Posts Tagged ‘coach’

Awaiting the Izzo decision: A candidate profile.

Sunday, June 13th, 2010

Last time we spoke, I mentioned the emergence of Byron Scott as a candidate for the Cleveland Cavaliers’ vacant head coach position. Two weeks later, Scott has climbed the ranks and is a legitimate contender for the job. However, Dan Gilbert has recently made a strong push for a longtime friend, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, leaving Scott as what is believed to be option 1b.

Lately the Izzo news has been around-the-clock, with fans doing everything from tracking his flight on his visit to Cleveland to holding rallies on the Michigan State campus persuading him to stay. But the interest remains and Izzo is expected to make his decision any day now.

Therefore, without further ado, here is a look at how Tom Izzo would mesh with the Cavaliers, Divine Comedy style.

Inferno

“Be brave. Take risks. Nothing can substitute experience.” — Paulo Coelho.

While Tom Izzo is literally a living legend on the college basketball scene, he has never coached in any capacity on the professional level. However, this is not my greatest concern. The argument that “a college coach has never had success in his first NBA gig” is a biased assessment and one that looks at less experienced coaches that went to lottery teams. Never before has a coach of Izzo’s stature made the jump to a 60+ win team.

No, that doesn’t seem to bother me. What really concerns me is that quote above and how it applies to Izzo’s start, should he accept the gig. Even though I’m not worried about his eventual transition into the NBA and winning on the professional level over the course of a few years, the problem is the risks, and ultimately losses, he’ll have to take in order to reach that success. In other words, for Izzo to learn how to fight on the NBA level, it may take a few good whippings first.

Having to sell LeBron James on the future of Cleveland’s coaching position may not be a walk in the park when you explain that the guy coming in has been coaching teenagers that made absolutely no money off of basketball for the past 15 years. Add in the fact that expectations will be sky high and the first year under Izzo could be a difficult one for the Cavaliers, much like his 16-16 season his first year with the Spartans. The good news? That was his worst year coaching, holding a 348-130 record (.728) in the 14 seasons since.

While Izzo's teams have a reputation for getting out and running, their offense doesn't exactly blow opponents away.

One of my biggest stat-based fears deals with Izzo’s history on the offensive end of the ball. Despite having several great athletes throughout the years and a reputation for playing an up-tempo brand of basketball, his teams have never put an overwhelming amount of points on the board. Over his career, his Spartan teams have averaged only 71 points per game, an average that is less than that of Coach K’s by double digits. This past season Michigan State ranked 92nd in NCAA Div. 1 basketball for points per game with an average of 72.6 points per contest.

That ranking put them well behind schools such as Villanova (82.5), Kansas (81.8), Syracuse (81.5), and even teams stereotypically known for running a slower pace, like Duke (78.4). Granted, in the Big 10 teams are relegated to a half court tempo, methodically running plays aimed at ticking the seconds off of the shotclock. However, Michigan State still only placed third in the Big 10 in points per game, and edging out schools such as Illinois, Northwestern, and Penn State isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for one’s offense.

Perhaps the biggest complaint during the Mike Brown era was his reluctance to get out and run on the fastbreak. Locked into a half court system, fans and even some players felt that the athleticism of LeBron James was being wasted away in crucial breaks of the game. Who knows if Tom Izzo would be able to implement a fastbreak system better than Mike Brown’s Cavaliers, who ranked 18th in fastbreak points per game (13.9) and 25th in pace (93.5) this season. However, after having some success in the past with fastbreak offense, it’s hard to imagine he could be any worse.

Lastly, Izzo’s teams aren’t known for efficient shooting from either behind the three-point arc or free throw line. Last season the Spartans shot 68.1% from the free throw line, which was dead last in the Big 10 and tied for 201st in Div. 1 hoops. If Tom Izzo were to take over the Cavaliers, who were last in the NBA in free throw percentage at 72.0% this season, don’t expect the free throw woes to improve short of Mark Price divine intervention.

Michigan State’s three-point shooting was also below average, despite boasting deep threats such as Kalin Lucas and Chris Allen. In the regular season, the Spartans shot 33.3% from three, which was tied for 213th in NCAA basketball. Granted, shooting figures typically have more to do with the players than the coach, but it’s never refreshing to see shooting struggles under such a historic head coach.

In the end, I don’t see Tom Izzo’s “inferno” stage presenting that large of a challenge to the Cavaliers. Under Mike Brown the team was far from an offensive juggernaut, so Izzo would have his work cut out for him. Furthermore, who knows what he would be capable of given world class athleticism and talent.

Purgatorio

By far the biggest learning point for an NBA coach is managing your team. Sometimes, in the case of high profile gigs such as Los Angeles in the early 2000’s, it means helping Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal coexist for as long as possible. In this regard, Phil Jackson may be the best example of successful ego management in NBA history.

If Tom Izzo can sell Cleveland on his passion and defense, much like Scott Skiles did in Milwaukee, the Cavaliers will have a great future ahead.

However, it’s also very important for any coach, especially a coach new to the NBA ranks, to keep his ego in check. Izzo is known for getting in the face of his players, looking to get the most out of them. While a passionate coach that stays on you is a great blessing in the NBA, particularly after five years of Mike Brown’s smiles and blank stares, Izzo will have to learn how to tone it down a notch or two before having success with it. After having a conversation with tough minded NBA head coach and former Spartan Scott Skiles, Izzo appears to be on the right track in learning how to manage his fieriness.

That reported conversation brings up another issue as well. Skiles told Izzo “you play so many games [that] the losses pile up,” explaining the up and down nature of the league. This is one of the main concerns experts have anytime a coach goes from the college ranks to the NBA. Sure, you can have a decent record and manage a team in a 30 game season where the postseason involves playing a team you likely haven’t seen in a few years, but how will you fare when 90+ games is expected of you each season and not every three? And no one but Tom Izzo, who doesn’t even know yet and would only find out halfway into his first season, can answer that question.

That’s why these issues are filed under the “purgatory” phase. These concerns aren’t as troublesome as those found in the inferno, but it could cause some sort of temporary punishment for the Cavaliers if Izzo takes over next season.

Paradiso

There’s no other way to say this, but Tom Izzo is a flat out winner. He has consistently overachieved with his teams despite injuries and often times lesser talent. There is no doubt in my mind that if the Cavaliers were able to hire this former NCAA coach of the year, champion, and future hall of famer, that it would catch the eyes of LeBron James more so than a candidate like Tom Thibodeau or if Mike Brown were retained.

Tom Izzo has appeared in 13 straight NCAA tournaments and has been in six of the last 12 Final Fours. That’s six times that Izzo’s team was considered to be one of the top four teams in the country without the benefit of having a top four recruiting class. Since Rivals started ranking recruiting classes in 2003, Michigan State’s highest class ranking has been 11th (’03 – 13th, ’04 – 11th, ’05 – NA, ’06 – 18th, ’07 – 14th, ’08 – 22nd, ’09 – NA, ’10 – 11th). Since 2007, John Calipari’s recruiting classes have been ranked higher than Izzo’s each year (’07 – 10th, ’08 – 4th, ’09 – 1st, ’10 – 1st), yet Izzo has edged out Calipari in the NCAA tournament over that span, boasting an 11-3 record. In fact, Izzo has the third best postseason record among active coaches, 35-12 (.745), behind only Coach K (.778) and Roy Williams (.753). That’s the difference between a coach and a salesman who has exploited an NBA rule in his favor for recruiting purposes.

But more important than winning, it’s how Tom Izzo wins that would best benefit the Cavaliers. In five tournament games this past season, Izzo’s Spartans allowed only 64.6 points per game, limiting their opponents to 108-263 (41.1%) shooting. Most of this is due to the man-to-man pressure, stay in front of your guy, accountability defense that he preaches. As blogger “Sparty” explains, “State doesn’t shoot gaps to try and create turnovers, they are more concerned about protecting the basket and grabbing rebounds, reducing teams 2nd chance opportunities.”

Many of you Cavs fans remember there was once a time when playing for Mike Brown’s Cavaliers meant you protected the basket first and always put in the effort. Excuses like “my defense is my offense” landed Sasha Pavlovic on the bench for a season and a half. Unfortunately, once the talent-hungry Cavs got their hands on some offensive help, sacrifices were made. In Brown’s first three postseasons (2006-08), the Cavaliers allowed only 88.9 points per game in 46 games. In the last two postseasons, Cleveland has allowed 93.4 points per game in 25 playoff games, despite having much better regular season records and far more talented teams. This time span not-so coincidentally syncs up with the arrivals of Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, and Shaquille O’Neal, all players who Brown had a hard time integrating into his defensive concept. However, one can only wonder how hard he tried to integrate them after watching Mo Williams play matador defense and Shaq lazily show on every pick and roll possession after possession. Brown almost seemed content sacrificing this horrendous defensive show for the off chance that either player would provide an uplifting offensive spark, like Mo’s scoring tear after his dunk on Paul Pierce in game one of the semifinals.

Some fear Izzo's "fiery nature" will upset or scare off LeBron, but it sure beats bewilderedness.

Therefore, this is what I believe would be Tom Izzo’s biggest asset to the franchise, should he be able to perfect it as I mentioned above. His full contact, football pad practices certainly wouldn’t fly, but his in your face nature would demand accountability on the defensive end of the basketball.

There is a misconception floating around that LeBron James wouldn’t and doesn’t respond well to fiery coaches that openly correct their players. However, in the documentary More Than a Game, viewers are met with several clips of current University of Akron coach Keith Dambrot scolding his players, which included LeBron. LeBron talks about how he first reacted to the style of Dambrot and went on to mention his demanding nature and how he was the first coach to actually teach him a lot about the game.

Similarly, while playing for Coach Mike Krzyzewski in the 2008 Olympics, LeBron said “he wants us to be perfect and that’s what he’s about, and we like that, we like that kind of challenge… you see how fiery he is during the course of a game.” He went on to claim “I have never played for a collegiate coach, but I didn’t come into it saying ‘well we have a collegiate coach, how are we gonna adjust to him?’ He’s one of the greatest coaches, no matter what level it’s on.”

As a collegiate coach seemingly on the same level as Coach K, considered a top 3 NCAA head coach, Cavs fans could only hope that LeBron would have a similar outlook on Tom Izzo if he were to accept the job. As with Mike Krzyzewski, Izzo is very fiery and demanding and would want only the best from LeBron James and his teammates. I believe this mentality is needed from the new head coach no matter who it is, as it became evident that Mike Brown lost his team in the playoffs.

In the end, with all of the intangibles that Tom Izzo brings, including the “big name splash,” I feel that he is the best option for the Cleveland Cavaliers right now. Furthermore, if Dan Gilbert and the front office can convince him to commit to the team without a firm commitment in place from LeBron James, as they are trying to do now, then the move becomes a great success. However, if Izzo were to decline the job, then as you found out in my last Italian trio themed head coach profile, Byron Scott would be a buono number two option.

Make sure to join the discussion at Numbers Don’t and Real Cavs Fans!

Cavaliers show interest in Byron Scott: A candidate profile.

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

Yesterday I reported that the Cleveland Cavaliers are interested in former Hornets coach Byron Scott as a candidate for the vacant head coaching position. Scott was fired only nine games into this season after a disappointing 2009 postseason and start to the 2009-10 season.

But what would it mean if Scott were to take over as head coach in Cleveland? Well, in the first of what will be a couple of free agent coach profiles, we’ll take a look at Byron Scott, analyzing his past gigs, coaching style, strengths, and, most importantly, weaknesses.

First, Byron Scott has a career 352-355 (.498) record with a 33-24 (.579) record in the playoffs. His first gig was with the New Jersey, inheriting a 31-51 Nets team and taking them to two straight NBA Finals appearances in his second and third season. He would be fired halfway through his fourth season and relocate to New Orleans to coach the Hornets the following year. In five full seasons with the Hornets, Scott would win 200 regular season games, including a 56-26 (.683) 2007-08 campaign that netted him Coach of the Year honors.

Without further ado, here is a look at what Byron Scott would mean to the Cavaliers, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly style.

Il Buono

In his two previous coaching gigs, Byron Scott entered the arena like Clint Eastwood, commanding respect while shooting the hats off of any players unwilling to buy into his philosophy. Prior to Scott’s arrival in New Jersey, the Nets had one winning season in the previous six seasons and hadn’t had a 50 win season since 1976, when they were still part of the ABA. However, it took Scott only two years to churn out a 50 win season and he compiled a 101-63 (.616) record in his second and third years combined.

Byron Scott has had great success forging teams in both New Jersey and New Orleans.

It’s a process that Ryan Schwan of Hornets247 calls “forging a team.” Last season he claimed that “I don’t think there is a lot of question that Byron Scott has been successful at building team identity and cohesiveness.” He went on to state that “the players who got time were the players that would buy into what he was selling.  Knuckleheads were not tolerated.  That’s Byron Scott.  Even during the struggles this season, did anyone see real cracks in the teams facade?”

Over the years, it has been this trait, Scott’s seemingly effortless ability to mend a broken team and set them on the right path, that has stood out as his best quality. Furthermore, we as fans can only speculate how he would do if he inherited a good situation, such as a 61 win team and title contender, assuming LeBron James re-signs. Such a great opportunity could give Scott the boost he needs to lead a team back to the Finals, much like he did in 2002 and 2003.

Additionally, Scott has a reputation for being a good “player’s coach.” He is able to command respect while maintaining a good report with his best players. Chris Paul had a great relationship with Scott and was reportedly upset when he was fired, citing his great communication and claiming “he was always straight-forward with you from Day One.”

If Paul believed in Byron Scott even after he was fired, then Scott may be a coach that can command the respect of LeBron James. One thing’s for certain; whether or not he would be successful in Cleveland, Byron Scott would not tolerate his team ignoring his pleas to foul the opponent in the final minutes of an elimination game.

Lastly, Byron Scott has a good history of offensive efficiency while coaching ball-dominant players such as Jason Kidd and Chris Paul. Granted those players are legitimate point guards, whereas LeBron operates the offense in a point forward capacity, but Scott would likely be able to achieve offensive efficiency with James dominating the ball while making sure not to revert to 20 second isolation plays down the stretch.

During the 2007-08 season, when Scott was crowned Coach of the Year, the Hornets were tied for 2nd in terms of offensive efficiency, whereas the Cavaliers were tied for 17th. The Hornets were also 1st in offensive efficiency that postseason, while the Cavs finished 14th out of 16 teams.

Both Kidd and Paul thrived offensively under Byron Scott, averaging more points and assists per game with Scott as their head coach than in the following seasons with their team. One would only hope that if Scott were to take over the LeBron-led Cavaliers that he would be able to gain his respect, smooth out any issues, and correct the bad offensive habits that the team has practiced over the past few seasons, namely relying solely on LeBron’s isolation during crucial stretches of the game.

Il Cattivo

However, while Byron Scott’s offensive efficiency has been good for the most part, particularly in the 2007-08 season, his pace is cause for concern. After watching Cleveland’s offense struggle in a slow, halfcourt set over the past few postseasons, fans have been clamoring for a quicker pace. This growing ideology of breaking LeBron and his teammates free from the chains of a slow offensive pace isn’t exactly new, as even LeBron himself has complained about it in the past. “We don’t get easy buckets… easy buckets can always help, it doesn’t hurt,” James expressed back in early 2007. Even Larry Hughes chimed in, adding “I definitely think we should run more, it suits our team.”

Byron Scott's slow offensive pace should be cause for concern.

That was during the 2006-07 season, when the Cavaliers were tied for tied for 21st in the offensive pace rankings. In the three seasons that followed, the Cavs were ranked 23rd25th, and 25th in pace, a measure of a team’s possessions per game. Under Byron Scott, the Hornets didn’t fare much better. The last full season that Scott coached, 2008-09, the Hornets were ranked 28th in offensive pace, only a two spot improvement from the season before, when the Cavaliers were ranked 23rd and LeBron James still wasn’t too pleased with the pace of the offense.

While it hasn’t hurt Cleveland’s regular season success, such a slow pace has hindered the Cavaliers in the postseason. For instance, after averaging 102.1 points per game in the regular season this year, the Cavs scored only 95.2 points per game in the six game series versus the Boston Celtics. Typically a slower pace aids the defense, which explains why the Cavaliers let up only 95.6 points per game in the regular season, but the Celtics were able to score 100.5 points per game in the eastern conference semifinals. Ultimately, the Celtics, unlike the Cavaliers, were able to get out and run the last three games of the series, outscoring Cleveland 53-25 in fastbreak points, overcoming a 2-1 series deficit with three straight victories.

Ultimately, a faster pace isn’t absolutely necessary, as the Spurs were ranked 27th in offensive pace the year they beat the Cavaliers in the Finals, but there is a public perception amongst the fans, analysts, writers, and even the players that the Cavaliers need to push the tempo offensively. In fact, many fans and analysts, such as Charles Barkley, wanted Mike Brown out of Cleveland because he slowed down the offense. With this perception in mind, welcoming Byron Scott to Cleveland would be setting him up for failure in the eyes of fans with lofty offensive expectations. If everything doesn’t go smooth right off of the bat, fans could turn on him quickly.

Il Brutto

These are the very ugly concerns I have when it comes to the prospect of Byron Scott manning the Cavaliers. The first one deals with Scott’s game-planning. Many fans know that one of Mike Brown’s biggest weaknesses was his inability to make in-game adjustments. However, in that regard, Byron Scott makes Mike Brown look like an impromptu genius.

I think the aforementioned Ryan Schwan explained it best when he said that Scott’s ego “allows [him] to be certain his way is best.  It makes him certain that what he is doing is right.  That may allow him to sleep well at night and control the team, but it also makes him stubborn and inflexible.  That inflexibility shows up in his gameplanning – and has in every year he’s been with the Hornets.  Byron installs a gameplan during training camp, and from that moment on, it will not change.”

There were rumors in New Jersey that Scott very rarely focused on game film or pre-game adjustments and instead opted to hammer away at his pre-season gameplan. Part of this inability to properly adjust his gameplan includes the snubbing of younger players. As Kevin Pelton put it, “ultimately, though, Scott sealed his own fate with his reluctance to trust young players.”

This is another shortcoming that mirrors those of Mike Brown, who refused to insert J.J. Hickson into a more serious role until general manager Danny Ferry forced him to. Unfortunately, even then, Hickson became an afterthought in those final three losses against Boston, averaging only 3.0 minutes per game, despite playing 15.7 minutes per contest in the first three games of that series.

Keeping with the Mike Brown theme, Scott’s first and only two exits from coaching have come because his team had seemingly quit on him. In fact, charting Byron Scott’s progression with each of the two teams he has coached is quite interesting. Both times he inherited an average to below average team and took them to new heights within a matter of a few seasons. However, in each instance, Scott peaked in a matter of a couple seasons and then it wasn’t long before he was out of a job. Charting Byron Scott’s rise and fall as a coach is like drawing a rough outline of the Laffer Curve on a napkin.

The "Scott Curve."

While a declining record is typical for most coaching gigs that end in a coach losing their job (excluding Mike Brown), for it to happen so quickly suggests that teams have quit on Scott. And many agree that’s exactly what happened in New Jersey. Bill Simmons believes the Hornets lost faith in Scott as well, citing that New Jersey incident first, claiming “the Nets practically revolted against Byron Scott four years ago. So there is a precedent.”

Simmons watched a game at the start of the 2008-09 season in which he felt that the Hornets players didn’t particularly like Coach Scott. He explained that there are several nonverbal communication signs present when a player respects his coach and looks hungry to learn. And, even though Chris Paul respected Scott and backed him publicly as I mentioned earlier, Simmons felt that he didn’t truly buy into what Scott was teaching on the court. Bill Simmons summarized by claiming that he “mistakenly believed that Chris Paul and Scott had an ‘A’ relationship [total respect] but in the second half of Monday’s game, it was revealed that they were a ‘C’ ['I've just had it with this freaking guy'].”

Ultimately, while the revolt wasn’t immediate in either case, I’m not so sure that the Cavaliers should hire a coach that LeBron James could show even the slightest disdain for in three to four years. What makes this especially risky is that if James does re-sign, it’s very likely that he would sign another three year deal in order to maximize his contract flexibility. If Scott eventually lost his players like he has with other teams, this would leave the Cavaliers in the same situation they’re in now, with a head coaching vacancy synced up with LeBron’s free agency. Believe it or not, it’s not an attractive situation for the team to find themselves in.

In the end, Byron Scott offers many good qualities and may be the best realistic option out there for the Cavaliers. However, if he cannot capture the respect and attention of LeBron James while restructuring the nature of Cleveland’s postseason offensive stagnation, then the Cavaliers wouldn’t be any better off with Byron Scott at the helm.

Make sure to join the discussion at Numbers Don’t and Real Cavs Fans!

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