard, and their reasoning for firing Smart, if the Warriors do not make the playoffs next year, than Riley should fire himself.
I have a painful and exasperating proclivity that demands logical consistency from other people when they speak, and Riley has provoked it.
If, in fact, Riley is sincere, then why is Smart held accountable for a non-playoff roster he himself has put (in part) together?
According to Warriors co-owner Joe Lacob, it was in part because "the ownership wanted to have 'our guy' in there," and that "it was something we felt we really had to do."
Riley also said that the "main thing is that we do feel like we need a new direction."
I don't know what these statements mean. It's verbal sophistry. This inexplicable dialogue is utilized because there is no intelligible reasoning for NBA's coaching carousel.
What "direction" were they going in? What "direction" was the team going in when they hired Smart eight months ago, and how has that changed? What is it about a 10-game improvement in the standings that signifies a negative turn in "direction?"
And why did they waste a year with someone else's "guy" if all they really wanted was their "guy?"
It's understandable why the organization does not want to publicize what they felt were Smart's shortcomings—Riley has said that he doesn't want to get into the "negative stuff" about Smart—and they had some internal dialogue as to the negative developments concerning Smart and the team over the course of this past season.
But it doesn't change the fact that their reasoning is circular, and also a complete non sequitur. It illuminates the profound lack of thoughtful leadership that permeates NBA front offices, as this kind of tap-dancing is not unique to the Warriors. It is a commonly utilized maneuver that is, first and foremost, predicated on reacting to outcomes and ignoring the symptoms of an inadequate team: a poorly developed roster.
New Coach Doesn't Matter—Relatively Speaking
The Warriors are in the midst of a coaching search, headed by the same men who who have put together the non-playoff roster that has given them license to fire the old one.
Riley has stated that although he doesn't require a defensive guru as his next head coach, he does want to get better defensively and at rebounding the basketball, despite admitting in 2010 that Smart was a great "tactiction," who was the defensive architect under Nelson.
In other words, Riley can reach a philosophical understanding all he wants with the new head coach—he did with Smart—it just doesn't really mean a whole lot until you get players who do well the things you expect.
Defense is a combination of desire and pride—in a sense, a mentality—supplemented by physical and athletic abilities in individual players. The coach is responsible for coordinating that—known as team defense—but you can't have a team that has both undersized and under-skilled perimeter defenders and a less than formidable interior defense. Add this to the fact that the Warriors take a lot of shots, thereby leading to lots of possessions for their opponent.
The only way to minimize a porous defense is to slow down the game drastically—thereby limiting the opponent's possessions throughout the game—which is not what the Warriors have been built to do.
Don Nelson's teams were not intrinsically bad on defense as it was commonly perceived; it has more to do with the fact that he pretended he was coaching pick-up-games, therefore his team's personnel was geared towards playing that way, which allowed other teams to both rack up points—due to allowing their opponents a high volume of possessions—and clean up the boards due to extreme size advantages on the interior.
An example of Nelson's radical philosophy that contributed to his terrible defensive teams was his idea about wanting David Lee to play center and Andrew Tolliver to start at power forward.
I don't know what hiring retreads like Rick Adelman, Jeff Van Gundy, or assistants like Brian Shaw, or anyone of the many names that have been thrown out there will do to change this "direction" Riley speaks of, when he himself is the only one who can.
The roster is no better—it is arguably worse—than it was when Riley took over for Chris Mullin after the 2008-09 season.
Riley has complained that the team needs to be better defensively, but took Stephan Curry when his other star guard is an undersized defender. To have two prolific but undersized scoring guards is fine, so long as you have a formidable frontcourt defensively.
The Warriors have reached for interior players in the draft (Ekpe Udoh, Patrick O'Bryant, Adonal Foyle), in free agency (Erik Dampier) and extended contracts already on their roster (Andris Biedrins) in desperate attempts to solidify their weaknesses on the interior.
With free agency this year featuring players like Tyson Chandler, who has long been exactly the type of center—long, athletic, defensive minded—that could tangibly change the makeup of the team, it will be interesting to see what the Warriors do with the roster, while the coaching search is far less relevant.
The Warriors' new ownership group got off to a great start by firing Don Nelson, who was given far too long a rope. Smart basically ran the team day-to-day the last few years under Nelson, and it should be clear to everyone by now that Nelson would rather play pick-up-ball than win championships. Hiring Smart made sense, and not just because they were under the gun with training camp approaching.
But it is as if the Warriors were only going to bring Smart back if he was miraculously able to make the playoffs and alleviate them of responsibility for putting together a marginal roster at best, which ironically would have made the front office look good, despite not doing anything positive with the roster. If this were the case, then the Warriors should have hired their own guy at that time.
Through their instability at head coach (10 coaches in 16 years), the roster has been consistently inadequate, leaving themselves as a model for management taking no accountability and putting it all on the floor man they themselves have hired.
Instead of fixating on who the next coach might be, fans and media should recognize that success rises and sets with general managers and owners.
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