NBA Finals focus: The coaching match-up

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    The NBA finals features a match-up of two rookie coaches, Golden State’s Steve Kerr and Cleveland’s David Blatt. How rare is it for first-year coaches to meet for the NBA championship? The last time it happened was 1946-47, the NBA’s first season.

    Further, Kerr or Blatt will become the first rookie coach to win an NBA title since Pat Riley led the LA Lakers to the 1982 championship.

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    The reason that rookie coaches do not often win NBA championships is that, as former NBA player and coach Mike Dunleavy recently put it, “Regular season NBA coaching is checkers but playoff NBA coaching is chess.”

    Dunleavy explained that in the playoffs a coach has to be able to exploit favourable match-ups, because a quick four- to six-point burst could decide the outcome of the game.

    Both Kerr and Blatt have done better than could have reasonably been expected. Kerr inherited a team that had been good but not great the past two seasons.

    Blatt arrived in Cleveland thinking that the Cavaliers would be rebuilding but when the Cavaliers acquired LeBron James and Kevin Love there was suddenly pressure to win big immediately.

    A coach’s effectiveness is hard to quantify. The only statistic attached to a coach’s name is his win-loss record but that record is affected by factors beyond his control, including injuries and the talent level of the roster.

    One way to evaluate a coach is to look at his team’s defensive performance. ‘Defence wins championships’ is a cliché but, like many clichés, it contains more than a mere kernel of truth.

    The name of the game is putting the ball in the basket but on a game-to-game basis even the best players can go cold, so offence is never a sure thing. Defence, though, is predicated on having the right game plan, executing that game plan intelligently, and playing hard all of the time. Planning, execution and playing hard are three areas that a coach can greatly influence.

    It is rare for a bad defensive team to win a championship. The 1980s ‘Showtime’ Lakers are known for their offensive explosiveness but they also featured a trapping defensive scheme implemented by coach Riley, a great rim protector in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and a lockdown perimeter defender in Michael Cooper, the 1987 Defensive Player of the Year.

    Similarly, the 1990s Chicago Bulls may be best remembered for Michael Jordan’s scoring exploits but the Bulls had a stifling defence anchored by Jordan, Scottie Pippen and either Horace Grant or Dennis Rodman.

    I had my doubts about Blatt. He stubbornly and arrogantly refused to consider himself a rookie coach because of his many years of FIBA experience, but the reality is that the NBA game is much more sophisticated than the FIBA game.

    Some of those doubts were confirmed when Blatt made questionable substitutions and seemed to not have the respect of LeBron James, the best player in the league.

    However, even as Blatt continued to commit some gaffes during the playoffs, the Cavaliers also showed signs that his coaching was having an impact. The Cavaliers ranked just 20th in defensive field goal percentage during the regular season but the playoffs have been a different story: the Cavs rank second in defensive field goal percentage.

    They have survived injuries, roster turnover and internal turmoil to become a very strong defensive team. Blatt and his coaching staff deserve credit for that.

    Kerr enjoyed a long, solid career as an NBA reserve before doing some TV commentating and working for the Phoenix Suns as general manager. Kerr played on five championship teams and he learnt the value of NBA defence from championship coaches Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich.

    The Warriors ranked first in defensive field goal percentage during the regular season and they rank fifth in defensive field goal percentage during the playoffs. Draymond Green, who started just 12 games in the 2013-14 season, started 79 games in the 2014-15 season and was selected to the All-Defensive First Team.

    Kerr changed the Warriors’ rotation and he upgraded the team’s defensive philosophy. He also improved an already potent offence, guiding the Warriors to league-best rankings in scoring, field goal percentage and three-point field goal percentage.

    Both coaches face huge strategic challenges in the Finals. Kerr must come up with a scheme to slow down LeBron James without unleashing the Cavaliers’ potent three-point shooters and aggressive offensive rebounders. Blatt has to deal with 2015 MVP Stephen Curry, a dynamic scorer and playmaker who is surrounded by a deep and versatile supporting cast.

    James or Curry will likely get the lion’s share of the glory but the finals could be decided by a chess move made – or not made – by Blatt or Kerr.

    David Friedman
    David Friedman

    David Friedman has covered the NBA for more than a decade, and in doing so, has interviewed nearly two dozen members of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List. You can find his work at 20SecondTimeout.

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    The Crowd Says (6)

    • June 2nd 2015 @ 8:42am
      Reegs82 said | June 2nd 2015 @ 8:42am | ! Report

      Nice read David, can the Finals hurry up and start please.

    • June 2nd 2015 @ 1:18pm
      Swampy said | June 2nd 2015 @ 1:18pm | ! Report

      +1

      David – I’m pretty sure you had Lebron listed as not one of the greatest of all time in a previous article or at least in its comments. Will you be willing to reconsider that argument if somehow he gets the Cavs up?

      While he may have coasted through the early season he has clearly saved the best for when required at the pointy end.

      His team is made of spare parts and cast offs.

      • Columnist

        June 3rd 2015 @ 6:19am
        David Friedman said | June 3rd 2015 @ 6:19am | ! Report

        Swampy:

        I have included LeBron James on my list of greatest players for several years, dating back to before he won his two championships. I did a series of articles about what I called basketball’s “Pantheon,” namely the 10 greatest retired players, and in the final article of that series I discussed which active players had the best chance of joining the Pantheon. I included LeBron James in that group.

        However, within the group of the elite of the elite, I hesitate to place James at the very top of the list. If James leads the Cavs to the 2015 championship then that is one more piece of evidence to suggest he could or should ultimately top the list but it would not be conclusive proof. James would then have a 3-3 Finals record. Russell went 11-1, Jordan went 6-0, Kareem went 6-4, Duncan went 5-1, Kobe went 5-2, Magic went 5-4. So, even if James wins this year there will still be several elite players who won more championships and had a better Finals winning percentage to boot. It is also worth mentioning that if you count ABA championships–and there is no reason not to count them–Julius Erving went 3-3 in his six Finals appearances.

        Championships and Finals winning percentages are not the only things to consider when ranking the best of the best but I do think that they are important things to consider.

      • June 3rd 2015 @ 11:00am
        astro said | June 3rd 2015 @ 11:00am | ! Report

        Honestly, if Lebron gets this Cavs team past this Warriors team in a 7 game series, it would be a basketball miracle. He would have to play some of the most dominant basketball we’ve ever seen, and it would absolutely catapult him up the all time rankings.

    • Columnist

      June 3rd 2015 @ 10:47pm
      David Friedman said | June 3rd 2015 @ 10:47pm | ! Report

      Astro:

      Every championship that a player wins as the primary factor or as a significant contributor enhances his legacy. When Jordan had won one, two or even three championships he was still not perceived in quite the same way that he was after he added the second three-peat to his resume.

      • June 4th 2015 @ 9:43am
        astro said | June 4th 2015 @ 9:43am | ! Report

        I still think number of rings can’t be looked at in isolation when judging ‘greatness’, but agree it is important.

        My point is, few all-time greats have ever carried what would otherwise be a very average team to a NBA final, and then beat the best team in the league (and one of the best teams historically in a single season)…That’s what Lebron is trying to do. As I said, I don’t think he’ll do that, but if he does it would count for more than just one additional championship.

        The Bulls won 55 games without Jordan. This Cavs team won the lottery without Lebron (but still with Kyrie).

        Surely, you can see my point? Two of the starting 5 on this Cavs team came from the Knicks who finished with one of the worst records in the league. Mozgov was a bench player for the Nuggets. Love has been out all playoffs. Blatt is coaching in his first year. Lebron is hardly running out alongside Pippen, Grant, Rodman, Harper etc with Phil as a coach. Or for that matter, alongside McHale, Parish and DJ, or Worthy, Kareem and Scott.

        As I say, I think a Cavs victory would be a miracle, and count for more than Lebron’s titles with the Heat.

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