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The Coach: Sports Handicapping / Betting Tips

Basketball Success: Players or Coaches?

Big Al

Big Al

Good coaches are tough to beat, especially at crunch time, while bad coaches will beat themselves.

This is true in every sport and it’s important to understand the value of coaching. A good coach needs talent to win, of course, and the best college coaches are also good recruiters. But winning attracts talent, and good coaches are the foundation for a winning program.

Great coaches are also rare, be it in football, or pro and college basketball.


A good coach brings many things to the table beyond recruiting talented players. Smart coaches bring discipline, defense and sound fundamentals. They also know how to teach and help develop confidence, which is especially essential with college athletes.

Some people think that former UCLA coach John Wooden won because the best players in the country wanted to go to UCLA. This overlooks the fact that he was a brilliant coach and teacher. Folks remember the UCLA dynasty that won 10 NCAA championships in 12 years and recall the great centers he had in Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton. But people forget that Wooden won NCAA titles before those two arrived on the UCLA campus, and Wooden won after they left. The Bruins won it all in 1975, a year after Walton graduated, which was also Wooden’s final year as coach. In the 35 years since his retirement, UCLA has a single basketball national title (1995).

Wooden was a master at teaching the dynamics of team play and defense. He also ran his players hard in practice so that they were the best-conditioned athletes in the country. Players used to say the practices were tougher than the games, so when they took the court on game night it was easier than that week’s practice.

He was also a leader who commanded respect. When star center Walton wanted to grow a beard and no longer wished to comply with Wooden’s policy of no facial hair, Walton gave a long thought-out speech on why he should be able to sport a beard. Wooden calmly listened and answered, “That’s fine, Bill. You can grow your beard as you wish – and we’ll miss having you on the basketball team the rest of the season.” Walton chose to shave and keep playing. You hear about athletes with self-centered agendas and big egos mouthing-off to coaches these days, but it didn’t happen on Wooden’s teams – he was in command and his word was law.

Think for a moment about what Wooden accomplished – 10 NCAA basketball championships in 12 seasons! To win one or two titles is difficult enough, especially in college where top athletes are gone after three or four years. But to win that many – and seven in a row – it also takes a great head coach.

I recall in 1982 when Jerry West – then general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers – had made a trade that turned into the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. The two best players in the country in college that were available were Georgia’s Dominique Wilkins and North Carolina’s James Worthy, in that order. West surprised some by drafting Worthy at No. 1. Worthy ended up winning three NBA titles and was MVP of the 1988 NBA Finals, while Wilkins never got a ring. West once explained that part of his thinking in drafting Worthy ahead of Wilkins was that “Big Game James,” as he was later dubbed, had played college ball under Dean Smith. West was smart enough to trust his own instincts and draft a player who was more fundamentally sound under a great college coach.

Good coaches bring discipline. This means teaching players how to react in every situation on the court. If a team is in tight game, say, tied in the final thirty seconds, a disciplined team doesn’t panic, because they’ve been through it many times in practice. Players will emulate their coach – and a good coach is calm and focused at crunch time (unlike, say, Orlano’s Stan Van Gundy).

Great players are also sound fundamentally. They know how to properly use their feet to play defense, or how to box out under the boards, or how to set a proper pick to unselfishly allow their teammate to get open for a shot. This doesn’t happen by accident – it’s all a result of proper coaching.

I mentioned James Worthy earlier, and Jerry West saw things in Worthy that others may not have seen, such as sound fundamentals like boxing out, how to read and exploit defenses and even free throw shooting. How many times do games and point spreads come down to free throw shooting at the end? All the time! When your team is up by five in the final seconds, wouldn’t you prefer to have players at the line who are good free throw shooters? You most certainly would if you’re holding a ticket with that team at 4½! Defense and fundamental play are essential for teams – and sports bettors – and you’d much rather have fundamentally sound players on your side.

Looking at Shaquille O’Neal’s pro career for a moment reveals he has had eight NBA coaches. O’Neal’s first three coaches were poor while at Orlando (Brian Hill) and Los Angeles (Del Harris and Kurt Rambis). O’Neal got to the Finals once (1995) where his team was favored but lost in four straight to a more disciplined and better coached Houston Rocket team (with Coach Rudy Tomjanovich). While with the Lakers, his teams were talented, but notorious for lazy defense while falling short in the playoffs under Harris and Rambis. It wasn’t until Phil Jackson arrived, bringing defense, teamwork, game adjustments and leadership, that O’Neal finally got a ring (three rings, actually).

He then got another ring in Miami with Coach Pat Riley. A strong coach who could teach was a key that O’Neal and a young Dwyane Wade needed to reach the mountaintop.

Coaches can also help teams with their confidence, which is especially essential in college basketball. You’ll notice many basketball teams are able to win at home but not on the road. Just about any coach can get a team to play hard in front of the home fans, but one sign of a strong coach is getting teams – in college and the pros – to win on the road.

Defense is another sign of good coaching. One of the best is San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, who has coached the Spurs to four NBA titles and gets his team to play great defense night after night, home and away. Contrast their success with the team like the Indiana Pacers when disaster Isiah Thomas was coaching team: The Pacers were 34-10 at home (26-18 ATS) but a very different team on the road (16-28 s/u, 17-26-1 ATS). As I mentioned, it’s not difficult to get your team to play hard at home, but a competent coach can get players to raise their game on the road.

The truth is, most great players don’t make great coaches, or even good ones. Playing basketball at a high level takes God-given athletic talent. Effective coaching requires the ability to communicate and teach. Wooden has always considered himself a teacher. Oklahoma football coach Bob Stoops’ father was a teacher, and clearly passed those innate gifts on to his sons. Do you know what Hall of Fame basketball coach Red Auerbach majored in at college before turning to coaching? He earned a master’s degree in teaching from George Washington.

Yes, great players are essential to winning. But so are great coaches, and don’t overlook what they bring to a team or their importance to winning – straight up and against the number. Good luck, as always…Al McMordie.

Al McMordie is the most honored technical handicapper with 34 Handicapping Championships

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