The Stretch Run Primer: The Importance of Being Surprising (CotY/EotY)

Posted on Wed 27 February 2013 in 2013 Stretch Run Primer by Aaron McGuire


Hey, folks. This week, Gothic Ginobili's normal content is going to be put aside for a weeklong awards/storyline handicapping feature. For the first few days, we'll be going over each of the NBA's season-ending awards and handicapping the field, discussing the top players competing for the award and the dark horse candidates to keep your eye on. Along the way, I'll be writing meandering essays regarding various thoughts about the meaning of each award and the vagaries of sporting awards in a general sense. Fun stuff! Today we'll be touching on two awards, both given to non-player personnel. I refer to our yearly coach and executive achievement awards. Let's get at it.

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Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, can say with any certainty who's going to win the award. We can (and will) go over all the prominent candidates, and we'll discuss the merits of the award in general. But we first need to admit to ourselves that there's absolutely no way we're going to really "predict" the way the voters turn. This is one of the most inscrutable awards out there, relying only on the ever-changing preferences and ideals of the NBA's GM collective. Now. All that said... what IS the Executive of the Year award, anyway? Let's check ... or, wait, let's not! The first kerfuffle: there's no official definition of the award. The NBA states many things outright -- what positions you can vote in the all-star game, the exactitudes of voting for your MVP, whether or not you can safely call out another player for being "bout dis life", et cetera. The Executive of the Year award is not one of those things. We all agree that it's supposed to honor an executive who's had a great year, but we've never been entirely sure what that means.

In practice, this leads the Executive of the Year award to have some interesting tics that other awards don't necessarily have. It doesn't really honor the greatest executive of the year, nor the executive who's done the best job running a team. Nor does it necessarily describe the front office that has had the best year, as you'd note when realizing that in 2011 Pat Riley and Gar Forman tied for Executive of the Year while Forman's partner-in-crime John Paxson ALSO got 3 more votes for Executive of the Year. (So, 14 votes for Chicago, 11 votes for Miami ... and a tied award?) So, no, it's not a front office award in and of itself -- if it was, the Bulls would own the 2011 Executive of the Year "title." So what does Executive of the Year describe?

So far as I've been able to demystify it, the award essentially exists to describe a single aspect of an executive's job role. It describes, above all else, an executive whose team made a trade that worked out. It's a bit jarring, actually, if you look back in recent history and try to find examples where an executive won the award without his team having made a strong free push in free agency or made a blockbuster trade that worked out well in the preceding year. Your team has to be good (in a surprising way), but it also has to have seen some sort of large shake-up. Let's look back at the last five years.

  • 2012: Larry Bird (IND) -- acquired George Hill and put together Vogel's perfectly enormous roster for his coaching talents.
  • 2011: Pat Riley (MIA) -- acquired Miami's "Big Three" of Mike Miller, Mike Bibby, and Juwan Howard.
  • 2010: John Hammond (MIL) -- NO BIG TRADE! ... Did offload Richard Jefferson, though, and had just drafted Brandon Jennings.
  • 2009: Mark Warkentien (DEN) -- acquired Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson in the biggest trade of the 2009 season.
  • 2008: Danny Ainge (BOS) -- acquired Boston's "Big Three" of Eddie House, Scot Pollard, and James Posey.

Et cetera, et cetera. There's a reason this award's ambiguous definition is of the utmost importance. A particular name is missing from the award's ledger, a name whose absence generally mystifies just about everyone who's ever chanced to think about it.

That name? R.C. Buford. He's never won the award, nor has anyone in the Spurs' front office since Bob Bass snagged it in 1990. The Spurs organization has maintained as one of the best in professional sports for over 15 years running, with remarkable continuity in their front office and an incredible run of successes by Buford and associates. But there's the thing -- over the last five years, the award has been approached from a standpoint where GMs are assessing the other executives as poker players. A big trade is looked at as a team's "all-in" bet on their current team -- in recent memory, executive of the year reflects the teams whose all-in moves happened to work out. This generally ignores a lot of the (arguably more important) aspects of an executive's job role than the headlining trade gambles. It ignores things like the marginal decisions I discussed last week, the ones that Daryl Morey conventionally excels on. It also ignores things like an executive's commitment to scouting, investment in analytics, general focus on increased player health, success at drafting, and general historical success with their team and management chain -- in some years, like Bryan Colangelo's quite confusing victory back in 2007, simply shaking up a bad front office into general mediocrity and helming a marginally over-performing team can be enough of a case to win the award.

Given all that, it's rather elementary to see why R.C. Buford has never won the award -- the Spurs haven't made an "all-in" trade in Buford's entire tenure, because that simply isn't his style. But you don't actually win Executive of the Year by being the best executive in a single year -- you win Executive of the Year one of three ways: you make a big move that pays off big, you dramatically shake up a bad front office, or you helm a team that was expected to be dismal but ends up being a solid playoff-caliber team (a la Milwaukee, Toronto, et cetera). Additionally, you need to be the only notable NBA figure in your front office, because a split vote between several front office officials (a la Chicago in 2011) will seriously keep you from winning the award. Now, the big question -- when you couch it in those kinds of conditions, does that really describe an "executive of the year" award?

Not sure. But so long as it's called "Executive of the Year" rather than a perfunctory "Trade of the Year Blue Ribbon", R.C. Buford should be a top-5 candidate -- speaking as separated as I can from my Spurs fandom, I don't see how anyone can really refute the idea that the man's playing 3-dimensional chess to the average GM's tic-tac-toe. His proteges go on to become highly successful general managers and coaches around the league, he sticks the landing on nearly every decision he makes in free agency, and he's willing to invest heavily in the oft-neglected scouting and analytics that make basketball decisions smarter. Were I to vote, I'd go with Buford, but I'd be willing to hear a strong case for Danny Ferry, Daryl Morey, or Sam Presti. Out of those, I'd expect Daryl Morey to have the strongest shot at the award -- quite ironically, short of Kupchak and King's big acquisitions this summer, Morey is responsible for the biggest trade of this NBA season and it's worked out surprisingly well for him.

No "dark horse picks" required for this one -- there's no executive in the NBA that doesn't have some particular case for the award, however small it may be. Except maybe Quvenzhané Wallis. She does not have a case for this award, no matter how excellent of an actress she is. Sorry, Ms. Wallis. [Editor's Note: Aaron McGuire was fired after completion of this piece.]

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As I noted on Monday, I recently ran a survey of TrueHoop Network bloggers in an effort to sift out the popular consensus on the top candidates for each award. The shortlist is solid, and good enough to warrant starting this section out with our top three candidates for the year's award.

1. Gregg Popovich -- Avg. Ranking: 1.9 (1)

2. Tom Thibodeau -- Avg. Ranking: 2.5 (2)

3. Mark Jackson -- Avg. Ranking: 2.7 (3)

While I'll still be picking dark horse candidates below, these three all have far stronger cases and I'd be genuinely shocked if the award didn't go to one of these three. These three candidates all represent the spirit of the award (a coach having a great season for a team that's been surprisingly good) while posting fundamentally different was of looking at the award, which makes Coach of the Year one of this year's more enjoyable awards to think about and handicap. In a nutshell, the three cases (as well as their more succinct counter-cases) are:

  • "THE BEST COACH OF THE BEST TEAM" -- While the Spurs have had their share of crushing playoff disappointments over the past few years, it's hard not to recognize the fact that they've also been one of the most shockingly good regular season units in the NBA's history. If San Antonio wins 62 or more games this season, it'll mark the first time since Jordan's Bulls that an NBA franchise managed to win over 75% of their games during a three year period. Which is fundamentally insane for any team, but especially so given their aging stars and constantly shifting roster dynamics. Gregg Popovich adds to his COTY case by being the only current NBA coach that's a legitimate coaching legend (and arguably the greatest coach of all time) and the only coach on this list who's held his job for more than a decade.

COUNTER-CASE: If we simply gave the award to the best coach every year, Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich would own the last 20-or-so trophies. That can't be your main consideration. Additionally, voter fatigue weighs more heavily on the Coach of the Year award than any other NBA award -- there has quite literally never been a successful title defense in the history of the award. A few repeat winners, but never in a row.

  • "THE BEST COACH AT PERSEVERING THROUGH AWFUL CIRCUMSTANCES" -- This one's relatively obvious -- every year, one or two coaches are faced with an awful injury-or-trade related dilemma. For whatever reason, they lose their best player or two and have to survive without them for an extended period of time. It's generally on the coach to try and cobble together a new rotation, which can get exceedingly difficult if his front office (COUGH REINSDORF COUGH HACK WHEEZE) has decided to liquidate half their assets and leave him with a skeleton crew of parts. To his credit, Tom Thibodeau has navigated the thorny waters well, and he's been able to piece together_ just enough fight_ out of this year's Bulls team to challenge for home court advantage. Might even challenge for a title, if they can get Rose back to full-form in time. Startling accomplishment.

COUNTER-CASE: This one may be my pet peeves talking, but I can't stand Thibodeau's minutes management. I realize that playing Noah and Deng almost 40 minutes a night has been essential to Chicago's excellent record, but it's also led to a ridiculous number of minor injuries and scrapes that -- when not properly treated -- shorten careers and recklessly exposes his players to muscle tears and profound exhaustion. Until Thibodeau learns to stop treating every single second of every single regular season game as a must-win worthy of endangering his players, I'm not sure he really deserves this award.

  • "THE COACH OF THE BIGGEST SURPRISE" -- This one's probably the most historically apt case for the award -- generally, if you're tasked with the helm of a historically awful franchise and you lead the team to prominence (with prominence here meaning 'playoffs'), you'll get the award. Mark Jackson looks like he's on the cusp of that, and for much of the season, it looked like he was on the cusp of a lot more than that -- his players had well-adopted Jackson's new playbook and executed it to a crisp perfection befitting a contending team. A lot of people thought the Warriors would be good, but they're currently looking at a season where they'll finish 6-7 games above 0.500 despite missing Andrew Bogut for most of the season and Stephen Curry for a few games as well. It's a shocker, and one that's (perhaps!) worthy of the highest recognition.

COUNTER-CASE: Have you seen the Warriors lately? They've been awful. Atrocious. Disgusting. As the Warriors fade, so does Jackson's case, however unfair it may be -- the first third of the season set an expectation that the Warriors would perform at the level of a contending team, and every week that exacerbates their struggles feels like a disappointment to anyone who'd internalized that as Golden State's "true" talent level.

Whichever case you prefer tends to reflect your overriding philosophy towards the award. For me? Most would assume I'd be a Popovich guy given my Spurs allegiance, but in this case, I'm actually not! While I think Popovich is the 1b to Uncle Phil's 1a all-time, I also agree strongly with the counter-case that you can't simply give the award to the best coach year-in and year-out -- I really do like the idea of recognizing surprising teams, even if it may end up nothing more than a flash-in-the-pan recognition of a team that never quite puts it all together, like the Byron Scott Hornets or the Avery Johnson Mavericks. There's value in recording that shock value -- in sharing with future generations of NBA fans a general primer on teams that overperformed and overachieved, for whatever reason.

Given that, despite the Warriors' schneid, I'm one of 10-20 people in the world who still likes Mark Jackson as a deserving winner for this award. While they looked like contenders early in the season, it's important to step back and reevaluate what exactly we were expecting from this Warriors team in the preseason. Me, personally? If everything went right, I felt they could scratch the surface of a 44-46 win team and scrape into the 8 seed. It looks like they'll end up a bit above that, at 48-50 wins, despite getting a wholly balky Bogut and missing Stephen Curry for more time than I thought he'd miss . Additionally Klay Thompson has been FAR worse than I'd expected he'd be, Harrison Barnes has been questionable, and Brandon Rush was lost to injury. Mark Jackson STILL has this team looking like a playoff team, and they aren't even technically out of the race for home court.

Whether or not you bought the Warriors as a contender, taking their season as a whole would demand Jackson's inclusion on the short-list of award's candidates. And if you like the general "surprise coach" definition -- as I do -- there's no one better.

DARK HORSE PICKS: For each of these awards sections, I'll also be going over in brief the year's top dark horse candidates for each award, along with a quick blurb on each stating their case and their problems. Three sentences apiece. THREE! THAT'S IT! There are three main tertiary candidates outside of the three main contenders. With a late push, I could potentially see one of them breaking the top 3, though it's unlikely any of them pull it out.

  • KEVIN MCHALE: Much like Jackson, McHale's case is one of the tried-and-true surprise stories -- most analysts (myself included) had the Rockets bumming the season near the bottom of the lottery. While Harden deserves much of the credit, McHale deserves some too -- he's done a great job in a tough situation. That said, the Rockets are a bit less surprising than the Warriors to me, given the general variance of their young talent going into the season compared with Golden State's more veteran-weighted core, and as a lesser Jackson candidate it's unlikely he pole-vaults him in the COTY standings.

  • ERIK SPOLESTRA: While the Heat were a bit disappointing to start the season, they're rounding into form. They're not a surprise, per se, but the way he's changed their general style underlines some of Spolestra's versatility as a coach -- additionally, he deserves some recognition for the excellent job he did in last year's playoffs. He's a clear step below Thibs and Pop, though, barring an insane end-of-year run leading the Heat to win 65+ games.

  • MIKE WOODSON: The Knicks have been surprisingly good for most of the year, but that's not the main reason Woodson deserves mention. It's his flawless handling of Stoudemire's return -- after mass media hand-wringing for months, the story ended up being a complete non-issue, and Woodson's expert handling of Amare's minutes and role is much to his credit. That said, the Knicks are underperforming on defense and fading fast -- it's unlikely he gets back in the conversation without a late push to regain the Eastern 2-seed and return to their early season form.

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Apologies for being unable to post this yesterday -- this has been an exceedingly crazy week and is only about to get more ridiculous. I'll be driving up to DC tonight, working from DC tomorrow, and driving from DC to Boston (AAAAAAHHHHH) on Thursday night for MIT's Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Don't worry -- we'll have plenty of on-the-ground content starting Friday with my thoughts and impressions from the Sloan conference. Ideally I'll still finish this series on Friday, but the final installment (ruminations on this MVP race) may drop next week. I'd apologize, but I'll actually be doing a few weekend posts from Sloan, so I'm not that sorry. See you tomorrow.