Sloan's situation a familiar refrain
By Randy Hill
February 12, 2011
The star NBA point guard was unhappy with tactical applications presented by the head coach.
Something about not playing fast enough to suit the skills and on-court sensibilities of the point guard. Anyway, it was believed this collision of competing philosophies led to the coach stepping aside, allowing the point guard to flourish.
The year was 1981. The point guard was Los Angeles Lakers superstar Magic Johnson and the coach was Paul Westhead.
And while there are some similarities between their head butting and this week's contretemps co-starring Deron Williams and Jerry Sloan of the Utah Jazz, it should be noted that there are considerable differences. For openers, Westhead -- who stepped in and coached the Lakers to the 1980 NBA championship after head coach Jack McKinney was injured in a bicycle accident -- was fired. It also was reported that while Magic is credited with Westhead's ouster, most of his teammates were on board, and Lakers owner Jerry Buss had been talked out of making a coaching change a couple of weeks earlier.
Ironically, Johnson brought this crisis to the public arena by requesting a trade after the Lakers had played in Salt Lake City. Here's even better irony: Westhead, whose belief in slowing down the offense and going through Kareem Abdul-Jabbar allegedly provoked Magic's insubordination, went on to establish severe run-and-gun chops while coaching Loyola Marymount.
What does any of this have to do with Williams and Sloan? Well, it reminds us the NBA is a players' league. With a system that allows Luke Walton to be in the same salary ballpark with Phil Jackson (excluding bonuses), part of the asylum always will be up for grabs. This doesn't mean coaching isn't crucial to the success of a team. You'd have to be a nitwit to believe otherwise.
But despite the importance of X-and-O chutzpah and sage substitution patterns, perhaps the greatest component in professional basketball coaching is credibility. If you have the attention of the players (especially the stars), the players buy in. And when the players buy in, they execute the game plan. It's easier to win when the game plan is executed, but the skill to execute the game plan is where money and organizational clout come in.
Based on the hullabaloo emanating from Utah, I believe Williams when he insists Sloan's decision to step down -- in the middle of what can be a playoff season -- was not inspired by any crabbing to management by the point guard. I do believe the last-straw theory. After 23 seasons as head coach in Utah, repeated disagreements with the on-court face of the franchise finally didn't seem worth the bickering.
Sure, maybe Sloan could have been a bit more flexible. Although basketball should be a simple exercise, the game is not immune from evolution. But that evolution comes kicking and screaming into the rigid, stubborn patterns of the NBA. In case you hadn't noticed, most teams have run the same sets -- sets that have been used for about 20 years. With the 24-second clock and the salary cap to deal with, coaches lack the time and scoring options to trust the yield from any newfangled continuity offense.
So it's kind of amusing to read about Williams and his preference to play at a faster tempo than Sloan has prescribed to for so many years. A look at pace reveals that nine of the league's top 11 teams currently sit at .500 or below (actually, only one of those teams is as high as .500). But the same players who whine about playing faster aren't willing to play faster on defense; the energy requirement of pressuring the ball to create the kind of end-to-end pace that generates the easy offense these speed-mongers seem to want is not even considered.
With not that many per-48-minute possessions separating the slowest and fastest tempos, teams run when they happen to generate turnovers or snag long rebounds. After that, every coach becomes a half-court control freak.
That includes Mike "Seven Seconds Or Less" D'Antoni of the New York Knicks and Alvin Gentry of the Phoenix Suns. When a transition-scoring opportunity is not there, these guys run as many half-court sets designed to create specific shots (or drive-and-dish opportunities) for certain players as anyone.
What Sloan and his smarter peers understand is how to create good shots using the NBA's defensive-three-seconds rule to exploit the subsequent difficulty in playing help-side defense. He's been using the same four-high sets, side pick-and-rolls and modified-flex plays that enabled John Stockton to become the league's all-time assists leader on his way to the Hall of Fame.
Sloan's offensive philosophy hasn't prevented the Jazz from checking in at 10 in the league's offensive-efficiency rankings this season. Eight of the nine teams ranked ahead of them are winning at at least a .500 clip. But Utah is only 18th in defensive efficiency and a crummy 26th in defensive rebounding.
It seems that old-school offensive structure can be less culpable in creating team turmoil than the inability to take care of business at the other end of the floor.
With 48 minutes of play time per game, there's plenty of opportunities for Williams to run up and down the floor. Through Friday, Utah was 14th in the league in fast-break points after finishing 11th last season. So, while they're not reinventing the transition game, the Jazz are far from crawling.
Losing 10 of the last 14 games Sloan coached (Williams missed four games during that stretch) certainly is a better excuse to start questioning tactics that still work in a league where execution can trump scheme. Even Jackson's commitment to the triangle offense couldn't offset the Lakers' lack of talent around Kobe Bryant until they received the gift of Pau Gasol.
But while the triangle has built-in spacing advantages that work for the Lakers, there are other ways Jackson could accomplish offensive stability. Phil's ability to keep his players buying into whatever structure he establishes (plus their considerable talent) is what sets him apart as a coach.
And having more rings than fingers goes a long way in maintaining a player's attention.
If Michael Jordan had been able to hit a curveball, one of Phil's Chicago three-peats never would have occurred, enabling Jerry Sloan to reach this millennium with two rings of his own.
Perhaps that would have made Deron Williams or anyone else doubting Sloan's offensive methodology, or his starting-lineup decisions, or his substitution patterns to think twice before being dissatisfied with how things were being run.
For his part, Sloan simply realized that not having the attention of his best player was all the cue he needed to head back to the farm.
By the way, that Lakers uprising credited/blamed on Magic Johnson led to the hiring of Pat Riley, who helped deliver four championships to Los Angeles. Seems like change can be good, right?
Well, it should be noted that after being named Coach of the Year in 1990, Riley left the Lakers, who were swept in The Finals by the Detroit Pistons one year earlier. A lot of L.A.-based, professional NBA observers believed it was time. There had been grumbling that Riley worked his players too hard.
The players were ready to listen to another voice.
If that's what happened in Utah, let's hope that while he considers opening up the offense, Tyrone Corbin can command some attention.