Thursday, January 15, 2009

Where Coaching Matters, and The Most Terrifying Possible First Round Opponent

A couple of months ago, there was some healthy debate over whether an NBA coach actually has an impact on a team's win-loss record or whether a coach is dependent on the quality of his players. It's a three-sided debate between those who a) think coaches make a huge difference b) think coaches make a minimal difference or none at all (such as David Berri, the economist who runs the Wages of Wins blog) and c) those who think the subject is far too complicated t to be measured accurately. 

There is one way a coach has obvious impact, though: picking which players are on the court. And there are two coaches in the Eastern Conference right now with major decisions to make. The first is Michael Curry, who is playing a too-small lineup because he can't decide which star (Rip Hamilton or AI) should come off the bench. Neither is thrilled about the idea, and AI delivered this fantastic quote in response to a question about it: 

"If I'm asked to come off the bench, I would think it's to help the team. But I never felt me coming off the bench would help the team."

Translation: "I'm way too good for that."

Of course, Curry could stick with the small ball, but Detroit Bad Boys has run the numbers and doesn't think that's going to work. 

Of more interest to me are the Philadelphia 76ers, who face a bit of a dilemma now that their big offseason pick-up, Elton Brand, is returning after missing 13 games with a shoulder injury. The Sixers are just 7-6 in that span, but they've won five straight and have found their stride offensively. They're playing small ball with Thaddeus Young in Brand's power forward spot, pushing the pace and shooting a high percentage from the floor. This team was 28th in offensive efficiency when Mo Cheeks was fired in mid-December. They've jumped to 23rd since, and they've shot higher than their season average from the field (45.8 percent) in 11 of their last 12 games. Going with a transition game makes sense; the Sixers, other than Brand, don't really have the jump shooters you need in a half-court offense, and running is what made them dangerous toward the end of last season.

The big question is: What will they do now that Elton Brand is coming back? 

Hollinger thinks they should stay small by playing Brand at the 5 and sitting Sam Dalembert and his 11.23 PER on the bench. What a decision for Tony DiLeo, the Sixers' rookie coach. What should he do? Go small and get risk getting torched on the boards by the league's good rebounding teams? Or go big and risk watching the offense sputter again? This is why coaches get no sleep.

As a Celtics fan, I really hope he makes the wrong decision. This team terrifies me as a possible sixth, seventh or eighth seed opponent in the first round. I can see the Philly crowd getting into this team while Andre Iguodala streaks down the wing waiting for Andre Miller to feed him for a monster dunk. It could be the Hawks all over again. 

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