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.
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.