What does a coach’s record in close games really mean?

Since Christmas break, almost every one of our games has been close. This week, as I jogged to and from the gym on several days, I thought about what close games mean in terms of one’s coaching. A coach’s (team’s) record in close games is cited often to demonstrate that a coach is a good coach. However, a friend never believed in this measure. He argued that there are too many variables in a game to suggest that the coach out-coached his opposing coach in a game under 5 points. Instead, he argued that the best way to evaluate a coach was his or her record in games decided by 5-15 points. According to The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer is Wrong, favorites win 80% of games in basketball (using NBA statistics), suggesting that many overweight the importance of in-game coaching on the game’s outcome.

Games decided by more than 20 points generally are contested between teams with unequal talent. Now, one can argue that the coach is responsible for the inequity of talent. In the NBA, it is a tough argument because the general manager acquires the talent, and it is hard to know how much of the talent on one’s roster is due to player development by the coaches. Similarly, in college basketball, recruiting is the name of the game. There obviously is some (to a lot of) development that occurs, and some coaches are responsible for their talent more than others in terms of on-court development, not just talent acquisition (whereas recruiting is the most important job of a college coach, I would not consider recruiting success to mean coaching success). For instance, a coach like John Calipari who rarely coaches a senior and has several one-and-dones each year probably deserves less credit for the development of his team’s talent than a team like St. Louis University or Wichita State University that generally has numerous 4-5 year players who were recruited as 2-3 star players (That does not mean that Calipari is a lesser coach, just that one has to consider that he often has more talent because of his recruiting ability. In some ways, the ability of coaches like Calipari and Coach K to get All-Americans to buy in and play hard all the time is more impressive than the development of 2-star players that occurs at other schools). At the high-school level, the talent available for a coach often depends on who enrolls in your school. I remember coaching against schools that due to the school’s demographics ( highly Latino or highly Asian) had nobody over 6’1. They played hard, and the coaches did a good job, but it is hard to win championships at the varsity level with an under-6′ team, especially in an area as competitive as southern California.

Therefore, if we assume that games decided by 20 points or more are contested between teams of unequal talent, those games do not tell us much about a coach’s actual coaching acumen. Therefore, we can narrow games to those decided by 19 points or less. However, what about close games? Is this where a coach shines, or is there enough measurement error that one cannot attribute wins to the coach?

I have had my fair share of close games this season. In the last four weeks, we won by 2 on a basket with 3.6 seconds left; lost in OT when we scored at the buzzer to force OT; lost by 3 when we missed a 3 in the final 6 seconds to tie; and won in double OT after scoring to send the game into OT and the second OT. Earlier in the season, we won in OT when we scored with three seconds left to send the game into OT, and lost by 1 when we missed two shots in the last 15 seconds to win it. Did I do a better job in the wins than the losses?

Let’s look at the last two games. Last weekend, we went down by 6 with about 40 seconds to play. I chose not to call a timeout. We pushed the ball ahead, and we hit a three-pointer. I chose not to foul, and they threw the ball out of bounds. I called a timeout to advance the ball and set up a sideline out of bounds play. We did not run the play as I drew it up, but managed to get a good look at a three-pointer to tie. We missed, and the ball went out of bounds off of our opponents. I called another timeout to set up a play to get another shot. My second-best three-point shooter passed up a good look to pass to my best three-point shooter who hit the back of the rim. Could I have done better? Yes. There was a breakdown between what I drew up and how we ran the sideline play even though it was not a new play. It was partially due to the defense. They forced us to catch the inbound pass further from the basket than we had planned, and we went away from the play at that point. Otherwise, I think we were prepared for the situations and executed pretty well.

Today, at the end of regulation, we drew up a new play. Out of the timeout, we did not get to the right place to start. We inbounded the ball and ended up with the player who I wanted to take the shot taking a wide open shot. He banked in the three-pointer to send the game into overtime. At the end of overtime, we called timeout. We ended up with a broken play, penetration, and a foul to send our point guard to the line to make two free throws and send the game to the second overtime. Did I have a more positive effect this week? It would be hard to argue that I did, except that we won. Neither time did we run the play as drawn up, but both times we got the desired shot from the desired player.

Just looking at these two games, am I a better coach or did I do a better job because my player banked in a shot this week, whereas last week we back-rimmed the shot? I think it would be tough to argue that point. In a more famous example, if Butler’s Gordon Hayward had made the half-court heave at the buzzer to beat Duke in the 2010 NCAA National Championship Game, would that make Brad Stevens a better coach or take anything away from Coach K’s legacy?

When you win a close game against a similarly-talented team, there is luck involved. There are many variables outside of the coach’s control: players making shots, foul trouble, officials calls, timekeepers, etc. In games like this weekend or last weekend, you need to catch a break. A big sequence today was a missed free throw. Their player fell down. Our player who was retreating on defense picked up the loose ball that bounced almost right into his hands by accident. He passed to the player who missed the free throw, and he made a three-pointer. We were down 2 when he missed the free throw, and now we are up by 1, and there is no way that anyone could have planned it. Who knows? If he makes the free throw, maybe we don’t force the second overtime? There are so many little plays, like when their player stepped on the line on a made three-pointer in overtime (two points). Does coaching really affect these plays? Can we measure or evaluate a coach based on these close-game outcomes when so many things outside the coach’s control affect the outcome? Instead, are games decided by 5-15 points (15-19 point games are a grey area, I think), and therefore theoretically matching teams of similar talent, a better indicator of overall coaching, from game-planning to development to in-game adjustments?

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

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