November 2, 2004
The day the Orlando Magic fired Doc Rivers, his voice mailbox was flooded with messages. Many came from coaching colleagues around the NBA. Some offered consolation. Some advice. Some perspective. Some humor.
Hours after losing his first NBA head coaching job, and just three years removed from winning Coach of the Year honors, Rivers never felt more connected to the NBA coaching fraternity. One message in particular stuck in his mind.
"One went, 'Hey, congratulations, welcome to the Coaches Club,' " said Rivers. "I was like, 'Geez, that's funny as hell.' Then I started thinking about it. Maybe you don't become a coach until you're fired once."
An NBA coach never can please everyone all of the time. He can count himself lucky if his starting five sees things his way. If ownership, management, the team MVP, and the last player off the bench agree with his system and style, then he has a shot at a championship. Maybe. But making the right match between coach and team can be a tricky business. Just look at the Celtics, who have employed four head coaches over the last 3 1/2 years.
The Celtics' season opener tomorrow will feature a matchup of Boston coaches past and present, with Jim O'Brien calling plays for the Philadelphia Sixers. O'Brien resigned from the Celtics post, his first head coaching job, on Jan. 27 of last season, with both sides citing "philosophical differences." With the publicly easygoing Rivers replacing the intense, defense-first O'Brien, the Celtics believe they have a coach more capable of teaching an up-tempo game and more willing to develop younger players.
But for Rivers and O'Brien, the question remains whether their players will buy into what they're selling. Every NBA coach must confront the same set of challenges and accept the job fully aware of its demands and downsides.
"When you get in this business, you have to understand the pressures of taking on the responsibilities of a professional team," said Memphis coach Hubie Brown. "At the college level, the coaches win all the games. At the NBA level, the players win all the games and the coaches lose all the games. When you understand that, then you understand the business.
"And now, you can be fired for any number of reasons. You can be fired for a won-loss record. You can be fired for not advancing far enough in the playoffs. You can be fired because management doesn't like your style of play. You can be fired because there might be turmoil between you and your star players who have powerful agents who represent a majority of the better players in the league who might become free agents. Never mind other things. That's not bad for openers."
Except for the trade demands of temperamental stars, the tight pursestrings and impatience of owners, the pressure to win, the lack of job security, the uncontrollable injuries, the grueling schedule, the players' focus on individual statistics rather than team play - and the occasional choking incident - coaching in the NBA can be a great job. Really. But for the 30 men who officially begin pacing NBA sidelines this week, the job description unquestionably has changed dramatically with younger athletes, more demanding management, and escalating player income.
The average NBA coaching stint now lasts three or four years. By that time, according to Rivers, players often tire of hearing the same voice, particularly on struggling teams. The 17-year tenure of Jerry Sloan with the Utah Jazz remains an astounding exception to the rule. In the Eastern Conference, none of the 15 coaches has been with his current team longer than one season; 10 went through training camp with their teams this October for the first time.
While organizations worry about balancing the books year to year, coaches face a different sort of balancing act on a daily basis. They must recognize the special status of superstars without undermining team chemistry. They must find a utilitarian way to dispense minutes. They must prepare players for each game with an intensity that doesn't lead to burnout.
To this end, coaches employ different approaches, ranging from micromanagement to laissez faire to Zen. Rivers tries to pick his spots, mixing demands and discipline with a desire to simply let the players play. Sometimes players chafe under stricter styles. Sometimes they take advantage of a more laidback coach. But ultimately the approach is irrelevant if a coach doesn't have the talent.
"If you get talent, you should win in this league," said Cleveland coach Paul Silas. "But the difference is in the player himself. You have a much different player today, in terms of he's smarter, he's more athletic. You can't b.s. him. He knows specifically what's going on. He's not going to do something that you want him to do without you explaining it and giving him a reason, whereas Tommy [Heinsohn] would tell me to run through a wall and that's what I would do.
"You've got to be more patient with these kids today. I don't think they learn as quickly as we did, but they have a lot more to learn than we did, the game has changed so very much. The challenge to me is, one, getting a team with great chemistry, which is a tough, tough thing to do. Then, you have to get them to play hard every night. And third, you have to have a good system. If you can do those three things, then I think you can be successful in this league."
The superstar syndrome
When it comes to talent, the rest of the league envies Silas. Many believe 19-year-old LeBron James will be the next truly transcendent superstar. James exceeded the hype of his rookie season, leading the Cavaliers in every major statistical category except blocks and rebounds and easily earning Rookie of the Year honors. He also ranked at the top of the NBA in endorsement deals, earning more than $100 million from corporate sponsors compared with three-year, $12.96 million contract on the rookie pay scale. This led to early concerns that James would be loyal to Nike before Cleveland.
The concerns proved unfounded, but keeping superstars happy while building team chemistry involves a constant give-and-take for most coaches. While each "superstar" comes with his own expectations about how he should be treated and what the demands of the job should be, the coach has his own set of beliefs about what is best for the team. Not everyone is lucky enough to have Tim Duncan.
"My personal philosophy is that if your best player is your hardest worker and your most unselfish player, you have no choice but to be a good team," said New Jersey coach Lawrence Frank. "It's the chain of command. If your best player isn't one of your hardest workers, deep down you're going to have a lot of slippage."
A successful partnership between player and coach hinges on respect. The coach realizes that if he has a franchise player's respect, that player should work hard and set the appropriate example. In some cases, gaining that respect can be as simple as making a good first impression. In other cases, it might never come.
As soon as the Sixers named O'Brien coach, many wondered how someone who regularly extolled the virtues of practice would deal with Allen Iverson, who famously questioned the very necessity of practice. O'Brien worked on establishing a strong relationship with Iverson throughout the summer. The two appear to communicate openly and respect each other. On the other hand, former Houston point guard Steve Francis and coach Jeff Van Gundy never came to an understanding about the kind of discipline required of a top NBA player. Francis ended up in Orlando as part of a blockbuster trade.
With Gary Payton, Rivers takes the veteran's leadership and gives a little leeway. When Payton recently traveled home to Los Angeles on a day off, Rivers told him he could take the next day, too, and miss practice. Payton didn't take the extra day, and Rivers found himself in a rare win-win situation.
Asked about dealing with superstars, Rivers said, "I think it takes honesty. Be direct. But also understand that they do have more pressure than the other players on that team and try to be compassionate about that."
Added O'Brien, "I don't think there is a secret. With basically any veteran, whether it be a franchise player or anyone else, there is a partnering up between coaches and veteran players that is a necessity for being able to do your job well. It's not giving in to anyone. It's more using that as a strength because they know the game."
Pleasing the boss
If only it could be so simple when dealing with management /ownership. Early in his relationship with Celtics executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge, O'Brien saw that the team no longer fit his coaching approach, so he left. Others wait to be fired, knowing they can do nothing about team politics. Sometimes a coach's unwillingness to play a certain player leads to a rift with a general manager. Sometimes it's philosophical differences. Sometimes it's a personality conflict. Sometimes it's a control issue. Sometimes it's a failure to meet unreasonable expectations.
When Celtics president Red Auerbach considers the current state of NBA coaches, he cannot believe the firing of someone like Tim Floyd in New Orleans. Auerbach believes Floyd "did a hell of a job" reaching the postseason despite injuries to key players such as Jamal Mashburn, Baron Davis, David Wesley, and Courtney Alexander. Auerbach worries about the security of Frank's job if the Nets stumble without Kenyon Martin and Kerry Kittles and with an injured Jason Kidd.
"The biggest challenge is to get owners that have some common sense and some sympathy to what's happening out there," said Auerbach. "But most of the owners have been in business and they do everything by the bottom line. They don't take into consideration injuries or any unforeseen situation. All they want to know is: 'Did you win or did you lose?' You can tell, if you had any common sense, whether a coach is getting the most out of what he's got."
A recent survey of the Celtics showed that players have different ideas about how a coach should handle his job. He must communicate effectively, teach fundamentals, motivate players, foster team chemistry, and devise winning game plans. How a coach goes about that usually remains his choice. As Auerbach said, "A coach's job today is what he makes of it."
In a league that promotes individual talent and gaudy statistics, it's easy to take for granted the role of a coach who tries to turn a group of players into a true team.
"I think the biggest thing for me is to get players to understand the difference between coaching and criticism," said Detroit coach Larry Brown. "A lot of guys are so gifted now, and coming into the league so young, they have never been told that they've done something wrong. That doesn't necessarily mean it's criticism when somebody tries to show you the right way to do something.
"It's important you have a coach that allows players to play up to their potential. From that standpoint, I think there's some real value in the ability of a coach."