Sporting proposition: pro coaches are totally overrated

Mid October is great for pro sports, the NBA season tips off this year on the 28th, the NFL season is more than a quarter into the season, the MLB playoffs are moving fast towards the World Series and the NHL has started skating. If you are a professional sports fan in America (Canada, too!) then you like October.

This post however, is not to celebrate the leagues or teams, but to make a point that I have been making for quite some time with friends and family: pro coaches are totally and utterly overrated.

For the purpose of discussion, I will limit myself to what I know – NBA, NFL, MLB – I am not a very knowledgeable hockey guy. The parameters also defined are full seasons including post-season, etc.–exhibitions don’t count.

Head coach Eric Spoelstra, meh?. Photo: Lpdrew, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Head coach Eric Spoelstra, meh?. Photo: Lpdrew, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

The easiest place I can make my case is when it comes to the NBA, and I’ve got plenty to work with – starting with Eric Spoelstra of the Miami Heat. Spoelstra had two seasons under his belt with perennial All-Star Dwayne Wade and had a respectable .548 winning percentage although with two first round playoff losses.

Enter LeBron James (and All-Star forward, Chris Bosh). In LeBron’s four years in Miami the Heat–“led” by Spoelstra–made four straight NBA finals, winning two. I wouldn’t call this a coincidence, and I’m excited to see what happens this season since LeBron skipped town and now that Wade is 33 (on the downward slope for NBA players) and has been battling serious knee issues now for several years.

The Heat still do have Bosh and have acquired some talent in the off-season, and they do play in a terrible Eastern conference, but I would be surprised if they did much better than Spoelstra’s previous .548 winning percentage. Certainly they won’t come close to the .717 win percentage that they had with LeBron.

Keeping with LeBron, what about his longest tenured coach with his first go around in Cleveland Cavaliers, Mike Brown? Brown had a .663 winning percentage in five years with LeBron and made it to one NBA final.

Unfortunately for the Cavaliers and Brown, the general manager and owner didn’t surround LeBron with much talent to speak of, which led him to bolt to the Heat. LeBron left for Miami and Brown got canned in Cleveland and took a job with the L.A. Lakers. Moving from Cleveland to L.A. sounds great! In Brown’s first year in L.A., all-time NBA legend Kobe Bryant and a loaded roster led the Lakers to win their division, but couldn’t advance past the 2nd round of the playoffs. In Brown’s second year there, he was fired after 5 games.

Brown got another shot back in Cleveland. Things are always better the second time around, right? Nope, Brown and lightly talented (but young and promising!) went 33-49, in a bad conference–and that ain’t good!

Another great example of contemporary NBA coaches is Mike D’Antoni, and this one especially hurts because he got my hopes up as a Knicks fan! In five years with the Phoenix Suns, D’Antoni had a winning percentage of .650 and even won NBA Coach of the Year once. Oh, FANCY! Come on over to New York we said, with open arms! Then, the Knicks went on to lose 167 out of their 288 games (fired mid-year in his fourth season) with D’Antoni for a winning percentage of .420. Gross.

But don’t worry, Mike got another shot too, he went to L.A. also, because one man’s trash is another–oh wait, he had a winning percentage of .435 there–I guess it wasn’t Brown’s fault after all!

So what made Mike so good in Phoenix? Well that would be a healthy Amar’e Stoudemire – a power house of a player and All-Star and multiple winning league MVP, Steve Nash. True, Stoudemire went with D’Antoni to New York, but by that point he was (and still is) pretty washed up.

Ok, let us move on from the NBA, even though it’s the game where one player can really dominate and make all the difference.

How about football? My favorite example to point to is Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, “The Hoodie,” the “Mastermind,” the blah, blah, blah – really the luckiest man in football. Belichick has led to the Patriots to three Super Bowls and appeared in two others.

To show why Belichick isn’t good, let’s take it back a few years. Before a stint as an assistant coach with the Jets, before becoming the head coach in New England, Belichick was the head coach with the Cleveland Browns (man, I am all over Cleveland, sorry, I actually liked the city the one time I was there when I was young). While with the Browns, Belichick had one really great year in five years there with a record of 11-5, but in the other four years, he was a combined 25-39, not exactly a “Mastermind.” One year of success in a span of five is not an indicator of talent or success, but rather an aberration.

So back to current times, in New England and why I say Billy boy is lucky – in his second year with the Patriots, Bill started the season 0-2 (after going 5-11 his first year there) and then they proceed to win 11 of the next 14, And what was the difference? Tom freakin’ Brady. (Disclaimer: I am a very, very bitter lifelong New York Jets fan).

Belichick only put his backup, Brady, in due to a late hit (a penalty) by the New York Jets linebacker, when Mo Lewis knocked out starting Patriots QB Drew Bledsoe. The Patriots drafted Brady in the sixth round–sixth! How could every team miss that talent five times over. Even the Patriots passed on him for five rounds, which indicates that they themselves had no idea how good he was, or else they wouldn’t have waited so long to draft him!

LUCK, I say, luck. Belichick’s time in Cleveland, followed by his acquisition and forced play of arguably the greatest quarterback ever has secured his spot as luckiest man in football.

Ok, how about baseball? As a (nearly) lifelong Yankees fan, this one kind of pains me, but let’s bring up Joe Torre. Torre took the Yankees to six World Series appearances and won four, but let’s examine the rest of his career.

Besides managing the Yankees, Torre spent time managing the New York Mets, Atlanta Braves, St. Louis Cardinals and L.A. Dodgers and at all those places had a combined winning percentage of .491, winning 1,153 games and losing 1,230–not very good.

Now, all of this being said, some coaches I think can really make a difference when it comes to certain things. For example, some coaches actually change the way the game is played. Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49ers in the 198’s introduced the West Coast offense – short, quick passes–although he did have Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, possibly the two best ever at their positions.

How about Phil Jackson who put together the Triangle Offense, oh wait, he has this guy named Michael Jordan and another of the NBA’s 50 greatest of all-time players, Scottie Pippen. Well after Jordan and Pippen, Phil used the triangle in L.A. where all he had was Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neil who both are also possibly the best ever at their positions.

Hmmm. Maybe even the revolutionary coaches don’t mean much. Your thoughts?


Statistics from, and

4 Comments on “Sporting proposition: pro coaches are totally overrated”

  1. Who’s the best team (arguably the only TEAM) in the NBA? San Antonio. Their coach has won 5 NBA titles, with a wide variety of players. Would anyone consider them the most talented team in the NBA? No.

    Also don’t forget that Pippen and Jordan were together for a few years before Phil Jackson arrived. Didn’t do much in the playoffs.

    I’m not sure the roster of the 2012 Red Sox (one of the worst records in MLB) was much different than the 2013 version (World Series winners). Though they did get rid of their clueless manager.

    Yes, coaches can be totally overrated. Doesn’t quite mean they’re irrelevant.

    Of course they need talent. Even the best ones can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Otherwise the Jets would be redeemable.

  2. Jon Sklaroff says:

    Brian, I was considering that Jordan / Pippen were together pre-Jackson and sure they were both established players and Jordan was himself a star (the best already in the league?) but they were banging up against extremely talented teams like the Bad Boy Pistons, the Celtics of the 80’s, etc … was it Phil that made them great, or the other teams losing out on talent and Jordan / Pippen getting better?

    The Sox made DRASTIC changes from their last place to W.S. run, they dumped Beckett, Adrian Gonzales and Carl Crawford – all seemingly silly, but it worked out, but totally different rosters.

  3. Bill Haenel says:

    There are so many things that make a team work or not. I’d say good leadership is one of them. Can it work without good leadership? Sure, if you have a lot of other points going for you. However, leadership can make or break a team of any kind that is otherwise on the edge of failure or success.

    I think a good coach can take a team that has the potential and turn them into a winner. Likewise, a lousy coach can take a team that has potential and bury them. A bad team will be bad. A good team will be good. So in pro sports, how many teams are on either end of the extreme good or bad spectrum? Most are in the middle, so the coach makes a big difference. And let’s not forget how the coach interfaces with management and assistants, and how that communication can form the team roster, etc.

    It’s been fun to watch the coaching turnover in the NHL over the past several years and the effect it can have on a potentially cup-winning team as it goes down the drain – after the coach can no longer motivate the swelled heads of star players.

  4. Jon Sklaroff says:

    Bill – Like I said, I won’t try to debate the NHL. In reference to most teams “being in the middle,” say in the NFL for example; many teams will finish with records of 7-9, 8-8, or 9-7 … right in the middle but lets be honest; last year the 8-8 Jets, Dolphins, Cowboys, Bears, Steelers and Ravens or the 7-9 Titans, Giants, Lions or the 9-7 Chargers, were not going to the win the Superbowl. Just because your record shows you right in the middle, doesn’t mean that you are good and just need a push, but that your fair well against other mediocre teams.

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