Off-day fun: The time I ranted about Kuester

November 11th, 2009 by John Krolik

Before we start: good news. Barring unforseen complications, Ben Q. Rock and Eddy Rivera of Third Quarter Collapse are coming by tomorrow to preview the magic game and talk about the Cavs, Magic and basketball in general. I’m tremendously excited about it, so come by at 3 PM ET (Noon PT) on Wednesday and join us. It’ll be fun, I promise. Now, onto ranting.

I like to think of myself as a blogger/journalist who doesn’t engage in the rant as a form of expression all that often. I also attempt to avoid anything that could be interpreted as one-sided shilling for the Cavalier organization.

With that said, the time has come where I feel it appropriate to rant for the Cavalier organization.

Last season, the Cavs made news by being up-front about the fact they were using assistant coach John Kuester as an “offensive coordinator” instead of giving Mike Brown ultimate control over the offense. At the same time, the Cavs went from a mediocre offensive team to one of the best offensive teams in the league. Last off-season, Kuester left the Cavaliers to become the head coach of the Detroit Pistons, and the Cavaliers have gone right back to being a mediocre offensive team.

Just seeing the general blog/twitter/internet-o-sphere and reading the comments I get when I work the Daily Dime Live, the internet is kind of in love with the idea that the Cavs’ offensive problems this season are a product of Kuester’s departure.

Kuester was a very good offensive assistant coach, but to read what’s been written about him in the Cavalier community, one would think that Kuester is a mix between Tex Winter and Gandalf. The idea that the Cavaliers’ offensive problems are a function of Kuester’s departure are reductive and, frankly, annoying. It’s just NBA cultural posturing at its worst-it’s the assumption that if a fact ins’t known by many, it carries more inherent truth than a fact that’s widely known. It’s “hey, I know this assistant coach and what he did, I know the NBA,” and it’s just not all that cute anymore. There’s rarely talk about what Kuester was doing that current “offensive coordinator” Mike Malone isn’t doing; do the Cavs need more back-pick action? Less curls on the strong side? If someone would say what it is that Kuester provided last season that the Cavaliers lack this season, that would be one thing. But right now, people are just name-dropping to prove their own knowledge, and that is far from my favorite thing.

What’s happening with Kuester right now is some hard-core inductive reasoning. Really, the significance Cavalier fans have given Kuester isn’t much better than attributing success to a lucky belt buckle. There’s a causation/correlation thing happening here, and I’d like to see a bit less of it.

Thing #1: The Things Kuester Did Well are Still Being Done Well.

Kuester’s genius was using big men on the weak side to free up guard play for drive-and-kick basketball-he even managed to make Ben Wallace a major offensive asset when he was healthy, which is something that will get its own post in the near future. The Cavaliers have tried to do this with Shaquille O’Neal, and failed miserably-Shaq just isn’t active or quick enough on the weak side to free up guards with his screens, and trying to use Shaq like Kuester used the Cavalier bigs resulted in some major offensive issues early in the season. Fortunately, Mike Brown has realized that Shaq isn’t going to be useful out on the perimeter, and we’re starting to see him used in a more productive manner. But there was no way Shaq was going to be effective doing the things Kuester had the bigs do.

Furthermore, when non-Shaq units have been on the floor, the Cavs have been just as good offensively as they were last season, if not better. Kuester’s best offensive units had an offensive rating of around 1.14 according to This season, only the starting unit, two non-LeBron units, and the Gibson/Williams/Parker/James/O’Neal unit have come in below that mark offensively, and most of the lineups that include the Cavs’ starters from last season have had an offensive rating around 1.30.

The issue has been incorporating Shaq, not the loss of Kuester’s sets. The argument for Kuester would be that he was such an all-around offensive genius that he would be able to solve the issue of the lack of weak-side movement when Shaq’s on the floor, despite the fact Kuester’s offense revolved around bigs on the perimeter and drive-and-kick basketball during his Cleveland campaign. Which brings us to…

Thing #2: There’s no such thing as a coach good enough to overcome personnel, and that coach certainly isn’t John Kuester.

Let’s go straight to maybe the best offensive basketball mind of all time, Tex Winter. He invented the triangle offense, and in recent years the Gasol/Kobe Lakers have been some of the best offensive teams of all time, not just in terms of results but to look at-the ball movement was beautiful, the sets perfectly executed, everything clicked. But this season, with Gasol out and the Lakers still incorporating a healthy Bynum and Ron Artest into the triangle, the Lakers’ offensive efficiency has fallen to 14th in the league, despite Kobe playing out of his mind. Furthermore, the offense just hasn’t been that pretty-it’s Kobe vs. The World, with most crunch-time sets revolving around giving the ball in the mid-post and watching him go to work-Kobe currently leads the league in usage. (I also offer this as a counterpoint to all who say the Cavalier offense revolves way too much around LeBron going “1 on 5″ this season.)

And look at Kuester himself-he was never regarded as an offensive genius before coming to Cleveland, and his Pistons are currently 20th in the league in offensive efficiency, just behind the Cavaliers. Mike D’Antoni’s Knicks are currently 24th in offensive efficiency. Flip Saunders, one of the finest half-court offensive minds I’ve ever seen, coaches the 22nd-best offensive team in the league. None of this is to say that Winter, Saunders, Kuester, or D’Antoni are bad offensive coaches. But to think that they’re brilliant enough to make great offenses out of bad offensive players is just foolish.

When Kuester came in, the Cavs went from a starting backcourt of Eric Snow (or Boobie)/Larry Hughes in 07-08 to a starting backcourt of Mo Williams/Delonte West in 08-09. A mildly intelligent panda could have improved the offensive spacing and ball movement with those upgrades. Kuester was in the right place at the right time. Not to go all Gladwell on you, but John Kuester, offensive genius is much more a reflection of fortunate timing and circumstances than it is a showcase of his undeniable genius, although he certainly knows how to coach an offense. But context must be considered.

Remember when Tiger was in a slump because he blew out his knee,changed swing coaches, and who knows what else, and all anybody wanted to talk about was that his driving accuracy had gone down because he switched from a Titleist driver to a Nike driver? It wasn’t the correct explanation, but it was the tangible one, and one that showed knowledge of the game and what Tiger was doing. He switched back to the driver, and it didn’t do much good. The issues that make athletes and teams lose “it” are often complicated, and hard-core fans don’t like not understanding things, so they assign impossible qualities to what they can understand. Right now, John Kuester is the Cavaliers’ Titleist driver. As a community, Cavs fans and journalists can do better when evaluating the 09-10 team’s offensive woes than name-dropping.