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Bullets Forever Mailbag: What’s the Value of Coaching?

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We answer one question directly (and in advance of our full mailbag for tomorrow.)

2019 Mtn Dew ICE Rising Stars
Wizards head coach Wes Unseld Jr.
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

In our July mailbag, I received one question directly from DJMilk:

Would you agree, either as a thought experiment, or as an actual model, that the performance of the USA national team sheds some light on the importance of coaching?

This is not to say that Pops is a bad coach of course, but that a team of All-Star players who haven’t been coached are MUCH worse than they would otherwise be in a game?

Obviously you have issues with small sample size, and maybe you can argue motivation levels, but all of the USA guys are NBA stars. My guess is that your PPA and league coefficients show that Team USA is underperforming where they should be by ~30-40 points. To me that shows there’s a lot in play when in comes to coaching. I bet you see a pretty strong correlation between time together / multiple-cycles and USA team performance.

(I’m not arguing Brooks was costing the Wiz 30 points per game; he’s a real NBA coach and his teams have a system that they’ve played enough to learn, whether I like it or not.)

This is a gigantic question, which I appreciate very much, and not just because I’m halfway through a bottle of Trade Joe’s red blend.

The “easy” answer is one you referenced — small sample size. One or two games doesn’t prove much of anything, especially when it comes to something like coaching.

That said, I did run some numbers after Team USA lost to Nigeria and found that your estimate — underperforming by 30-40 points — is about right. I estimate Team USA to be about 14 points per 100 possessions better than average at the NBA level, and Team Nigeria to be about 13.7 points per 100 possessions below the NBA average.

A bit of math shows Team USA “should have” won by about 27-28 points against Nigeria, but they lost by three. So, that’s at 30-31-point delta.

Now, is that because of coaching?

I’d suggest no — or at least probably not. I’m reasonably confident the team has good and adaptable coaches. Gregg Popovich has been around a long time and his various systems have evolved with his players. He knows international basketball well, and he has an experienced and highly competent coaching staff — Steve Kerr, Jay Wright and Lloyd Pierce.

What I see in Team USA are a few issues with the roster. First, is something Neil Greenberg dissected in the Washington Post — the roster, while very good, is the weakest American Olympic roster since 2004. “That team lost its opening game to Puerto Rico by 19 points, ending Team USA’s 24-game Olympic winning streak since 1992, and ultimately settled for the bronze medal,” Greenberg wrote. I came up with the same result when I ran the analysis using my PPA metric instead of Box Plus/Minus.

The second issue is the type of players chosen. They’re heavy on shoot-first scorers and light on instinctive playmakers, elite defenders and dirty work doers. The arrival of Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton when the Finals wrap may help some on defense.

Third, they lack quality size in the middle. That’s something that won’t be helped by replacing Kevin Love (withdrew) and Bradley Beal (COVID-19) with JaVale McGee and Keldon Johnson. Realistically, McGee and Johnson address none of the roster flaws.

An aside, I’m still trying to wrap my head around a selection process that resulted in picking McGee to join the Olympic team. Was he the only person who answered his phone? Better choices in no particular order: Robert Williams, Jarrett Allen, Richaun Holmes, Christian Wood, Andre Drummond, Brook Lopez, Myles Turner, and maybe a few others. They’d have been better off getting Russell Westbrook to come play center. My pick would have been Allen.

Back to the subject, effort was an issue in the loss to Nigeria. I sent this text to a friend during the game:

It’s fascinating to see USA playing like the “too cool for school” Wizards while Nigeria plays HARD.

That said, it didn’t look to me like an effort differential of 31 points.

Another factor could be overall time together as a group. There’s a cohesiveness that comes from playing together for a while. But, Team Nigeria was dealing with a lot of newcomers too, and the lineups Mike Brown had on the floor likely hadn’t seen much court-time together because of the 50+ players they brought to training camp.

The important issue for Wizards fans, of course, is the difference between Scott Brooks and Wes Unseld Jr. My guess is that Unseld will be a better coach for the group they assemble than Scott Brooks was (or would be), but as you note — Brooks is a real NBA coach with an actual system, and not a simpering “roll out the ball” moron.

None of the forgoing is to suggest coaching doesn’t matter. And perhaps it may matter more in an Olympics tournament format where novel plays and outlier performances can hold sway. Over the course of an 82-game season, schematic innovations are recognized, dissected and countered. What matters most is talent.

The coaching staff has its greatest impact in picking lineups, helping players accept and grow into roles, and the grinding work of managing people working together in close proximity over an extended schedule. I’m aware that Brooks caught lots of flak for his lineups — some of it from me. Many of those lineup decisions were driven by a lack of talent at certain positions (below replacement level wings, for example). When he finally focused on simply putting the team’s most productive players on the floor more often, they played better — at least until they ran into a better team in the postseason.

All this is a long way of saying the Olympics probably don’t tell us much about the value of coaching. It’s notoriously difficult to quantify what a coach is worth. Different studies have found radically different results — from some saying coaches have negligible value (except for the extreme greats like Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, Gregg Popovich, Red Auerbach, or the extremely bad), and others saying coaches have a HUGE impact.

I saw one study that estimated top coaches add 10-20 wins per season. Of course, that study had Brooks as the ninth best coach — ahead of Del Harris, Mike Budenholzer, Kevin McHale and Pat Riley.

Replacing Brooks with Unseld will provide some imperfect information about the value of coaching. Brooks won’t get to coach second-year Deni Avdija or third-year Rui Hachimura, for example. Unseld probably won’t have to figure out how to construct a rotation with zero NBA-level wings. What players do next year for Unseld are not necessarily things they were capable of doing or ready to do the previous season.

The franchise is hoping Unseld and new players will combine with returning players into something better than what came before. And it might even happen — it sometimes does for other teams.