There is one itty-bitty word to remember when you look at the conflict that led to Pat Riley's leaving as coach of the New York Knicks last week. That word is no. The Knicks wanted to reserve the right to say no to Pat. They wouldn't have said it often, just as they didn't say it often to him in the past four years, but they believed they needed the option to say it. And as a former NBA coach who is now a Phoenix Sun executive with three decades of experience in this crazy league, I agree with them.
I'm not privy to everything that happened in New York—maybe other factors contributed to his decision to leave. But when a coach wants more control, as Pat said in his resignation statement, what he means is that he's looking for autonomy in personnel decisions. And autonomy doesn't work in this league anymore. Yes, Red Auerbach used to scout a player, negotiate with him, sign him, control his playing time, trade him or cut him, and then make a speech about him when his number was retired. But Red was the exception that proves the rule. On two occasions, with the Atlanta Hawks in 1974-75 and then with the Kansas City Kings in 1981-82, I had complete control in matters involving player personnel while I was also the coach, and I wouldn't do it again. (Not that anyone is breaking down my door to ask.)
Most coaches think they are great evaluators of talent, but they aren't. A coach is too involved with the problems he has on the court to see the whole picture. Let's say a coach is convinced that his small forwards are killing him. And then when he plays the Utah Jazz in back-to-back games, David Benoit goes off on him. So the coach becomes convinced that he has to have Benoit. But maybe the general manager or someone else in basketball operations has seen Benoit a couple of times when Benoit wasn't so hot. Maybe Benoit doesn't fit into the team's salary structure because of a quirk in his contract, or maybe the upcoming college draft is rich in small forwards and the team would be better served by getting one from there. See, a coach's job is to win today, but part of a general manager's job is to look after the care and feeding of the franchise on a long-term basis. It takes two different people, not one person with two hats, to make sure that both of those interests are served.
True, over the years many a team has been led down the path of destruction because of stupid personnel decisions made by individuals other than the coach. It amuses me when a business-oriented guy is hired as general manager or vice president, and a month later he's evaluating talent. But as far as I know that wasn't happening with the Knicks. Right below Dave Checketts on the Knick masthead is vice president and general manager Ernie Grunfeld, who is a good evaluator of talent, a respected ex-player who knows the league. If there weren't a person in the front office like Ernie, as well as a good scouting staff, then Pat's desire to expand his role would've made more sense.
Eight years ago our Phoenix franchise was in horrible shape. We had a bad team and a terrible drug scandal. The temptation would've been for ownership to bring in one guy as a dictator type to make every decision and say, "This is the way it's going to be." That didn't happen. Jerry Colangelo was the general manager, and I came in as director of player personnel, and we did it together. We argued, we fought, we leaned on each other, we made the decisions together. No way we would've pulled out of that mess if one guy had been making all the calls.
Every team in the NBA is set up differently, and there's no one system that's correct. For example, I'm listed as senior executive vice president of the Suns, which sort of translates to general manager, but they wouldn't let me within a hundred yards of a balance sheet or a season-ticket plan because I don't come from a business background. What's critical is that business guys do the business and basketball guys do the basketball. And it's also critical that your head coach be involved in all personnel decisions, including the draft. I would go so far as to say there is no one on the Suns' roster whom coach Paul Westphal did not want on this team. But to give him total say-so? Dangerous, very dangerous.
The Detroit Pistons made a move in that direction recently when they hired Doug Collins effectively as general manager and coach. They must have believed they needed a "strong" person at the helm, maybe because they hadn't had a formidable enough basketball presence in the front office in the last few years. Remember, however, that Detroit was at its championship best when it had two strong-minded men in the key positions. Coach Chuck Daly could say no to general manager Jack McCloskey, and McCloskey could say no to Daly.
Checks and balances are crucial in any sports organization, just as they're crucial in any government. Riley is probably the premier coach of his generation and a very smart guy to boot. But he doesn't know everything. Nobody does.