Usually I'm not one to disagree with the Grand Poobah of Raptor Bloggers over at RaptorBlog.com but Mr. Carefoot's post on Sam Mitchell's lack of accountability last week had me shaking my head. Not that I usually come rushing to Coach Mitchell's defense, but given some thought on the subject of accountability and the responsibility of the coach I'm not sure if Mr. Carefoot's arguments hold water.
Let's go back to Coach Mitchell's quote...
"It's not the calls or the plays, it's the players making the play in those situations. The only thing you can do as coach is get the ball into the hands of the people that night that you think can make a play and hope they make a play."
While some may believe that Coach Mitchell is shifting the blame onto the players what he's really doing is displaying the reality of how much the coach can actually control once the ball is in play. The coach sets the play and from that point on it's up to the players to execute. Even a perfectly run play can fail because no shot once launched is guaranteed to hit the bottom of the mesh. The players are fallible. They're only human after all.
In his quote Coach Mitchell doesn't call out any players and blame them for not making the shot. If anything, Coach Mitchell is demonstrating that he understands that the players aren't perfect. I doubt Larry Brown has ever expressed that belief. If I was a player, I'd like to think that the coach understands that the ball doesn't always bounce perfectly even if I'm putting everything I have into the game. I'd place my trust in a coach like that.
Likewise, Coach Mitchell is showing his trust in his team. Against Memphis a couple Saturdays ago, he placed his trust in Derrick Martin to make the play at the end of the game. Unfortunately Martin failed to score and the Raptors lost. Coach Mitchell was doing two things here: one, going with the hot hand and, two, rewarding a player who had done a great job that night getting the team back in the game. Doesn't that send a message to the rest of the team that if you play hard and do the right things, you'll get rewarded with some primetime opportunities? Last time I checked motivation is one of the key responsibilities that a coach must provide.
Naysayers may argue that at the end of the Memphis game, Coach Mitchell had a duty to call a play that put the Raptors in the best position to win the game. Mitchell played a hunch and lost. It hurts but that's the nature of any sport -- you never can tell. Back in May 1994, with the Bulls down 2 games to the Knicks, Phil Jackson chose not to put the ball in the hands of arguably the best all-around player in the NBA (Scottie Pippen) and instead called a play for Toni Kukoc. We all remember that Pippen flipped out but do we all remember that Kukoc made a 23-foot fade-away to the win the game? Kukoc made the shot. Is Jackson a coaching genius?
Jackson would certainly lead you to believe that he is. It's a role he's carefully crafted for himself. Nine NBA championships are hard to argue against but when faced with a rebuilding situation in Chicago Jackson opted out. In fact, Jackson has never coached a team without Michael Jordan or Scottie Pippen or both. Or Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O'Neal or both. And even with "just" Kobe Bryant, Jackson has had Lamar Odom -- an incredibly talented player good enough to be selected to America's Olympic Team. The only genius Phil Jackson has really displayed is the ability to put himself in a position to look like a genius.
By Mr. Carefoot's argument, maybe we shouldn't be in awe of all of MJ's game-winning shots, maybe we should be applauding the coach who ran the plays to put the ball in his hands. The fact of the matter is, even if the coach on the opposing team runs the perfect defense to counter whatever Coach Jackson has decided to do, MJ made a play to win those games. This is exactly what Coach Mitchell is arguing in his quote.
Martin himself is often described as an extra coach on the bench. If that's the case, then isn't he the most likely player to make the right decision at crunch time? I don't recall a chorus of sportswriters or bloggers asking Martin why he chose to attempt the shot he did. Nor did they ask him if there was a better play he could have made. Was there an opportunity to pass the ball? Did you think that taking the final shot was the best play to win the game? Mr. Carefoot didn't hold Derrick Martin accountable for any decision he made after the ball was inbounded to him. Apparently players just do what the coaches tell them to. If that was the case, there is no need for players. The NBA could convene a group of officials to decide which play run by the opposing coaches is better and then decide which was more likely to succeed.
Once the ball is in play the only factor a coach has on the game resides in the heads of the players. The coach's most important job is to teach skills, strategy and game awareness. The best example of this was the 2001 Duke University basketball team. That team won the NCAA championship that year and Coach Mike Krzyzewski rarely called an offensive play all season. By any account that is a masterful coaching job but he wouldn't have succeeded had his team been populated by lobotomized zombies no matter how physically talented they were.
Perhaps Mr. Carefoot missed his own point when he states that "I will suggest that this team's improvement is primarily due to the fact that, as of this writing, 69 percent of the team's overall minutes of playing time have been filled by players who were not on the roster last season." Yes, that may be the case but it may be hard to distinguish if the team is better because the players are more physically gifted or because they are better at learning what Coach Mitchell is teaching them.