David Leonhardt Wins a Pulitzer Prize and Some Comments on NBA Coaching

Posted on April 19, 2011 by


David Leonhardt – of the New York Times – has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for

for his graceful penetration of America’s complicated economic questions, from the federal budget deficit to health care reform.

Leonhardt is known for his writing on economics. But once upon a time he also wrote about sports.   And back when the Wages of Wins was published, Leonhardt made an effort to teach me how to write (a story I told back in 2007).

Unfortunately, David’s efforts didn’t lead too much in positive results :)  I have always appreciated, though, that he made the effort and am very happy to see his work rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize.

Beyond Leonhardt winning the Pulitzer Prize, I also wanted to offer a brief comment on another story that appeared yesterday.

Rick Adleman and the Houston Rockets have parted ways.  Adelman currently ranks 8th in NBA history in coaching wins, 9th in winning percentage (among coaches who coached at leat 500 regular season games, and 9th in playoff wins.   These numbers suggest Adelman ranks among the best coaches in league history.

Despite these numbers, though, here is what Adelman thinks drives success in the baskeball:

“I had three experiences [before Houston],” he said. “At two, I had a lot of talent and at one, I didn’t. I won at two places and didn’t win at the other. I figured it out that talent is pretty important…”

I would add that in our study of NBA coaches (published with Leeds, Leeds, and Mondello and discussed in Stumbling on Wins) we did not find that players were systematically better under Adelman.  This result is similar to what we found for most NBA coaches. 

And before anyone mentions Tom Thibodeau (who currently has the highest winning percentage of all coaches in NBA history), let me just note the following about the 2010-11 Chicago Bulls.

  • The Bulls efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) and Wins Produced in 2010-11 is consistent with a team that would win about 61 games in a complete regular season.
  • If we consider the production of the veteran players the Bulls employed this year in 2009-10, and the minutes and position played in 2010-11, we would have expected the Bulls to win about 59 games in a complete regular season.   

Yes, Derrick Rose played better this year.  But that may reflect Rose’s age.  When it comes to coaching, it doesn’t appear that most players the Bulls employed this year are dramatically different than what they were before Thibodeau became their coach.

And one suspects, if Thibodeau keeps coaching he will eventually have a team that is less talented.  When that happens, he will probably learn the very lesson Adelman taught yesterday. 

Coaching simply doesn’t matter much in the NBA.  And as I noted, this was also the lesson Leonhardt learned when he volunteered to serve as my coach (see how I tried to connect the two subjects of this post… once again the lack of writing talent appears :).

– DJ