Coach of the Year is my least favorite NBA award. I tend not to get terribly upset by MVP balloting, as most of the time the choice is among numerous deserving candidates. Although I am firmly in the camp that believes MVP awards by definition should go to the “Most Outstanding Player”, I cannot begrudge sports fans their impulse to “award” it to the individual they deem most important to a team’s accomplishments. In fact, the back-and-forth about ‘what is value?’ and ‘who is more important to his team?’ is actually what makes the MVP race interesting.
By sharp contrast, Coach of the Year is about as interesting as an hour-long lecture on channels of distribution. This is unfortunate because the hard core NBA fan appreciates coaching (and if you’ve read this far in a blog entry that has “Coach of the Year” in the title you’re hard core). They even talk about coaching, just not in conjunction with the COY award. As Martin Johnson points out in today’s NY Sun, the range of likely winners is so narrow and so similar it’s hardly worth any discussing. The formula is easy enough to write out. COY = most dramatic one-season improvement, particularly if the team makes the playoffs. Although the winner is not easy to predict, the non-winners are. Coaches that win consistently virtually never win the award.
This should sound familiar. In season 1 Team A suffers key injuries and loses 10+ wins off the previous season’s total. In season 2 the team gets healthy, adds a lottery pick, and then sees a 10-12 game improvement to 50 wins. Voila! You have a strong COY candidate. Over the same two seasons Team B’s performance holds fairly steady through injuries and growing pains, improving from 45 to 48 wins. Now I don’t know which coach is better, but I do know that Team B’s coach is practically a lock to NOT get strong consideration for COY. So in effect, the process is biased against consistent high performance and in favor of factors that have little to do with coaching. The story is always the same, which seems silly to me. It ensures that no one will care about the award because the best coaches are often not even part of the conversation. It’s one thing for the good-but-never-great player to be shut out of an MVP race. Outstanding play really ought to be measured in short time intervals, but outstanding coaching can really only be seen over time because so many things that impact team performance are outside the coach’s control.
If I were in charge of NBA awards I would move COY from an annual award to a three-year award. (The trophy is already named for Red Auerbach, so the league wouldn’t need to do much other than award it tri-annually instead of annually.) One season simply is not enough time to say much about a coach’s performance. The effects of coaching are generally thought to be quite small and subject to lots of random noise (e.g., injuries, scheduling, strength of competition, etc.). One way of filtering out at least some of the noise is to look at a larger window of time.
Of course three years is an arbitrary window. (Why not five years? Or ten?) But three years is probably close to the typical coaching tenure, and is similar to the window in which coaches are hired and evaluated. I would also make the criteria for winning the Red Auerbach award explicit but open to interpretation. That’s what makes the MVP races so interesting. Different notions of what constitutes value produces candidates who bring different features to the table. Consider how Steve Nash completely changed the MVP profile.
Coaches under consideration for the award should be able to demonstrate:
1. An overall winning record as coach within the three season window; playoff performance may be considered but is not necessary to be eligible. (To the extent possible I want to avoid awarding simple regression to the mean. I want to see some consistency.)
2. Player development;apart from simply winning games players should generally improve under a coach.
3. Other considerations consistent with quality coaching; may include but are not limited to strategic or technical innovations, service to the league (e.g., on rules committees), and acting as an ambassador for the game of basketball.