Less than a year after hiring Doc Rivers, the Sixers find themselves right where they started. A team with immense talent searching for ways to get over the hump. Admittedly, I was one of those who thought a coaching change is just what they needed. Brett Brown had won only 39 percent of his games in six seasons with the team, and Doc Rivers was bringing in much-needed championship pedigree. But the Sixers were knocked out early in the Playoffs.
One can hypothesize as to why the Sixers crumbled against the Hawks despite having a great season, but coaching has to top the list of reasons. Rivers now holds the record for most losses in series-clenching playoff games, having blown leads with three different teams in the past few seasons.
Historically, coaching changes have often been a catalyst for tremendous success. The Chicago Bulls won their first of six championships in their second season with Phil Jackson. In 1997, Greg Popovich brought two decades of sustained success for the San Antonio Spurs. In 2014, the Warriors became one of the most successful sports franchises instantly after hiring Steve Kerr. The Raptors found the unlikeliest of heroes in Nick Nurse, who brought the city’s first ever championship in his rookie season.
Coaches influence the outcome of a season beyond just the X’s and O’s. Like managers in corporate settings, they use a variety of leadership techniques to deliver results. Leadership researcher Daniel Goleman argues that effective leaders do not rely on one leadership style, but use multiple in a given week, depending on context. He compares these distinct styles, which he groups as coercive, authoritative, affiliative, democratic, pacesetting, and developmental, to an array of clubs in a golf pro’s bag, which are drawn upon for a given situation.
Using this framework, it’s easy to make sense of Phil Jackson’s brilliance, who did not only rely on innovative tactics but, as ‘the Zen Master’, used spirituality and emotional bonds to manage egos and aligning them on a single mission. The same applies to Pep Guardiola in European soccer. Not only did he introduce an all-new style of football but also displays exceptional emotional intelligence. His brilliant charisma is on full display on the Amazon Prime series ‘All or Nothing: Man City’ where he is seen interacting with $100 Million dollar worth stars with the same kind of passion and motivation as that of a high school team.
It’s also easy to rationalize Doc Rivers’ repeated failures through Goleman’s aforementioned coaching framework. Chances are Rivers is great at certain aspects of leadership but lacks in others. After all, he isn’t a championship winning coach by accident, and his regular season win records are a testament to his abilities. Perhaps he is a tremendous ego manager, but the fact that his teams repeatedly fail to protect leads suggests his coaching style lacks a systematic approach to withstanding opponent runs.
Whatever the leadership style, the best coaches are those consistently derive value from a given roster. Some coaches are known for discovering value and maximizing on talent in unexpected places. The below chart shows how playing under Brad Stevens affected Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder’s careers. Soon after joining the Celtics, they witnessed a doubling in their statistical production as measured by the Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) metric.
But it’s not always about discovering hidden talent. Excellent coaches are able to derive value from already established players. For example, Steve Kerr brought a style of play that maximized the strengths of Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, both of whom saw huge spikes in utilization the 2014–15 season. Their on-court production later dwindled due to injury and as the Warriors added Kevin Durant, but it was that first season with Kerr that turned them into top tier NBA superstars.
If talent is potential, coaching is what enables its realization. I’m a believer that, by virtue of being drafted into the NBA, the majority of players possess the talent to be solid contributors to team performance. From there, various factors, individual and collective, need to align for this potential to be realized. And coaching is the primary facilitator for this. Here’s one way to illustrate this: assume that the average player performs at, say, 85 percent of potential at any given point in time. Great coaches take this value 90; excellent ones take it above 95.
Those small improvements are not always visible at the individual level, but they add up across the roster. Great coaches make everyone just a little bit better. This sweeping effect is enough to generate to a few extra wins per season. Notable names that demonstrate this include Erik Spoelstra, Nick Nurse, and Quin Snyder. In a later post, I will introduce a metric that quantifies the amount of wins generated by each of these head coaches while controlling for their roster talent.