Billy and Lionel Gone: Now What?

Sunday, January 10, 2016, will be remembered as a significant day in Brooklyn Nets history: the Nets fired Lionel Hollins, and reassigned Billy King (which is typically a euphemism for fired).

To touch on Billy and Lionel’s tenures, while you can argue reasons for which neither deserved to be fired, there are, at a minimum, things they both did that cast doubt on their abilities to be a part of a consistent contender in Brooklyn.

The history of both only need be touched on briefly. For his part, Billy indisputably made multiple win now moves that backfired, in epic fashion. And while Mikhail Prokhorov and Dmitry Razumov’s overarching plans gave Billy a bad hand, he still negotiated poorly, and played that hand poorly.

For Lionel’s part, the problem with him is not sitting on the bench during games, or becoming exasperated with the media, but two simple issues: offensive and defensive schemes. Lionel’s offense was stunningly unimaginative. In an era where teams are taking a ton of threes, and moving the ball as much as possible, the Nets are isolating and setting up long 2’s. And his pick and roll and other coverages have often been questionable, and the Nets have seen nary a bump on the defensive end of the court despite his reputation being that of a defensive minded coach.

Alas, the Nets’ problems start at the top of the organization.  Prokhorov’s commitment to spending money exists, but being an owner is about way more than a willingness to spend.  Prokhorov demanded that the Nets win in Brooklyn, immediately.  That led to trades — as it has for many franchises through the course of NBA history — that were suboptimal, from an asset perspective, at best.

Even worse, Prokhorov has, bluntly, put building the Brooklyn brand above building a basketball team under the strictures of the CBA. He admitted that the Boston trade was made for brand building, not basketball, purposes.  Think about that: teams have placed a high priority on the draft since the new CBA came to be in late 2011 because, in light of the brutal luxury tax, and difficulty of prying opposing free agents due to the ability to pay more to an incumbent, and the Nets, in that climate, traded three draft picks without basketball being the basis for the move.

When you look at the moves made after the Boston move — the Nets stopped spending, even though by dealing their draft considerations for win now pieces, their only hope of winning was to continue spending on said win now players to bridge the gap to 2016 when they could turn things over — that only amplifies what Prokhorov confirmed about the trade being brand based. The Nets, clearly, just were not thinking about basketball when they made that, or many other, moves, but about ticket and merchandise sales.

It gets worse.  Just last year, CEO Brett Yormark did an interview wherein he basically said that it is a priority for the Nets to time their success around Knicks’ failures in an effort to grab market share.  Once again, think about that.  The NBA has a CBA of several hundred pages, guiding every move you make.  Every team as a result has a particular circumstance they are in, and should make moves based on that particular circumstance. Yet, the Nets have prioritized making efforts to win when it looks like the Knicks may not.

But then again, how do you make moves based upon your asset and basketball situation, rather than your ticket sale and business situation, when your CEO in Yormark, a figure who runs the business side of the operation, interviews basically on a weekly basis regarding free agency plans, John Calipari, and how he wishes for the ship to turn around.

The Golden State Warriors have former player agent Bob Myers, an attorney who played college basketball, and former NBA great Jerry West, at the controls. The Brooklyn Nets have Brett Yormark asking the Nets to sync wins with Knick losses. Think about that a little.

Combine all this with the incessant need ownership has to make transactions for the purpose of making a splash or creating buzz rather than to build a basketball team, and you do not guarantee the Nets’ current plight, but you sew the seeds for the potential of this.  It is VERY DIFFICULT to build a consistent winner in the NBA, even if you do everything right. You need good luck and fortune. You need some of the unexpected to happen, as far as the development of some players goes.

But that difficulty is only magnified when you start making decisions with the wrong factors and reasons in mind.  Success comes at the perfect intersection of luck, planning, and preparation, and while the Nets may not be at fault for their sufferings with that first factor, they have woefully failed with the second and third.  So many Nets decisions have not come from a place of “what is best for us in building a winner.” Rather, decisions, good or bad, have come from other places.  Let’s trade for Gerald Wallace and fire our athletic trainer to make Deron Williams happy. Let’s trade three picks to Boston to make a splash and generate buzz.  Let’s hire Jason Kidd because of what he did as a Nets player. Let’s hire Hollins, for that matter, because Kidd embarrassed us, so we need to hire a big name to rebound.

Such moves have led to criticism regarding the direction of the team. One minute Lionel is the face. The next he’s on the outs. One minute Billy is hiring his people to fill the front office, and the next the Nets are scouring GM candidates on the down low. Brook Lopez is shopped at the deadline, and then he is, if not THE piece to build around, a significant one. It all begs the question of whether there is a plan, even generally.

So, sure, Billy and Lionel do not have jobs anymore. They did not succeed, despite any mitigating circumstances, and that failure is on them. And sure, there are better candidates out there, which justifies some excitement.

But unless Prokhorov (and Razumov) change their ownership styles, and show that they have learned from the failures they have experienced in their first 5.5 years of ownership, as the saying goes, history repeats itself.

The Nets are not hopeless by virtue of their franchise name.  All 120 or so professional franchises, in the four major sports, can build consistent winners, if they find the right mix of luck, planning, and preparation.  Just right now, the Warriors, Cavaliers Clippers, all historical laughingstocks, are elite (or in the Clippers case, at least near elite) teams, while historically dominant franchises like the Lakers and Celtics are not close to that level.

Still, history does repeat itself.  And unless Prokhorov shows sincere changes in his ownership style, it will repeat in Brooklyn, and Nets fans will be as angry with Billy and Lionel’s replacements as they are right now with Billy and Lionel.

With that, here’s a sift through some options the Nets have, and some do’s and dont’s as they contemplate their next step.

Don’t: Hire a Big Name, or “Experienced Coach,” to generate buzz, “relevance,” or “credibility”

If the Nets hire a big name who is currently unemployed, just to have a fancy pressure and put themselves back in the paper, it will show that they intend to act just as they have the last 5.5 years. The whole reason the Nets are in this mess is because of their sugar rush philosophy: make a hire or sign a player in a manner that makes a splash, gets the media talking, generates a few website hits, and maybe generates some ticket and merchandise sales.  Then, when those hires do not work, where are they?

There is absolutely no reason for a single Nets move to be made with marketing or sales interests in mind. What the Nets seem to fail to realize is that these short term measures they seek, only have short term impact. But then, they have long term fall out. As the saying goes, if it were easy, everyone would do it. The Nets need to accept that becoming “relevant,” and generating a consistent fan appreciation and following, is not easy, and requires them to consistently win, year in and year out. Sugar rush related moves do not accomplish that.

Do: Hire The Antithesis of Lionel Hollins, and disregard experience as a factor in selecting a coach

There are issues with Lionel as a head coach, which issues were exposed in his Nets’ tenure.  His offensive philosophy was dated, exhibiting a lack of focus on the three ball, advanced metrics and statistics as they relate to lineup combinations, and an understanding that, in the modern game, a big is way more effective in the pick and roll and off the move than in isolation style post ups.  They also understand that the league’s greatest weapon after a paint shot, is the corner 3, and construct their offenses accordingly.  Wonder why the Nets faked and drove so often from 3? Why they took so many long 2’s, in the belief they were good shots? Why they isolated so often? Look no further.  Lionel’s defense similarly disregarded the 3 as the weapon it has become, and was also not modern — so many great defensive coaches in today’s game are great not because they are strict, but because they understand that metrics tell us that the worst shots on the court are long and mid range 2’s, and they defend accordingly, to make those shots the desired looks.   The Nets were at times borderline astonishing in how often they rotated off 3 point shooters, particularly from the corner.

The Nets disregarded these issues in hiring Hollins, and were sold on his experience.  Here is the problem: as this excellent column states, statistics from 1996-2013 show that first time coaches are more likely to improve their teams during their tenures than are retreads with “experience”. The column does not have statistics from 2013-2014 on, but given the success of Steve Kerr and David Blatt as first time head coaches, among Mike Budenholzer and others (indeed, it is ironic so many feel experience is a critical quality in a hire, when two first time NBA coaches just squared off in the finals), the gap here may have grown.

The Nets just struggled in part (of course not in total) because their coach did not apply modern principles, despite his experience.  His grating style also did not sit well with his players, who as a unit did not improve under it (indeed, this is another myth, coaches do not need to yell and scream and get angry to see results. Kerr, and Frank Vogel, by example, are extremely calm, but extremely successful: it is not a coaches job to badger a player into giving effort, and if he needs to do that, you have already lost the battle).

So what is the point of hiring someone similar, if Lionel was fired because he was a problem.  What is the point of hiring Tom Thibodeau? What is the point of hiring, in particular, Mark Jackson, whose heavy iso post offense, and combativeness with ownership, were huge problems in Golden State (please do not credit him for the Warriors’ title, when Kerr got that title by scrapping Jackson’s offense and defense, as the Warriors plateaud in Jackson’s last two years). What is the point of hiring Jeff Van Gundy, when the sales pitch would be identical to the one given for Hollins 18 months ago?

The Nets should go in a different direction — that would be a GREAT thing, and would show that there is hope for a real change in how they operate.  Hire the antithesis of Hollins as your coach.  An extremely young, first time coach.  An assistant, who has not coached before, but who believes in advanced statistics, applies them in his coaching philosophies, and seeks to play an open, spread the floor style, surrounding Lopez with four ball handlers who can largely dribble, pass, and shoot.  And, then, who seeks to construct a defense that is designed to stop those 2010’s offensive principles.

You’ll hear the backlash from the fanbase if the Nets go this route, but, again, the Nets have brought themselves to their current place by making moves to satisfy fans, and avoid such backlash. When you’re in a hole, step 1 is to stop digging.

And, simply, look at the successful coaching situations around the league.  Popovich, Kerr/Walton, Vogel, Spoelstra, Budenholzer, Stevens.  Hornacek is struggling now, but did extremely well before the Suns began nuking the roster, as a first time coach. Mike Malone was thriving before Sacramento pulled the rug from under him, as a first time coach. The Grizzlies did not miss a beat in replacing Hollins with Joerger, a first time coach (until aging this year).  The jury is out on Kidd, but he gave the Nets their best season in Brooklyn as an obvious first time coach. Donovan and Hoiberg after slow starts may be righting their ships as first time coaches. And while three coaches stand out in their success right now as having prior experience — Rivers, Carlisle, and Stotts — Rivers and Carlisle similarly thrived in their first ever coaching stops.

So for those saying the Nets need to hire a coach with NBA experience because that’s what veteran teams, or teams needing results, must do: just check the metrics on that. Your opinions do not withstand scrutiny.

Lastly, as for the suddenly popular option out there, we saw John Calipari crash and burn at the NBA level.  There is no evidence he has developed NBA coaching chops.  And if you’re hiring a coach not to coach but to be a recruiter, you’ve already lost half the battle — especially when recruiting college kids to a college campus and NBA adult players to an NBA team when other franchises actually offer comparable or better things are completely incomparable experiences. It’s one thing to get a 17 year old boy to want to live in a college town with a great athletic facility, instead of a lesser facility and lesser program. There is a reason so many college coaches failed in the NBA — Calipari included. The world is different. Imagine running Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone in the NBA?

As for the GM search, the Nets should do the same thing as with their head coaching position. Hire a young, quant based GM, who very much believes in patience, advanced metrics, and the idea of building a team around multiple players who can dribble, pass, and shoot.  Balance that with someone who has the ability to negotiate with others, and work well with others (a la Bob Myers).

I will never say things are completely hopeless with the Nets. But that is only the case because I will never say that about any franchise. Maybe the Nets, in hiring 2 analytics people in the past month, truly will go about a necessary change.  But with names like Chris Mullin, John Calipari, Patrick Ewing because it would dig at the Knicks, and other flashy names being bandied about, it appears the fans are just spinning their wheels. And with how bad ownership has made things, any presumption should be struck against them: they are presumed to be doing wrong, unless they show us they will do right.

So, even if you do not like Billy King and Lionel Hollins, nothing will change unless the ownership directives that brought about their hires and their failures start changing.







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