A look at the decisions that every coach in the NBA faces on a daily basis
I think being a basketball coach is harder than being a coach in any other major sport and much of it has to do with the proximity of the fans to the coach. Coaches are literally inches away from courtside fans who can hear every single word the coach says to his team while standing on the sideline. Every word, every sneeze, every hiccup, every fart is audible by the fans. Even those fans around the team's bench can hear what is being said in timeouts by coaches and players. You don't get that in the NFL or MLB whose coaches are either far away or protected from the fans. Thus, basketball coaches face intense pressure for every word they say or every action they make. Whatever they think they are telling a player or team in private could be overheard and posted on a blog two minutes later. But they have to block out that pressure and just focus on the game and the various decisions that separate winning from losing. Here are some of my ideas as to what decisions Doug Collins is facing as the regular season approaches.
Just call it a gut feeling, but I think that Doug Collins' lineups will resemble an amoeba all season in that they constantly take many different forms from game-to-game but never quite become set in stone. Collins frequently used a nine-man rotation at his last coaching stop in Washington but it was mostly top-heavy with Jordan, Richard Hamilton/Jerry Stackhouse, and little else. Here in Philadelphia, our ninth man is Andres Nocioni who was a part-time starter in Chicago and Sacramento and would likely be a sixth or seventh man for half the teams in the league. It wouldn't surprise me to see him start many games in place of Thaddeus Young when there is a need for strength and toughness from the small forward position. Because of our roster flexibility and having a number of "tweeners" we have many players who can play multiple positions and perform a number of different roles. So in a way our personnel is similar to that of the Philadelphia Eagles. With them, you could see Brandon Graham rushing from defensive end or defensive tackle, Darryl Tapp may be in a three-point stance or he could be used as a linebacker, and Nate Allen could blitz the quarterback or could play cover 3 and pick off the QB. The Sixers work the same way: we all know the positional flexibility of Andre Iguodala but almost every other player on the team has that same characteristic. Elton Brand could play his traditional power forward position or be a small-ball five. Thaddeus Young and Nocioni can both play either forward position while Evan Turner and Lou Williams can play either guard position. So that poses a question: Should Collins have a permanent starting lineup or adjust his lineup depending on the opponent?
While popular opinion may be to lead towards putting the best five on the court to match up with that particular opponent; history has told us that doing that may not lead to the best results. Pau Gasol's ability to play both the 4 and the 5 allows the Lakers to use either Lamar Odom at power forward or Andrew Bynum at center without taking out Gasol. With Odom on the floor instead of Bynum, and alongside the other four starters, the Lakers statistically performed much better than with Bynum out there. But did Phil Jackson adjust his starting lineup and put Odom in it when the matchup dictated so? No, he stuck with Bynum and his normal starting five unless a player was injured and judging from the past couple of years, it looks like that decision worked out.
An example of a coach adjusting his lineup due to the opponent and failing miserably was when Avery Johnson decided to do it with the Mavericks when they played the Warriors in the first round of the 2007 playoffs. The Mavericks won 67 games that year which was the most in the league and the most by any team since the '97 Bulls. Then they start the playoffs and in their first game against the #8 seed Warriors, Johnson decides to put Devean George in the starting lineup to adjust to the Warriors' small-ball lineup. It was a lineup that the Mavs had not used all season and they would go on to lose that game by 12 points, at home, which is where they only loss five times during the regular season. Johnson would go on to make two more lineup changes during the series and the Warriors would go on to defeat the Mavs in six games in what was probably the biggest playoff upset of this decade.
Now these are all my beliefs as to what Collins should do but he has never been a by-the-book coach so it's still unpredictable as to what lineups we will see. Our "best five", collectively, may not comprise of our best five individual players and that is the decision that every coach must make on a game-to-game basis. There may be a better player on the bench than in the starting lineup but that player may not gel with his teammates and thus, is coming off the bench for a reason (Jamal Crawford and Corey Maggette are two such examples). Judging from Tuesday's game with the Celtics, I don't know if Marreese Speights will be a starter but I do know that he will be a finisher and by that I mean someone who is on the court at the ends of games to seal the victory. He has always been a good foul shooter, which is what you need in the 4th quarter, but thus far in preseason he's become more aggressive and is drawing more fouls than ever before. Through the first four preseason games, Speights has gone 22 for 26 from the line and that accounts for more made free throws than he had in every month except one last season. Why mess with that formula and put Speights in the starting lineup?
It's kind of like a baseball player batting 8th and hitting .300 and then being moved to the middle of the lineup where he starts hitting .230. A drastic change can put undue pressure on an individual and instead of performing like they always have, they start trying to do too much instead of letting the game come to them. If Speights were to become a starter then he may lose some of his aggressiveness now that he's on the court with guys like Iguodala and Brand. Especially with him still being a young player, he is likely to take a back seat to the veterans and not play his game. The same goes for Lou Williams; he's been arguably the best guard for the 76ers through four games despite not getting a start. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Keep him as a super sub and let him and Speights lead the second unit.
Doug Collins is a smart man who's been around this game for a long, long time. He knows what to do and he knows what works. But like so many other coaches including those in other sports, they often have outside influences (i.e. the media and fans) telling them to do something else and many of those coaches listen to and follow through with those suggestions. The Phil Jacksons and Bill Belichicks of the world ignore those people while other coaches that give in are the ones who are fired within 2-3 years. Let's hope that Collins is closer to the former than the latter and he can ignore those outside voices and do what he was seemingly put on this earth to do and that is to just coach basketball. It's as simple as that.