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Stars on offense, a coach for defense?

Why NBA teams should emphasize a good defensive coach over a good offensive one when hiring.


The NBA's greatest coaches are master motivators, confidence-inspiring leaders, brilliant Xs and Os wizards and unshakeable rocks in the storm. Also, they are pretty much all spoken for. Gregg Popovich and Doc Rivers stand as the currently working legends. Phil Jackson is not interested in coaching at this point, though that could change. You might be able to add Jerry Sloan to the list, as he's interested in coming back, but there are arguments as to his position in the modern pantheon to be made in each direction. Pat Riley was there, in my opinion, and Red Auerbach is the Zeus figure. Larry Brown belongs in the mix, too. Larry Bird would have made it if he stuck with it.

Beyond the great, indisputably and otherwise, you have the proven solid coaches. Maybe they lack one or two of what you ask for of your great coaches, but they offer something important and excellent. Stan Van Gundy, Jeff Van Gundy and Tom Thibodeau offer brilliant defensive schemes and pull heaps of effort out of their players. Rick Adelman has every offense you can imagine tucked in the crevices of his cranium, and he can also find the right match for his talent. Rick Carlisle can beat anyone at the Xs and Os game ... anyone but Erik Spoelstra, maybe. (Carlisle is 1-0 in NBA Finals series against Spo, but the Heat coach has gotten better and better since.)

But there are some clear divisions among the good coaches, and then tend to fall down lines of offense and defense. Every coach worries about and has ideas on both sides of the ball, but it's very obvious that some coaches (and schemes) do a better job on one side or the other. Thibodeau, for instance, might be able to turn any club into a defensively-stout one. I'm not convinced he can do the same on offense. The same applies to the sporadically maligned Lionel Hollins: he can get a squad playing defense, but designing an efficient offense? Probably not. Adelman's knock has always been that he struggles to put together a strong defense, though he's had a few excellent units (particularly with Portland and Sacramento). Mike Brown can't put together a good offense. Mike D'Antoni can't coach a lick of defense. Sloan, if you demote him down here, is too obsessed with the bygone punch-em-in-the-mouth era to the detriment of his team. Nate McMillan can't run a team that doesn't crawl up the court because he perennially lacks trust in his point guards. And so on, and so on.

Remember earlier this week when I showed data that suggested a complete disconnect between team payroll and the quality of a team's defense? That implied that quality defenders are cheaper than offensive stars, which definitely passes the smell test so long as Tony Allen is making less than $4 million per year. It also seems to be the case that coaches have a heavier impact on defense than offense. On defense, schemes and effort are as important as talent. On offense, schemes and effort are certainly important, but talent reigns. You could put LeBron out there with four statues (see: early King James-era Cavs) and have a decent offense. You can't stick a Tyson Chandler in the middle of a weak defensive lineup and expect great things. There are very few "defensive bail-outs" like there are on offense, though Dikembe Mutombo is the exception that proves the rule.

In my opinion, barring an opportunity to hire one of the great coaches, teams (especially those that are rebuilding) should look to hire good coaches whose concentration is on defense. You can hire a D'Antoni type, sure. Alvin Gentry might, frankly, be a better D'Antoni. But you need the right players to have a stellar offense. There are incredibly few excellent offenses without stars. Look at the top 10 offenses of the three-point era: they featured Magic, Jordan, Bird, Nash and a healthy Amar'e, Shaq, Kobe, Kemp and Payton or, in an upset for the ages, Aguirre and Blackman. (Yep, the '86-87 Mavericks, coached by Dick Motta, scored 115 points per 100 possessions.)

The top 10 defenses of the three-point era (excluding squads from the covered-rim 1998-99 lockout season) have some stars, including Tim Duncan, Jordan and Pippen and Patrick Ewing. But then you have the Larry Brown Pistons, the Byron Scott Nets, the Rick Carlisle Pacers, the Scott Skiles Suns. Brown had Ben Wallace, Carlisle had Jermaine O'Neal and Ron Artest. But these are relatively unglitzy rosters. Given that Scott got 1.5 teams onto the list -- Lawrence Frank finished one of the season for him -- and that Skiles' other teams all typically rate highly on defense, it's an argument in favor of defensive-minded coaches. And it should be noted that both Scott and Skiles are currently available.

(Of course, you can't get away with ignoring that Scott's three Cavaliers teams finished 29th, 26th and 27th in team defense. So maybe we owe Kenyon Martin and Jason Kidd a little more credit for those great Nets teams, yes?)

Several teams have openings right now. A few of those teams are in the rebuilding stage, or soon could be. Looking toward defense for their next coach seems like it could pay dividends.

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