Is Coaching or Talent More Important to Win in the NBA?

via @DarrinDonnelly

Winning in the NBA is hard. Winning without talent is impossible. Sustaining success at the highest levels without a quality coaching is an impossibility.

Coaching and talent work hand-in-hand. You can be moderately successful with just one or the other other. To have a prolonged run at the very top a coach is more important, though.

Let’s be clear: Even great coaches cannot win big without top-end talent.

The best players in the league work like a trump card. They can overcome poor coaching, more balanced opposition, a lack of a cohesive system, an inability to execute, etc.

Even good coaches struggle to be able to paper over the cracks like that. It’s harder to directly influence the outcome of a game wearing a suit than it is in a jersey. An influx of talent can often have more immediate impact in the standings than a coaching upgrade.

Still, the impact of a great coach shouldn’t be dismissed lightly.

The Greatest of Them All

Gregg Popovich serves as the prime example of the sustained impact a coach can have. This isn’t to suggest the Spurs have lacked talent during his 21 years and running tenure. They’ve certainly had more than their fair share of it over the years. Let’s not forget the foundations of their success built on the strength of David Robinson and Tim Duncan, two 1st overall picks selected a decade apart.

Rarely, however, have they ever assembled talent worthy of the “super team” moniker. Their success has been largely predicated on an ability to draft and develop their own stars outside of the lottery. It’s difficult to imagine players like Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili being as successful in their individual growth elsewhere. Popovich’s role in this cannot be ignored.

Popovich has established such a strong ethos and culture in San Antonio that they’re on a 55+ win pace even without Leonard — a legitimate MVP caliber player — having played a game yet this season. He’s worked wonders over the years to get every last bit out of overlooked role players. Players like Bruce Bowen, Danny Green, Matt Bonner, Patty Mills, etc. have been key over the years in helping bring titles to San Antonio after being plucked off the scrap heap.

The Cream of the Current Crop

Steve Kerr, one of those role players, has been exemplary since being appointed head coach of the Warriors in 2014.  Prior to his arrival they were viewed as 2nd tier pseudo-contenders. They were an intriguing dark horse, but the prevailing thought was they lacked the juice to truly compete.

Fast forward 3 plus years and Golden State is a 2 time title winning juggernaut “light years ahead” of the league. Their dominance has been so complete many view another championship this season as an inevitability. It’s easy to forget now, but this wasn’t always the case.

Kerr unlocked the team’s full potential by implementing an uptempo system predicated on ball and player movement. The change in style of play led to back-to-back MVP awards for Stephen Curry. Draymond Green transformed into an invaluable two-way Swiss Army Knife who provided enviable lineup flexibility. 

Kerr turned them from an also ran into a potential dynasty. That is as impactful as adding another superstar to the team. Of course their success ultimately led to that eventuality. Kevin Durant signed as a free agent in 2016 largely because of his fascination with the Warriors’ style of play.

We’ve seen a first time NBA head coach have unexpected levels of success elsewhere as well.

The Quick Fixer Upper

Boston’s rebuild, which began in earnest just 4 years ago, has been an unquestioned success. Danny Ainge gets plenty of credit for his asset accumulation, but it’s hiring Brad Stevens which has been at the heart of it all.

Stevens has built a well-deserved reputation as a shrewd tactician who gets the most out of his players. The man turned Evan Turner into a viable Sixth Man of the Year candidate. That’s no easy task!

His accomplishments haven’t gone unnoticed around the league. Stevens’ success has helped establish Boston as a destination of choice for premier free agents. Al Horford and Gordon Hayward signing in back-to-back summers 2 years after his arrival when the Celtics were supposed to be smack in the middle of a prolonged rebuild is nothing short of impressive.

The Dynasty That Never Was

The Thunder, first under Scott Brooks and now Billy Donovan, have shown simply acquiring and amassing talent isn’t enough. The sum has never been greater than its parts for Oklahoma City. Their shortcomings are in large part because both of a failure to sublimate that talent within a team concept.

Outstanding individual talents can carry you so far, but rarely as far as you would hope. To have drafted Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, James Harden and Serge Ibaka and not come out of with a title is a miracle in its own depressing way.  

Certainly there are other factors which have cost them a title. The lack of a coach capable of building an offensive structure beyond give-the-stars-the-ball-and-get-out-of-the-way is extremely high on that list

The Not Quite Good Enough

Mark Jackson, Kerr’s predecessor in Golden State, was relieved of his duties for similar shortcomings.  Specifically, Warriors management didn’t believe he was maximizing the talent at his disposal.

Stephen Curry isolations and Klay Thompson post ups were not the vision they had in mind. On top of his limited offensive creativity, Jackson had numerous issues off the floor.

Labeling Jackson as a poor coach is harsh. He oversaw a defensive turnaround in which the Warriors established themselves among the league’s best. He never lost the belief of his players either. Even at the very end, with the writing was on the wall, they fought tooth and nail for him in a grueling 7 game series loss to the Clippers.

However, Kerr’s success in the immediate aftermath speaks volumes.  He’s maintained the defensive integrity Jackson established while constructing an all-time great offense. This highlights just how invaluable the jump from a good, but flawed, coach to a great one can be.

Great Coaches Give You a Chance for Prolonged Success

Great coaches can turn unheralded bench players into coveted role players with great trade value. They can help to develop and elevate the talent at their disposal. They can help create an environment so attractive from the outside looking in it turns their franchises into free agent destinations to help land the star talents every team needs to win.

Nobody could ever argue that even great coaches need superstars to win. But the star who wins without great coaching is also exceedingly rare.

LeBron James only won his first titles after teaming up with 2 other stars and an underrated coach in Erik Spoelstra. Michael Jordan needed Phil Jackson to take over for Doug Collins before he established himself as the GOAT.

Ultimately to win at the highest level of the game having both a great coach and star talent is necessary. It is the combination that every franchise strives for.

When you find the right coach like the Spurs have you can stay at the top for longer than you have a right to. If you screw it up you run the risk of getting “KD’d” and seeing your star leave for greener pastures.

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