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The 2013 NBA Coach of the Year award, Mark Jackson, and the murky business of evaluating coaches

Mark Jackson finished seventh in Coach of the Year voting with 47 votes after leading the Warriors to a milestone season and a spot in the NBA Playoffs. But how much does that award voting really say about Jackson's coaching ability?


In response to a surprising (or disappointing?) NBA Coach of the Year vote, Henry Abbot of ESPN's True Hoop made an important observation about how the award is determined (emphasis mine).

Sportswriters and broadcasters vote, and tend not to vote for the guy they think is actually the best coach, but instead for the guy whose team was most surprisingly good...The logic of [Karl] winning works like this: The Nuggets don't have an offensive superstar. That point is in the first line of the news story about Karl's victory. By and large such teams are seen as doomed -- despite the ongoing playoff success of the similarly starless Bulls and Pacers.

That makes this an award far more about the juxtaposition of subjective preseason expectations and objective outcomes (read: wins) than any real measure of actual coaching ability, which Abbot acknowledges is "...murky and tough to vote on with conviction".

Of course, that brings up another dilemma that Abbot alludes to: if everyone agrees that Phil Jackson or Gregg Popovich is the best coach year after year (though I think Tom Thibodeau has to be a close second), then the award just becomes pointless or at least monotonous. Yet I think we can all agree that the award is not necessarily about honoring the best coach as a career achievement award but the individual who did the best coaching job during a given season.

For me, that criteria not necessarily about whether a team was "surprisingly good": as we can easily see with the Golden State Warriors, sometimes the expectations of outsiders that create a "surprise" are just wrong and intangibles like confidence and interpersonal chemistry can go a long way in basketball. Instead, I've always thought that in theory, this award should be about the coach who got the most out of their personnel, which is certainly no less murky: we don't know what went on behind the scenes, how much responsibility was offloaded to assistants, how much influence front office decisions had on a coach's ability to be successful, or how much of a team's success was player development independent of a coach (e.g. the expected development of a young player or an offseason conditioning program that helped a player improve). As Abbot says, it's still extremely difficult to make any statement about those things with any sort of conviction.

Still, that brings me to Warriors coach Mark Jackson, who finished seventh in the actual voting and 11th in the ESPN forecast vote.

Remember when the Golden State Warriors hiring Mark Jackson as head coach was the source of mockery around the web? I will readily admit that I was among the doubters and even that is probably an understatement.

Judging by the team's season and the opinions of those close to the game, a lot of people were just wrong about the hire. And I'm glad I was wrong: regardless of what you think of how either of those votes turned out, it's safe to say that the Warriors hired someone who has earned respect as one among the top third of coaches in the league.

Still, Jackson's CoY portfolio is particularly murky.

Assistant coach Mike Malone's stock as a prospective coach has only increased with the Warriors' success this season and could skyrocket with the way the team has performed in advancing to the second round for the second time in 22 years. Then there's what Jackson himself alluded to in an interview with Tim Kawakami about finishing seventh in the media vote: he's got talent, including a scoring point guard who has enjoyed a historically good season and has gotten the attention he deserves with an impressive run in his first-ever playoff appearance.

...I don't do this and my team does not do this for any individual recognition.

That being said, if I'm 7th, then Steph Curry's an All-Star and he makes All-NBA. And Harrison Barnes makes All-Rookie. And other awards. Because I agree, it isn't the coaching. It's my guys.

And if I'm that, then my guys gotta get the recognition that they rightfully deserve. But I really don't care about that. I don't do it for that.

Jackson could probably be dismissed as just the inspirational voice leaning on Malone's tactical skill and a roster that probably had more potential than anybody but the most optimistic fans thought. Yet underlying all that murkiness lies what I think has been Jackson's biggest strength as a coach: as Nate Timmons described at the Colorado Sports Guys site, coaching is about more than the things that we see as fans.

The X's-and-O's are only part of the NBA coaching game. Motivating players and getting them to buy into what you want to do is the single biggest challenge that I believe coaches face. How can you motivate millionaires that have been beaten down by life in the NBA? How can you get a young player to believe that your way will be what leads to their success?

Coaching, as with any form of leadership, isn't just about fan satisfaction with managing lineups or how many isos he runs down the stretch of close games; the ability for a coach to bring all the pieces he's been given together and create a unit that is greater than the sum of its parts - which might include everyone from the undrafted rookie assigned to the D-League to his assistant to the vision of the front office - is what can make or break a team, even if we don't like what we see at every single moment.

Even if we can't see all of it, Jackson has had to juggle a lot in his first full 82-game season as a head coach and guided this team to the point they're at right now: tied 1-1 with an elite professional sports franchise. From getting four rookies ready to contribute at big moments during this playoff run to managing the uncertainty of a starter coming in and out of the lineup with medical restrictions throughout the season to keeping things together when the team lost a "MVP candidate", Jackson has proven his ability to manage the demands of being a NBA coach extremely well.

By no means is Jackson my selection for Coach of the Year, but right now, it looks to me like the Warriors are in a great position coaching-wise as they look forward to the future: for whatever gripes you have with Jackson, the organization has a young coach who has the opportunity to continue his growth with his young team with the help of a more experienced assistant with a strong reputation as a tactical mind.

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