The planned obsolescence of coaching

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

As is often the case, the WNBA offseason has been dominated by the coaching carousel. We've seen a wide variety of moves; expected (Lin Dunn retiring in Indiana), surprising (Seattle allowing Brian Agler to jump to a division rival), and strange (Bill Laimbeer replacing himself in New York). What makes teams change coaches so often and why do the same names keep cropping up time after time?

Almost all coaches start to lose effectiveness over time, leading to their dismissal. This often brings condemnation from irate fans, saying the coach is being made into a scapegoat for larger team problems. Coach Weeble was a good coach a few years ago, wasn't she? She just won coach of the year the season before last! If she was a good coach then why isn't she a good coach now?

There are a number of reasons why this happens, but the overriding principle is that successful coaches change the needs of their organization and in doing so make themselves obsolete. When a coach takes over a team the first thing she does is determine what changes need to be made. Even in a situation like the one with Stephanie White in Indiana, where a long time assistant is taking over for a retired head coach, there will be shake ups. Over time, coaches tend to lose the ability to see what changes need to be made.

Coaches (and teams) can be measured along many different lines….offense/defense, use the bench/iron five, young players/experienced players, high pressure/low pressure, fast break/half court set, and so on. New coaches are effective because they pull the team out of the rut caused by over-emphasis on any one category.

Marynell Meadors, for example, was a high pressure coach. She eventually pushed Angel McCoughtry too far and it blew up in spectacular fashion. Meadors was replaced by a low pressure coach, Fred Williams, and the team responded. Few people will tell you Williams is a great coach, or even a better coach than Meadors, but he was the coach the Dream needed at that time.

The same sort of thing happens in all the categories. If a team doesn't use its bench, the subs won't be sharp and the team will be vulnerable to injuries. If the bench is overused the team won't be able to develop stars. Dan Hughes is a fine example of the latter. Thanks to him subbing with mad abandon, the Silver Stars had only one player who averaged more than 26 minutes per game, but had eight who played at least 18. Thus with Game 1 of their playoff series against Minnesota on the line the SASS continued to put the ball in the hands of 37 year old Becky Hammon, a star who was developed elsewhere. If a team loads up on veterans then age will catch up with them quickly, but if they use too many young players then they probably won't be able to make a title run until a new coach brings in some veteran leadership.

Another issue is that of loyalty of a coach to her players. If a new coach comes in, she doesn't owe anything to anyone. She can bench or release players who aren't getting the job done without apology or explanation. An established coach can't do that as easily. She would have to break faith with players who have given her their best effort. This can affect the whole team. When the established coach decides to release a long time teammate, the remaining players feel betrayed. Coach can't be trusted anymore. Jenny Jumpshot gave all she had and look what happened to her. When a new coach does the same thing the reaction is more like Nobody's job is safe here. I better get my butt in gear or I'll be out on the street. Free agency can make this a little easier on the coach, as they can sometimes say that the decision was out of their hands.

Generally speaking, coaches are hired for good reasons and they're fired for good reasons. A team brings in a coach to fill a need. Once that's done, the team will have a different need and most likely will need a new coach to fill it. Getting fired doesn't mean someone is a bad coach. It just means the team needs a different kind of coach.