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We don't know how to evaluate NBA coaches

We think we know a lot about the people that lead NBA teams, but how much do we really know?

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Be they tactical geniuses, master motivators, strict disciplinarians or laid-back players coaches, there is no one way to coach a pro basketball team successfully. You'd think we would all know this given years of examples, yet this season has proven more than ever that we know very little about the dudes with the clipboards. Flanns and Zillz talk it out in their latest FlannZillery.

ZILLER: Socrates, the original Greek Freak, once said, "The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing." Nowhere in the NBA does that apply more than to the sidelines. It strikes me as David Blatt finds his footing, Monty Williams turns around his narrative and Brian Shaw flitters into the dustbin that this has been a particularly ponderous season for coaches and, more specifically, our thinking about coaches.

FLANNERY: I always laugh during the NCAAs when pundits get on their, 'OLE JIMMY JOE CAN REALLY COACH 'EM UP' tangents because Coach Jimmy pulled out a 1-3-1 trap or something. There is so much coaching in the NBA these days that when someone is even a little bit unprepared, they get exposed badly.

But what makes a good NBA coach? Are there specific personal traits or strategies that we look for when making our assessments? It can't just be results, because Scott Brooks would be a genius.

ZILLER: Maybe Scott Brooks IS a genius? We know nothing. But I do feel part of the issue is that we all grade coaches by different criteria. Rick Carlisle is a tactical god, Doc Rivers is a master motivator, Phil Jackson assigns reading, Stan Van Gundy draws a mean white board. What's most important? What actually works best? We have no clue!

There's just so much context. Tom Thibodeau is Exhibit A. He's the best defensive schemer in the league by most accounts. It's possible he has run several of his best players into the ground. How do you judge that trade-off? If his minutes assignment has indeed increased Chicago's injury rate, doesn't that make him more destructive than a mediocre tactician who knows better than to play a gimpy star in garbage time? (On this account, I found Thibs' quote in Buck Harvey's recent column on Pop's rest strategy pretty enlightening.)

FLANNERY: On the most basic level, this all goes back to talent. I think the most important attribute in this league is getting your players to buy into whatever it is that you're selling. Maybe that's treating them like men. Maybe it's being some sort of tactical genius. (A couple of Atlanta players were talking up Coach Bud last year.) Maybe it's inspiring fear or drawing up really neato after-timeout plays late in games. Whatever it is, the players have to believe in you. If they don't ... hi Denver!

So, Thibs. We have the numbers and results to support the assertion that he's a fantastic defensive coach. We have seen him "get the most out of his talent" when he's lost players to injuries, which is a Catch-22. The real question for me is if his players have started to tune him out after four and a half years, which is an eternity in this day and age. The defensive numbers show slippage, but that's all anecdotal and neither of us are around the Bulls to get a true sense of the dynamic. If you have Thibs as your coach, you have to let him be himself.

You know who's had an interesting coaching season? Monty Williams.

ZILLER: I agree with you on Thibs. It's a bit like Let Westbrook Be Westbrook: you can't have the good without the bad. His dedication to grinding every single moment (plus all that talent, who all bought in) is what got them on top of the East in 2011 and 2012.

Monty has been pounded repeatedly for his tactics, but something's working, because the Pelicans won't die despite a bunch of injuries. He's certainly not perfect, but he deserves a lot more credit than most are willing to give. You went down to witness the team for a while. Does he seem to have a serious impact on the Pelicans' drive? He said in your big piece that he's felt a need to take some of the "veteran leader" burden off Anthony Davis. That surely has real value, right?

FLANNERY: I think it does, but more importantly, Monty Williams and Anthony Davis think it does. Here's an example: Monty kept AD out of the lineup the first night I was there for a game against the Clippers even though Davis wanted to play. They had no business winning that game, but they did anyway. That's a testament to two things: One, Monty's not going to put his star player in jeopardy for a short-term benefit; and two, somehow, someway they keep winning games they should lose. Now, the flipside is they've lost a lot of games they should win, so again, no one knows anything.

I asked Monty if there was a sense of urgency coaching Davis, with the obvious subtext being that his tenure is finite. This is what he said and I think gets to the heart of the matter:

"There's a responsibility over urgency. You want to make sure you do everything that's puts all of your guys in a position to get better. When you have a talent like Anthony, expectations and scrutiny and all that comes with it. None of that plays into my objectives and the things that I have to do for my team."

There aren't a lot of coaches who would approach it this way and I think that's a good thing for AD long-term.

ZILLER: It totally is. And that sort of positive impact is lost on the 99 percent of basketball fans who aren't in the locker room. We think we see Monty's tactical failings -- even though most of those of likely more than meets the eye; remember, we know nothing -- and so we write him off. But behind the veil he's doing things to infuse his team with faith, loyalty and trust. All of that has value in the long term ... if he's allowed to stick around for the long run.

Part of the problem here is that head coaches rarely have more than a year to grow into their role. There are expectations in Year 2, if not sooner. Six of the 13 head coaches hired in the 2013 offseason have already been fired or moved on (Mo Cheeks, Mike Brown, Jason Kidd, Mike Malone, Brian Shaw and Larry Drew). That's less than two full seasons! How can any GM or franchisee fairly assess a coach on any criteria other than, "Is he pleasing me right now?" in 150 games? Imagine if draft picks were assessed this rashly. We'd have a few Thomas Robinsons every year.

FLANNERY: It's a lot easier to fire the coach than it is to fire the team. It's also true that a coaching change at the right moment can do wonders for a team. Look at Pat Riley with the Lakers, K.C. Jones with the Celtics and Phil Jackson with the Bulls. All three inherited Hall of Fame players who had hit a wall under their predecessors. You couldn't find three more different personalities or approaches, yet all were successful.

Let's bring this back to David Blatt, whose first season with the Cavaliers has been like a monthly coaching referendum. I don't think it's any surprise that they started playing better when he got Timofey Mozgov, not only because T-Mo filled an obvious need, but because Blatt knows exactly how to use him. He'll be judged by the postseason, but what are your thoughts on the season he's had?

ZILLER: Blatt's been fine and perhaps even better -- we'll see on that count. What's impressive to me is not that Cleveland's had the best offense in the league since the midway point (even better than those of the Warriors and Clippers), but that he is getting so much defensive improvement out of a team starting Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. That doesn't just happen. Part of it is LeBron's leadership and a huge chunk of it is a true space-eating center in Mozgov. But credit Blatt for getting the team to run his staff's scheme well.

As you said, the coda won't be written until April, May and perhaps June. It's clear now, though, how silly it was for some of us (including myself!) to question his chops in November and December. But that's the NBA we have, one in which there really is no time for patience.

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