There’s a position in the National Basketball Association that has become obsolete, and it’s not “Center.” It’s “Head Coach.”
More than any superstar had done before him, Cleveland’s LeBron James slammed that point across in the Eastern Conference playoffs against Chicago. In the waning seconds of game four of the Eastern Conference semifinals, with the game tied and his team trailing in the series two games to one, Cavs head-coach-in-name-only David Blatt drew up a play for the final shot. Blatt wanted his superstar to be a decoy. LeBron vetoed the play, instead telling the huddle, “Have somebody else take the ball out. Just give me the ball. We’re either going into overtime or I’m going to win it for us.”
Blatt was overruled and James hit the game-winning shot, announcing to the basketball world that NBA head coaches were no longer necessary.
This is not necessarily a new phenomenon. Superstars have yielded more power than head coaches since early in the 1981 season, when the Lakers’ Magic Johnson got head coach Paul Westhead fired less than year after they had won the NBA title together… and in the midst of a five-game winning streak.
Over the years this kind of thing has become so prevalent that today even players who have not earned superstar status have been emboldened with ultimate authority over their franchises. It’s almost unanimous: The NBA is strictly “a player’s league” now.
In recent days, we’ve seen this scenario play itself out off the court in Sacramento, where Kings head coach George Karl – a future member of the Basketball Hall of Fame – has been pitted against the Kings’ best player, pouting malcontent DeMarcus Cousins (who is nowhere close to being a “superstar”), in a power struggle. After Cousins and his agent reportedly asked for a trade in mid-May, Karl had the audacity a month later to agree, implying that the Kings could get better by moving the 7-footer on draft day. The reaction was as if the Cavaliers had mentioned “James” and “trade” in the same sentence. Suddenly Cousins’ feelings were hurt. The underwhelming Kings ownership, including the apparently clueless owner Vivek Ranadive and VP of Basketball Ops Vlade Divac, reacted by dropping hints that they may decide to fire Karl instead, who was hired in February and has three-years remaining on his contract. The Kings appear to be leaning toward siding with a 25-year old with talent and upside – but a checkered history and highly questionable attitude – over a coach who has averaged almost 50-wins per season during his 26-year NBA coaching career and is one of only seven coaches in league history to record 1,000 wins.
If this is where the game has gone, if the NBA is now completely “a player’s league,” then why are NBA teams even bothering to employ head coaches anymore? These guys earn a fraction of what the players make, and the players know it. In almost every location outside of San Antonio, the team’s best players yield ultimate authority over everything from uniform design to starting line-ups. Why keep up the charade? Why not just officially put the inmates in charge of the asylum?
Rather than committing significant money to a head coach and his group of powerless assistants, it would seem to be far simpler for each team to simply select and designate a Player-Coach for the season and have that guy be in charge of the locker room. LeBron is a given for his team. So are Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and a handful of others. And how entertaining would it be to have Carmelo Anthony playing and “coaching” the New York Knicks, or to watch the brooding Cousins trying to “lead” the Kings to better than a 25-win season? The league’s regular season entertainment value would rise dramatically.
Of course there are still a select few teams that actually benefit from having an experienced basketball man in the lead chair, places like San Antonio. But they are in the vast minority now. Can you name three NBA franchises where the head coach has ultimate authority?
By doing away with the head coaching position, guys like Gregg Popovich (perhaps that last NBA head coach with actual clout) and Steve Kerr could become their team’s general managers. They can put together the roster (with a lot of input from the star player-coach, of course), manage the salary cap and all that other dreary “executive” stuff, and then get the heck out of the way come practice and tip-off time. Popovich could simply “suggest” to Tim Duncan or Tony Parker or whoever was designated the team’s player-coach what he thinks they should do that night, and then retreat to his luxury box and let the players play. That seems to be what everyone, including the players and fans, wants.
Imagine the free agent market for successful “coach on the floor” types. As for actual basketball coaches like Blatt, or new Nuggets head man Michael Malone and others with talent and good intentions, they can and should return to the college game, where they can actually teach the game to young players. There, they will know they are earning a larger paycheck than the guys they are working with, while also knowing that no player can overrule them on an inbounds play.