The last few Cavs coaching experiments seemed to have failed miserably for a variety of reasons. First, we had Mike Brown (who could not coach or teach offense to save his life), then Byron Scott (who could not coach or teach defense to save his life), then… Mike Brown again. In theory, the coaching changes should have worked. Having Kyrie play under Scott to develop his offense, then move to Brown to develop his defense. Unfortunately, Irving is still an incredibly talented player that has not utilized the full extent of his shooting ability and plays like a revolving door on defense. The question remains though, can coaching be blamed for the team's problems?
Unfortunately, without having a coach that we know can cover both sides of the ball and has the ability to develop players, we won’t know for sure. How do we figure out the coach that can do that? Without further ado, let's dive into some analysis.
I examined several coaches from the league, both current and former, and looked at the correlation between a variety of stats that were affected by the progression of seasons that a coach helmed the team. With such a high turnover rate in players, there may be some skewing based on the roster changes that occur over the years, though for most coaches, if someone is lost in free-agency, they are generally replaced by a similar level player. The largest changes in general come from drafting, or big free-agent pickups, which we will isolate later. I’ve included a bevy of statistics in order to look at every aspect of the game that could have been affected, both offensively and defensively (if you need help with what some of the abbreviations mean, please reference <this> article).
To start out, let’s take a look at a variety of different coaches at face value, broken up by the team that they were coaching:
A few quick notes before we look more deeply into what all of the pretty colors and numbers on this chart mean. First off, in correlations, -1 is a direct negative correlation, meaning that there is definite change between the statistic being looked at and the reference statistic (seasons of coaching in this case) in the opposite direction of progression (if seasons increase, the statistic decreases). On the flip side, 1 is a direct positive correlation, just the opposite, and 0 is neutral, meaning that a change in the reference has no effect on the subject statistic. In this case, we like to see positive correlations for almost everything (anything over about .25 is fairly strong), with the exception of Age, G, GS, MP, USG%, TOV%, and DRtg. TOV% and DRtg are good if they are negative, while the other statistics may help us understand why the other correlations may exist. For example, age is an indicator if there was a youth movement which, if negative, would lead to more development. Games started, minutes played, and usage are all indicators of how heavily a coach relied on a fewer number of players (negative correlations point towards a more equal distribution of the ball, minutes, time, etc.). Games may be the biggest factor to look at, as more than likely less games means injuries or major roster moves throughout the course of seasons.
So in looking at these early on, we can see a few things jump off the page. Defensive coaches are pretty easy to spot, as they have bright red marks for Defensive Rating (DRtg), including Lionel Hollins, Vinny Del Negro, Phil Jackson with the Bulls, and Doc Rivers with the Celtics. Most of these seem to make quite a bit of sense, given the rosters that the respective coaches had at the time and the legacy that they’ve left for those franchises. The more surprising aspect of the coaches though lies in the lack of strong Offensive Rating (ORtg). A likely reason for this though, is that many players come into the league able to play offense, but not as many play as well defensively, meaning that defense has much more room for individual improvement.
More enlightening statistics for looking at offense would be the improvement in shooting statistics and assist rates, which we see fairly significantly in Mike Dunleavy (both teams), Vinny Del Negro, Mike Brown, Doc Rivers with the Celtics, and Gregg Popovich. Some X factors for this include the players at their disposal, particularly in the case of Mike Brown, who had the best player in the league emerging on his own accord.
Some of the worst teams in this analysis though included Mike Dunleavy’s Clippers, Stan Van Gundy’s Magic, Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls, and Doc River’s Magic. This is where some of the shortcomings come to light a bit, though there is probably some merit to be had. Tom Thibodeau is obviously not a poor coach by any means, though this analysis points to him as the worst of all subjects. The reason is two-fold: Thibodeau employs one of the most effective defensive systems in the NBA, which does not rely on each player to be a shut-down defender, but rather a team-wide system of effective management of spacing and coverage. The injury bug is also a large factor here, with the later years of Thibodeau’s coaching involving a barely walking Rose and intermittent play of Deng. The reason these factors reflect poorly is that this analysis weighs the individual player’s statistics, which may not improve, even though the team as a whole plays much better (pretty much the exact opposite of why Brown’s Cavs seem so strong). The rest of the coaches though are subject to overall poor rosters and, with the exception of Rivers, poor coaching.
This basic breakdown doesn’t tell us the whole picture though. Obviously, the effect of adding a major superstar or big-name free agent could easily skew the statistics. I’ve taken two examples of coaches that had major changes mid-way through their coaching term with a single team: Phil Jackson, with and without Shaq, and Doc Rivers, before and after the Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen trades. Here are the results:
Obviously, in the case of Phil Jackson, he had superstars on the Laker’s squad during both periods of his coaching tenure. Phil either had a young Kobe along with a peak-career Shaq, or a veteran Kobe along with Pau and Bynum. The interesting factor to look at though, is that with Shaq there was not much development across the board, with the exception of rebounding. To be fair, Shaq pretty much dominated the game at the time and did not have much drive to push himself further. It was after Shaq left though that Jackson’s coaching and Kobe’s drive really shined through. Going from .25 to -.59 is a drastic jump defensively, and clearly affected the team more on the defensive side of the ball as time went on. Jackson also improved the team offensively, though not quite to the same magnitude. So, when looking at Jackson in particular, Shaq leaving actually allowed us to see that Jackson could coach tremendously well.
Rivers shows another side to the story. Before KG and Allen ended up on the Celtics, the team was mainly comprised of Paul Pierce and a variety of different draft picks and traded players that didn’t really improve the team much. Aside from Doc’s first year of coaching when they ended up 45-37, the Celtics didn’t break .500 until “the trades” occurred. They then went on to win the championship the year after acquiring KG and Ray Allen. Go figure. The struggle in this analysis though, is that neither before the trade nor after was there much individual development occurring. Overall, Doc’s coaching analysis seems good, but primarily from a large jump in player skill that came in with the trade, skewing the entire analysis. Doc is another case of Thibodeau, implementing a fantastic system that does not necessarily allow for shining statistics from individual players (as evidenced by usage rates and minutes played). Here’s the kicker though, Thibodeau was an assistant for Rivers before becoming the head coach of the Bulls. Coincidence? I think not.
Potential Cavs Coaches
By extension, we can hopefully extend this to examine some of the head coaching candidates that are interviewing for the Cavs position now. The names that have come up as legitimate candidates for the job at this point include Vinny Del Negro, Lionel Hollins, Adrian Griffin, and Tyronne Lue. In the cases of Del Negro and Hollins, we have previous head coaching runs that may help us envision what they may look like as head coaches. Griffin and Lue are more difficult to predict, as they have not been head coaches before, though they have been under two of the other head coaches in this analysis. Coincidentally, Griffin is a coach under Thibideau, who was a coach under Rivers along with Lue. It’s a sticky mess of coaching incest (albeit incredibly successful coaching). Let’s break it down:
We can see pretty early on what type of coaches are being looked at. We can assume that both of the assistant coaches (Griffin and Lue) are being evaluated to see if they can implement systems as effectively as Thibodeau and Rivers have over the years, managing to get the most out of the players working together in a cohesive system, rather than maximizing statistical output. When you look at what this Cavaliers squad has done over the past two years, it is clear that there is an abundance of talent, but not an effective use of it. Picking one of these two candidates will probably mean the team will hang on to most of the squad (with the exception of Thompson and a few other minor pieces, maybe) and see if they can run effectively together, which is the sentiment that Griffin seems to endorse.
Hollins represents what the Cavs hoped to get with Mike Brown, an effective defensive coach, but hopefully one that can better utilize the team’s offensive talent. Hollins did manage several winning seasons with a team primarily consisting of Marc Gasol, O. J. Mayo, and Zach Randolph, so there is hope there. However, it’s hard to imagine those Grizzlies teams couldn’t have improved more on the offensive side of the ball. It’s worth noting (which we covered more thoroughly in our pieced on him <here>), that Hollins is very much a player’s coach and that his Grizzlies squad absolutely adored him. Will that make the difference between Hollins and Brown? That’s yet to be seen.
Del Negro is probably the candidate that stands out most to me primarily from the analysis. Though he struggled to produce incredibly successful rosters (averaging .533 regular season winning percentage), he was able to take a squad that had Chris Paul and Blake Griffin to a very high level before he was fired. Does his eventual success with talented players overcome his shortcomings without them? And does the improvement of the roster and talent nullify the analysis of his coaching?
When it comes down to it, the coaches that are most successful in the NBA are those that run systems that fully utilize the talent on the roster and can be either offensively or defensively focused. A coach that runs a team based primarily on one aspect of the game, without fully capitalizing on using the system well, will most likely struggle.
It’s that concept that leads me to think that either Lue or Griffin (or a yet to be named coach) will be the pick for the next head coach. It might not pan out too well (i.e. Mike Brown, who was an assistant for Popovich), and it might not be sexy, but if you can come out of this with a coach like Thibodeau, you will most likely have success. I would probably prefer Griffin of the two, as he’s come from a Bulls team that has had above average talent, but has capitalized even in the wake of losing their superstar to injury. And if he can turn our draft picks this year, and last year, into players of Noah and Butler’s caliber, I’ll be plenty happy.