While the Wizards spent a lot of big money on new players this summer, their biggest acquisition was undoubtedly hiring former Oklahoma City Thunder head coach, Scott Brooks. His pedigree speaks for itself, as he has excelled at player development as well as instilling a defense-first attitude in his players. The criticisms are there, but given that the Wizards' previous coach, Randy Wittman, had likely overstayed his welcome in Washington, Brooks seems like a breath of fresh air that will bring significant change to the nation’s capital.
Or will he? Whenever a coaching change happens in the NBA, it is often considered big news, and fans love to think of the new possibilities as a new system and a new voice in the locker-room. However, a coaching change may not have the effect that many people expect. A study done by David Berri in 2009showed that aside from several highly regarded NBA coaches, coaches do not seem to have a statistically significant impact on team performance.
One can also state their claim against the impact of coaching on an anecdotal level as well as an empirical one. There have been various examples of teams who have had dramatic coaching changes, yet have shown little improvement in the win column. An example would be the Los Angeles Clippers after changing coaches from Vinny Del Negro to Doc Rivers. In Del Negro’s final season, the Clippers were able to total 56 wins, and they have not deviated much from this total under Rivers’ tenure. Most fans seem to understand that talent has more of an impact on team performance than coaching, but the gap may be much bigger than it’s perceived to be.
On the other hand, a lot of the positive effects of coaching is circumstantial, and a new coach can make a significant difference in the right situation. The San Antonio Spurs have been able to plug and play players into their system as their core has aged and they've continued to rack up winning seasons and titles thanks to Gregg Popovich’s stellar player development and willingness to tailor and simplify his system for his players. The Golden State Warriors went from a solid team to one of the greatest in NBA history with Steve Kerr at the helm. His willingness to open up the system and trust in his players' abilities helped them thrive. Mike Budenholzer has been able to bring a Spurs-esque philosophy to the Atlanta Hawks which has led to regular season success as well as unprecedented development from players like DeMarre Carroll and Kent Bazemore.
A good coach can also provide a tactical advantage in the playoffs, where the game slows down, the sample size is smaller, the teams are all talented, and precision can make all the difference. Washington arguably could have gotten to the Eastern Conference Finals if it were not for a few tactical flaws in their game plan that ended up being fatal. Perhaps Brooks can change this. A coach may not make a difference with talent disparities in the regular season, but perhaps they can do enough in a short series to mask whatever deficiencies they might have.
Basically, what I am saying is I have absolutely no clue how much of a difference coaching makes. I have constantly gone back and forth on this question, and I think it is a much more legitimate one to ask than most fans think. While the empirical evidence might say that a majority of coaches might not make a significant difference in the aggregate, coaching changes by nature are very circumstantial, and the situations where they do work are valuable case studies. The one thing I can say is that talent-wise, the Wizards are about on-par where they were with Randy Wittman’s teams. If they truly think Brooks can make a significant difference, then there will be no better test for him than this roster.