Consider the hierarchy of an NBA team.
You have ownership cutting checks and cheering from the sidelines, making top-level personnel decisions and, in some cases, being more active in the day-to-day operations of the enterprise.
You have a front office, often reporting to a president or vice president of basketball operations, a separate entity from the business side of the franchise. This front office includes someone who is responsible for building a roster — making draft choices, recruiting free agents, executing trades.
You have a head coach, responsible for the preparedness of the team on a daily basis and (usually) dictating the style of play and particular decisions before and during games.
Then you have the players, simultaneously the most and least powerful members of the structure. It just depends on how good they are whether they have any pull with the coach, front office, or ownerships. An MVP candidate? They have pull. A G League call-up? Not so much.
NBA teams are not normal businesses as seen through most prisms. But there’s at least one area where familiarity may breed some lessons: coaches occupy the typical role of a middle manager.
Accepting this has profound impacts on how you see NBA head coaches.
A really good middle manager can squeeze every drop of value out of their employees. A really bad middle manager can make doing good work impossible and destroy morale. But these results fall in a spectrum of the possible. This spectrum is limited by the quality of the employees and overall health of the enterprise.
Brad Stevens is really good at coaching in the NBA. His players laud him, outside analysts laud him, and he’s had some success. But is Brad Stevens’ success possible without Danny Ainge feeding him quality players who fit together to employ? Give the greatest coach imaginable a roster of fringe NBA players, and they will lose games repeatedly.
The NBA general manager is so much more important to the success of a team than the head coach, yet we as fans and analysts spend heaps more time talking about the excellence, failure, and fate of the latter than the former. There are obvious and sensible reasons for this — visibility, media access, familiarity — but that doesn’t make it reasonable.
A bad head coach — or a coach who is a particularly bad fit with a given roster and team structure — can waste good talent and set an NBA team back. Similarly, a bad middle manager can fail to lead a labor unit to achieve expected results, and drive everyone batty in the process. But a bad head coach or middle manager can’t destroy the business without help from the executive suite.
Where NBA teams really fail is in the lack of vision and poor personnel choices. Coaching certainly matters on the margins — the difference between winning a playoff series or going home early sometimes, or falling on one side or the other of the razor’s edge that often decides who makes the playoffs. But in the grand scheme, the quality of a team is decided before opening night based on decisions made by executives. A bad coach can cause the team to underperform, but if the team is otherwise built well, it will still end up more successful than a terrible roster with a good coach. What really matters most is the roster, which is built by the front office.
This applies to middle managers, as well. A middle manager of any quality assigned excellent talent is more likely to achieve goals than a middle manager of any quality assigned poor talent. A bad manager with good employees is worse than a good manager with good employees, but you’re likely to find better results there than with a good manager with bad employees. The people doing the work are primarily what matters.
This is not to diminish the impact of middle managers or NBA head coaches. They are really important, especially in translating the executive vision into action and in developing young talent.
In an educational or training sense, middle management and coaching staffs are really important. That’s why it’s so fascinating to see what the Sixers, Nets, and Hawks have done with coaches during rebuilds. Brett Brown, Kenny Atkinson, and now Lloyd Pierce (an experienced Brown understudy) were hired with the right corporate vision in mind: set a tone, execute the team’s vision, develop the talent. (Oh, and lose games to help the front office secure better assets with which to eventually build a winning roster.)
And as mentioned, middle managers and NBA head coaches are hugely important at the margins. Consider that the Warriors were good in 2012-13 and 2013-14 under Mark Jackson. They won 47 and 51 games, respectively. But with additional roster help (including the fortuitous David Lee injury unlocking Draymond Green’s path to stardom) and a coaching switch to Steve Kerr, the Warriors made a leap into true excellence.
Kerr deserves some credit as an effective middle manager, without question. But the folks who drafted Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Green — and signed the former to a sweet little contract extension — deserve more credit and attention.
This doesn’t mean we should stop analyzing, critiquing, and praising coaches like Kerr, Doc Rivers, Scott Brooks, and Dave Fizdale. It means the names of general managers like Bob Myers, Lawrence Frank, Ernie Grunfeld, and Scott Perry should be on our lips more often. Judging the success of general managers requires a longer timeline than it does for coaches. But the task is far more important, and as analysts and fans we should embrace the need for scrutiny — positive and negative — given how much more important team-building is than coaching.
A renewed focus on team-building might even be good for coaches, who experience heavy turnover in their ranks due in part to all that extra scrutiny. If their bosses were subjected to the same level of deep critique, perhaps some of the middle managers of the NBA could keep their jobs longer.