D'Antoni or Jackson (11/13/12)

By Paul Bessire

Tuesday, November 13 at 3:00 AM ET (it's not that crazy; there is college basketball on)

This week's blog will continue around the themes of the last two blogs in that it will focus on one of the biggest debates in the sports world right now: Which head coach is best for the Los Angeles Lakers, Mike D'Antoni or Phil Jackson? My initial reaction was that D'Antoni would be a great fit and it turns out that is right.

Also, as with the last two weeks, we will also update the college football undefeated chances after Alabama and Louisville's losses (not to mention the Atlanta Falcons who we analyzed last week) and wins by Notre Dame, Kansas State and Oregon. And lastly, with four sports of picks to manage and a hectic travel/holiday schedule, blog content will likely be light and more sporadic for the next few weeks. But, as long as they keep winning, I still plan to update the undefeated odds portion of this blog.

Coaching in the NBA:

The head coach makes far less of an impact to a basketball team than he does to a football team. This happens for many of the same reasons that a college basketball team would have a significantly greater (though not great) chance to defeat an NBA team than would a college football team over an NFL team. There are fewer players to manage with fewer rotations. One athlete can take a game over, overcoming many schematic or matchup disadvantages with talent. The sum of the parts is far more critical than any individual in football. Player interactions are less dependent of other on-court interactions. The deterioration of well-defined positions in basketball is a strong example of this phenomenon.

At the professional levels, a bad coaching fit in football, could turn a 10-12 win team into a 10-12 loss team. In the NBA, among those qualified to be NBA coaches, the difference in the best coach and fit to the worst may only be a total ten game swing over the course of an 82 game season (the same does not apply to general managers/team builders where the relative worth of those in their respective sports is almost the opposite in nature). Long story short, the numbers strongly support the likelihood that the Los Angeles Lakers, based on their talent and roster, would have ended the season as a top six seed in the Western Conference regardless of the coach.

However, there are some things that coaches can control including: minute allocations and rotations (though it would be my contention that the front office should and does play a strong role in determining the right kind of players to play together when and for how long – AKA the topic of my master's thesis), pace, floor spacing, defensive philosophies, timeouts and fouling. In the long-run, timeout usage and fouling strategies fall out of the analysis leaving the rest to delineate between different (types of) coaches. There are probably some other, sometimes important things like, Will the players quit on this guy?, but that is just about impossible to review objectively unless the coach has a long history of his teams clearly underachieving (neither of these coaches do). In this case, we have two coaches who represent different brands of basketball.

Mike D'Antoni prefers an above average pace (the pace in the league in general has picked up significantly since he joined the league as a head coach), wide floor spacing, dribble penetration, outside shooting, zone defensive concepts and little obvious concern for rebounding. Phil Jackson gives his players books to read. He also is a champion of the “triangle offense,” which is a more deliberate offense that is dictated by the half-court defense and is responsible for much of the “two-man game” seen played today after its success with Jackson's Bulls teams led by Michael Jordan. His teams are typically very strong rebounders, with little else separating his style dramatically from the rest of the league (outside of those 11 rings – thank you Jordan and Kobe).

2012 Los Angeles Lakers:

Before the season started, when we simulated every regular and postseason game 50,000 times, we projected that the Los Angeles Lakers would win 58.7 games (which was slightly below the linemakers' total of 59.5). We also gave LA a 21.0% chance to win the NBA Finals, the second highest total after Miami's 21.5% chance. After a 1-4 start, it would have been difficult to still expect 58.7 wins (since we essentially projected a 3-2 start to those games), but, just 6.1% of the way through the season and with Steve Nash having played just 50 minutes on the year, all was not lost. After what would be the equivalent of one game in an NFL season, the team fired Mike Brown anyway and set off a debate over which coach it should bring in next. Given his history with the team and with winning, Jackson was an obvious option. Given his history with Nash, D'Antoni's name also came up. On Monday morning, D'Antoni was hired to take over the team… Further supporting my point above, the Lakers have won two games since then with Bernie Bickerstaff as the head coach, but very likely would have been able to defeat Golden State and Sacramento at home with me (let alone Brown) as the head coach.

D'Antoni vs. Jackson:

To attempt to answer the debate regarding D'Antoni and Jackson, we will simulate the remaining 75 Lakers' regular and postseason games 50,000 times with each as head coach. While Jackson likely would not have been able to coach every remaining game due to health concerns, D'Antoni has his own health concerns (knee surgery) keeping him from joining the team immediately, so we are ignoring those potential issues for now.

2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers with Mike D'Antoni as head coach:

Projected record: 54.5-27.5

Projected Western Conference Playoff seed: 3 (after the Spurs and Thunder)

Points-per-game: 103.8

Opponent Points-per-game: 97.9

2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers with Phil Jackson as head coach:

Projected record: 52.9-29.1

Projected Western Conference Playoff seed: 4 (after the Spurs, Thunder and Grizzlies)

Points-per-game: 101.4

Opponent Points-per-game: 96.3

A 1.6 win swing is not major for a team that is extremely likely to make the postseason either way, but it is certainly notable given that a) many may have expected the opposite outcome due to Jackson's championships and b) Jackson's health concerns and “value over replacement coach” may have extended that gap from the games that Jackson missed had that scenario unfolded. It is important to note that, in terms of NBA Championship odds, the Lakers would remain ahead of San Antonio, Memphis and every team besides the Heat regardless of the coach (though the odds have dropped from 21% to now 16.9% with D'Antoni and would have been 16.7% with Jackson – more due to expected seeding than postseason style).

Ultimately, the analysis is pretty straightforward. Steve Nash is far more important to have on this roster under D'Antoni than just about anyone else ever. With D'Antoni as his coach, Nash became one of the more efficient scorers and dynamic playmakers in the league. A true, distributing point guard is almost an irrelevant position in any other system in the league right now - especially to Phil Jackson who won 11 championships without getting value out of the point guard position. In Brown's system, Nash's value was already going to be limited. Now, assuming he can get and stay healthy, it should be maximized.

Defensively, there can be concerns with D'Antoni's approach, but it is not as if defense is ignored. Plus, while players like Kobe Bryant and Metta World Peace are certainly more than capable defensive players, Dwight Howard has the type of defensive talent and size that I alluded to earlier that can transcend scheme. On that end of the court, he should not really be a much better or worse defender (the rebound rate may go down a little, but his actual rebounds may increase due to pace, while his offensive game will have very little pressure and is a luxury), which will help this team considerably.

And then there is the bench. Long a glaring weakness of the Lakers, output from the bench was considerably lacking in the short-lived Mike Brown era (which is really more the front office's fault than Brown's). While it is not like Jordan Hill will become Channing Frye overnight, the rest of the bench looks well suited to adapt to D'Antoni's style, spacing and pace, as opposed to remaining afterthoughts as they likely would have under Jackson. Watch for Steve Blake to contribute more as an outside shooter, for Antawn Jamison (and starter Pau Gasol) to become an even stronger mid-range weapon and for Jodie Meeks to play the role he was always destine to as he starts launching threes more often (of all Lakers, Nash, Meeks, Jamison and Darius Morris have the most to potentially gain from the hire, while Hill, World Peace, Devin Ebanks and Earl Clark should struggle most as bad fits).

Summing it up, D'Antoni is the better hire – barely – and the team is a threat no matter who coaches.

College Football's Undefeateds:

There are now just currently four undefeated teams in FBS – Oregon, Kansas State, Notre Dame and Ohio State. As we did each of the last two weeks, here are the chances that each current undefeated FBS team wins all of its remaining regular season (and conference championship) games:

Kansas State Wildcats

Games Remaining: 2

Undefeated Chances: 72%

Closest Remaining Game: vs. Texas (December 1)

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Games Remaining: 2

Undefeated Chances 61%

Closest Remaining Game: at USC (November 24)

Oregon Ducks

Games Remaining: 3 (including conference championship game)

Undefeated Chances: 59%

Closest Remaining Game: at Oregon State (November 24)

Ohio State Buckeyes

Games Remaining: 2

Undefeated Chances: 34%*

Closest Remaining Game: vs. Michigan (November 24)

* Assuming Denard Robinson starts for Michigan

A few notes on the undefeated odds above:

Chances there are still four undefeated FBS teams on December 2 (after conference title games): 9% (or 1-in-11)

Chances Notre Dame, Kansas State and Oregon are all still undefeated on December 2: 26% (or 1-in-4)

Chances Oregon and Kansas State are both undefeated on December 2: 42% (or 3-in-7)

Chances that Ohio State is the only undefeated FBS team on December 2: 1.5% (or 1-in-66)

Chances that no FBS team is undefeated on December 2: 3% (or 1-in-34)

Chances that Oregon, Notre Dame and Kansas State all have at least one loss on December 2: 4.5% (or 1-in-22)

Chances that two of the top three teams in the current BCS Standings lose by December 2 (likely meaning an SEC team makes the BCS Championship Game): 29% (or 2-in-7)