This is strange. For years, the NBA has had the reputation of a player’s league, in which multimillionaire twentysomethings run roughshod over increasingly weathered middle-aged men in suits. Yet these coaching changes are working, at least here. Did Deron Williams suddenly just become a better player? Did Carmelo thrive because of some magic words Woodson whispered in his ear? Is it really that simple? David Thorpe, a private coach to top NBA players and a longtime analyst for ESPN, has been an integral figure in pro basketball for more than twenty years and is recognized as one of the game’s great minds. There is little in the NBA that he hasn’t seen. So I asked him what was going on. Why does firing a coach seem to make such a difference in a league where coaches are said not to matter?
“It’s not really about coaching,” Thorpe told me. “It’s about culture.” Thorpe tells the story of a player he used to coach who had lost all confidence in his game, to the point that he even asked out of games when he wasn’t hurt or tired. A coach’s job, Thorpe says, is simply to build that confidence back up; this particular coach’s trick was to get that player easy baskets, even with plays not necessarily indicated by the game situation, just to make him feel better. “When you see the ball go in, you feel better about your shot—and everything,” Thorpe says.
That’s to say: A lot of this is a mind game for players. If Deron Williams isn’t playing well because he doesn’t feel comfortable, it doesn’t really matter why he’s feeling uncomfortable, just that he is. So, you remove Avery Johnson (whose system may or may not have been the right fit for Williams) and bring in P. J. Carlesimo, who is a better coach for the moment simply because he’s a new one. He doesn’t have to do anything different from Johnson; he just has to be different from Johnson. It also helps that he was an assistant coach. “As an assistant, he may have a feel for where Avery was rubbing certain guys the wrong way, and he can knock the anvils off their shoulder. Every assistant coach in the league goes out of their way to be the players’ buddy, because he cannot be loyal to the head coach since he may be the next head coach. He needs to know those guys like him.”
It is not so much, then, that Avery Johnson was teaching the Nets a bunch of bad things, or that his system was wrong, or that he didn’t get along well with Williams. It’s just that he was there while a team was losing, and in basketball, as in many sports, losing begets losing. You just need to try something else. Thorpe argues that it’s not dramatically different from, say, switching seats at a blackjack table. “P.J. has been a coach for a long time, and he’s learned a lot of things, and one of the key ones is to stay out of the way and let these guys play,” he says. “I think that the team just was not buying what Avery was selling, and they recognized that with this group of veterans, we could have almost anyone coaching, and as long as they are connected together, then they are going to play better.”
Timing is another factor. Johnson was fired after a series of losses to playoff-caliber teams like the Knicks, Celtics, and Bucks. Carlesimo’s first two games were against the Bobcats and the Cavaliers, two of the worst teams in the NBA. In this way, winning begets winning. “You start to buy in more, and they trust each other a little bit,” Thorpe says. The Knicks did the same thing last year; their first game after firing D’Antoni was against the woeful Portland Trail Blazers, a team they beat by 42 points. Get a little momentum going, and you’re off and running.
Of course, that only works for so long. After all, the best coaches earn their money when their teams are losing, not when they’re winning. “They don’t muddy the waters when things are rolling, and they know how to push the right buttons when they are not,” Thorpe says. But one has to have the authority, or at least some authority, to push those buttons. Popovich in San Antonio has been able to last more than a decade in his current job, in large part because he has uncommon input into personnel decisions. That was a big factor in Phil Jackson’s success, too. Without the ability to retool their roster as needed, there’s not a whole lot coaches can do to turn around a serious losing streak. They can yell, but the players eventually tune them out. They can change schemes, but opposing teams adjust.
Carlesimo and Woodson, for all their success to date, have no such power. Eventually we will hear all the stories of how the players have quit on them—how they need fresh blood, a new perspective, someone to take the pressure off them. After all, Carlesimo and Woodson have been fired themselves. With rare exception, this is the coaching churn, and as long as the players are human beings with insecurities and complications, rather than robots who run pick-and-rolls, it will always be so. A coach is a great coach until he isn’t, at which time you just take a different seat at the blackjack table, and wait for the next deal.