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Exploring the role and impact of a head coach

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Professional athletes and coaches provide insight into the role of a head coach.

2019 NBA Playoffs: Boston Celtics Vs Milwaukee Bucks At Fiserv Forum Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The Boston Celtics landscape is experiencing an earthquake. With the news that Danny Ainge will be stepping down as the Celtics President of Basketball Operations, and Brad Stevens will be making the move into the front office, the Celtics enter the off-season searching for a new head coach.

The rumor mill is going to be rife with possible targets and candidates, and we’re going to wade through an enormous amount of smoke before finding out who Stevens successor will be. But do we really know what a head coaches role should be?

Generally a head coach’s position isn’t clearly defined to those outside of professional basketball circles, so it’s best we incorporate the help of people who have been around the world of professional basketball. The thought process was simple. There are multiple levels of professional basketball spread throughout the world, and to get the fairest assessment of a head coach’s role, the net would need to be cast far and wide.

Luckily, the following athletes and coaches agreed to take part in a short interview about coaching:

  • Josh Powell, a two-time NBA champion with the Los Angeles Lakers under Phil Jackson
  • Scot Pollard, a 2008 NBA champion under Doc Rivers
  • John Jordan, a 2017 G-League champion and current Euro League player
  • Kelly Faris, a two-time UCONN women's champion, former WNBA and Euro League Player
  • Nikhil Lawry, head of player development for the London Lions
  • CelticsBlog’s own Adam Spinella, assistant coach at Dickinson College

The questions posed during each interview were, “what would you say the role of a head coach is within an organization and towards player development? And how can a coaching change alter a team’s trajectory?”

Powell: “As far as the player development goes, it definitely helps with that relationship (between player and coach) – that bonding and building trust. Most veteran guys get in and get out, they do their work and that’s it. Younger guys, it’s really important (communicating with the head coach and coaching staff) – it’s really important to get that tutelage, and being able to receive instruction. I’ve seen a lot of guys prosper from having a good coaching staff lead by a good head coach, it helps build a good structure.”

Pollard: “Head coaches in the NBA are the motivators. They keep everyone on the same page. Assistants do work outs, X’s and O’s. Offense or defense. Positions. Head coaches are successful when they keep the egos headed in the same direction and motivated by team goals. If you have a head coach that tries to do all of the above, players tune out, you lose the locker room and you get fired.”

Jordan: “I think the head coach’s role is to see and address the strengths and weaknesses of a player, and put them in a position to utilize their strengths while limiting their weaknesses. Head coaches change a team’s trajectory in multiple ways; the most obvious way is their personality, for instance what type of style they want to play. For example, coach Thibodeau who is an older coach, so he’s maybe of a tougher mindset and likes very defensive orientated teams – every team he’s coached have always been a defense first type of team.”

Faris: “As for the WNBA and overseas, I think everyone probably has different experiences and relationships with their coaches. Generally speaking, I would say at the professional level the coach/player relationship, as it pertains to on the court, is structured to be a collaboration. Now, whether or not that is how it plays out depends on the staff and the players. I have seen it work for some and not work for others. From my perspective, it takes players and coaches showing a lot of respect towards one another. When that does not happen, it is hard to build chemistry and trust on the court, which I feel are key ingredients to winning. That goes for any level but especially the professional level because you should be dealing with the best of the best. When you have that many minds on the court, it is not always the easiest to get everyone on the same page.”

Lowry: “The precise role of a head coach is somewhat dependent on both their strengths, their personality and their support staff. Some coaches excel on the detail while some lean more to the guise of master-motivators. Understanding their own strengths and style, and then surrounding themselves by assistants that appropriately compliment and contrast this is essential.

For sure a major change in all pro sports is the need for coaches to double up as pseudo-psychologists. Elite athletes wouldn’t have made it to the top stage without a phenomenal amount of proven ability. Embracing, empowering and positively directly this talent will always yield superior results vs. stifling this ability through over-coaching.

Ultimately, coaches must be self-aware and authentic to get meaningful buy-in from the guys that are expected to run through walls for them on the hardwood. No matter how great the chemistry, an 8-10 month season is always intense. You see each other more than you see your own families, you have the road trips, the hotel stays and the natural ups and downs that go with the successes and challenges of any campaign. Without an authentic leader at the helm it’s easy for camaraderie to quickly erode.

With regards to player development specifically, its essential that coaches are committed to a brand of basketball, backed-up with clear priorities around the skills required to facilitate the successful implementation of that brand. This allows the wider coaching team to be precise and efficient in how they approach and build the content of each player development session, and importantly, how they review and analyze player performance throughout the season.”

Spinella: “I view the job of the head coach as that of a CEO. You can be intimately involved in certain areas that need you, but the key is to oversee the whole process, delegate to your staff and set the vision for the group. It’s incumbent upon the head coach to clearly articulate expectations to their assistants for what skills and traits need to be developed in their players, and to do the same to players so they understand their expectations from the top down.”

Brooklyn Nets v Boston Celtics - Game Four Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images

There seems to be a common trend amongst the responses. A head coach’s role is to pinpoint a players strengths, areas for improvement, and a system that utilizes the sum of the teams parts to create a coherent system on both ends of the floor. What’s also becoming clear here is that a coach’s personality may decided on the length of their tenure, and the success of their developmental plan over the short and long term. Brad Stevens had been head coach of the Celtics since 2013 and had overseen the implementation of a legitimate and respected offensive and defensive structure.

Countless players have also taken enormous strides under the Celtics coach, both skill and performances-wise, meaning it’s fair to assume his ability to recognize and scheme for his teams collective talent level sits atop of his skillset as a head coach, along with the ability to create a culture of “buying-in” among the roster.

With Stevens now trying his hand at roster construction and front office requirements, his successor will need to be equally if not more adept at garnering development from a young and exciting roster.

Powell: “I think coaches have a lot of impact. When you see great coaching, it shows up in playoffs and great games. Just being able to make adjustments on the fly, it shows up. Some teams have great teams but they can’t get over that hump, and some of its on the guys, but some of it’s on the schemes and defensive principles and things like that.

The coaching definitely is important in some situations, but in others, they (the coaches) are just stepping into it. An example of it is Steve Kerr, I respect the job he’s done at Golden State. He’s done a great job but the fact is, it was a foundation built by somebody else that he was able to step into and prosper off of that.

Obviously, the organization and coaching staff need to be on the same page. Otherwise, you can have good teams that are constantly on the outside. On the flip side, when you have veteran guys like LeBron James and Chris Paul, the coaching is still important but you basically have coaches on the floor, too – everything goes hand in hand, but coaches have a big role to play.”

Pollard: “Phil Jackson never took a team to the playoffs that didn’t feature at least 2 Hall of Fame players. The players impact winning.”

Jordan: “I think coaches have a huge impact on a team’s championship successes, if you look at LeBron James, it wasn’t until he started playing for Eric Spoelstra when he started winning at a high level. You see how good James Harden is individually, but you can be so good as an individual but still come up short, so even when you’re at your most elite you still may come up short because your coach or organization may not preach the things you need to win.

Yes, it’s a player’s league, but you rarely see NBA teams win a championship without elite level coaches. I do think coaches could get a little more credit for a team’s success, if you look at Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen or Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, they had Phil Jackson or Pat Riley respectively.”

Faris: “As far as coaches earning enough credit or not, to be honest, I’m not sure how to answer that. In my professional career I have been around coaches who don’t want to take responsibility for anything to do with a loss but they take responsibility for the wins. I have also been around coaches who work their butts off to prepare players/team and take all the responsibility for a loss and take it personal.

I think it is all shared responsibility. A coach is going to set the tone, draw up a game plan and tell you how he/she wants it to be executed. The coach has to figure out how to get the best out of each player.

The players are the ones on the court. So, in a perfect world, I would say the players can’t do it without the coach and vice versa. Professional athletes and coaches should act like professionals and work together to get the job done. A good coach at that level maintains control of the team, has expectations and holds players to those expectations, but also knows when to listen to a player’s input.”

Lowry: “Coaching changes that create immediate and short-term lifts in performance are usually a sign of improved communication and motivational leadership, whereas coaching changes that yield longer-term improvements in fortunes are the result of a better alignment between coaching philosophies and player attributes.

You can win some games, you can get on runs and you can make some noise, but you can’t win at the highest level without elite players. They’ve committed and dedicated themselves to their craft and are fully deserving of the praise and accolades associated with winning.

That said, without discipline and direction even the most ‘stacked’ teams come unstuck - often very quickly. Hence, the need for coaches to to authentic, self-aware leaders with a clear plan and vision for success.

Basketball is a very different game as coach, compared to that as a player. The best coaches are not motivated by the need of winning credit, and credit won from wider basketball audiences carries less value than the recognition gained amongst those that truly appreciate the ‘chess match’ side of our beautiful game.

It can be lonely at the front of the bus. If you need constant applause, it’s probably not for you.”

Spinella: “By that sentiment, a coaching change has the potential to alter the overall vision for the team and the path they’re moving down. That course-correction can be for the better, but it also might invalidate a lot of the steps taken down a different path.

You ever hear the phrase ‘the buck stops here?’ That’s what being a head coach is like: the team’s performance is ultimately our responsibility, so we have to impact winning. I’m fine with coaches shouldering the burden for struggles while players reap the benefits of success: that’s how it should be. They’re the ones out there on the court.”

Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets - Game Two Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

When talking about head coaches, the one thing that’s universally agreed upon is that those who adjust quickest during the playoffs are the ones who provide their team with the best chance of winning. However, what’s not discussed is that behind every playoff appearance is a body of work stemming months or even years. Success at the professional level is the culmination of leadership and talent combining over a period of time to create something sustainable and durable.

The Celtics will need to find a successor with a clear vision for this team, one who has a track record of in-game adjustments, game management, and most importantly, player development. The search is now underway, and we can now understand the role the new hire will undertake. The only questions left are who will the acquisition be, and how much will they change course from the path Stevens set this team on back in 2013.