Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Position by Position--Coach

There are two tangible measures of success for a coach: winning and execution. By either measure, Nate had a tough year. The winning is obvious...worst in the league. On top of that, reading the list of things this team was horrible at is like getting slapped in the face repeatedly with a rotten salmon.

Dead Last in the League In: Scoring, Defensive Rebounds, Total Rebounds, Turnovers Committed, Opponent Offensive Rebounds, Opponent 3-point Field Goal Percentage, Free Throw Percentage, and, as was reported by Henry Abbott this week, efficiency out of time-outs.

Bottom Five in the League In: Assists, Steals, Opponent Total Rebounds, Turnovers Forced, Field Goals Made per Game, Field Goals Attempted per Game, Free Throws Made per Game, Free Throws Attempted per Game, and Opponent Field Goal Percentage.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the NBA equivalent of the Hindenburg crashing into the Titanic. It kind of makes you wonder how we managed to win 21 games.

How much of this is Nate's fault? Is the problem McMillan's message or the players' response?

This season was obviously a battle of the wills where Nate struggled to get his concepts across and the players struggled to understand, or in some cases accept, it. It takes all of ten seconds listening to hear what he preaches: defense, hustle, grit, rebounding, fundamentals, unselfish play. Nearly every stat mentioned above depends on those things, and there's a strong argument to be made that despite this year's results, that philosophy is exactly what this team needs.

Clearly he did not get through to his star players though, the volume minute and shot guys. And in the NBA if you don't get through to your stars, you don't get through to anybody because they dominate so much of the game. In Nate's defense, the more you see and hear of our two main guys the more you wonder if anybody can get through to them. He's really not pushing anything different than Greg Popovich does. The difference, as many have pointed out, is that Tim Duncan allows himself to get yelled at and then responds, which sets the tone for his team. Zach and Darius do neither.

But then again Nate's last playoff year with Seattle obscured the fact that he had a lot of poorly achieving teams before that. And few players in Seattle seemed to mourn his leaving. Of course look what happened to them afterwards!

You could go around in circles all day with this. I don't know that we'll have a definitive answer until a couple years have passed. Maybe we won't have it until we get some new leaders and see how Nate does with them.

I will say, however, that there were some observable positives from this season, directly attributable to Nate and his staff. Until the season-ending disaster when the main players just threw in the towel, you seldom saw games where the team didn't look like it was trying, and you never saw two of those games in a row. A lot of the young guys gained confidence through the year. At the beginning of the year they were on and off the court like yo-yos because they just didn't know what it took to stay out there. Somebody told them, and most of them got it. I don't think there was a single young guy that didn't show at least marginal improvement by season's end, and most showed more than that. With a couple of obvious exceptions, the team carried itself with a sense of professionalism both on and off the court, and seemed to have relatively few internal struggles compared to seasons past (at least after Ruben left anyway). The team also got fewer technical fouls this year than anytime in recent memory, and you know it wasn't because we were getting better calls.

There were also some negatives that the stats don't measure. It was hard to follow Nate's substitution philosophy for quite a while, especially early on. It wasn't just with the young guys either. On more than one occasion Joel had a nice game going and never saw the light of day again. It happened to Khryapa sometimes too. Nate lost Sebastian completely mid-season, seemingly because Bassy couldn't figure out what he wanted. I'm sure there were other incidents where he would have communicated or done things differently if he had the chance to do it over with Darius, with Zach, maybe with a couple other guys. Finally (and it's odd for someone in the public to say this) I think Nate probably talks too much to the media, especially with his frustrations. For one thing, the plan changed every three weeks "Keep two point guards...no wait it's three...Zach's not to blame...Zach is to blame...Zach's not to blame again." Now he's gone public with the desire to trade our pick for a veteran. But what if that's not the way things turn out? Does it then look like he lost that battle with management? Better to keep it to yourself and discuss it with the people who actually make those decisions. In the same vein, I'm not sure it ever works well to call attention to certain guys or certain situations in public. This is especially true with fragile players and a media corps that is (somewhat justifiably) used to blowing stories up big. Nate tried that tactic. It didn't work. And sometimes he seemed concerned that we knew it wasn't all his fault that things were going badly, that players weren't listening, that we were overmatched every night. It's totally natural to be aware of people's perceptions when things are going wrong, but there were times I wanted to say, "It's alright coach! Anybody with a head worth keeping on their shoulders knows the score. Just stick to your guns and stop worrying about what we think." I suspect his comfort level with his players and the position will rise as his tenure here gets longer and much of this will go by the wayside.

In the end you have to say it wasn't the best year for Nate, while at the same time acknowledging that he didn't have the best material to work with either. Those who love him and those who hate him can both draw grist for the mill from this season. Either way, with that long-term contract he's not going anywhere. My gut feeling says that's a good thing for the team. Of all the qualities Nate possesses, one of the clearest is this: It's just hard not to like the guy.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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