Dwyane Wade played what must have been his worst ever postseason game tonight. With his team on the ropes in the second half, some might expect that his coach would be leaned on for leadership and advice on how to get things turned around. Not so. Instead, Flash berated Erik Spoelstra on the sideline, removing any semblance of authority that some may have kidded themselves into thinking his “head coach” title provided him. (Wait, what am I saying? Chris Bosh already made this CRYSTAL CLEAR, last season.)
Compare this to the player-coach dynamic between Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich. In his excellent (seriously, take a moment to read this) 21 Shades of Grey about Tim Duncan, Chris Ballard described how the Spurs coach was “allowed to” yell at his star player.
Most important, he’s allowed Popovich to coach him. For 15 straight seasons Pop has gone after his franchise player in practice. We’re talking neck veins bulging, spittle flying, a Gatling gun of obscenities. And all Duncan has done is stare back, absorbing it. “He hasn’t always liked it,” says former teammate Sean Elliott, now a team announcer, “but he takes it. You know how important that is for the rest of the team to see?”
Or, as one Spurs coach puts it, “How could a guy like Stephen Jackson complain when Pop was motherf—— Tim every day?”
Many would say that the Spurs scenario is ideal. The star player allows himself to be coached. By vesting all authority in Gregg Popovich, players feel like equals with a common agenda. It’s hard to argue with what San Antonio has accomplished under Pop. (And if you give them a chance you might even acquire a taste for enjoying their style.)
But what if the star player won’t be coached? What if it isn’t possible to get the ego(s) at hand to submit to a grey-haired, white board-carrying stiff who he can’t dream of relating to in any way off the basketball floor? If the star player WON’T buy in, then what?
How about going without a coach?
There have been 40 player-coaches in NBA history. Twelve of those coaches were Hall of Fame players. Two of them (Alex Hannum and Red Holzman) were eventually elected to the Hall as coaches (Holzman’s election was certainly unrelated to his player-coach stint.) Three NBA titles have been won by player-coaches. I haven’t done any extensive research on comparing player-coaches to the suit-wearing variety, but it doesn’t appear that it’s a losing strategy.
I have a basic philosophy about coaches that they either make their team a little bit better or a little bit worse than if they had no coach at all. With what seems like a growing number of superstar players that refuse to submit to coaching, wouldn’t it make sense to just let that player run the team his own way? Of course he’d have real coaches as assistants to help run practices, manage playing rotations, and drawing up plays. But rather than continue the ruse of somebody like Spoelstra “leading” Dwyane Wade, just hand the player the keys and put everybody on the same page. It would encourage unity and increase focus.
And who knows: slashing millions of dollars of coaching salary off the owners’ books might just prevent another lockout.