Crunch-Time Coaching: What’s Going On?

So, you’re an NBA coach. It’s the playoffs. You have one possession to win the game. This is when all the practice, film study, and mid-February garbage games in Milwaukee pay off. It’s a time when you can show off your basketball acumen, draw up that perfect play, and ensure that you and your team will live on in the pantheon of great sports moments.

Or, it’s the time for your best player to go one-on-five and take a contested shot. Just so you, NBA coach, can cover your ass.

In some respects, I understand the coach who decides that if he’s going to lose, he’s going to lose with the ball in his best player’s hands. It’s hard to get mad at a guy for running the cockroach play. It goes something like this: “Go ahead, LeBron. Take the ball and do something. Everyone else: Scatter!” I guess there are worse ideas, and if we’re being honest, LeBron’s probably going to do that anyway. But with all due respect to those who have dedicated their lives to the great game of basketball: call a damn play. Really. Just do it.

There are stats out there about the success rate of isolation plays versus set plays that essentially say it’s far more effective to run an actual play than it is to have someone go all Rambo and try and make something happen. From a Henry Abbott piece:

“…When Synergy began breaking down NBA plays by type in 2004, what it found would have made Wooden smile: Plays involving off-the-ball cuts (1.18 points per possession) and transition plays (1.12 ppp) are by far the most efficient, followed by putbacks (1.04 ppp) and pick-and-rolls in which the ball reaches the hands of the rolling man (0.97 ppp). And the least efficient? Isolation plays, good for only 0.78 points per possession.”

I’m glad these stats exist, but my point isn’t so much about the efficacy of the plays themselves, but the reasons why coaches make the decisions they do.

Remember when all the talk in the basketball world was about LeBron’s “Killer Instinct” and how he “Didn’t Have A Killer Instinct” and how “He’s Just A Six-Foot-Eight Freak Who Is The Best Player Of His Generation But That Doesn’t Matter Because Sometimes He Makes The Correct Basketball Play And Passes The Ball Instead Of Taking A Terrible Shot And Therefore Is Terrible?” Remember that nonsense? Well, apparently coaches do, because they catch most of the flack. Coaches, regardless of pedigree, experience, or clout, never want to have to answer a certain question: “Why wasn’t the ball in your best player’s hands for the last shot?”

Actually, it doesn’t even need to be the best player on the team. In the absence of a superstar, any player will do. Maybe he’s been on a bit of a hot streak, so sure, go ahead and trust him in the most important moment of the game. I’m looking at you, Dwane Casey. Sure, Cory Joseph is a delight, but if you really want the outcome of a playoff game to land squarely on his shoulders, at least run him off a high ball screen and get him a chance at an open look.

There is plenty of in game evidence to back up the idea that calling a play is simply a better idea. Regardless of outcome. Doc Rivers is a coach that gets all the credit in the world for being a great “out-of-a-timeout playcaller.” And he should. He’s good at it. He aims to get his guys all set up, move ‘em around, and get the ball to the open man, knowing good things will happen. But why isn’t that same logic applied to end-of-game scenarios?

One argument could be that the offensive emphasis in the NBA has shifted from set plays to a concept that is essentially this: find the guy standing on the three-point line and hit him.  If you spread the floor, move the ball, drive to the basket, collapse the defense, and dish to the shooters, you’re going to have success. As the league not-so-slowly shifts to this way of thinking, the need for intricate in-game playcalling has diminished.

By going iso in a do-or-die spot, your best hope is that the guy with the ball in his hands is going to make an epic shot, or draw a foul. The first one could absolutely happen, but, unless you and the ref have the unspoken bond of an elephant and a tiger that are best friends, you’re not getting that foul.

Maybe we should look in the mirror on this one. Maybe if we could give coaches just the smallest amount of credit that they know what they’re doing, we wouldn’t be in this situation. Maybe if we didn’t live in a world of instant Twitter reactions, Crying Jordan memes, and random dudes writing articles on the Internet (sorry), coaches wouldn’t be so scared. But it gets increasingly hard to give anyone credit when there are ten seconds left in a playoff game and Jeff Teague just dribbles around the three-point line, kills the clock, and then attempts to hoist a shot with two seconds left that doesn’t even make it to the rim.

And maybe part of this is on the players. Maybe if the NBA weren’t such a star-driven league, coaches would have the security to make the right moves instead of appeasing their star. I know I wouldn’t want to look a giant in the face and tell him why he didn’t get the ball. Those dudes are huge in stature–and in ego–and they can turn coaches into broadcasters. Just ask George Karl, David Blatt, or Stan Van Gundy.

The bottom line is that coaches are coaching scared. They’re coaching for the post-game news conference, not the in-game situation. They’re coaching for their jobs.

This may be entirely selfish, but my plea to you, dear NBA coach, is just call a play. It’s better basketball, and we’ll forgive you if the ball doesn’t go in.

Maybe.

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Max Spitulnik is a writer based in LA. You should follow him on Twitter.