Chicago Bulls v Brooklyn Nets

From Fred Hoiberg to Kenny Atkinson; the impact of a head coach in the era of Big Data

From Fred Hoiberg to Kenny Atkinson; the impact of a head coach in the era of Big Data

Last year, Chicago Bulls star wingman Jimmy Butler and Chicago Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg had little to no working relationship. There was apathy about the team in general – put simply, no one seemed to like each other – but in his inaugural NBA season, Hoiberg seemed to have particularly little respect from the room. And it started from Butler, the team’s best player whether Derrick Rose knew it or not, whose strong will and demanding nature required a level of nurture and understanding that he clearly didn’t trust Hoiberg to give, and

This year, it all seems better. The Bulls are more harmonious on and off the court, and with a much better product on the court to show for it, the Bulls and Hoiberg are off to a good start.

Dwyane Wade’s role in brokering peace seems pretty significant, and might be partly why he was brought in. But that is a discussion for another space. What is known is that when asked about the changing nature of his relationship with Hoiberg roughly a fortnight ago, Butler had the following to say:

“When you work, everyone is going to go to war for you. Oh yeah, he’s definitely changed for the better. I look at him a lot differently, as well. It seems like he knows his guys a lot better now, which is great. Look at him joke around with us if you were in the locker room after games or before games, throwing the football, it’s the littlest things that go the longest. Now we know that he’s in the fight with us, he’s one of us."

It’s an improvement, certainly. That's almost a compliment. There is, however, an air of superiority in Butler’s voice, a sense of “prove yourself to me”. This is a dangerous path to go down. 

Chicago Bulls v Brooklyn Nets

A small amount of that attitude is fine. A desire and need to respect the voice of the coach is plenty logical enough, just as it is needed in any authority figure in any profession. Players have to like or respect their coaches in order to thrive, and ideally, they would do both. Respect is a two way street, and Butler felt he could not give it – he may not have been the only one to have felt that way, but by virtue of being one of the highest profile players and one of the most willing to talk, he is the only one on record as having said anything like it.

Too much of that approach, however, creates a dangerous situation. Players and coaches are to work together, but if either works for the other, it is the player working for the coach, not the other way around. The worst case scenario is a situation in which the coach is beholden to the whims, idiosyncrasies and demands of the best player/s, and in which the very concept of team and the hierarchies of coaching and management are under threat due to one player’s self-importance. It is not unprecedented that this happens. Look at Byron Scott’s time with the Lakers, for example.

Nevertheless, when done right, the potential impact of a head coach and a coaching staff in the modern NBA is perhaps as high as it has ever been. In an era with an unprecedented amount of data available, and where pretty much any data point that one can think of can be found out, coaches go to battle as armed as can be. They have advanced scouts who can transcribe every play in the opponent’s playbook, which can then be planned against. There is all manner of data that shows which areas of the floor are best to send opposing scorers to, which line-ups work, and which areas of the opposing defense to attack. And there are reams of information on who does what well, how, where and why.

(At least, they are as armed as can be if they want that. Not every coach embraces the information given to them, and defaults to inherited knowledge, stereotypes, old adages, or stuff that just feels right. Look at Byron Scott’s time with the Lakers, for example.)

Utah Jazz v Los Angeles Lakers

By way of example, take this year’s Brooklyn Nets. Their best player, Brook Lopez, is a big slow centre with all the hustle of a lettuce, but with plenty of offensive talent within him. In years past, the scheme would have been to pound the ball inside to Lopez on every half-court trip and maximise his individual talents, the assumption being that this would bring about the overall betterment of the team. This year, however, the Nets are playing at the fastest pace in the NBA, getting up and down the court regardless of whether Lopez hustles to join them, getting up shots, taking a LOT of three pointers (led ironically by Lopez at 5.6 attempts per game), and pushing the tempo in accordance with the NBA’s pace-and-space movement, one borne out of the data. With a 4-9 record, this might not look like a good thing, but the poor record is due to a talent dearth that can be fixed later on. The new head coach responsible for the philosophy change, Kenny Atkinson, has the right idea. When the talent improves and better matches the system, the coach’s impact will be even more apparent.

The other side of coaching is the personal relationships they share with everyone around them, and the psychology and ego management involved. Hoiberg’s inability to impress and manage Butler led to the endemic apathy within last year’s Bulls team, and, having once been a member of the turn-of-the-century Chicago Bulls teams not exactly known for harmony, he knew first hand going in the importance of a disciplined environment lined with a laid-back attitude. Butler’s criticism that Hoiberg was in fact too hands-off could well be fair – perhaps Hoiberg went too far the other way in trying to differ from the constant intensity of his predecessor Tom Thibodeau – but cultivating a looser atmosphere can improve players and their play by itself. Look at Luke Walton’s time with the Lakers, for example.

If a coach wants to monopolise and patronise, they will not get far. They might get a college job - especially if they really enjoy calling men in their twenties “kids” and running unnecessarily rigid offenses that sabotage all spacing for arbitrary ball movement that barely shifts a defense - but they won’t make it in the NBA. A coach must instead work with his players, make them like him, make them feel valued, and make them feel better than they are yet not at the cost of their own development or the ego of others. Phil Jackson is beatified on account of his ability to manage egos, to tell players what they need to hear in order to get them to perform to their best, in addition to his knowledge of the intricacies of the game. Similarly, Gregg Popovich is regarded as much the same in the modern era. Popovich's stoic demeanour and dry humour bring about a more militaristic approach to respect befitting of his background, while Jackson's love of zen caters to the more existential, philosophical method. Whatever the approach, the results are what matters rather than the precise character traits.

San Antonio Spurs v Los Angeles Lakers

Hoiberg was hired supposedly on the basis of his ability to achieve at both of these strands. His offensive philosophy at Iowa State seemed to be conducive to the aforementioned shift in NBA strategy (and actually looked like a capable NBA offense, which is enough to stand out at the college level), while his simpatico nature established during his NBA career as both a player and an executive gave the distinct impression that players would respond well to him. His impact as a coach relies upon both of these traits working in unison. Indeed, that is the requirement for any coach to make a positive impact.

The importance of coaching is always going to be hard to quantify, especially from the outside. Basketball is not baseball, where a coach can do very little to change the impact of any particular moment – they only know if a player is any good at swinging a wooden stick at a ball if they’ve done it over 500 times previously, and even then, that is no great barometer on whether they’ll be any good at in the 501st time. A basketball coach can do a lot in terms of game management via substitutions and timeouts, can and must create effective playbooks on both ends, can and must nurture a good environment for all, and can do an awful lot of preparatory work in terms of knowing the inefficiencies of both his and any opposing team. Yet basketball is, at its core, a game of team work, reading and reacting. A coach cannot do much about that at the time.

Nonetheless, even if it is impossible to quantify the impact of quite what they do, there is certainly a lot that they can try and do. The era of Big Data gives them all the information they need, while the era of the internet and social media shines a microscope onto all teams in such a way that inner tensions are increasingly hard to hide. "The Jordan Rules" would not be so such a revelation today. In tandem, the information available and the scrutiny greatly increases the potential impact of good coaching - a coach has more to process, more to do, more to control, more eyes on every step of the process, and more educated peers to impress.

Just as players can improve, so can coaches. Just as a lot is demanded of players in terms of their abilities and their demeanour, so is it of coaches. But as the impact of individual players is slightly tempered in modernity by the pace-and-space movement and the decline of the isolation-heavy basketball of 15 years ago, the decline of that era and the more complex and versatile offensive and defensive philosophies born in its place heighten the importance and impact of quality coaching. 

The tools available to coaching staffs these days are far greater. The knowledge base and standards to which they are compared are far higher. And the tolerance for hiding shortcomings off of the back of the brilliance of an individual player is next to nil. Outside of specific game management decisions, we can probably never get a particularly accurate of how much good (or bad) a coach does to the potential of his team when viewed from this side of the fence. But regardless of our external ability to assess it, an open-minded, likeable and progressive coach can make more difference now than ever before.

Charlotte Hornets v Brooklyn Nets