Thursday January 20th, 2005

Like any number of coaches who've made the jump from college basketball to the National Basketball Association, former Stanford coach Mike Montgomery probably should have had the words "destined for failure" stamped across his forehead at the news conference introducing him as the Golden State Warriors' next coach. Consider the track record of some of the men who've made the same leap before him: Jerry Tarkanian, Rick Pitino, John Calipari, P.J. Carlesimo, Lon Kruger -- and on the list goes. All were highly successful among the co-ed set, all were quick failures among the professional ranks.

The reason has nothing to do with strategy or a lack of basketball knowledge. (You don't win as many games as these coaches did by merely rolling the ball out to five guys and telling them to go play.) No, these otherwise accomplished basketball minds faltered because they failed to grasp the obvious about the NBA: it is run by the players.

The league doesn't market teams. It markets players, and has done so since Larry Bird and Magic Johnson entered the Association in 1980. The Denver Nuggets don't play the Cleveland Cavaliers as much as Carmelo Anthony faces LeBron James. The hammer in almost any player-management negotiation (i.e. employment) rests firmly with the former. Byron Scott's methods rubbing you the wrong way? Dog the first few weeks of the season to force management's hand and shove a coach coming off his second consecutive NBA Finals appearance out the door. Right Jason Kidd?

Dust off the cliché about the inmates running the asylum, if you will, but the simple truth is that successful coaches in the NBA blend their ideas with their players' desires. Witness the Nets' resurgence since the little-experienced Lawrence Frank started running the show.

Individual ideas count for something, but more often than not, coaches are hired for what they can coax out of the talent already on the club, not for radically changing philosophies or rotations. As fundamental as this notion seems, most first-timers to the NBA underestimate its importance. A system is all well and good, but if you don't win over your players, you'll be shuffling back to Louisville or Memphis, or whatever program is in need of a high-profile -- but highly unemployed -- coach.

Unless ... you're willing to follow the lead of some of the last men standing in this year's playoffs.

Is there any coach more wedded to a system than Phil Jackson is to the triangle offense? Yet, after watching his team strongly resist his offensive principles this season, Jackson adjusted. Gary Payton, one of the triangle's biggest detractors, was allowed to work more in the low post to take advantage of his size. The meditative techniques Jackson is famed for were all but eliminated on a team that is all but cohesive. Now Jackson finds himself a few games away from his 10th NBA championship.

Or consider Indiana's Rick Carlisle. In an under-publicized instance of cosmic payback, Carlisle has the opportunity to deny Detroit a trip to the NBA Finals, which is what the Pistons fired the now-Pacers coach and hired Larry Brown last summer in order to reach. Carlisle wasn't axed because he wasn't successful; he took the same Pistons teamto the Eastern Conference finals last year. He was shown the door because his brusque personality reportedly ticked off everyone in Detroit, from the owner to the players.

Fast-forward one year later and the Carlisle you see on the Pacers' bench is just as successful, but equally more wise. He took pains to assure Jermaine O'Neal (who was angered over the firing of previous coach, Isiah Thomas) that he wasn't there to replace what Thomas had meant to O'Neal, thereby slowly beginning the healing process between disgruntled franchise player and team. Carlisle has also been the type of coach willing to bend to the intense will of Ron Artest while, at the same time, pulling the talented (but explosively tempered) player back from the line he had crossed too many times for his own -- and his team's -- good. Artest responded with a performance that netted him the Defensive Player of the Year award (with some help from a Carlisle-led public-relations campaign), his first All-Star berth and a significantly fewer technical fouls. And, finally, although Carlisle benched his starting point guard (whose poor shot selection hurt his team more than his prescient passes helped it) for the first 30 games of the season, he was careful not to bury him. After a few months of tutelage under Kenny Anderson, the deposed Jamaal Tinsley began running the team efficiently off the bench, an improvement Carlisle rewarded by giving Tinsley (who raised his field-goal percentage to .414 from the previous season's .396) his starting job back late in the season.

These aren't the moves of a dictator. They are the machinations of men who have come to understand the psychic dance between players and coaches in the NBA. The "my-way-or-the-highway" approach doesn't sell in the pros the way it can in college. The road must be shared.

Unfortunately, most coaches don't realize this on their first pass through the league. Montgomery is entering these waters after an 18-year stint at one of this country's finest institutions of higher learning. Hopefully, he'll stop by the history department on the way out or it might not be the last time he'll be on campus.

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