Players, not coaches, make biggest difference

Coaches can make a difference in the NBA, but not nearly the difference that players make.

Originally Published: January 29, 2004
By Tom Tolbert | Special to ESPN.com

There have been a rash of coaching changes in the NBA this season, with the most recent dismissal being Byron Scott.

Sure, the New Jersey Nets had lost five straight (four on the road) to fall to 21-20, but Scott took the Nets to back-to-back NBA Finals in his two years as coach ... and management says sorry, we don't want you anymore? When was the last time a coach or manager took his team to two straight NBA Finals, Super Bowls, Stanley Cups or World Series and got axed the next year?

Coaching changes have become the constant in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta Hawks coach Terry Stotts is the longest-tenured head coach in the East -- at about a year-and-a-half. Go figure.

When I was an NBA player, I never experienced a midseason coaching change. But based on my observations over the years, I see such a change having only a minimal effect.

In the first week or two after a midseason coaching change, a team usually receives a jolt. Players get re-energized. They don't want to perform badly under the new coach because then people might say, "Well, the personnel are the real problem." Players don't want to be blamed for the coach's firing, so they play inspired ball for a while. Often, when a new coach steps in, he tells players the same things. But for guys who have been tired of hearing the same stuff coming out of the same piehole everyday, it can make a short-term difference.

But then, after the initial jolt, I believe the general trend is for things to revert to status quo. The team settles back into its old routine. Basically, with NBA teams, you are who you are. You can see this trend in the New York Knicks' hiring of Lenny Wilkens. The first few games after Wilkens came on board, the Knicks were scoring in the 120-point range, but now they've dropped off.

The NBA is a player's league. I doubt if a new coach can take a .500 team and lead it to the NBA Finals. And if he could, then the previous coach could have as well. Not to devalue coaches, but they don't make that much of a difference.

Jason Kidd and Lawrence Frank
It's up to Jason Kidd, left, to make new Nets coach Lawrence Frank look good.
The best coaches, of course, do make a difference. For instance, Phil Jackson is without question a great coach. People always say he had Michael Jordan in Chicago and now Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in L.A. But those teams didn't win their championships until Jackson arrived. And it's a bit different when a coach is hired in the offseason and has an entire training camp to make his mark.

But the bottom line is this: Coaches can make a difference in the NBA, but not nearly the difference that players make. It isn't even close.

Let's use Jackson again as a case in point: If Jackson went to coach the Boston Celtics now -- or any other .500-caliber team -- where would they end up come playoff time? Nowhere.

Now, it's possible for a coach to screw it up and make his team underachieve. Just as it's possible for a coach to get his team to overachieve (like Doc Rivers in Orlando).

But look back at the teams that have won NBA championships the past 25 years. Each one has had a Hall of Famer: Kareem, Larry, Magic, Hakeem, Isiah, Michael, Shaq, Duncan ... the list goes on. There are occasional exceptions, but you've got to have the players in the NBA.

By the way, if anybody had any doubts about the NBA being a player's league, look once more at Byron Scott and the Nets. From what I've read and heard, Scott and superstar point guard Jason Kidd didn't get along. Scott took the Nets to two straight NBA Finals, but Kidd has a big long-term contract ... and who got run out of town?

Tom Tolbert, who played in the NBA for seven seasons, is an NBA analyst for ESPN.

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