How valuable is an NBA coach?
That’s the question at the heart of the trade that sent Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers to the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for a first-round draft pick in 2015.
I think we can all agree that the football coach, with his doorstop playbook, sits atop the professional sports pecking order. The football-coach-as-general metaphor is over-used, but it’s nevertheless on point. What other coach has to be thinking about so many moving parts? You can argue about whether or not New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick is a genius, but you’re only having the argument because he’s a football coach.
We can also agree that the baseball “manager” -- don’t let the exalted title fool you -- is at the bottom of the coaching pack. Baseball is effectively an aggregation of discrete tasks performed by a group of individuals. There’s not a whole lot of strategy involved. When there is, it tends to be straightforward. (Bring in the left-handed reliever to face the left-handed hitter, etc.) There’s a statistic-based answer to virtually every decision a baseball manager faces over the course of a game.
When it comes to basketball, though, things get a little murkier. Because it’s a game driven by superstars, it’s tempting to think of the slick-suited NBA coach as a marginal figure. (The networks’ practice of miking them up for their banal timeout pep-talks has made it all the more tempting.) The Rivers trade struck some people as strange not because they think of NBA coaches with their dry-erase boards as management -– but because they don’t think of them as “talent.”
This is a misconception. Melding egos, turning selfish stars into unselfish heroes, simply motivating guys to play harder -- to want it more -- this is the vital, destiny-altering work of the successful NBA coach. There are destiny-altering in-game decisions, too, as we saw last week in the epic Game 6 of the Miami Heat v. San Antonio Spurs, when Spurs coach Gregg Popovich -- one of the NBA’s best -- fatefully took Tim Duncan off the floor in the game’s closing seconds. The miscue gave Miami's Chris Bosh an uncontested rebound that led to Ray Allen’s game-tying three-pointer.
The Clippers look awfully silly right now, making personnel decisions dictated by their point guard. (Chris Paul reportedly threatened not to re-sign with the Clippers when he became a free agent this summer if the team didn’t hire Rivers). But they may yet have the last laugh. During his tenure in Boston, Rivers proved that he’s a lot more valuable than a first-round draft pick. He not only led the Celtics to their 2008 title over the Lakers, but managed to keep his aging team competitive until this past season -- well beyond all reasonable expectations.
Rivers may not be Bill Belichick, but he has demonstrated that he can corral some pretty difficult personalities and inspire them to work hard for him. The Clippers have plenty of talent. Maybe all they really need is a good basketball coach.
(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)