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The Works: Erik Spoelstra's Feathers; Not-So-Tough Choices in Sactown

Nov 30, 2010 – 8:21 AM
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In The Works today: the Kings play the waiting game with a stand-off on top; and some big news about this column. But first, the myth of coach fitness.

Fit to Be Coach

Over the past couple seasons, "fit" has become a trendy word to use in assessing any trade, draft pick and free agent signing. Fit has always been important to decision-makers, but now it's getting its day in the sun with fans and armchair pundits. How else was a fawning audience to explain why OKC's darling GM Sam Presti passed up Tyreke Evans for James Harden? It was fit! And, as Presti well knows, it does matter. It's not empty buzz.

Some who heralded the new Heat forgot about fit; others, myself included, assumed basketball geniuses like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade could create their own chemistry, with a nod to the 2008 Olympic team. But here we are, with bad fit apparently sinking the Heat.

But that's not all. Erik Spoelstra is also (supposedly) killing the Heat with, depending on your perspective, a lack of creativity or willful mismanagement of his constellation. But we know, emphatically and empirically, that Spoelstra is not a bad coach. He took last year's version of the Heat to a 47-35 record. For stretches of the season, Quentin Richardson was the second-best player on last year's Heat team. That's not a joke.

Spoelstra is part Pat Riley -- a grinder at heart, a guy who works 23 hours a day and demands the same from his players -- and part Lawrence Frank -- a X&O whiz kid. But because of the very nature of Miami's three "chill" bros, Spoelstra has had to be a bit heavier on the Riley, all while maintaining a delicate balance. That hasn't allowed his L-Frank side to come out. Or, these superstars are so heavy-handed that the Xs and Os have to come with a heavier dose of Drill Sergeant than Spoelstra can muster in his tenuous position.

So, while Spoelstra has both the chops to command this team and the brains to make it sing, he just isn't in the right spot to execute it all. It's just a bad fit.

Can we even grade coaches' abilities accurately? Terry Porter failed in Phoenix but had been pretty good in Milwaukee. The Suns' implosion left an indelible image of haplessness attached to Porter ... but is he considered a bad coach now? He shouldn't be. He was a bad fit in Phoenix. Coaches are essentially role players -- they don't have as big an impact as the league's stars, certainly; Phil Jackson himself couldn't coach the Pistons to .500. Like role players, coaches are only appreciated when the team wins, and only hated when things go terribly wrong. The reprehensible campaign to get Robert Horry into the Hall of Fame can attest to the former; our collective memory of Bryon Russell and Mike Brown nods at the latter.

Role players are difficult to assess, and fit is a huge priority. The same should apply to coaches. Vinny Del Negro made two postseasons in Chicago; some considered that -- the wins -- enough to deem V.D.N. a good coach. (He certainly had a good enough reputation around the league to immediately land another job while incredible candidates like Dwane Casey sit on the sidelines.)

With a very similar roster, Tom Thibodeau has taken the Bulls to an early 9-6 record through the circus road trip. Thibodeau's success colors V.D.N.'s Bulls' performance, but doesn't fully explain it (even as Del Negro's Clippers dive into the ocean).

With role players and coaches alike, fit and context is everything. That's why, perhaps, we shouldn't complain about the Former Head Coach Recycling Program so much -- we recycle role players, after all, so why not give a guy like Rick Carlisle or Sam Mitchell another chance? That's how I'll feel about Spoelstra, should he eventually step aside in Miami. He'll deserve another chance with a team more suited to his stylings, a team that he fits into better. (TZ)

Worth Waiting For

Paul Westphal and DeMarcus CousinsPer Sam Amick, we've been kept abreast of the latest troubles in Sacramento. DeMarcus Cousins, the problem child turned prodigal son turned uneventful schlub, is fighting with coach Paul Westphal. A lot. This would appear to set up an impossible, and thoroughly uninteresting, quandary: Would the Kings, a team whose future looked so bright before this season started, fire Westphal on account of Cousins?

Cousins might still turn out to be quite good -- in the grand scheme of things, his career has barely even begun -- and Westphal isn't exactly taking the team to the Super Bowl, anyway. The choice between a struggling rookie and a mediocre coach is never an easy one, except that this team doesn't live and die by Cousins. In fact, it scarcely knows what DMC can do for them in real NBA combat. What's far more troubling is that everyone else on Sacramento, including last year's Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans, is stuck way down in the dumps. Come to think of it, nothing good is happening to anyone in a Kings uniform, except for Donte Greene, who is getting to start.

The broader question, then, is about investments in players versus those in coaches. Way up above, Ziller referred to Spoelstra as a "role player". While role players are important to championships, only the Spurs make a long-term commitment to their potential. Like coaches, they are measured by results. There are young player like Evans and Cousins, whose potential is a valuable commodity to a team, one more important than immediate results. In other words, you hang onto a would-be stud because with the right coach and supporting cast, he could lead you to a championship. This kind of player, if not irreplaceable, is at least the toughest commodity to nab in the NBA. It's also the most unpredictable (e.g. Cousins) but teams have to get as close as they can and build from there.

No long-term plan for success ever involved waiting for a coach to come into his own, or giving him the minor characters that most suited his whim. Sorry, but there's always a star. Or two. Or the possibility of them. Besides, realistically what does it look like if the Kings decide that Westphal shall guide them? Who knows, maybe he and Cousins patch things up. Perhaps Evans turns it around. But this isn't Phil Jackson we're talking about here; Paul Westphal will simply never get you the results to justify that commitment with Evans or Cousins playing up to their potential. So maybe it's even worse than Tom said: Coaches for younger teams aren't role players, they are caretakers, or scientists raising baby dinosaurs.

If the mansion falls to the ground, or the dinosaur goes deaf, well, it doesn't really matter how clean the driveway is, or how many unreleased reggae sessions the dinosaur recorded before the tragedy. Sometimes, you can do your job without doing the part that really matters. In the professional world, that's enough to keep you stable forever. In sports, though, the powers that be aren't impatient -- they just know when patience is being wasted on trivial concerns. (BS)

End of the Road

This will be the final Works for Tom Ziller, who, beginning Wednesday, will write about the NBA for SBNation.com. Ziller normally hates the third-person perspective, but will make an exception on this occasion.

Ziller is proud to have been a part of FanHouse since 2007, through more than 3,000 posts, almost 2 million words and 58 Works columns co-written with his friend, Bethlehem Shoals. Ziller cherished being able to work under the inimitable Matt Watson and the indomitable Randy Kim. He is particularly fond of his work next to Rob Peterson, and thanks Barry Werner for all the help in conceiving ideas. The entire NBA FH family -- every last one of them, including you, Matt Moore -- will live in Ziller's heart for all eternity. All the other fantastic FH writers, editors and producers with which Ziller has worked should also feel appreciated, because they are that.

Good basketball writing is Ziller's greatest non-human love, and while he may not have always executed that at FH (as commenters can and no-doubt will attest), he feels FH is well-placed to continue to provide it for the world's NBA fans.

If you want to keep up with Ziller going forward, following him on Twitter (@teamziller) and bookmarking SBNation.com/NBA would be a good idea. He bids you, Mr. or Ms. FanHouse Reader, many happy returns.

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The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Tom Ziller (@teamziller). Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History is now available.
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