Evaluating a Coach’s Record

A coach’s won-loss record is the primary means for evaluating the coach’s effectiveness. Whereas I certainly do not agree that this is the best indication of a coach’s performance or value, it is certainly the one cited most often. 

Of course, not all wins are the same. Throughout the season, teams face opponents of varying talent levels. Should a coach deserve equal credit for beating a team of inferior talent as he or she does for beating one of superior talent? Often, a coach’s performance in close games is cited as evidence for or against his or her coaching acumen.

Earlier this season, I wrote about my team’s performances in close games. I cited a friend who had an interesting way of evaluating coaches. My friend, Lindell Singleton, suggested that games decided by less than five points are subject to too many variables to credit or discredit the coach for the victory. He suggested that games decided between 6-15 points were the true measure of a coach’s ability. Games decided by more than 20 points generally are won by a team with a decided talent advantage. Games between 16-19 points are a grey area between coaching and talent.

Using this idea, I decided to take a look at my season, including the postseason, now that my season has finished. Also, because of Kentucky’s seed and its postseason run, I decided to look at Kentucky’s performance this season. Kentucky tends to be the litmus test for people, as many credit Coach Calipari for his coaching ability, whereas many believe his talent wins the game. Be viewing Kentucky’s season through the lens of Singleton’s evaluation, I wondered if it could tell us anything about the argument of luck, coaching, and talent.

First, my season:

  • 0-5 points: 6-4
  • 6-15 points: 9-3
  • 16-19 points: 1-3
  • 20+: 2-2

I fared pretty well by this evaluation. Four of the five losses by more than 16 points occurred when starters were injured, and four of the five 16+ point losses were to the top two teams. From my perspective, it would not be fair to evaluate my performance as a coach based on those games, as we were undermanned. Similarly, in one of our two 20+ point wins, our opponent was missing players. I certainly do not deserve the same type of credit for a lopsided win over an overmatched opponent.

In the 0-5 point games, there was plenty of luck involved. We won a double OT game where we hit a three-pointer to send the game to OT, free throws to send the game to double OT, and another shot near the buzzer to win the game in double OT. We won a game on a floater at the buzzer. We sent two games to OT (one win and one loss) on lay-ups off the same underneath out-of-bounds play, neither of which was run correctly. We lost a game when my two best shooters each missed a wide open shot in the last 12 seconds, and lost another game when my best shooter missed a three at the buzzer. Am I a better coach when my player hits the 3 and we win in OT than when he misses the 3 and we lose? Record-wise, yes. But, did I do anything differently to cause the win or the loss? If that 3 that hit the back rim went in, am I an appreciably better coach? Perception-wise, maybe, but not in reality. Sometimes you make the shot, and sometimes you miss.

On to Coach Calipari:

  • 0-5: 6-8
  • 6-15: 14-2
  • 16-19: 4-1
  • 20+: 5-0

The striking thing about Kentucky’s record is that they were 2-8 in close games entering the NCAA Tournament, and won four straight close games. Whereas this is not meant to take anything away from Aaron Harrison, that either shows some degree of luck and/or some regression (progression?) to the mean.

Kentucky’s record shows that they won almost all of the games that they should have won. If the coach has the most influence on the games decided by 6-15 points, Calipari’s influence was certainly positive, even though most people will concentrate on their last six-point loss in the national championship game.

I don’t know that this demonstrates or proves anything. However, I’m not sure that results in close games are as indicative of a coach’s coaching ability as many believe, and won-loss records are effected by many things that may or may not be within a coach’s control, such as injuries, luck, talent, officials, and more. Whereas won-loss record should be one point of evaluation – at the college and professional levels, you play to win the game – there should be a deeper inspection of wins and losses, as not all wins are the same. Additionally, won-loss record is only one point of evaluation, and coaches at all levels should be evaluated by different factors beyond simply one’s record.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

3 thoughts on “Evaluating a Coach’s Record

  • It seems a contradiction but the use of stats and metrics have actually increased people’s awareness of luck, randomness, good fortune, or whatever you want to call it, in sports.
    UConn was down 3 with under a minute to go and St. Joe’s had the ball in their first game. How many times do they win that game? 1 out of 3? 1 out of 4? They then win their next 5.
    Coaches get too much credit for close wins and too much blame for close losses. Wins and losses are one measure (especially at higher levels) but to rate coaches by wins and losses is a bit like measuring law enforcement by crime rates. There are too many other variables involved and their importance changes depending on the situation as to measure it with one simple number.

  • There are a lot of variables in a close game, but a huge part of basketball coaching is preparing your team for these exact situations. If you watch the great teams in any sport you will see that they always pull out the close games. This is not by accident, it comes down to preparation and execution. Most of this falls on the coaches shoulders.

  • I think always is a big overstatement, and suggesting that luck has nothing to do with it it naive. At some point, regardless of preparation and execution, a player has to make a shot or a defensive stop. When most players shoot below 50% from the field anyway, even the best play has a 50% chance of working. You can execute perfectly and create the right shot for the right player at the right moment, but Curry, Durant, James, etc. miss 5-6 out of every 10 shots. The law of averages suggests that they will miss as often as they will make it. Defensively, you can execute perfectly, force a fumbled pass into the corner, and get Durant to shoot while falling into the second row, but he still could make the shot. Ultimately, it’s a player’s game.

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