The Coach-Star Player Relationship: Players Still Run the Show
Good for Jerry Sloan.
A Hall of Fame coach says he's had enough, bringing his 23-year run in Utah to an abrupt end in large part because of his clash with the team's superstar. It's a success story because it's Sloan, the Jazz coach whose legacy has long since been set and who at 68 years old could stand to live a less-stressful existence.
Yet Jazz point guard Deron Williams is merely the latest of his kind to pull a power play in the NBA, his battles with Sloan clearly playing a significant part in the coach's decision to step down. It's yet another reminder that the players are in charge around here, a trend that the Miami Three took to new heights last summer, Carmelo Anthony is continuing now with his ongoing Melo-drama and Williams appears to have become part of as well.
There are countless examples of similar situations around the league, unhappy players exerting pressure on a coach they have decided no longer belongs. And it's hardly a habit reserved solely for the stars.
Which brings us to Sacramento.
For the record, Tyreke Evans says he has "no problem" with Paul Westphal while the coach himself described their relationship as "great." What's more, the notion of the Kings coach being fired that was believed to be plausible in late December no longer appears to be the case even with the team's 37-94 record since he took over last season.
But there were cautionary tales long before the Sloan-Williams situation, and they help explain why someone like Westphal -- whose future with the Kings is certainly tied to his ability to develop and connect with the reigning Rookie of the Year -- might have a tendency to be so, well, cautious with the handling of his most-prized players.
That certainly seemed to be the case this week, when Westphal went to opposite extremes in his handling of Evans even as the persistent problems with his play remained the same.
A Micro-Level Look at the Coach-Star Player Relationship
In a 107-104 loss to Utah on Monday night that now goes down as Sloan's last victory, Evans' poor late-game decision making was enough to set Westphal off in the locker room afterward. He struggled to react to the Jazz's zone defense, over-dribbling and stubbornly waiting for a clear path to the basket rather than, as Westphal later noted privately, passing and cutting so as to keep the offense moving.
The Kings were limited to seven points in the final 6:35 of play, and Westphal let his frustrations with Evans be known in front of the entire team once it was all over. But Evans -- who would leave minutes later without speaking to the media -- didn't take kindly to the criticism. He fumed at his locker, mumbling his disagreement under his breath before Westphal asked him, to no avail, to speak up.
"He said what he felt," Evans told me on Wednesday of Westphal when asked about the postgame scene. "It is what it is. I could've been a smartass (and) cussed him out. I could've said something back, but I wouldn't be professional. He's the coach. I'm going to respect the coach. If I had something to say to him, just have a meeting with him tomorrow and say what I had to say."
Which is precisely what happened a day later. But while Evans wasn't looking to discuss the matter any further, Westphal went to great lengths to smooth things over.
"We had a meeting in the office, and he told me he wasn't throwing the trucks at me (Editorial note: I'm assuming that's a vague under-the-bus type reference)," Evans said. "He just said he wanted to let the team know that he'd get on me too and not just the other players. I agree with him. I have no problem with him. I had six turnovers (in that game). Still played a good game, but at the end of the day those turnovers caused a loss.
"We're on the same page. He knows when it's time, when the game is on the line, give me the ball and (I'll) try to make a play."
His wish was the Kings' command one game later, when the Kings trailed Dallas by two with 12 seconds remaining. Evans had an ill-advised finish once again, driving into traffic and having his shot blocked by Tyson Chandler en route to the Mavericks' 102-100 win.
Yet the tone afterward was entirely different this time around, with player and coach taking a rosy outlook in defeat both in the locker room and in the press conference. Clearly, Westphal decided it was in the best interest of all involved to not push his player too hard.
For better or worse, it was a lesson he had learned long ago while observing a coach still considered by some to be the greatest of all time.
"Red Auerbach knew that Bill Russell was more important to the wins and losses than he was, and he made sure that even though he pushed Bill Russell he didn't push him off the ledge because he (Auerbach) would be going first," Westphal, whose career began in Boston in 1972 when he was drafted by Auerbach, told me on Friday. "That's what coaching is, I think. You have to tell the truth, and you have to make it palatable.
"(Former Detroit coach) Chuck Daly used to say 'the players have to let you coach them. People are buying the tickets to watch the players play, not to watch the coaches coach.' At the same time, the players need direction and most of them want a strong coach giving them that direction because it is a team game. Superstar or not, it is a team game and somebody has to say we're going to do this and not that."
The Envious Perspective
Sloan and the 61-year-old Westphal might be in the same age range, but the coaching ground on which they walked has always been very different.
The late Larry Miller offered unparalleled ownership support in his 24 years at the Jazz's helm, always setting the coach above the players on the organizational totem pole even though Sloan didn't have the championships to show for it. Therein lies the distinction between Sloan's tenure and that of coaches like the Lakers' Phil Jackson and San Antonio's Gregg Popovich, who can work without looking over the shoulder because of the job security that winning titles affords.
It was an approach that meshed perfectly with Sloan's old-school sensibilities, and one that Miller's wife, Gail, insisted still remains with her son, Greg, in control.
"I think basketball has changed a lot since we've owned (the Jazz)," she said at Sloan's exit news conference. "We've seen a lot of players come and go, but we've had the same coaches. And we need to remember that: players do come and go, but the franchise will remain here."
Meanwhile, coaches all around the league have had the opposite experience. And that certainly included Westphal in Seattle.
His feuds with point guard Gary Payton from 1998 to 2000 were no secret, with the team's leader and loudest voice setting a strong tone of dissent in the lead-up to Westphal's ousting. But Westphal has always pointed to Vin Baker as the main reason for his early departure, as the forward was struggling with an addiction to alcohol that was overlooked by ownership when they decided to sign him to a seven-year deal in 1999.
"I recommended not signing him, (and) they signed him anyway, and the alcohol problem got worse," Westphal said. "We basically had to play him in order to have a chance to trade him, and for other political reasons, and I played him even though I didn't want to for all the reasons that anybody who cares about the purity of the game would hate. I'd rather be fired than do that again, and I won't be that way. It was a tough way to go."
He'd rather not be fired from this job too, of course. Yet as Westphal and most of the league's coaches know all too well, the end of Sloan's unforgettable career is yet another sign that the players run this show.
"It's sad to see an end to that because you'd really like Jerry Sloan not be the only coach who has lasted for years and years and years and years, through the ups and downs," Westphal said. "His tenure there (was) the envy of all coaches."
Good for Jerry Sloan. And bad for the rest of the NBA coaching world.