Dave and I were discussing the recent news that Jason Kidd has been hired as a head coach by the Brooklyn Nets. My initial comments were a bit snarky. Jason Kidd as a selection is nothing surprising. As I wrote earlier this season, having a background as an NBA point guard is the best bet for getting a coaching gig.
Dave had another view. Is there actually a problem with Jason Kidd for the job? After all, the Nets have to hire someone for the job, what’s to say that Jason Kidd won’t do well? I have a few thoughts on this.
Do we know what makes coaches good?
NBA head coaches are a really hard job to measure, especially as an outsider. There are only thirty of them active at a time. We find that they don’t tend to matter when it comes to improving players. We do find they tend to matter when it comes to playing the right players. And Arturo has been looking at whether it matters what offensive and defensive schemes they play (spoiler: it does).
The issue with this is that it’s very hard to know why. Is it because they are a good coach, or because they have a good staff? Is it the platitudes they say in the game, or what happens behind closed doors? We have an edge in evaluating players — the actions they perform that matter happen on the court and are recorded in granular detail. The things that coaches do? Well, they tend to be hidden from us and not usually recorded.
Sample size, time, results
As I mentioned, with only 30 head coaches, it’s a small group of people to compare. And, as the initial study done by Dave Berri and Martin Schmidt showed, the group of coaches that seem to impact player development is even smaller. The Success Equation (a fantastic book, check it out!) brings up the problem with many books on management. It examines successful companies, sees what they all do and says “these qualities make a company good!”. But it leaves out all the companies that did similar actions and failed, and it leaves out the impact luck can have. With so few head coaches that seem to matter, it’s really hard to avoid making the same mistakes, especially without concrete data on what each coach is doing.
What’s more, in the eyes of fans, coaches are often judged by results, not actions. George Karl was given coach of the year for winning lots of games. He was fired for losing in the playoffs. Was his coaching directly tied to either of these (no and yes, in that order)? The point is, most teams don’t actually ask this. If a team wins, the coach is good; if a team loses, the coach is bad. The firings of Karl, Vinny Del Negro, and Lionel Hollins suggest that NBA franchises might be changing how they choose their coaches. Let’s hope that, in the future, NBA coaches will be hired and fired based on how much they improved their teams, instead of based on their teams’ records.