In a result that came as a surprise to exactly no one, the NBA today announced that Los Angeles Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro was named the Western Conference Coach of the Month for December. Turns out that's what happens when you're team goes undefeated for an entire month.
The irony is that Del Negro has always been one of the most maligned coaches in the NBA. From the day of his hiring in Chicago in June 2008 Del Negro has been criticized as being out of his depth, not strong enough in Xs and Os and overwhelmed by game situations as a head coach.
But those criticisms,and indeed this monthly coaching honor, underlie a basic truism when it comes to coaching and basketball -- no one has any clue what they're talking about. There's a lot of talk out there all the time, but that's all it is, talk.
At the end of the day, talent on the court is easily the single biggest factor in the success of an NBA team. Coaches can control who gets minutes and in what situations. They can help a little with motivation and direction. And they can install relatively better or worse offensive and defensive schemes. But they can't win games if they don't have talent to work with, and they probably won't lose too many games if they do.
No coach is an island. They all have assistants who have played for or coached with the other coaches in the league. Ever wonder how James Harden can be traded to the Rockets on October 27 and score 37 points for them four days later? Guess what? Kevin McHale wasn't doing things all that differently from Scott Brooks. It's still basketball. Every team runs more or less the same sets, or rather they are all choosing from the same menu of appetizers and entrees. But let's face facts, it doesn't take December's Western Conference Coach of the Month to figure out to give the ball to Chris Paul at the end of the game. The play call? Oh, I dunno, how about a high screen and roll?
The criticism of Del Negro was always more than a little off-base for a couple of reasons. The Xs and Os really aren't that crucial at the end of the day, but more importantly, Del Negro has always been good at the other things. He relates to his players well, they like and him and (this is crucial) they tend to play hard for him. For two seasons in Chicago and last year in L.A. Del Negro's teams were playing their best, most focused basketball at the end of the season, despite some bumps along the way. That's not nothing. In a business where there's not much tangible differentiation, the intangibles become that much more important.
How do these awards like Coach of the Month and Coach of the Year get decided? There are no advanced stats for coaches. No Rotation Efficiency Rating or Time Out Management Index. It's quite simple. The coaches of the teams that do better than expected -- either based on pre-season expectations or in overcoming injuries or whatever -- get the votes. Since no one really has any clue what's really going on, all the unknowns in the equation are assumed to be accounted for by coaching. If the sum of the parts is greater than you expected, then the coach gets the credit. If it is less than you expected, the coach gets the blame (and probably gets fired). Which is why Avery Johnson went from November Coach of the Month on December 2 to unemployed on December 28.
That is not to say that Del Negro does not deserve this honor. This is how it works, and he should get some recognition for an accomplishment very few teams in the history of the NBA have achieved. Kudos. But those who voted him coach of the month don't know any more about what he's really doing as coach of the Clippers than those who think he should be fired.
At the end of the day, no one has a clue. But as long as Chris Paul is happy with Vinny, then he's doing a good job in my book.