Who can still stand tall?

In a few precious hours, I will celebrate this betrothen holiday upon the same block as Stephen A. and Capone. No lie. Indeed, this offal spirit runs slow and locally.

On this day of primal gratitude, I wanted to take the chance to turn a critical eye toward one of my favorite NBA melodramas: the often subtle management/coach turf war. Publicly, the two are chained at the groin, as team success hails both and most varieties of ruin tarnish them equally. If nothing else, fan and fan-guided media perception are such that separating the two is, for the most part, a task best left to those likely to recognize the vast gulf between them. Namely, the front office makes personnel decisions and the coach is left to live with them; at the same time, the coach has final say over how the floor appears to the huddled eyeballs of the homecourt audience, and thus can effectively distort, inflate, destroy, or eulogize any one of these choices. Front offices operate in the hypothetical, going off of things like CAT scans, wondrous history books, and fashion. Coaches, on the other hand, operate primarily accordingly to ego, hunches, and gee-whiz results.

This is mostly a difference of time. One party needs to win on a nightly basis, the other is given a window of three years to let their plan unfold. Coaches care not what could be on their bench, or what they've ideally been blessed with; they are in the business of winning and losing, albeit with varying degrees of myopic rage. Because no one wants to pay to watch a team develop, most organizations bark out loud according to this rudimentary stance. That's why it was so refreshing to hear Bryan Colangelo come out and say this the other day:

"In order for him to improve and get a feel for what it takes to be successful at this level, you have to play minutes," Colangelo said of Bargnani. "Needless to say, that will be happening. If we're sitting here at [2-8] trying to win ball games and lose Andrea Bargnani in the process, we've lost twice."--Globe and Mail, via Inside Hoops.

As much as Sam Mitchell is known throughout this country as a coach, it's for being a gruff operator who once bodyslammed his starting point guard just to keep his rep. Colangelo, on the other hand, may or may not have been key to one of the most visionary teams in the annals of basketball. This could be seen as prime NBARS, but instead I'm thinking it's more one of the most honest examples I've ever seen of the coach/GM disconnect. Colangelo's being paid to have a bountiful dream, and A-Bar obviously represents a major piece of that puzzle of hope. In fact, you could argue that the NBA is as interested in seeing the Raptors become something coherent, if failed, as they are in seeing Toronto scrape together some victories here and there. Of course, this is strychnine to Mitchell, who is betraying his faith and sawing at his toes by keeping a floundering alien on the floor. Never mind that he's something of a permanent lame duck; were he to accept this tide of possibility, he would find his future subject to the virtues of a brash gamble. Colangelo is praised for being willing to move like this, but Mitchell risks irrelevance and extinction by going along for that ride.

In effect, he would turn out like Doc Rivers. The Good Doc, as we all know, now perennially finds himself knee-deep in a swamp of what-if's, could-be's, and skittering prayers. SI's Ian Thompson observes that six of Beantown's top eleven scorers are still of what was once known as college age, with very few of them getting any more defined as NBA pieces. Delonte West may or may not ever receive a position; Gerald Green might take over; the beauty of Al Jefferson needs to be seen for all its cracks and shambles; Telfair and Rondo are sapping each others' souls. The Team of Bird loses profusely, Pierce ails inside, Wally drinks alone, and Ainge, not Rivers, is held responsible for long-term sanity.

In this situation, the coach has been reduced to a caretaker, a jolly fellow who runs a year-long combine for the benefit of a GM mired in prospects. There's no victory to be had now, and certainly Rivers will not be credited with whatever order emerges from this madness. He's a good shepherd, maybe, but one whose value lurks exactly in his willingness to take rebuilding without a peep. As soon the new light rises, he'll be cast aside in favor of someone who knows how to work the game, since his failure to win with a sloppy day-care will be taken as a sign of folly. Such is the lot of the "players' coach," like Silas in Cleveland, put on this earth solely to provide those players reassurance through the early fog of uncertainty. More guidance counselor than man, he bears the scars of their immaturity, implicated in it through his very ability to listen, while the front office claims whatever long-term grandeur emerges.

But this is hardly solely a problem of these two minimal and discarded franchises. Up in Seattle, FD favorite Chris Wilcox has failed to re-materialize after cashing in. The Sonics are now stuck with him FOREVER, even if he never recpatures his late-last season form. Yet he was signed on the assumption that he would, and that tease will hang in the mind of those who did it—if nothing else, as a means of justifying their actions (see also Miles, Darius). Marbury, whose consummate downfall is as boring as it is inexplicable, lives in MSG for two more agonizing campaigns, and can hardly be ignored PT-wise. And in Portland, whoever the GM is has managed to handcuff himself with improvements: Joel Przybilla was signed on to help secure the future, but Aldridge is now looking like he deserves Roy-like status in the organization. Suddenly, McMillan is in the unique position of having no choice but to make the front office look bad. Magloire can be submerged or liquidated, but only one of these two promising young employees can start. Lines will be drawn, bonfires will kindle, and a city will be torn apart by one man's insistence on covering his bases to a fault.


At 11/24/2006 4:37 AM, Anonymous Kaifa said...

Another Arenas article/interview, not that spectacular though except for the give-aways and the 3-day signing marathon he's planning:


At 11/24/2006 10:28 PM, Anonymous The Putz said...

Brilliant, Shoals. I'm not being sarcastic, either. I'm not. Seriously.

At 11/25/2006 2:33 AM, Blogger The Electric Zarko said...

This was actually why Musselman got fired from Golden State. He was getting results beyond what you would expect from the roster; he also wasn't giving the kids any playing time and as a result, he was cut loose.

Of course, it turns out that those kids were probably not the answer and now we're playing to win and giving some kids time as well, which is kind of the benefit of the curse of the crappy team.

At 11/25/2006 1:08 PM, Anonymous chad ford and the mormon wailers said...

Just two slight criticisms:

1) "Anals" vs. "Annals". Minor typo, but it brings out the thirteen year old boy in me.

2) The Sonics aren't stuck with Wilcox "forever", his contract is something like 3 years, 24 mil, just like Gooden, so it's very reasonable.

wv: nbwxcvt .... I got nothin'. Noble Biedrins Weaves Xtra Cautious Vicar Tale.

At 11/26/2006 4:25 PM, Blogger stopmikelupica said...

Brilliant post. I'll only chime in with a quick observation, which may be wrong, but: Doesn't it seem that a failing NBA GM lasts longer than a failing NBA coach? McHale has ruined Garnett's chances of ever being a contender; Ainge is equally horrible in Boston, having failed to produce a decent team around Pierce (a top 10 player); everyone knows Isiah's story; Elgin Baylor has been around in LA for too long, despite his recent results (the cause of which were inferior GMs making even worse trades, i.e. the Brand and Cassell deals). And you could keep going, yet GMs rarely get fired as quickly as coach's. Is it a case of NBARS, or something else?

At 11/27/2006 10:54 AM, Anonymous Aaron said...

Agree with the praise. Most insightful post in a while around here.

From time to time, I wonder what the goal of a franchise SHOULD be. It seems the coach's job is to win every day. The GM's job is to build a winning system. Which one is right is a matter of perspective. The Marlins, who won the World Series in 1997 and won it in 2003 and stunk it up in between are a great example of this. Are they a successful franchise? Do the losing seasons take away from their successful ones?

As a fan, I hate to see my team lose, ever. But I think a loss is more palatable when your team wins regularly than when your team's a regular loser.


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