In the Sacramento Kings chapter of Pro Basketball Prospectus 2009-10, I noted that incoming skipper Paul Westphal sported the seventh-best winning percentage among NBA coaches with at least 400 games under their belt. This was done with tongue at least a little bit in cheek. Westphal indeed put up those lofty numbers, but he had stepped into the breach of a fully-formed power in Phoenix. He managed to roll out the ball for Charles Barkley, Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle and win quite a few games.
After three outstanding seasons, the Suns slipped under .500 and Westphal was gone after 33 games of the 1995-96 season. A few years later, he got a shot with the late, lamented Seattle SuperSonics and was basically a .500 coach over two-plus years. Then & mostly silence. Westphal coached in college and worked for the Dallas Mavericks, then, eight years after he'd last run an NBA team, Kings president of basketball operations Geoff Petrie hired him to coach the youthful Kings beginning with the 2009-10 season.
It just didn't work out. In the NBA, Westphal had coached mostly veteran-laden squads, though you'd think his time at Pepperdine might mean that he could work with young players. He couldn't. When Westphal was canned by Petrie last week, the Kings' honcho cited the lack of development of Sacramento's young core.
He could have also noted that the Kings won around 30 percent of their games under Westphal. The shoddy performance gives Westphal's coaching record a nice symmetry -- the end is as terrible as the beginning was great. Suffice to say, he's no longer seventh in winning percentage among coaches. (He's 38th, in case you're wondering, among coaches with at least 400 games.)
The role of coaches in the NBA is often understated. It's a player's league, that line of thinking goes, and the guy on the sideline just needs to stay out of the way. Part of the theory is true. It is a player's league and no coach at the NBA level can go all Norman Dale -- you need talent to win and stars to win championships. Heck, even Dale had Jimmy Chitwood around. Nevertheless, NBA coaches are every bit as essential as their counterparts in the NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball. Matching the right coach with the right roster with the right style of play is a crucial part of the job for the league's decision-makers, like Petrie.
WIN% SCHOENE Actual
09-10 .423 .530
10-11 .599 .444
11-12 .518 .491
With young teams, player development is a part of the gig, especially in this era when so many of the league's most talented players have limited experience at the college level. Take a look at the table for Tyreke Evans, which contains a comparison of his individual winning percentages (based on offensive and defensive rating) both in actual results and those forecast by our SCHOENE projection system. Coming out of Memphis, Evans projected to be a sub-.500 player, which is often the case for rookies. He proved to be much more than that, averaging more than 20 points per game and winning the league's Rookie of the Year award.
When we generated Evans' second-year projection, the list of comparable players his forecast was drawn from included the likes of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. Truly, Evans started out on an elite career path. Then he went out and in his second year became the sub-.500 player we forecast him to be as a rookie. When we put together this season's projections, Evans' list of comparables was more tepid: Jerry Stackhouse, Jason Richardson, Russell Westbrook.
Evans battled foot and ankle problems last season and you can't overlook that aspect when evaluating his second-year struggles. More problematic is that Westphal never was able to establish a cohesive offensive system around Evans' abilities. He flopped back and forth between the guard positions, never seeming to find the balance between playmaking and shot-taking. The focus should have been on establishing Evans as the Kings' offensive initiator but, instead, his assist rate fell.
Worse, he burned through almost as many possessions even though his injury problems prevented him from attacking the basket. Westphal allowed Evans to spend his entire second season -- a crucial one in his development -- taking bad jump shots. Even though Evans is healthier this season, his performance has yet to bounce back to the level of his rookie season, much less show signs of positive development.
Were this an isolated case, you wouldn't be quite so hard on Westphal. It wasn't.
INDIVIDUAL WINNING PERCENTAGES
Player Year SCHOENE Actual
Francisco Garcia 09-10 .452 .451
Francisco Garcia 10-11 .493 .503
Omri Casspi 09-10 .463 .446
Omri Casspi 10-11 .491 .462
DeMarcus Cousins 10-11 .514 .444
Donte Greene 09-10 .297 .424
Donte Greene 10-11 .452 .391
Jason Thompson 09-10 .475 .451
Jason Thompson 10-11 .459 .417
The SCHOENE projections are built by analyzing a player's attributes and trends and comparing them to a huge database of players with similar traits and development patterns. If anything, the forecasts are conservative when it comes to looking at the volatile early years of a player's career.
However, when it comes to these players, the pattern is clear. In every case, the player either underperformed his projection or showed signs of improvement, only to slip back. In some cases, as with Jason Thompson, the regression was stark, and none of the players actually were producing at a winning level. The Kings' young core wasn't getting better under Westphal, it was getting worse. He had to go.
There have been studies that suggest teams can gain a quick bump by changing coaches in-season, especially if the trigger is pulled early. In the Kings' case, this is almost beside the point. The immediate task of Petrie and new coach Keith Smart is to sort through the young talent on the Sacramento roster, determine how and if it fits the long-range vision of the franchise, and improve the process by which players approach the game. This starts with Evans and DeMarcus Cousins, but it also extends to the other inexperienced players on the roster like Jimmer Fredette, Marcus Thornton and J.J. Hickson.
WIN% SCHOENE Actual
10-11 .390 .482
11-12 .528 .413
The postscript to the Westphal story is what it may or may not say about Washington Wizards coach Flip Saunders. Saunders is a proven, respected coach in the league who has fallen upon hard times with an ultra-young roster. Like Westphal, he's mostly worked with veteran squads in his career and thought that he would be doing the same in Washington. Then Gilbert Arenas was hurt, Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood were traded and Saunders found himself in the middle of a rebuild. We won't go into the full analysis of the development of the young players on Washington's 0-8 squad, but consider one more chart (at right).
When your franchise player is headed in the wrong direction, it's got to make the coach a little hot under the collar.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
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