So what's the deal with NBA coaches? Do they really do anything, or just send out 5 guys on the court and let the talent level take them as far as they can go? There is some truth in the argument that a basketball team needs talent to win. In short, there is little a great coach like John Wooden, Red Auerbach, or Larry Brown can really do to squeeze Ws out of a team with limited talent.
Speaking of Larry Brown, let's look no further than him! After winning an NBA title two years ago with the Pistons and taking them back to the Finals last spring, he jumped ship to head to the NY Knicks. This is a move that still makes many wonder, .5?Larry.5?What were you thinking.5.5 Brown certainly hasn't helped the Knicks improve. Now this doesn't mean he's overrated as a coach. Brown certainly is one of the best coaches in the NBA at getting guys to play team-oriented ball and defense.
However, there's little a coach can do with limited talent and huge liabilities, such as the mess Isiah Thomas has help create in New York. Notice the Knicks started 7-9 straight up and 6-10 against the spread as a favorite. Part of that was oddsmakers overvaluing what Brown could do for the Knicks, but that fact is this is a bad team.
Success in the NBA is a combination of coaching talent and talent on the court. I've often felt that Brian Hill was an example of a poor coach when he was with the Orlando Magic ten years ago. He led a star-studded team with Shaq and Penny Hardaway into the Finals, only to get swept in an embarrassing 4-0 series loss to Houston. And when Shaq went to the Lakers with Kobe Bryant, they were a very poor defensive team under head coaches Del Harris and Kurt Rambis, flaming out three straight years in the playoffs. It wasn't until Phil Jackson arrived to teach them some defense that LA stepped up and won three straight titles. So yes, coaching can make a difference, but the talent on the court has to be there.
From a handicapping perspective, perhaps the most important thing coaches can bring is a style of play. Jeff Van Gundy in Houston and Mike Fratello in Memphis bring a slow-down style predicated on playing lights-out defense. Notice the Rockets are 15-6 under the total at home, while Memphis is 16-7 under at home and 28-18 under overall. Coaching is a large part of why these teams play the way they do and are so strong on defense.
Teams like Phoenix, Washington, Milwaukee, Boston and Philadelphia play far more of an up-tempo offense running the court. The Celtics are 15-8 over the total on the road where they play terrible defense according to BetBubbles. The Suns are 14-9 over the total on the road. The Pistons went from being a strangling defensive team under Brown to a very different philosophy under first-year coach Flip Saunders this season.
The Indiana Pacers play tough defense for coach Rick Carlisle, and notice they are 16-8 under the total on the road. One of the most improved teams is the Dallas Mavericks and a huge part of it has been relatively new coach Avery Johnson, who clearly has the talent to teach defense. The Mavs are playing far better defense this season, and of late are taking great pride in the fact that they haven't allowed any opponents of late to top 97 points. Dallas is on a 7-1 under the total run and believe me, Johnson's coaching has been a big part of that.