It’s All About Control

Basketball, at its core, is a game of imitation. You see things on the playground, in the gym, and in the locker room, and you strive to take morsels and skills and use them as extensions of your self. It’s a natural progression, and it’s as old as the game itself. But we’ve come to a point where the same trends exist not only in the game, but around the game: owners imitating owners, GMs imitating GMs, scouts imitating scouts. If you want your team to be as good as that team, you best keep your eyes and ears open, and take some notes. But the minor, minor detail that the latter form of imitation ignores, is that of circumstance. Try as you might, your team probably isn’t the Spurs. They probably don’t have Tim Duncan, or Pop, or that damned cult mentality that has made them so good for so long. So when you try to copy the Spurs system as your system, it might work. But it might blow up in your face, because you have neither the patience, the wisdom, nor the discipline to execute the plan. Hey, everyboy’s different, and that’s fine. What needs to be understood is that as long as teams have different rosters, different markets, and different circumstances, it’s going to be damn hard to expect the same results.

What if that weren’t the case, though? Obviously the market is something that’s going to be pretty difficult to change, but suppose that you could manipulate the roster or even the circumstances to emulate your model? The most accurate scientific studies are successful because of their ability to be re-tested under the same conditions. So if you want the same result, figure out how to create the same circumstances.

What I’m about to propose is a little bit dishonest, kind of crazy, and probably impossible. But hear me out. Aside from properly building a roster, specific coaching progressions and dynamics are arguably the most important factor in developing a contender. You not only need good coach-player relations, but you need specific types of coaches and personalities for everything to gel as planned. So rather than hoping to strike gold with a coaching find or twiddling your thumbs while a coach pisses his time away, an ambitious, front office that’s in a “gambling sorta mood” could endeavor to create a completely staged series of events and coaching changes in order to effectively control team dynamics and the ebb and flow that goes with any given season. Players turning against a coach at the wrong time could effectively jeopordize a season or maybe more. It’s difficult to predict exactly when the tides will change or what kind of effect it will have on the roster. This is exactly the type of extraneous variable that could be avoided with a solid plan.

So here’s the strat: find a team that you’d like to emulate. For the sake of argument, let’s say the first three-peat Jordan Bulls. Obviously it’s going to be damn hard to duplicate the exact roster or even a similar one, but that’s not necessarily what we’re going for. You simply want to replicate the regime change from Doug Collins to Phil Jackson because you feel that the change that occurred in that scenario could spark your team to greatness. And for the sake of a similar yet unrelated argument, let’s assume your team is the HP Favorite Memphis Grizzlies. A young stud of a shooting guard with a versatile, talented small forward. Plenty of interesting complimentary pieces. And just the kind of dismal situation that would beg for a situation like this. We’ll ignore the “Three Year Plan” and Memphis’ market woes for a minute. Y’know, just for fun.

Iavaroni could stick around until a more solid nucleus had been formed, preferably one with more prolific shooters or a more consistent big man. Or maybe players already on the roster develop into those pieces. But when “the time is right,” (whatever that means) Iav and his staff would be replaced by Player’s Coach at the helm, with a staff that includes a talented young group and your token Disciplinarian coach, and preferably one with some experience. You would need to find a tight-lipped bunch, and on top of that both coaches would need an understanding and a willingness to carry out the gameplan. From that point, you would go forth with your Collins clone, a coach whose style would contrast with Iavaroni and hopefully bring a talented, developing team into player contention/lower level playoff status. The biggest problem with “player’s coaches” is that they can get their foot in the door, but often can’t make the jump to elite status. On the other hand, the biggest problem with a “disciplinarian” is that their coaching style is often very demanding on their players’ psyches, often resulting in backlash, effort issues, or locker room implosion. Certain coaches are above and beyond any of these classifications (and Phil could definitely be considered one of those coaches, which is definitely a problem with this particular model), but most disciplinarian coaches are eventually met with a critical team following and angry players when faced with the first sign of decline. Under this plan, you would maximize the potential of the player’s coach by letting him get the team into the playoffs, but also control the transition and minimize the mental and emotional wear and tear of a more demanding coach.

A few questionable play calls, wacky subsitution patterns, off-the-wall comments, and a locker room plant (a minimum salary, veteran type willing to go the distance for the good of the team) can go a long way towards triggering a coaching regime change under completely controlled circumstances. The “assistant”-turned head coach will have already developed a working rapport with the significant players, and the “new coach surge” can be carefully timed with a playoff push and prepared for with damage control. Worst case scenario, you have a decent roster with a disciplinarian coach. Of course, there are other things to consider. I mean, If anyone gets a whiff of the plan, you’re screwed. And I mean completely screwed. There’s also absolutely no guarantee that this will actually work, and certainly no guarantee that a championship will be involved. I don’t exactly have precedent to work from here. But supposing that word doesn’t get out of the actual plan, there really isn’t that much of a downside apart from a few dollars for bankrolling what is essentially two head coaches. If the first coach works out better than expected, you could ignore the plan and go forward with them. If the team can’t take the next step under the second coach, make a trade, scrap the coach, or make some moves. But essentially, you’re not risking the future of a franchise as much as you are attempting to manipulate the environment in which significant coaching changes are sparked. It may not be the revolutionary explosion that thrusts a team from dead last into contention, but this could be the exact kind of carefully planned catalyst that could turn a mediocre squad into a perennial contender.

Seth Carstens