Weekly Countdown: Toughest job in sports? Try NBA coaching
Trying to balance egos and skills, NBA coaches have one of sports' toughest jobs
Players have lengthy guaranteed contracts, making coaches' jobs even harder
More topics: Tiger Woods, rookie Wesley Mathews, New York Knicks' craziness
5 Views of one of the toughest jobs in sports
That job is to serve as head coach of an NBA team. Good luck is needed to get one of those 30 positions, better luck is needed to keep it, and never mind trying to win a title. Only four active coaches have coached an NBA team to the championship: Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Larry Brown and Doc Rivers.
The lion tamer. Coaching an NBA team is very much like entering a cage at a circus surrounded by 18,000 paying customers and a live television audience. The cage is filled with five lions, all hungry and bigger and more powerful than the coach. The coach is given a whip and a stool with the instructions to not only tame the lions but also to make them perform on his behalf. This is why most NBA head coaches don't survive very long.
"No question, no question," Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan said. "If a team decides to shut it down on you, there's really nothing you can do. When they don't have that passion to play for you anymore, then it's over. And then it comes down to the organization making a decision of whether we believe in that coach and we're going to change this attitude and this approach. Or do the players outweigh the coach? And most of the time the organization decides [to stick with] the players."
Coaching in the NBA is so challenging because the player contracts are guaranteed. Most of the players in any rotation know they're going to be paid for multiple years regardless of how well they or the team performs.
"So you're managing egos, and that's very difficult when everything is guaranteed," McMillan said. "These guys signed their contracts, and it's not based on winning or numbers. Your salary is guaranteed regardless of what you do the next day. There's not another job in the world like that."
There's not another job that pays an average salary of $5.9 million. Baseball players make an awful lot of guaranteed money as well, but here's the big difference: No matter how difficult Barry Bonds grew to become for his manager, the rules dictated when he would come to bat and for how many times each game. In the NBA, there is no batting order. On the worst teams, you can see teammates battling each other for control of the ball and the right to shoot. The coach can call plays from the sideline, but once respect has been lost, he'll find he is unable to control the behavior or his players. At the same time, he cannot afford to bench the best players because then he'll have no chance of winning, which will only hasten his own dismissal.
A mutual friend told me that one of the NFL's top head coaches has admitted he could never work in the NBA. The best NFL coaches can behave like bosses with the right to bench star employees or even fire them, in no small part because player contracts are at best partially guaranteed. The structure of the NBA -- as detailed in the collective bargaining agreement as well as the basketball rulebook -- provides little such authority to NBA coaches.
The challenge. So why should anyone want to be an NBA head coach?
"We get rewarded for it," McMillan said.
There has to be more to the job than the money it pays.
"It's the challenge: Are you able to do it?" he said. "It is a great job."
"All of the people in this business, we all need competition," Pacers coach Jim O'Brien said. "It's addictive. That's the best way of looking at it. The two years I spent out of the league after I got fired from Philadelphia, if it wasn't for my chance to get my [golf] handicap down, I don't know what I would have done. I would have gone crazy. I know if I was going to spend any time away from basketball, I would have gone insane without that competition."
That addiction -- which is viewed as a healthy addiction in American society -- is the one quality all coaches share.
"I went to a 12.7 from 19.5 in two years," O'Brien said of his handicap. "And that's after the guy who was hired to coach me said to me the first time, after he'd played golf with me: 'Can I be perfectly honest with you?'
"I said, 'Sure, you're going to be my swing coach.'
"He said, 'Well, the first year we're go to work on getting it up. And the second year we're going to work on getting it down.' Meaning that he's going to try to get [the backswing] up in the right spot. I'm still going to have to play golf while he's doing that, because it's going to take a while to get it up and get it down the right way. But it really was a lot of fun to compete against yourself."
So, you were like the coaches' version of Charles Barkley.
"Well," O'Brien said, "it wasn't that bad."
Exposure. One reason Rivers has put assistant Tom Thibodeau in charge of the Celtics' defense -- apart from the obvious fact that Thibodeau is excellent at that end of the floor -- is because he hasn't wanted to be the only voice his players hear. "Otherwise," he said, "they begin to tune you out."
The Lakers' Jackson shares that concern. "In pro football, you have 10 to 12 coaches, maybe 15 coaches -- I really don't know the number -- and every [position coach] has his group of guys he's dealing with, so, as a consequence, the personal one-on-one connection [between head coach and player] is pretty limited," Jackson said. "But in basketball, it's a constant. I think one of our coaches, [Mike] Fratello, one time said there's something like 5,000 to 7,000 meetings with these players."
Think about that: Seven thousand meetings each season between the lions and the tamer.
"Timeouts -- there are seven a game for each team," Jackson said. "And shootarounds and film sessions ..."
And practices, and pregame, halftime and postgame meetings, and charter plane rides.
"You're constantly displaying who you are in front of them," Jackson said. "And your personal ability to deal with them as a group and as individuals is always being called into action. The preparedness that you have to go through to be representing what your team has to go through for the next game can leave you without a lot of answers at times, because you're playing one team that plays a three-point shooting, run-and-gun game, and then the next team comes in and it's a grind-'em-out type team.
"So there's a lot of manipulation of personnel. You have to have a strong staff that can represent what the special scouting assignment is for each game, and you have to have an ability for leadership. Teams that don't have leadership in this game are really left juggling a lot of times for answers."
Younger coaches spend much of their careers trying to fathom how Jackson has survived and thrived at the highest level of basketball while dealing with the strongest of all lions, whether Michael Jordan or Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.
"He has been able to get to his stars and get them to believe in whatever it is -- I don't know if it's his religion or something else," said McMillan, who was not at all sarcastic in that statement. "Whatever it is he has been able to do, those guys respect who he is as a man and how he approaches the game.
"From the outside looking in, that's what I see. I don't know inside what's really going on there, but it's got to be that -- you cant be successful in this job without that."
Boiled down, how Jackson addresses the team can be just as important as what he tells them. "Yeah, I think so," he said. "You can't fool these guys. In basketball, they've been pursued since they were 12, 11, 13 years of age usually. They've seen all kinds of 'yes' people, back-slappers. ... I think they are savvy to character, and I think that's what wins the day with them."
X's and O's. Years ago, while seeking his first head-coaching assignment, Rick Carlisle told me he had come to realize that 90 percent of the job had to do with relationships and persuading players to play hard. He said this knowing that he was respected as a tactician, and in fairness to Carlisle, that 10 percent of the job involving strategy is indispensable.
A coach cannot develop meaningful relationships with his players unless they believe in his plan. This is why college coaches have so much trouble adapting to the NBA, because the pro game is so much more complex.
"I remember the first year when Grg and I came to the NBA," said Nuggets VP Mark Warkentien, who, in 1991, joined the Seattle SuperSonics along with assistant coach Tim Grgurich after both had worked for Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV. "My exact opening remark to him was, 'Timmy, what the hell kind of basketball is this?' There's a decision every time, based on who's in the game, how much time on the clock, what the foul situation is. When we were at UNLV, we'd either press man-to-man full court or we'd fall back in our amoeba [team defense] -- and now we're up here where they have seven or eight ways to defend the pick-and-roll.
"Remember what Bobby Jones said about Jack Nicklaus, that he plays a game I'm not familiar with? That's how we felt. Out of four things that were going on, I could catch onto three of them. But the fourth one I was missing."
The preparation for each game has never been better, noted Clippers assistant John Lucas. But the technical nature of those sophisticated breakdowns carries a downside. "Because of the computer and the ways the X's and O's are evaluated, it takes the coaches away from working with the players a little," he said. "The guys have got to know you're invested in them, and I don't think they know that unless they see you working with them. They don't know how hard you're really working because they don't see you."
Players are not the only danger. Utah's Jerry Sloan is widely regarded as the most stable coach in a highly insecure world, but he doesn't know what the fuss is about. "I don't look at it like I'm that important," he said. "Good players really give you a chance to win. I don't think my coaching has made that much difference. I just think I've been fortunate to be in one place for a long time."
So, the job isn't as difficult as it's made to sound?
"It's a mind-boggling job at times," he said. "Because you don't want to screw anybody up, and you hope everybody gets better as you go forward."
But his peers aren't so dismissive of how Sloan has spent 22 years and counting with the Jazz. In that time, the other 29 franchises have made 236 coaching changes.
"What I realize is that a Phil Jackson type of a career, a Popovich type of career, a Jerry Sloan type of career -- it doesn't very often happen," McMillan said. "Coach Sloan has been successful, but most organizations don't continue to be patient and allow winning to keep you there. Most organizations would have said, 'Look, if you don't have a title by now ...'
"You really have to believe in yourself and believe in what you do every day -- that's what it's about. You've also got to understand that one day it's going to come to an end."
Isn't that what the boxers say? That they all know they're going to be knocked out eventually.
"It's going to come to an end," McMillan said, laughing. "You're judged every single day, every single game on what you do. So you can never get comfortable, and you know it. So you don't put a lot of pictures up in your office.
"All that stuff I have, you can sweep in a box. Two minutes, I'm out. Not a lot of stuff in there, and no holes in my walls."
They'll never know he was there.
"They won't," he said with a big smile. "Two minutes, I'm gone."