Time out

Sports isn’t my normal blog topic, but this NY Times article about coaches managing—and mostly mismanaging—their timeouts gives me an opportunity to mention what I consider one of the greatest pieces of coaching I’ve ever seen.

The article starts out with a recap last weekend’s Jet/Colts game, in which Colts coach Jim Caldwell took an ill-advised timeout that helped set up the Jets’ game-winning field goal. It then goes on to discuss a seeming epidemic of poor clock management.

I didn’t see the Jets/Colts game, so I can’t say how bad Caldwell’s decision was. But I can say that 13 years ago I saw what ought to be considered the best clock management—the best in-game coaching decision, even—in sports history.

It was game six of the 1998 NBA finals. Bull v. Jazz. Michael Jordan’s last game as a Bull, and Phil Jackson’s last game as Bulls coach. A lot of people don’t give Jackson credit for being a great coach because he had such great players. Who couldn’t win with Jordan or Bryant? they ask.1 But all great coaches have great players; what matters is what they do with them.

This is the sequence that shows Jackson’s genius:

Let me interrupt my train of thought here by saying that everyone (including the reprehensible Isiah [sic] Thomas) who says Jordan pushed Bryon Russell is either blind or stupid. Yes, Jordan touches Russell, but there’s clearly no force behind it. Russell bit hard on the fake and slipped while trying to recover.

So what did Jackson do that was so smart? In a fittingly Zen way, it wasn’t what he did, it was what he didn’t do. How many coaches could have resisted calling a timeout after Jordan’s steal? None, I bet. It’s automatic—if you’re down by one and get the ball with 18 seconds left, you call a timeout and draw up a play.

But Jackson didn’t do the auomatic thing. In the instant that any other coach would have used to call time, Jackson recognized that the setup was perfect and that a timeout could only improve the situation for the Jazz. Who do you want taking the final shot? Jordan, of course, and he already has the ball. A timeout would take the ball out of his hands and give the Jazz a chance keep it away from him on the inbound play.

No, the right thing to do is let basketball’s best player keep the ball and figure out how to break down an unprepared defense. And he did.

Maybe Jim Caldwell—now that he has some free time—should start watching the Lakers for coaching tips.

  1. There are many answers: Kevin Loughery, Stan Albeck, Doug Collins (twice), Del Harris, Kurt Rambis, Rudy Tomjanovich.