Kragthorpe: Pacers prove that coaching matters in NBA
NBA • Talent drives NBA, but coaching remains large part of winning formula.
Published: June 3, 2013 10:13PM
Updated: June 3, 2013 11:54PM
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Kurt Kragthorpe

By making Game 7 necessary in the Eastern Conference finals vs. Miami, the Indiana Pacers have introduced a rather revolutionary concept to the NBA.

Coaching counts.

Talent may be the biggest factor in determining success in this league, but it is only part of the formula. Indiana coach Frank Vogel has driven home that point, making LeBron James and the Heat work like crazy in their quest to return to the NBA Finals, and there are other examples in these playoffs.

Gregg Popovich’s consistent work in San Antonio has the Spurs back in the Finals, Lionel Hollins’ Memphis Grizzlies somehow got better after they traded their leading scorer and Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau won a playoff series, after the Bulls played an entire season without Derrick Rose.

A side effect of those developments is the loss of coaching jobs with a couple of other teams, which actually supports my theory. Managing players, establishing expectations and executing strategy are more important than ever in the NBA, and there could be no better illustration than what Vogel has done in two-plus seasons in Indiana.

Denver’s George Karl was a worthy winner of the NBA’s Coach of the Year award, as judged by the regular season. Based on the playoffs, Vogel clearly would be the most deserving candidate. His body of work is phenomenal, considering where the Pacers were when he took over in January 2011.

Who’s responsible for the Pacers’ resurgence? Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer.

I witnessed the game that made the Frank Vogel Era necessary, Chicago’s 111-89 defeat of Indiana — 11 days before Tyrone Corbin became the Jazz’s coach, following another Bulls victory. Against Indiana, the three former Jazzmen combined for 48 points, while contributing to Chicago’s 33-17 domination of the fourth quarter.

Indiana fired coach Jim O’Brien the next day. Vogel was promoted to interim coach of a 17-27 team, and retained the job after going 20-18 the rest of the season and making the playoffs. His regular-season record is now 111-74 — giving him a .600 pace that almost matches Jerry Sloan’s Hall of Fame-level winning percentage.

Vogel went 91-56 (.619) in the past two regular seasons with Brian Shaw and Jim Boylen, the former University of Utah coach, as his top assistants. The additions of David West and George Hill and the emergence of Lance Stephenson undoubtedly have helped, but Vogel already was turning the Pacers into a tougher, more hungry team.

That’s coaching.

And that brings me to the Jazz, who need the kind of jolt that Vogel gave Indiana. The Jazz’s impending roster makeover will give the franchise almost a blank canvas, an opportunity for team management and Corbin to establish some kind of identity and consistency amid the rebuilding.

That process absolutely requires making players unhappy and uncomfortable at times, which Corbin may have been unwilling to do. Introduced last week as Phoenix’s coach, former Jazz assistant Jeff Hornacek provided insight into the Jazz’s operation and his own growth as a coach.

“There were times when I might have tried to jump a guy and get after them,” he told The Tribune’s Bill Oram, “but Ty was very much a players’ coach and I think guys really appreciated that.”

Hornacek’s point is that he learned from Corbin not to overreact. Yet the staff’s being more demanding couldn’t have hurt, could it?

The best example I’ve seen of a coaching culture is how Thibodeau’s redirection of the Bulls’ approach succeeded in turning Korver into a decent defender in two seasons in Chicago. The same cannot be said of Boozer yet, but let’s be realistic. It’s called coaching, not miracle-working.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt