From points per possession to usage percentage, from win shares to wins above replacement, there are a plethora of indicators to evaluate a player’s value to a team. But when it comes to assessing the value of a coach and their staff, there isn’t necessarily a quantifiable way to do that. That’s because so much of what coaches do is unseen. What we see on the court is the result of both behind-the-scenes coaching and player preparation, and it is tough to discern which aspect of a team’s play is due to which.
“I think a lot of [coaching]things are intangible,” Connecticut Sun guard Rebecca Allen shared with me. “A lot of things you can’t visibly see, but the energy given individually and collectively [is there], feeling that sense of trust, feeling that communication is two-sided.”
If so much of what coaches do is intangible, how can we quantify the value a coach brings to their team? That’s what I set out to answer.
Let’s start with the obvious—a coach’s value is partially dependent on how they prepare their team. “It’s our job to prepare our team,” said Sun head coach Stephanie White. “It’s our job to think about three, four, five, six steps down the line and contingencies and all those things.” For most, this is a coach’s primary function. How a team performs is routinely a result of how the coaching staff prepares a team.
More specifically, how a coach uses the scarce time between games largely influences how a team will play. “[Coaches are] trying to have a good pulse of th[e]team,” White added. “Do we need to practice to really work on these things? Do we need rest? Do we need film? Do we need extra work on the side that’s not quite together? All of those things help [coaches prepare the team]”.
When a coach and their staff are in tune with the pulse of their team, it shows. Teams like the Connecticut Sun and Dallas Wings, who both have brand-new coaches this season, clearly have coaching staffs who understand what the team needs. For the former, the players have indicated how seen they feel by their coaches, and for the latter, their statistical improvements and overall improved record speak to how well Wings head coach Latricia Trammell and her staff understand the players. When a coach is prepared and understands the team’s vibes, the team reflects that.
Putting Players in Positions To Be Successful
This is another coaching trope—every coach will iterate some baseline mantra about this. “It’s our jobs to put the players in the best possible positions to be successful as individuals,” Atlanta Dream head coach Tanisha Wright told me. “And that will help our team be successful.” New York Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello mirrored this message: “In the end, it’s how can we help the players be the best that they can be individually and collectively?”
While the “best possible position to be successful” is an overused cliché that may seem mundane, it’s an incredibly important component to the coaching product. In other words, a coach needs to not just iterate this position but also be able to back it up. The best coaches are able to understand both their players’ individual strengths as well as their team’s strengths as a collective and then be able to implement that into a system that can work.
Setting individual players and a team up for success is not an easy thing to do, but when it comes together, and the coaching staff and players work together, the latter are often appreciative. “It’s been so helpful having coaches talking to you on the court or off the court, pulling you aside for some video sessions, getting extra shots up,” said Liberty forward Nyara Sabally. “It’s that kind of stuff that instills confidence in you. And them being behind you and telling you what you need to do better and what you are doing good—it just helps.
That confidence that coaches can grant a player is critical for them to be able to perform at their highest level. As Dream forward Monique Billings put it, “All of the coaches and the staff, they just give us all the resources necessary just to allow us to be the best versions of ourselves on the court, whether that’s massage[s]on the road, food, film, spending time individually watching [the film], and getting those workouts in. So all of those resources they’ve given us ha[ve]helped us feel like the pros that we are.” With that confidence instilled by the coaches comes comfortability. Both confidence and comfortability are key ingredients for players to feel like they can produce positive results every time they step on the court.
Sometimes finding or cultivating those confident and comfortable players requires going deep into the scouting report to find players overseas who can offer you a different look in your scheme. It’s vital for coaches to work with the front office to identify such players. When they do, it isn’t always easy to integrate international players into the Americanized WNBA, so the best coaches work to not only help a player adjust to their new team but also an entirely different style of basketball. And sometimes the easiest way to do that is to just stick to the basics. “Back in China, I had to do a lot more on the court,” Washington Mystics guard Li Meng told me. “But right now, the coaches here want me to play to my strengths a lot more.”
Understanding the strengths of players and bringing out the best in them takes time and commitment, and everyone on the coaching roster needs to be on the same page. “Every player who comes through our doors, whether they’re here a week or training camp or 10 seasons, should feel like they walked out a better player, a better person, a more mature adult,” said Mystics head coach Eric Thibault. “We’re never going to feel like we’re doing it perfectly, never satisfied, but the people we have who are doing that are really invested in that.”
Before discussing the player-coach relationship, it is important to note the coach-GM relationship. Many coaches won’t say it out loud, but reading between the lines will tell you that coaches can often feel hampered by an overzealous GM. For a coach to have the freedom and resources necessary to develop their team how they see fit, they and the GM need to be good dance partners. If a coach and GM have a similar vision, it makes the requisite development that much easier. When this overlooked yet all-important relationship is fostered, a coach can become even more valuable to the product on the court.
For the team, the clearest way a coach can establish their value is through cultivating buy-in by building relationships with the players. “I think player buy-in—that’s where you can really measure [a coach’s value]. How much player buy-in you get by doing it that way,” Wright said. For any coach, player buy-in is critical at every level, whether they are instituting a new offensive scheme, taking over for the first time, or pushing a team over the hump to reach championship-contender status.
To build buy-in, a coach needs to demonstrate their buy-in first, specifically the buy-in they have in their players. “Each person who comes in, we try to sit down with them and develop a plan that’s targeted on a few things,” Thibault said. “Not all on the court basketball things. And we do it with the players input. I don’t think we can do it without the players. You can have the greatest plan in the world, but if you don’t have buy-in from the players, and they don’t feel like you’re invested in helping them, it’s not going to work.”
Buy-in will ebb and flow, but the relationships a coaching staff builds along the way punctuate a coach’s true value. “Investing in them as players on the court [and]off the court, I think that’s what we try to do,” Brondello said. “They are human beings, and number one is getting to know them. Relationships are always big. Getting to know the player individually and how they tick and then spending time with them. They all have an individual coach; my coaching staff is really great at that. They really invest time into that, just on the court, watching video, talking to them.” Fever head coach Christie Sides reverberated the importance of building connections with the players: “I can say it in one word—relationships. I think I have a group of coaches that have bought into doing whatever’s necessary to help these players get better. It’s really important for me to build really good relationships with your staff and your players. When you can do that, you can teach and coach players. Your players believe in you, and you get the most out of them. For me, it’s building that relationship piece; that’s the most important [thing].”
As anyone who watches these players knows, it’s easy to criticize the things we see on the court. But we have to remember that so much of the player-coach partnership happens behind closed doors. It starts with the basics of understanding who is at the center of the game. “At the end of the day, this league, all leagues, all sports are about the players,” Brondello mused. But great players don’t develop and exist in solitude. Basketball is a team sport, and a coach is an integral part of that team. So the next time you’re cheering on your favorite player, give a nod to their coach as well. Work done behind the curtain deserves to be applauded too.