You might not remember this, but one of the biggest concerns coming into the 2013-14 season for the Spurs --besides whether they could emotionally get over the nightmare of losing a championship they were six seconds from winning -- was whether they would be compromised tactically after the departure of longtime assistant coaches Mike Budenholzer and Brett Brown to head-coaching gigs elsewhere.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who was never shy about championing the value and contributions of his top two lieutenants on the bench, had to go into perhaps his most difficult season with Jim Boylen, a well-traveled coaching veteran he had no previous professional relationship with, and two relatively inexperienced coaching neophytes in Ime Udoka and Sean Marks, a couple of dudes who were anonymous reserves on Spurs teams in the aughts. It was, unarguably, the weakest coaching bench of the Popovich Era.
I don't know what my batting average is on basketball-themed predictions compared to my PtR colleagues or the fellows at the Express-News or the national pundits who use hundred dollar bills as Kleenex, but low self-esteem compels me to toot my own horn whenever I get one right. The Spurs runaway freight train dominance from March onward last season? I saw it coming a mile away, and had some memorable Twitter exchanges about it. Rajon Rondo's disappointing play for the Mavericks? It's like I'm a wizard or something.
Anyway, in August of 2013 I wrote in this space that the Spurs wouldn't miss Bud or Brown all that much and that I'd always considered developmental coach Chad Forcier and shooting coach Chip Engelland more valuable because their work with the players was more specific and the results were tangible. As I see it, competent assistants are largely interchangeable. They split up the scouting assignments of the other teams, they remind the head coach of how many time outs are left, of how many fouls guys have and how many minutes so-and-so has logged. The head coach then takes that information and uses it to make decisions. For the record, I think most head coaches are pretty interchangeable as well. I think you have seven or eight who are truly difference-makers, like Popovich, Rick Carlisle, maybe Stan Van Gundy or Doc Rivers, but the rest of them don't move the needle too much one way or the other. The ones with the good players win and the ones with the bad players lose.
Despite the weak assistant bench, the Spurs went on to win it all last season, playing a masterfully intricate and choreographed brand of basketball and just crushing almost anyone in their way. It was arguably the best Spurs team in franchise history and one of the greatest all-time teams, right there with the 1996 Chicago Bulls, the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers, the 1986 Boston Celtics and so on. The previous Spurs teams, especially the ones from 2006-2013, never quite reached those lofty heights, despite having the services of Budenholzer and Brown.
This season, the Spurs beefed up their assistant bench with the addition of Ettore Messina, one of the world's most renowned coaches. If anything, he's staggeringly overqualified to be an assistant. Yet here the Spurs are, seventh in the Western Conference. They've played without the cohesion and execution of last year's team and have fared worse in close and late situations, where coaching is supposedly the difference-maker.
It's not that I think there can't be differences in quality of assistant coaches, that's not the case at all. It certainly appears that Budenholzer is one of the bright young coaches in the league and Tom Thibodeau was Rivers' top assistant in Boston the year they won it all in 2008. I just think the job of assistant coach lends itself to not having much value or importance. These guys can only make so much of an impact when they're not in the main chair. Whatever advice or guidance they can contribute is only as valuable as the head guy's willingness to use it. Many head coaches surround themselves with yes-men, threatened by any challenge to their authority or strategic acumen.
Steve Kerr and Budenholzer are the two favorites to win Coach of the Year honors, and Kerr, a disciple of Popovich, is quick to mention that he has very little to do with the Warriors' success. He credits not only his top-notch roster of players and the work that predecessor Mark Jackson did in not only developing some of the youngsters but also in creating a winning culture within the franchise. However, all the national feature stories about Kerr invariably mention his mandate to management that he wanted an experienced, high-quality staff of assistants, whatever the cost. They brought in Alvin Gentry and Ron Adams, a prominent NBA "defensive coordinator."
It's the single biggest line of demarcation between Kerr and Jackson, who had a frosty relationship with Mike Malone before Malone was hired by the Sacramento Kings and drove off the remaining noteworthy assistants he had on staff, refusing the suggestion of management to hire new ones in their stead. Larry Bird, like Kerr, was secure enough to hire well-regarded assistants in Rick Carlisle and Dick Harter.
On the other side of the ledger is Phil Jackson, who didn't have a bunch of boot-licks on his staff when he started out but surrounded himself with senior assistants who were all too old to be any threat to him as far as job security goes. There were no ambitious "up-and-comers" on his staff unless you count Jim Cleamons, and he wound up with a 28-70 record in the late 90's running the Dallas Mavericks, so draw your own conclusions there.
Another example is Jason Kidd, who banished top assistant Lawrence Frank very early last season in Brooklyn. Kidd was adamant about bringing in Frank as the highest-paid assistant coach in the league because he felt he'd need to lean on him as a rookie coach. However, he wound up getting rid of him a month into the season and then went on to get far better results with the Nets without him, growing into the job and turning the Nets into a decent team by playing small-ball and using younger players no one was expecting to contribute anything on a veteran-laden roster. Kidd parlayed that bit of success by bailing to a better long-term situation in Milwaukee and now he's doing tremendous work over there.
In late-and-close situations last season, the Warriors had a 6.9 net rating last season, over 201 minutes. The Spurs, meanwhile, were second in the league with a 19.1 net rating over 114 minutes. But this year, the Warriors are second, with a 29.1 net rating over just 66 minutes and the Spurs have plummeted to a 5.9 net rating in 145 minutes. So how is it that Gentry and Adams have improved the Warriors in clutch situations while Messina has hurt the Spurs?
Probably because assistant coaches don't matter in that way. They're only as good as the guy in front of them. If you really want to improve your team, improve the general manager, the development guys, the trainers, even the mascot. The assistants can help the head coach be his best -- otherwise, they're the last thing to worry about.