For NBA team owners, choosing between the league’s best player at his position and a coach is an easy call. Here’s a hint: It’s not the guy drawing up plays on a dry-erase board.
To be fair, coaches have a definite role in their teams’ successes and failures.
Strategy, guidance, encouragement and discipline — coaches are responsible for it all. In the NBA, the best of them — Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, Gregg Popovich and Doc Rivers — are admired as much for their ability to inspire grown men as they are for making shrewd late-game adjustments.
For the most part, though, coaches are just employees, albeit highly paid ones. Superstar players, on the other hand, are de facto partners of owners. Their salaries exceed the operating budgets of public school districts. Lakers great Kobe Bryant tops the list at more than $25 million per season.
Their presence on a roster enables teams to increase ticket prices and attract the wealthiest corporate sponsors. Superstars bring prestige that helps sell everything from TV contracts to jerseys and hats bearing team logos.
Although Van Gundy isn’t at the top rung of NBA coaches, he’s respected within his field. He led the Magic to the NBA finals during the 2008-09 season (Orlando lost to the Los Angeles Lakers) and has an impressive .646 career winning percentage. Clearly, Van Gundy has had a key role in helping the Magic become a playoff power the past five seasons.
Van Gundy, however, hasn’t won a championship. The ring is the main thing that separates coaches. Players are less likely to challenge those who have won a title. There’s an unwritten understanding that coaches who have reached the highest peak should be followed, no questions asked.
Based on the individual nature of basketball, it’s easier for one player to have an enormous impact on a game. Michael Jordan didn’t need anyone to block for him.
Understandably, teams that have the best players are eager to retain them — and keep them happy. In the rush to please superstars, the authority of coaches often is trampled. And coaches understand how it works.
Former New York Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni resigned in March in large part because star forward Carmelo Anthony did not like the coach’s style of play.
Before the Knicks acquired Anthony from the Denver Nuggets last season, D’Antoni reportedly expressed concerns about whether Anthony, who prefers to play with the ball in his hands, would adjust to D’Antoni’s point guard-dominated offense.