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Art Garcia

Denver is 10-7 in games George Karl (right) has missed for his recently-completed cancer treatments.
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Influence of quality coaching shouldn't be overlooked

Posted Apr 11 2010 8:36PM

Players' league, huh? Sure, but don't think for a second those pacing the sidelines in suits don't make a difference. Ask the Nuggets sans George Karl.

"You can just see it," point guard Chauncey Billups said Saturday night after Denver's latest loss. "So many times in the last two weeks it comes down to close games, to two or three-minute games, those are coaching games. Those are coach's wins. Players make shots, but those are coach's wins. They don't get enough credit for that."

Credit is relative. Top NBA coaches are certainly well compensated. Phil Jackson rakes in seven figures per season and several of his peers pull down at least $5 million. The average salary for NBA coaches this season, however, is $3.4 million and has gone down 10 percent over the last two years, according to a report in the Newark Star-Ledger.

The average player salary is $5.9 million, meaning the majority of coaches make less than those they're paid to lead. Does that mean a coach's impact on a team's success is less than someone sitting at the end of the bench? Hardly.

Of the last 28 championships, 19 are in the hands of Jackson, Pat Riley and Gregg Popovich. Most objective circles recognize those three as among the best coaches of all-time. Among the other title winners over the last three decades are Chuck Daly, Larry Brown, Rudy Tomjanovich, K.C. Jones and Doc Rivers.

Each of those skippers had talent. You don't win without Magic, Kareem, Bird, Jordan, Pippen, Dream, Shaq, Kobe, Duncan, D-Wade, KG, Pierce and on down the Hall of Fame line. You also likely don't win without the guys holding the whistles.

"You have to have the right fit," Phoenix veteran Grant Hill said. "You have to have the right coach, the right personnel, the right players. Obviously, there's a lot of talent in this league, and people think we just roll the ball out and play. But you need players and you need the right person, the right voice, the right philosophy.

"We lived that a little last year. It's not like you can just get anybody off the street."

Hill has played for 10 coaches over his 15 years in the league, and current coach Alvin Gentry twice. The Suns sputtered to start last season under Terry Porter, prompting the change to Gentry. Not only was Gentry well-received within the locker room, he brought back much of the Mike D'Antoni system that many of the current Suns thrived under.

Gentry has Phoenix back in the playoffs after missing last season and heads into the final week with a shot at a top-four seed in the Western Conference. Hill also referenced the Lakers of the last 10 years, who had loads of talent but didn't win it all until Jackson arrived. It's not always about highest profile and top dollar.

Scott Brooks is the Coach of the Year favorite because of his fit with the Thunder. Among the lowest paid in the league, Brooks has guided the NBA's youngest team into the playoffs after a four-year franchise drought. Sure, he has Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green to work with, and Brooks is the first to heap praise on his players.

But those in Oklahoma City cite Brooks' demeanor, style and consistency as just as valuable to the Thunder's growth. Brooks understands the front office's long-term vision while focusing on daily improvement. OKC has more than doubled its win total from last season and figures to be a tough out in the postseason.

Brooks' impact has gone beyond running practice or calling the right play out of a timeout.

"Teams take on the personality of their coaches, just like us with Coach Brooks," said Thunder vet Kevin Ollie, who's played for 17 NBA coaches. "He's a fiery guy, he's up in your face, he's a competitor and we take that on from him. It's like a sports car. KD is the All-Star engine, Russ is the wheels and all of us need to be part of making that car go. But ultimately somebody's got to start the ignition and drive the car, and that's Coach Brooks."

As much as Kenyon Martin's knee injury (he returned Saturday) had to do with the Nuggets' slide over the last three weeks, not having Karl can't be underestimated. Adrian Dantley has assumed the reins in the interim and admitted the learning curve has been steep.

"Adrian has done a great job, but he's the assistant," Hill said. "This is his first opportunity as a head coach with a veteran team. Karl is a great coach and he's the voice they're used to hearing out there. As an assistant you may do things a little differently and you have that opportunity when you're filling in like, so it's difficult.

"Karl is the right guy. That team is built to fit around Carmelo Anthony, and fit with Karl and his personality. He's had a lot of success there and throughout his career. Dantley may end up being a great coach in this league, but to just get thrown into the fire due to unfortunate circumstances goes to show you it's a fine line."

Saturday's blowout loss to the Spurs in Denver may have cost the Nuggets the Northwest Division title and any realistic shot at the second or third seed in the West. Denver is 10-7 in games Karl has missed for his recently-completed cancer treatments, including 5-6 since March 20.

"Adrian and his crew have done a great job of keeping things together," said Popovich, a four-time champion with San Antonio. "George is such a commanding figure. People are just going to look to him for guidance, for leadership, how to react after a win, how to react after a loss, what do we need to do, what's the schedule, do we need to rest, do we need to bust our ass, what do we need to do in a variety of situations.

"You just turn that over to people and he's not there, it's a big change. People look at each other differently. The chemistry is different between players, between coaches and players, situations on the court, it's hard to describe, but it's chemistry that goes beyond just players having chemistry. You have to do it all over again."

Art Garcia has covered the NBA since 1999. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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