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Survey: Which coaching attributes matter most to winning?

With the Pacers making yet another coaching change, Sports Betting Dime crunched the numbers and polled fans on the impact of coaching tenure and more.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Dallas Mavericks v LA Clippers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

With the draft coming fast and furious and free agency following close behind, it remains to be seen if the Pacers will shake-up the roster or roll back the same core, banking on improved health and yet another coaching change to level up in the Eastern Conference.

In the event of the latter, Sports Betting Dime recently sent over the results of a study conducted during the regular season which analyzed data on coaching tenure to uncover its correlation with winning percentages in the NBA since 1990. Additionally, over 300 NBA fans were surveyed to reveal the perceived top coaches in the NBA — an interesting pecking order in retrospect, particularly given how the postseason played out.

As it pertains to the Pacers, here’s some highlights:

  • The Indiana Pacers have had 10 head coaches since 1990, with an overall win percentage above .500 — a mark which lands them smack dab in the middle.
  • Fun fact: Former Pacers coach Nate McMillan has had the most head coaching tenures since 1990.
  • 53 percent of NBA fans believe Gregg Popovich is the best coach in the NBA, followed by Doc Rivers (48 percent), Steve Kerr (46 percent), Brad Stevens (36 percent), and Erik Spoelstra (30 percent). Aside from Stevens, who is no longer coaching and has since transitioned into the role of President of Basketball Operations for the Boston Celtics, the rest of the names rounding out the top-five have all won championships. To that point, however, Rick Carlisle and Nick Nurse — also known as the coach the Pacers just hired and the coach the Pacers most recently tried to emulate — are noticeably absent from the balloting as ranked by fans, along with Ty Lue, despite the fact that all three boast championship pedigrees. That said, Mike Budenholzer, who was rumored to be on the hot seat during the playoffs, is also nowhere to be found atop these results and the Bucks just won their first title in 50 years with him at the helm. So, you know, what do we know, right?
  • Since 1990, the average tenure for coaches in the NBA is 3.2 years. For the Pacers, after firing Nate Bjorkgren in the wake of his tumultuous first-year as head coach, Rick Carlisle signed a four-year contract worth $29 million. Per the study’s tabulations, that four-year mark has added significance with regard to winning, as coaches tenured for longer than four years in the NBA had a higher win-percentage (0.566) than coaches tenured for under four (0.438). Of course, while there’s likely something to be said for giving coaches time to implement a strategy and work in synergy with the front office, coaches who manage to stay employed for longer than four years are probably uh, also just good at their jobs — hence the better win-percentage.
  • When it comes to coaching attributes, fans ranked basketball IQ as the most important, earning 44 percent of the vote, followed by communication (40.7 percent), player development (37.3 percent), winning culture (28.3 percent), and innovation (23.7 percent). According to Kevin Pritchard, after taking a chance on Nate Bjorkgren’s schemes and missing with his human management, the characteristics the Pacers most valued during the latest search (if there was a search?), when hiring Rick Carlisle, were “multi-year experience” and “championship pedigree” — two attributes which, along with tactical expertise, were not weighed as heavily, coincidentally, by the team moving on from Rick Carlisle.

“I used to feel strongly this way, that having an in-game Xs and Os expert gave you the ultimate advantage,” Mark Cuban says in the video linked below. “But now I think having a relationship person, somebody who can connect to the players, because that’s what gets them to go a little bit harder.”

Of course, whether that person is Jason Kidd and whether Steve Nash hugging Kevin Durant matters more than... let’s say, implementing overly busy defense while head coach of the Bucks is a different conversation for a different day, but based on this past season’s results, both on and off the court, there’s probably some truth to both arguments:

Relationships matter, which is why it was important to build out an assistant-coaching staff that can (hopefully) bridge the generation gap relating to players, but so does the system (see: Bjorkgren’s defense), especially in a market where team-building is a far more likely path to contention than being the super-team destination.

As always, feel free to share your thoughts and observations on the study and anything else Pacers-related in the comments. How would you power-rank coaching attributes?