Hero Coaching in crunch time

On Tuesday night, some guy named Jeremy Lin won the game for the New York Knicks when he drilled a straight-away 3 pointer with little time on the game clock. People freaked out. But HoopIdea was watching with an eye not only on Lin, but on Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni, who didn’t call timeout and let the play develop. What he got was Lin, isolated against a back pedaling Jose Calderon with the game in his hands, and eventually a win.

The next night, in a vaguely similar scenario, Mark Jackson called timeout with his six seconds left and Warriors down two, as Klay Thompson was dribbling upcourt against a disorganized Blazer defense. Following the timeout, Golden State failed to even get a shot off, which led Ethan Sherwood Strauss to wonder whether calling a timeout in that scenario is the best decision.

Now the point here isn’t to kick Jackson when his team is down, or even really to second-guess this particular decision. With rookie Klay Thompson pushing the ball upcourt, it’s not hard to argue that a timeout would lead to a better shot, especially because Jackson used it to insert his two best offensive players for Epke Udoh and Dominic McGuire. Rather, I’d like to call attention to the fact that coaches are expected to call a timeout in that scenario, and wonder why that is.

There are few high paying jobs as tenuous as “NBA Head Coach.” As the cliché goes, they are hired to be fired. And part of staying hired is not just knowing what you're doing, but looking like you know what you are doing. A surprisingly large chunk of an NBA coach’s job is dealing with the media, controlling expectations, and helping tell a narrative of success, or at least improvement, for his team.

In reality, coaches can have smart game plans and diagram killer plays, but the only times a coach inarguably and directly impacts the game are when he calls timeout and when he substitutes.

It's the most obvious point at which fans, the media and his bosses can tell how well a coach is doing his job. So if you’re a coach, you’re expected to make a difference through these actions. And at the end of games, you’re supposed to exert control over the outcome by outwitting the opposition with a clever adjustment or timely play call.

It’s sort of like how a star player is expected to take the last shot in a game--when that player takes a bad shot, it’s more forgivable. He stepped up. He embraced his responsibility as the best player. He tried to be the hero.

But we’ve seen that Hero Ball doesn’t work, and I wonder if some NBA coaches suffer from what you might call Hero Coaching— unnecessarily impacting the game in a sometimes counterproductive effort to control the outcome.

On the NBA Today podcast, David Thorpe argued that a healthy store of timeouts is an absolute necessity for ensuring quality basketball at the end of games. This is may be especially true in certain situations: say down 3 with 2.3 seconds left and side out of bounds.

What’s more, he makes a compelling case for the entertainment value of eagerly waiting to see what genius set Gregg Popovich will use to get a clean look for Gary Neal who--SURPRISE-- just got wide open off a double back pick! I couldn’t agree more; Popovich is a privilege to watch. But I also think he’s the exception and not the rule.

NBA players are capable of being told what to do in advance, especially if all the final play is going to be is a high-ball screen or a clear out--plays coaches favor at the end of games because they require fewer moving parts. In fact it seems like those rudimentary but reliable plays can be more effective against unsettled and uncoached defenses.

We're still trying to find statistical evidence for whether timeouts really help or hurt the offense in crunch time. I'm guessing there are some scenarios that favor the offense taking a timeout, and some that don't. But anytime an end of game play goes awry without the coach ever calling timeout, it’s much easier to look at the bench and ask “what would you say...ya do here?”