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What Can a Coach Control?

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We're a dozen games away from weighing coaching names, following rumors, arguing with each other, making cases, fretting, pondering and wishing Ailene Voisin would knock if off already, sheesh. The case for a coach that will run the Princeton has been made by many of us Carrilphiles. Others prefer a coach -- a Flip Saunders or Avery Johnson -- with a better defensive track record.

Coaching is one of the trickiest factors for armchair analysts to figure out. We rue to bad play call, wonder when our favorite player will get back in, and scream for time-outs. But that's just a piece of the coaching puzzle ... maybe not even a big piece. The coaches are responsible for the players for 160 days -- through practices and road trips and shootarounds and (yes) games. You can't measure warm fuzzies, respect, confidence and preparation. Arguably, those factors far surpass the tactical game decisions in the totality of an NBA season.

Being that Geoff Petrie assembled this roster, the roster has a particular offensive bent. The star, Kevin Martin: an offensive wizard who has been maligned for his lack of defensive acumen. The center, Spencer Hawes: a sharp-skilled high-post pivot still figuring out concepts like "boxing out" and "defending the lane." The rookie, Jason Thompson: does a foul count as a stop? (No.) The point guard, Beno Udrih: why bother running a pick-and-roll against him? Just roll.

None of these cats were signed or drafted for their defensive potential. Of course they have defensive potential ... but come on, Petrie drafted Martin because he beat Peja's pre-draft shooting records, and Quincy Douby because he beat Martin's shooting records. If you can shoot, if you can pass, if you can score -- you're a Petrie player.

You'd assume, then, that these cats need an offensive coach to make it all work. Even the addition of Pete Carril in an advisor role has helped the offense synch up pretty well. But can a coach affect the team's offense or defense as much as we believe?

In his book Basketball on Paper, current Nuggets analyst Dean Oliver addressed this a bit. In discussing the Top 25 offenses and defenses in NBA history, he finds an interesting distinction between the lists.

When a team appears on this list of great offense several times with the same coach, it may not actually be a reflection of great coaching, but a bit of luck on the coach's part to have good talent for a period of time. However, when a coach builds great offenses on multiple teams, that is at least an indication that the coach knows how to let great talent be a great system. More likely, the coach has some skill that he is passing on to his players to contribute to their greatness.

Only one coach -- George Karl -- appears on the top 25 offenses list with different teams (the '95 Sonics and the '01 Bucks). Phil Jackson looks to join him this season (to go along with several editions of the Jordan Bulls). So this skill that Oliver attributes to coaches -- it doesn't manifest very strongly on offense ... when compared to defense.

Oliver found that four coaches took different franchises to the top 25 defenses list: Jackson, Pat Riley, Larry Brown and Lenny Wilkens. That's a substantial figure -- those coaches take up nine of the 25 best defenses. Other coaches (Gregg Popovich, Frank Layden) on the list only coached one franchise. Almost the entire list is made up of coaches known as master motivators (Jackson, Wilkens), complete hard-asses (Riley, Popovich) or both (Brown). There are really very few surprises on the list ... as opposed to the offenses list, which boasts Del Harris (who had Kobe and Shaq for a few years ... and a sub-.500 coaching career outside of L.A.) and Dick Motta (whose coaching crimes you know well -- his great season with Blackman, Harper and Aguirre landed him the Kings contract).

Judging by Oliver's findings -- and this is me speaking, not Oliver -- it would seem a great offense absolutely depends on great offensive talent, while coaches can significantly impact a team's defense. Even Dick Motta! can coach a great offense -- it takes a great coach to pull off a great defense.

Again, Oliver doesn't explicitly write that; I'd hate to put theories in his mouth. But looking at those lists, and the coaches' overall reputations ... it's easy to see why you might advocate for an Avery Johnson, a Mike Budenholzer. (MIKE! BUDEN! HOLZER! people.)

We have no say in the end. (Heck, it seems Petrie has little say.) But it's worth looking at all the angles.