The Denver Nuggets sit at a crossroad. They’ve actually been sitting at this crossroad for a while now. In many ways, the entire league has been at a crossroad for the last couple of seasons; only some teams picked up on it a little early.
In one direction, there is the classic way of thinking which says that this is a player’s league (true), that you need a superstar player to lead your team (mostly true), that the game is played by Jim’s and Joe’s and not X’s and O’s (half true, at best), and that the league by and large is unchanging (erroneous on all accounts!).
In the other direction, there is a very progressive section of the league that has evolved quite rapidly over the last 7 seasons. They represent the line of thinking that says the league is becoming increasingly cerebral and nuanced, that it’s flush with talent and resources, and in a period of rapid change.
The reason I bring this up is because I stand firmly in the camp with the 2nd group. I’m part of the chorus who think comparing 2015 with 2005 is a futile effort, let alone comparing 2015 with 1995. There are new lessons to be learned and old truths that are no longer true. Quite simply, the NBA is changing. One of the ways that the league is changing is in the value and role of the head coach.
The NBA has always been and always will be a player’s league. You need talent to win championships. I’d venture as far as to say that in the last decade, no team has won an NBA championship that wasn’t objectively speaking one of the three or four most talented teams in the league. But an NBA coach’s influence on a team has never been greater than it is in 2015.
A small reason for the change in coaching influence has been the rise of information like advanced scouting reports and analytics. Like them or hate them, analytics have impacted the game, especially in shifting the focus toward offensive efficiency. Another reason a coach’s influence is so important is that the league is as flooded with talent as it has ever been.
Lastly, the main reason that coaches are so important in today’s NBA is due to rule changes in 2001 (illegal defense) and 2004 (hand-checking). It took a bit of time for the league to catch on, but those changes altered the NBA ecosystem. They limited the value of individual scorers who historically dominated in isolation while augmenting the value of teams and players with high basketball IQs. In short, they made the game softer, but smarter.
By 2008, the Celtics had devised a very difficult-to-execute style of defense that required all five guys making highly complex reads on a string. The following season the rest of the league had copied their strategy and added to it. By 2014, the Spurs had developed and refined an offense that was virtually unguardable when executed as brilliantly as they had during the NBA finals. This season, lots of teams are trying to emulate their success by building around balanced, high motion offenses that require incredible skill from all positions and high basketball IQs. In both the ‘14 Spurs’ and the ’08 Celtics’ cases, the teams went on to win the championship, dismantling the league’s best player in the process. The Jim’s and Joes were incredible but the X’s and O’s were among the best the league had ever seen.
That’s what it takes to be a great in the modern NBA. It’s no longer simply about maintaining positive energy, or keeping two grumpy teammates from killing each other in the locker room or finding a way to get the ball to your best guy time and time again. To be a successful coach in today’s NBA, you’ve got to be borderline genius.
It is because I have so much respect for the role NBA head coaches play in today’s NBA, that I think the Nuggets sit at a crossroad. Before we even have a roster that can contend for a championship, before we even have a clear direction that the team intends to go in terms of who to build around or what style of play we hope to emulate, the Nuggets need to decide to become progressive.
Many teams have seen the writing on the wall. Since 2011, there have been several new, progressive, inexperienced yet extremely intelligent head coaches hired by NBA teams. Brad Stevens, Mike Budenholzer, Frank Vogel, David Joerger, Steve Kerr, Jason Kidd, Jeff Hornacek, Brett Brown, David Blatt and Quinn Snyder are just a few of the coaches who got their current gig without any previous head coaching experience.
Perhaps the Nuggets thought that they were being progressive in 2013 when they hired Brian Shaw. While Shaw’s comments from day one have indicated that he considered himself "old school," it’s still possible the Nuggets felt that by giving the job to a rookie meant that they were swinging for the fence. If that is the case (and I’m not sure it is but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt) then the Nuggets need to step up to the plate and swing for the fence once again.
There are two crazy but important stats pertaining to NBA head coaches. The first is that since 1983 only 10 head coaches have won an NBA championship. TEN! There are a handful of incompetent coaches who have made their way into the league and a large number of good but not great coaches who have had full careers as head coaches. Only 10 have won NBA championships.
The second stat is that only 4 current head coaches have been around longer than 5 seasons. Placed together, these two stats demonstrate why who the Nuggets pick is so significant. Making a safe pick will almost certainly land them in mediocrity for 4-5 seasons before they hop back on the coaching carousel. The Nuggets goal should be to find the coach that has the potential to stick around long enough to build stability and who can get ahead of the curve.
Lastly, it’s not just about the head coach. Regardless of who Tim Connelley and Josh Kroenke bring in to call the shots, they need to be surrounded by the league’s best. The league’s best team, the Golden State Warriors, don’t simply have one of the league’s best coaches, they have three. Steve Kerr is smart, charismatic, insanely knowledgeable and has a unique perspective having been a player, a general manager, and now a coach. But he is also surrounded by two of the brightest minds in basketball, Ron Adams and Alvin Gentry.
Even Greg Popovich has sat alongside some of the league’s sharpest and most creative thinkers. Before Mike Budenholzer was creating "Spurs East" he was helping create the Spurs. Pop gets credited for creating great basketball coaches and general managers but perhaps his genius begins with vetting who gets to sit beside him in the first place. After all, Pop has repeatedly said that he embraces confrontation and discussion amongst his coaching staff. The Spurs aren’t just the result of Pop’s brilliant mind, they are a result of every mind in the organization.
If the Nuggets are serious about competing for a championship, they need to get ahead of the curve. We hear over and over how hard it is for small markets to compete but the NBA is in a position that small and medium markets are capable of building long lasting empires. The Spurs have been the class of the league for nearly two decades. The Hawks, Cavs, Thunder and Grizzlies have all built teams with the potential to be sustainable. Despite the team's current outlook, there is an opportunity for the Nuggets to become a great team. It begins with who they hire as head coach.
Group F – The God-Awfuls
Group D – Too old school
Group C – Solid but flawed
Group B - I'd be happy with any of these guys
There are several names up there that I wasn't able to write at length about but they are all assistants that show a lot of promise. They all fit the description that I laid out in the first half of this article in that they have vision for the direction the league is headed. They have helped shape some of the league's best offenses and defenses, and they are young enough that they could grow to be the long term solution for the Nuggets. They might also be complete busts and that is kind of the point of this whole article. When it comes to coaching, what's the difference between bad and average? I'd rather the Nuggets take a swing at finding the next Popovich rather than get five years of Avery Johnson or Vinny Del Negro.
Group A - My pick