Orlando Magic vs. Indiana Pacers

Who’s To Blame?

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If the reports are true, Stan Van Gundy will be the next head coach of the Detroit Pistons. And their next president of basketball operations, too.

Over the past few years, there seems to have been an influx in the amount of head coaching candidates that want a tighter grip on personnel decisions to go along with their usual lockerroom leadership duties. It’s understandable, to an extent, since a disconnect between a front office executive and a head coach can have disastrous results. Coaches know what players fit their system the best and without a doubt they already have an evident amount of say on personnel decisions when it comes to deciding if that player suits their style or if they’ll fit into the culture of the lockerroom.

But front office guys often have their own points of view, and even their own agendas. A GM on the hotseat can make hasty decisions that saddle a coach with deadweight players and an undesirable capsheet, thus leading to the eventual ousting of the coach, too. It’s a situation that Van Gundy wanted to avoid when he started fielding job offers earlier this month, likely because his downfall in Orlando unfolded in a similar manner.

Trying desperately to build a winning team around Dwight Howard before he had a chance to leave in free agency led then Magic general manager Otis Smith to trade for Gilbert Arenas, who hasn’t had a relevant basketball moment since, and to sign Glen Davis and Jason Richardson to sizable mid-level deals. When it came time for Howard to make his decision, after changing his mind a few dozen times, he recognized the situation around him was less than desirable, and Van Gundy and Smith got the boot soon after.

I get why Van Gundy, or any other high profile coach, would want to protect themselves from that kind of a situation. But what I find interesting is that, rather than just trying to find a good general manager to pair themselves with, these coaching candidates have gone a step further, demanding full control and final say on all basketball operations while the GM handles the day-to-day responsibilities. I wouldn’t say it’s particularly egregious; it’s not like Scotty Brooks is the one asking for control over personnel decisions. But I’m not quite sure what got us to this point. Where along the road did the best coaches in the league want to usurp all of the basketball-related power within their organizations?

The easy answer is that it began with Phil Jackson during his time with the Lakers. I know there are some more historic examples, but ever since front offices have expanded to house several executives, including one person specifically chosen to have final say on the shaping of the roster, Jackson is the best example of a coach that didn’t want anything to be above his pay grade.

There were three pretty obvious reasons why Phil wanted to extend his jurisdiction past the sidelines: 1) He had already six titles in Chicago under an overbearing owner, 2) His triangle offense was as unique as any system in the league and required specific kinds of players to make things click, and 3) He was dating the daughter of legendary Laker owner Jerry Buss, which I’m sure made him feel like a part owner in some respects. Dr. Buss bit the bullet and ceded control to Jackson during his second tenure with the team, but Jimmy Buss wouldn’t give Jackson the power he wanted when the team reached out to him about returning for a third time and instead opted for Mike D’Antoni.

Jackson’s situation with the Lakers was a unique one because of how successful was and because he had a serious romantic relationship with one of the owners, so perhaps the best example of this distorted hierarchy involves another coach that finds himself on the Mount Rushmore of NBA coaches: Gregg Popovich.

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Spurs GM R.C. Buford hands Gregg Popovich his latest Coach of the Year Award.

While Pop’s schematics are top notch, his greatest skill as a coach has been cultivating a culture in the lockerroom that manifests itself on the floor. Being that selflessness and sacrifice are two major points of emphasis for the Air Force graduate, letting him decide what kind of players were brought into the organization seems incredibly logical, especially because he’s demonstrated the ability to extract efficient production out of guys that may not be all that talented. R.C. Buford is one of the best general managers in the league, but it’s clear that Popovich’s presence has always been a bit of an asterisk when it came to evaluating his performance. Until this year, that is, when Buford finally earned the Executive of the Year Award, fittingly in the same year that Pop took home his third Coach of the Year Award.

Jackson and Popovich are two of the best coaches ever and for their opinions to carry more weight with their respective organizations, organizations that they won multiple championships with, makes a lot of sense. The question is whether or not that has set the table for other high profile, yet not remotely as successful, coaches to make expanded front office roles a requirement to hire them.

We saw it this summer with Doc Rivers, who was only willing to leave the Celtics if he was given a prominent front office position, and he’s now the vice president of basketball operations as well as the Clippers’ head coach. Rivers had built himself quite a culture in Boston, but I don’t think he’s got any proprietary schematics or a specific blueprint for his kind of player that would make expanded control a necessity.

The early returns on his front office career are less than stellar. His first move in LA was trading away budding superstar Eric Bledsoe in exchange for J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley. Though Redick has been stellar for Doc’s offense when he’s been healthy, Dudley hasn’t been a key contributor for a good while now, and despite all of the buzz the moves got when they went down, the Clippers’ mid-season acquisitions — Hedo Turkoglu, Glen Davis and Danny Granger — haven’t been all that impactful.

Van Gundy is the latest head coach to make power a priority during his job search. What’s maddening about Van Gundy’s itinerary is that it likely prevented what would have been the best possible basketball marriage on the market. Van Gundy’s talks with the Golden State Warriors reportedly broke down because the team wasn’t willing to let him preside over current General Manager Bob Myers, who has done a fine job assembling a roster that could have won 55-60 games under Van Gundy’s guidance.

It makes sense that Van Gundy would make more control a stipulation during his conversations since the Pistons were willing to go all out and over him the top basketball related position, but for it to be a deal breaker for Van Gundy, so much so that he passed up an opportunity to coach a team that has all of the ingredients that his Magic teams had when he took them to the Finals in 2009 with even more subsidiary talent (and Steph freaking Curry) just so that he’d have more say so in Detroit, which is by far a tougher situation to succeed in, is puzzling.

Aside from Pop, Van Gundy and Rivers are two of the top five coaches in basketball along with Tom Thibodeau, Rick Carlisle and Erick Spoelstra, so for them to feel entitled to a salient voice on all important decisions is reasonable. But have we really reached a point where all established coaches are going to demand that they get to wear both hats – the one that gives them the power to command what happens on the floor and the one that lets them decide which players he can put on that floor – even though it’s not a universal fit?

It’s not quite letting the inmates run the asylum, but not all guards are cracked up to be wardens, either.

Mark Travis is a 22-year old sportswriter that is currently majoring in Sports Media at Oklahoma State University. He started his own website, But The Game Is On, in 2008 as an outlet for his praise of Michael Crabtree and has since been credentialed by major organizations like the NBA, NFL, MLB, Nike and Team USA Basketball. He also covered the past two NBA Finals for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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