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  • Playing the Long Game: How to Uncover Leadership in the Modern Era

Playing the Long Game: How to Uncover Leadership in the Modern Era

Photo: Bailey Carlin/TKW Illustration
The Knicks will have a tough choice when deciding their next head coach. Consider these examples of letting coaches develop with their team—or even utilizing a coach to develop for the following one that’ll take the team to the next level.

For fans of the NBA, the playoffs are more exciting than the Olympics. It’s like opening night of Avengers: Infinity War, but for people with bad knees. Knicks fans at home don’t have much to cheer for; in fact, they haven’t had a postseason appearance since Iron Man 3 was in theaters, for those measuring in Marvel Cinematic Universe metrics.

Strangely, it can be argued that the NBA’s most successful teams as of late took notes from the Knicks’ 2012–13 season by focusing on three-point shooting. The highly criticized strategy implemented by prospective returning coach Mike Woodson led the Knicks to their most successful season in over a decade—and a playoff series win.

If the Knicks are serious about their coaching search, the front office should make today’s contenders return the favor of implementing higher volume three-point shooting with emulating the head-coach hiring policies of such teams as Toronto, Boston, Philadelphia, and Houston.

Reports by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski suggest that the Knicks are looking forward and into their past for their next head coach, and the front office’s sly reference to a three-year plan in their most recent press conference leaves the big picture all but unknown.

Who’s the next head coach? And is he even the guy the Knicks want to win with? Looking around the league, finding a winning coach isn’t easy, but the precedent set by today’s contenders of hiring a new coach at the height of the tank—and allowing said coach to grow with the players—may be the best practice for consistent team success.


Adapt and Survive — Dwane Casey, Toronto Raptors

When the idea of building a contender comes to mind, the Raptors started from the very bottom with long-time head coach Dwane Casey. Now in his seventh year, the Raptors are the first seed in the Eastern Conference. That’s a far cry from his first year as the Raptors head coach—where they finished 23–43 in a lockout-induced, abbreviated season. A 10-year apprenticeship with the Seattle Supersonics and a cringe-worthy two-year stint as head coach in Minnesota paved the way for a championship with Dallas Mavericks as an assistant and a subsequent head-coaching opportunity with the Raptors.

Casey’s journey wasn’t as direct as the traditional career path, but it’s paid dividends ever since. Armed with only a second-year DeMar DeRozan and oft-injured Andrea Bargnani in his first season as head coach, there was not much progress as one could imagine. But the front office’s decision adding Kyle Lowry, Rudy Gay, and selecting Jonas Valanciunas in the draft saw an 11-win spike in the team’s record. The next season with Masai Ujiri at command in the front office?—14 more wins with a postseason appearance for the first time since 2008. For the next three seasons with Ujiri building a roster, Casey achieved middling excellence, achieving high playoff seeds, but being swatted down by King James on two postseason occasions.

This season, for the first time in the franchise’s history, the Raptors are a number-one seed, tallying an impressive 59 wins in the regular season. With the Cavaliers in flux, the LeBron nightmare that Casey never had an answer for could be over in the first round (the Cavs are down 2-1 to the Pacers). Although their three-point shooting is behind the rest of the NBA, the Raptors still managed to sit in the top five in both Offense Rating (ORtg) and Defensive Rating (DRtg), ranking second in blocks at the end of the regular season, per NBA Stats.

Casey went in depth on a podcast on the team’s offseason transformation, specifically acknowledging DeMar DeRozan’s lackluster three-point shooting. The weakness in his game was apparent (he’s never shot above 35 percent) and not an easy fix, but it takes guts to acknowledge the issue and utilize it constructively. DeRozan’s continued struggle is obvious, but the Raptors can manipulate the defense into closeouts if DeRozan lets it fly responsibly. Remarkably, the adjustment has paid dividends, and it illustrates Casey’s basketball genius.

Casey could have been written off as just a good assistant, but a second chance and front office buy-in revealed a diamond in the rough. Sounds familiar? Mike Woodson, another long-time assistant, would be in a similar position as Casey was in his first year for the Raptors. He’s proven himself able to win, but if the Knicks are truly finished with the win-now mentality for the time being, then it stands to reason that the front office could trust the head coach even in the painfully awful beginning. At times, stagnation will be a part of the process, but if the Knicks want more than a naively hopeful first quarter of the season, they’ll need to become privy to the fact that coaching is as much an art as it is a science.

“Kid Genius” — Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics

The mantle of Head Coach of the Boston Celtics after Doc Rivers, a prolific figure in the organization, left big shoes to fill. And, at first glance, it looks like Brad Stevens stumbled into it, but truthfully the Celtics stumbled into Stevens. After six seasons as the head coach at Butler and two Final Fours for the university, the most logical conclusion for an ambitious coach is to move on to the big job in the NBA.

The Celtics tanked for Marcus Smart, a player who has yet to reach a 40 percent shooting clip from the field, in Stevens’ first season—and they haven’t missed a playoff since. Smart’s emergence alongside Isaiah Thomas, the man dubbed the biggest defensive liability in the league, demonstrated the nature of Stevens’ style of coaching. Putting players with glaring weaknesses next to each other usually proves disastrous, but Stevens managed to blend the ugliness of their flaws so well together that their strengths shined through.

In his first two full years as a Boston Celtic Thomas’ posted a 113 ORtg and a 107 DRtg and then a 122 ORtg with a 112 DRtg, per 100 possessions. Obviously, this further supports the point: Stevens masked the weakness so well with a pronounced strength, that the trade-off was favorable. His ORtg and DRtg for the subsequent 2017–18 season were 99 and 115 (per Basketball-Reference). Coming off an injury on a new team is tough, but the fact remains that Stevens is a prodigy.

It didn’t take long for Stevens to earn the confidence of the Celtics’ front office. A young coach with a penchant for X’s & O’s worked out wonderfully for a team without stars. Picking up Stevens in the last year of the tank was the best thing to happen to the Celtics since their championship—that first season allotted Stevens room to grow since the team was headed nowhere. The unanticipated early success is much less indicative of Stevens’ coaching prowess than the sustained excellence the Celtics have exhibited since. The natural fluctuation of college players may have played a role in allowing Stevens to organically incorporate and compensate for players being purged and thrown into the lineup.

The Celtics found a winner in a young, forward-thinking coach. It would behoove the Knicks to take notice. Of the coaches on New York’s short list of candidates, Stevens most resembles that of Jerry Stackhouse, a relatively young coach with almost immediate success in another league. The almost completely new team won a championship after finishing under .500 in their first season (per RealGM). A G League Championship is barely comparable to the big brother NBA Finals and doesn’t have the prestige of the NCAA’s big dance, but managing a G League roster filled with disgruntled busts and undrafted talent itching to prove they belong in the NBA cannot be an easy matter. Stackhouse made it to the Finals twice. If there’s an argument that Stevens is a basketball savant, taking a chance on Stack wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Enduring the Tank — Brett Brown, Philadelphia 76ers

Brett Brown was a long-time assistant with the San Antonio Spurs, soaking up Gregg Poppovich’s championship intellect and learning the inner workings of a basketball dynasty, but his real start at coaching began in Melbourne, Australia, and then Sydney. The decade he spent coaching abroad resulted in him accumulating one championship for Melbourne. Non-U.S. basketball may be the last thing on everyone’s mind during the playoffs, but a distinguished coach across the water worked out for Philadelphia. At the end of his apprenticeship, he was dubbed the replacement of Doug Collins in Philly. In his first three years he won a combined 47 games. The Process™ by Sam Hinkie endured chronic failure with the team reaching a rock bottom 10 wins in the third year. Somehow, it paid off. After Joel Embiid finally emerged from his 50th surgery, the team managed to record 28 wins in the 2016–17 season. They won 52 the following year, marking the 76ers first playoff appearance since Iguodola and Jrue Holiday wore red, white, and blue. Much of this can be credited to Brown embracing of role players and optimization of his starters. His starters average almost as much time on the court as Tom Thibodeau’s, but the weakness of the 76ers bench doesn’t leave him with much of a choice.

The Knicks are years away from a championship, maybe even the playoffs. The hard truth hasty fans need to reconcile is that players need years, complete seasons, to develop and mature. The same could be said about coaches. Expecting a coach to flip a team from a loser to a contender in a season is unrealistic and ludicrous. All of the above coaches used the “downtime” of tanking to become better; in reality, losing is the perfect opportunity to experiment and explore as a coach. So far, for Casey, Stevens, and Brown, the long game has been working.

But sometimes the road to success isn’t direct. Long-time coaches are known for being unceremoniously cast out from the organization. In fact, the first coach may just be paving the way for his own replacement. This may seem cold, but if the check cleared, there’s not much of an argument. A starter coach may do well enough to develop a team to a middling playoff spot, but sometimes a titan, a big-time coach, piggybacks on to glory.

Tailor Made — Mike D’Antoni, Houston Rockets

Kevin McHale, an NBA legend, came on to the Rockets after two unsuccessful years as the Timberwolves head coach. The first season didn’t amount to much in wins—the team was still reeling from the end of the Yao Ming era and an AARP-eligible veteran Kevin Martin was the leading scorer. The team still had a winning record. James Harden’s superstardom can’t be attributed to McHale, but four straight seasons of .500 records, two of which that recorded over 50 wins are accolades the Hall of Fame player can boast about.

Then, a slow start in 2016 had him let go, and soon enough Mike D’Antoni took the reigns. When it comes to coaching strategies no one is a more controversial figure than D’Antoni. His high-octane offense with two-time MVP and Hall of Famer Steve Nash and All-Star Amar’e Stoudemire was a force to be reckoned with during his time in Phoenix. The biggest controversy being it wore their bodies into dust.

Uncharacteristic of his shtick, his team ranked first in blocks in the regular season and barely in the top 15th in field goal percentage and three-point field goal percentage. In spite of those stats that would suggest his team was middling and not the no. 1 seed in the Western Conference, his carefully-crafted team ranked first in ORtg and sixth in DRtg (per Basketball-Reference). Every regular player in his lineup plays their specific role to the tee, even with Harden off of the court. A Coach of the Year Award honoree in two different eras, D’Antoni is an old dog learning new tricks. The Knicks front office mentioned a three-year plan in their most recent press conference, and that may be just long enough for a premier head coach to seek a change in scenery. So, the Knicks should proceed with caution down the line. There are few Popovichs and many more Mike Browns.

Coaching decisions are tough, especially in the new era where analytics play much a larger role than once before, a role that puts coaches under even more scrutiny. The fluidity of players’ roles on both offense and defense has left traditional coaches with conservative styles just as obsolete as the single-serving big men of yesteryear.

If the Knicks are looking into the future, they should see the answers their contemporaries had for the era. Additionally, building a team means more than just waiting for a roster to ferment into greatness. A coach’s growth is just as imperative to team success as a member of the starting 5. And even that guy may just be cleaning up the place for the next man up.

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