I'm not sure I've ever seen a coach lose his team quicker than Eddie Jordan has in his short time with the Sixers. But here we stand, 23 games into the season, equidistant from the worst record in the league and the New York Knicks. Yes, we're three games better than New Jersey who set a record for futility a few weeks and three games behind the hapless New York Knicks. After the jump, I want to take a closer look at how Eddie Jordan has submarined this team.
In Bill Simmons' book he posits this theory that very few coaches matter**. I understand what he's trying to say, players win championships, but he's got it backwards. Yes, very few coaches can elevate their teams beyond the talents of the individuals, but coaches matter because of the damage they can do. A good coach gets his team to play up to their abilities, a great coach makes the whole more than the sum of its parts, the average coach minimizes the damage he causes and the vast majority of coaches actively do harm in the NBA. The reason we see a revolving door of the same retreads over and over is the very nature of the profession, you're essentially looking for a guy who won't mess things up too badly.
To put it bluntly, there are really only six tangible ways a coach can affect a team's fortunes, here's my list:
- Motivating/Massaging egos
- Implementing the correct system
- In-game strategy
- Big picture
Often it's taken for granted because to play in the league, you have to be in good shape with rare exceptions, but there are absolutely degrees of conditioning, and it's vitally important, especially if you're talking about a contender who will be playing upward of 100 games. Excellent conditioning also reduces the risk of injury. Mo Cheeks was one of the best coaches in the business at having his team in tip-top shape. Isiah Thomas was perhaps the worst.
Jordan's Grade - I'll give him a solid A for now. To a man, the Sixers look like prize fighters (If you're wondering about Primoz, I did say to a man). We'll see how they hold up as the season goes on, but right now, there's nothing to fault him for in this category.
2. Motivating/Massaging egos
Two distinctly different approaches here: The player's coach and the disciplinarian. Mike D'Antoni is a prime example of the former. He only requires his players to compete on one end of the floor, seems like one of the guys on the bench and cancels shootarounds to build morale. Jerry Sloan would probably be on the other end of the spectrum. His players have a healthy fear of him, and they'd run through a brick wall rather than disappoint him. There are a couple of keys to being an effective disciplinarian in a league full of guys who make too much money and take themselves far too seriously, the rules need to apply to everyone, and they need to be enforced without fail. Your stars have to buy in to your hard line, and your players have to always know you've got their back. Without the respect of their players, disciplinarians wind up getting choked by Latrell Sprewell or tuned out altogether like Skiles in Chicago.
A championship-caliber team in the NBA usually has at least two super-sized egos, and deservingly so. The exception to that rule is the Pistons team coached by Larry Brown, and that team could've really had five guys competing for alpha status. Touches, points, plays called and interaction with the press are all components of this crucial piece to the puzzle for coaches of good teams. Phil Jackson is far and away the best I've seen at this, and even he couldn't stop Kobe and Shaq from breaking up, costing the Lakers who knows how many more championships.
Motivation and massaging egos are sometimes at odds, and it's a delicate balance for coaches.
Eddie Jordan on Elton Brand: "Elton is not Elton right now." and "Elton can't play 40 minutes per game right now." After saying these quotes about Brand, Jordan proceeded to completely remove him from the game during crunch time. He'd let him get his initial run with the starters in the first half, then again at the start of the third, then he'd sit him for the rest of the game. Brand averaged 23 minutes per game while Jordan was on this crusade, it only ended because Marreese Speights went down with an injury. In the first game after his exile, Brand ripped off a string of hellacious games, playing 40 minutes per. After returning from a tweaked hammy, Brand was demoted to the bench for no apparent reason. Jordan's quote on the matter, "(how he feels about being benched) doesn't really affect me."
Fast forward to a few days ago. Eddie Jordan on Allen Iverson, "Allen is not Allen right now." Jordan's actions regarding this situation, cutting Iverson from 38 to about 33 minutes, and spacing out his rest throughout the game so he could be sure to have him on the floor for crunch time.
What does a mixed message like this say to the team? It says the coach plays favorites. It says Allen Iverson is more important to this team than Elton Brand. It says when Jordan is figuring out how to dole out minutes, Iverson's happiness is more important than winning games and also more important than player development.
This is only one example of Jordan's double standards and absurd priorities. We could go through Jrue's DNPCDs and Willie's extended minutes, or extra minutes for Thad at the four after complaining about rebounding problems to the press. The list goes on and on.
Jordan's Grade - F. Calling out players in the press pretty much from the get-go. An unjustified arrogance when talking about his team to the press. Zero consistency when it comes to punishing/rewarding players and a nebulous, sometimes bizarre or dangerous, idea of what type of play earns reward and vice versa.
3. Implementing the correct system
This is another reason why coaches bounce around so much. It's not about having the most brilliant system, it's about having the system that best accentuates the talents of your roster and hides the weaknesses. A dogmatic approach is rarely successful unless (a) a coach can take over with intense involvement with personnel decisions and can mold the roster to fit his system or (b) a team just gets lucky and has the perfect player (players) already on the roster to make the system really work. Think D'Antoni with Nash for the latter and maybe Nelson in Dallas for the former. A perfect example of a coach who adjusted his system to fit his players is Pat Riley, from the Showtime Lakers, to the Knicks to the Heat, twice, he looked at the pieces he had and developed a new system that made them work together.
Let's start with defense and look at the materials Jordan had to work with when he took over. Two veteran bigs who averaged better than 10 rebounds and 2 blocks per 36 minutes on their careers. Possibly the best wing defender in the league, definitely in the top five, at shooting guard, a young rangy guy with quick feet at the three and a sieve at the point. Forget about the bench for a minute, and just concentrate on those assets. Now try to think of the worst possible defensive system to put them in. I'll give you a hint, it involves intentionally drawing your own bigs away from the rim to chase shooters out past the three point line. The basic principle would be to help early and often, then demand that everyone else rotate and rotate and rotate, constantly playing catch-up with the open man.
Well, this is the exact system Jordan has installed. Instead of having Brand and Dalembert locking down their men on the blocks and patrolling the paint for blocks and/or defensive rebounds, they're worried about rotating out on shooting guards who are needlessly wide-open. Instead of coaching Lou to force his man to one of the shot-blockers, we've got both wings converging on the ball when the point gets beaten off the dribble, leaving their men wide-open on the perimeter for threes. It's a blatantly flawed system, and instead of fixing the system, Jordan increasingly puts inferior groups on the floor to run the flawed system more efficiently. The only problem with that is (a) the offense doesn't work as well with the inferior players and (b) the smaller lineups get murdered on the glass, don't block as many shots nor create as many turnovers.
If Eddie Jordan was to look at this chart, he'd see the three-point percentage against when a big lineup is used, and immediately say "Hey, I need to go smaller." What he doesn't see is the inferiority of the small lineup in every other category, nor the fact that the small lineup isn't even particularly good at defending the three. The small lineup rotates better than the big lineup, that much is true, but when it comes to getting stops (defensive rebounds, steals and blocks) they're putrid. Look at the rebounding rates, the small lineups grab 5% fewer offensive rebounds and 8% fewer offensive rebounds. Imagine all the possessions lost on both ends.
You know what, this system may work in a perfect world, to a degree, that's debatable. He may even be able to find the perfect combination of players currently on the roster to make it work, but that's not the point. The point is, this system is a horrible fit to make this roster reach it's full potential. There are plenty of defensive systems that could not only succeed, but thrive with these defenders, but Jordan would rather put square pegs in round holes or play Willie Green 25 minutes/night. It's a failure on his part and his dogmatic approach to his defensive system will continue to cripple this team until either he realizes the error of his ways or he's fired.
Eddie Jordan won this job, ostensibly, because he convinced Ed Stefanski that his Princeton offense could (a) make the Sixers a more potent team in the half-court offense and (b) work well with the pieces in place on the roster. Well, we're now 23 games in and so far, not only has it been an abject failure, but it's basically been abandoned.
Again, this comes down to Jordan's system being a terrible fit for the personnel. How he convinced Stefanski that he could make it work with this roster is beyond me, but consider this. The offense is geared, almost exclusively, toward shooting jump shots. Jordan likes to have four players out on the perimeter executing a series of dribble handoffs, until someone can come off a curl or downscreen for an open jumper (either a long two, or a three). Obviously, this doesn't play too well when Brand is one of the four guys on the perimeter, and I believe this is where Jordan's complete lack of respect for EB comes from. He wants a PF who plays like Antawn Jamison, not a guy who can get you points in the paint. Again, instead of modifying his system to fit the personnel, he instead shifted away from Brand, and the big lineup, and spent more and more time with Thad Young, Andre Iguodala or even Jason Kapono at the four. This chart will show you the results of Jordan sacrificing size for the PO.
I highlighted some key stats in the chart above. Basically, what you should take away from this is that the offense is bad no matter what lineup he uses, but it's actually worse with the small lineup. No matter who's on the floor they take way too many jumpers and don't hit very many of them (look at the FG% on two-point jumpers from the small lineup. Atrocious.) Jordan does cut down on the turnovers by going small (by about 4%), but the gain in possessions there is more than offset by the loss in possessions on the offensive glass. The small lineup is horrible at finishing on the inside, and their % of assisted field goals is also lower, which leads me to believe there's more jumpers off the dribble, not very PO at all.
Jordan's Grade - F-minus. Not only has the PO been an abject disaster, his defensive system has completely undermined a roster with a track record of playing good defense and loaded to the gills with superb athletes who can pressure the ball and handle their men one-on-one in most situations.
Three key parts here (1) Choosing the correct starting lineup, (2) Defining roles withing the team so players know what is expected of them, and generally when they're going to play, (3) Knowing when to push the right buttons. Chuck Daly always comes to mind when I'm thinking about rotations, he always seemed to know exactly when to get Vinny Johnson into the game when Detroit needed an offensive punch in the arm back with the Bad Boy Pistons.
Jordan's Grade - F+. See exhibits A through C. Jordan has picked the starting lineup correctly, with the exception of the games Willie Green started, but I believe that will come to an end when Lou Williams returns. He has yet to set any kind of standard rotation beyond that. The injuries to Speights and Lou haven't helped, but he's jerked guys around including Jrue Holiday, Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala. Rodney Carney has been a non-factor and Jason Kapono has been on the floor for the wrong reason at the wrong time almost every game. Now you've got Allen Iverson monopolizing the ball (to a lesser extent than in the past, but still) and the lion's share of the PG minutes on the roster. I haven't even mentioned leaning on the flawed small lineup, but I don't think I need to.
6. In-Game Strategy
The other keys are probably more philosophical and less quantifiable, in-game strategy is where the rubber meets the road. A great coach can actually make a tangible difference here, maybe even stealing 3-4 wins in a season. A bad coach could potentially cost his team double digit games with stupid decisions between the whistle and the buzzer.
Four main categories (1) Plays out of timeouts, (2) Taking advantage of mismatches (3) Half-time adjustments, (4) Timeout usage. I always felt that if Larry Brown could call a timeout before every offensive possession, the Sixers would've shot about 70% from the floor. The guy could always size up the opponent and use his white board to get an alley-oop or any other high percentage look he wanted.
Here's another example of in-game management, think back to when Brown had Corliss Williamson on his roster. Corliss had one marketable skill, he could absolutely abuse any defender who was within an inch or two of his height, down on the blocks. Whenever a Sixers opponent went small, Brown called Williamson's number and he rode him until the other coach had to adjust. He didn't go away from it, because it worked.
The king of timeout management is Phil Jackson, think back to the really good Lakers teams, they'd get a big lead and every single time you bit into that lead, he'd call a timeout. The difference between Phil and most other coaches is that he wouldn't let it get to a five-point game, he'd call time before you made a game of it, and he'd make adjustments in those timeouts to end the run before the opponent really got a chance to believe they were coming back. As Jackson got older, and Kobe became more of a problem, he started using timeouts as a weapon. The camera would show him with a big grin on his face, looking directly at Kobe saying, "You got us in this mess, I'm not going to bail you out. Figure it out yourself."
That graphic speaks for itself, let's just move on.
Two things typically happen at halftime, a speech by the coach to inspire the troops and adjustments made by the coach and his staff to shore up weaknesses they noticed in the first 24 minutes and/or exploit strengths. (If Ron Artest is on your team you can add drinking Hennessey, if Charlie Villaneuva is, you can add Tweeting). A coach's effectiveness can often be judged by how his team comes out of the locker room. Take a look at these numbers:
Any one of the numbers above should be alarming, but let's focus on the third and fourth for a second. You don't get a much better "all things being equal" comparison than that. Same five players for each team on the floor, only now each team's coach has had a chance to see what the other team is doing on the floor. Halftime was used to make adjustments, everyone is well-rested and you take the floor looking to improve upon what you did in the first half. Or, in the Sixers case, you come out doing exactly what you did in the first quarter and you're shocked that suddenly the other team has your playbook. Sometimes they double the hot guy, and you have no answer. Other times they realize you're perfectly content taking low-percentage jumpers, so they seal off the lane. The one constant is that you never change, you never adjust.
Jordan lovers will blame the third quarter swoon on the players losing motivation. Fine, if that's what you want to believe, whose fault is it when a team goes into the locker room at the half and comes out apathetic? For some reason they were super-motivated for the opening tip, then they didn't care at all when the second half starts? If the energy level drops appreciably in the third, I think it probably has more to do with nothing in their system working as well as it did in the first or second quarters, and no adjustments being made by their own coach.
We have plenty of anecdotal evidence that Jordan doesn't attack mismatches, just take a look at the number of games either Brand or Thad has shot the lights out in the first half only to see their touches dry up later in the game. It happens to someone almost every night.
Timeout management hasn't been a huge issue, at least not in the sense that they've run out of TOs late in close games. I think he's probably a little slow with the timeouts when the tide turns against the Sixers. We aren't talking about Phil Jackson with Kobe, this team needs a lifeline when they're starting a slide, it's usually not there.
Jordan's Grade - F-minus. By every measure, statistical and anecdotal, Jordan is a world class narcissist, believing in his systems (on both ends of the floor) despite a mountain of evidence that things need to be change. It's this obstinance that leads him refuse to make changes midstream. I guess you have to hand it to him, he set the faulty path and he sticks to his guns right to the bitter end. Perhaps the most telling aspect of his in-game strategy is the lineups he choosing for key situations. When they need a stop, Jason Kapono is on the floor. When they need a three, Kapono is on the bench. When they need a rebound, Thad is at the four. When they can't stop penetration, Willie is at the point. It's like bizarro coaching, if I wasn't a Sixers fan, I'd find it very funny.
7. Big Picture
I'll save you the platitudes and simply say, sometimes coaching is about more than winning that day's game. Depending on the state of your franchise, you may have to sacrifice a game or two to get extra minutes for a young player you're developing. Within games, you may leave a guy in who's getting burned on defense, simply so he'll have a chance to figure out his opponent's tendencies. Garbage time doesn't always have to be garbage time, sometimes you need to send your starters out there to play those minutes to send the, "You made your bed, now lie in it," message. Sometimes you have to pull a young player back to save their psyche. Sometimes a veteran has to take a back seat, even if he's the better player.
There are millions of little choices coaches have to make, and they have to juggle moving the franchise forward with their own job security. The second job security becomes more important than the good of the team, it's time for that coach to be replaced.
Jordan's Grade - D. This grade is probably too kind, but I'm cutting Jordan some slack because I think the "win at all costs" message is coming down from above, maybe not directly, but the rumblings are finally starting in the press and where there's smoke there's usually fire. As for the tangible things Jordan does to help the present at the expense of the future, well, here are a couple. Thad has played 40.5% of his minutes at the 4. Iguodala is playing all over the floor instead of settling in at the two. Jrue has lost minutes to Willie Green and Royal Ivey on a consistent basis, and now Allen Iverson is eating up 30+ minutes/night at in the back court. While Iverson being on roster isn't his fault, letting AI dictate his own minutes was. You also have to wonder about a guy who literally lives and dies with his beloved system, yet has no problem putting it on hold to mollify Iverson for the rest of the season.
I fully admit that 23 games is a relatively small sample size to judge a coach on, but this isn't Eddie Jordan's first job. If you go back and look at his track record, he's had the same problems in the past. I firmly believe he cannot succeed with this roster as currently constructed, but that isn't even the biggest issue. I also believe that his ceiling for success is relatively low. Meaning, give him his ideal roster, allow him to run his system on both ends of the floor, and you're looking at a team that cannot win a championship. Even if this is already a lost season, I don't see the point in keeping him around unless you're planning on dumping anyone and everyone from the roster. Whether you like these players or not, individually or as a group, you're going to have to move forward with a certain percentage of them. Playing for Eddie Jordan isn't going to help them improve at anything other than playing his wacky systems. It's my firm belief that every day he's coaching this team, the players are standing still, at best, possibly backsliding.
The best move this franchise can make right now is to get rid of Jordan, and promote from within. Bring Tony DiLeo back with the publicly expressed directive of using the remainder of this season to develop the roster for the rest of the season, and have an honest, open search for the next head coach in the summer, or promote Aaron McKie to the head job and see if maybe you already have a competent head coach on your payroll. Neither move is cost-prohibitive in the short term, you're paying Jordan no matter what, but perhaps getting a full season of development (and frankly, an extensive evaluation of the talent on the roster, in their proper positions), will bring you closer to contention and a real financial windfall much sooner than if you simply bite the bullet and leave Jordan on the bench.
* I used data from basketballvalue.com, basketballgeek.com, basketball-reference.com, hoopdata.com, 82games.com, my own rotation charts and espn.com for this post. If you have any questions about methodology, please ask them in the comments.
** I'm paraphrasing liberally here because I think Simmons touched on this theory in the first hundred pages or so of his 710 page book, and now that I've finished it, pretty much the only lasting memory I have is of Simmons insane Celtics bias. Everything else is a vague footnote, of which there were WAAYYYYYYYYYY too many. He needs an editor almost as badly as I do. If you haven't read the book yet, you should, but save yourself a couple hundred pages and just skip every section about the Celts.
by Brian on Dec 14 2009