What Exactly Does A Coach Contribute To A Dominant And Talented Basketball Team?

Seattle Storm coach Brian Agler communicating a point with a referee. Photo by Kailas Images.

Even while coaching a 24-4 team that has already locked up first place in the Western Conference and has spent a large portion of the season chasing and breaking records, Seattle Storm coach Brian Agler and his players have maintained an intense focus on the big picture: winning a championship.

To fully appreciate what made Seattle Storm coach Brian Agler's rendition of the Stanky Leg earlier this season so funny - beyond the fact that a 52-year-old father of two was doing it -- it helps to have a little context for who he is, particularly as a coach.

Although it's unfair to say that he is never relaxed in the public eye, his generally stoic demeanor wouldn't exactly suggest that he's the type of guy to get wired up before hitting the dance floor. Yet it's not only that he's quite bit less ostentatious than that but also that he normally maintains such a consistent temperament during games, pre- and post-game chats, and media accessible practices that any deviation from that can be rather disconcerting.

"He's always intense -- if you see him in practice, by the end of practice he's sweating just like we are," said Storm point guard Sue Bird. "He's in it, he's focused, he's on us and he doesn't really let up."

Even while coaching a 24-4 team that has already locked up first place in the Western Conference and has spent a large portion of the season chasing and breaking records, Agler and the Storm have maintained an intense focus on the big picture: winning a championship. While fans and media might get excited about the records and making historical comparisons to the league's greatest teams, Agler has not once expressed excitement about the comparisons to others and more wins might even just mean more problems for him.

"He's a perfectionist and wants to win every game and wants to be competitive," said eight-year veteran guard Svetlana Abrosimova, who also played for Agler as a member of the Minnesota Lynx in her rookie season. "I got a feeling the more we're winning, the more stress he gets in practices because it does add pressure. Even though you're ignoring the records, it still adds a little -- people look at you differently now. So for him as a coach, he understands that you don't want to lose this that you have, but at the same time every team is getting closer to us."

Patrick Hunt -- coaching education director for the Australian Institute of Sport, which is where Storm center Lauren Jackson trained prior to declaring for the 2001 WNBA draft -- described one of his "10 traits of successful coaches" as possessing enthusiasm and passion. Perhaps the source of Agler's intensity is his undeniable passion for the game. And although his even-tempered demeanor might not immediately be interpreted as "enthusiasm", the dedication to making sure his team is on a constant upward trajectory even as they seemingly steamroll their competition certainly rubs off on the team.

"This team has a great balance of confidence but humility," said Storm CEO Karen Bryant. "Each and every game we've won -- even the games we've won handily -- they still find ways to get better every day. Brian really sets that tone."

That tone of confidence and humility that starts with Agler can often be heard in the players' post-game comments -- they have clearly adopted the narrow "tunnel vision" focus on how their performance today relates to their vision of celebrating a second championship for the franchise. They don't talk about the records, they are sometimes not even aware of them until a media member brings them up, and quite frankly they are rarely moved by any significance the records might hold.

More than one person on the team has attributed that to Agler.

"We have bigger and better things on our mind and that's to win a championship this year," said Bird when asked about the team tying the WNBA record for the best start. "So when you're thinking that -- and that's what we're talking about, what we're working for -- you really don't get caught up in the records. All we're thinking about is, seriously, Brian has us so tunnel vision about homecourt advantage and the playoffs, we don't have it right now and that's all we're worried about."

However, beyond the team assuming a collective attitude similar to that of their coach, one might wonder about the specific ways in which Agler - or any coach for that matter - influences the performance of such a dominant team.

The Storm do have two players who are unquestionably the best in the world at their positions in Bird and Jackson as well as forward Swin Cash who was All-Star MVP in 2009 and a member of USA Basketball's women's senior national team. So there might be some who suggest that in this situation, there isn't exactly much for a coach to do except get out of the way.

As Tulsa Shock coach Nolan Richardson said prior to losing to Agler by a WNBA record 46 points on Saturday night, sometimes it's players that make a coach look great. Despite the Shock's 5-24 record in Richardson's first year in Tulsa and women's basketball broadly, he knows a thing or two about winning basketball - he led the University of Arkansas men's basketball team to two consecutive NCAA National Championship games, winning the first and losing the second to a talented UCLA team that included now-Seattle University men's basketball coach Cameron Dollar running point.

"It's like anywhere else, like in the NBA when you think about those three guys who went to Miami -- they went there for a reason," said the 68-year-old Richardson. "You get players - it's like the Yankees - they buy the best team, they win the most, you know? Let's face it: it ain't all about how great the coach is; it's about how many players can you give the coach to make the coach great. I get a kick out of it. I've been around this game for 43 years and I have won games that was unbelievable but I had some help from players. And I ran the same thing with [different] players that weren't as good and we weren't as good. So I wasn't as good a coach."

Even by the admission of both Agler and players, there usually isn't a whole lot the coaching staff has to say to keep this veteran team focused -- after being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs since Agler joined the team in 2008, they entered the season ready for the next step.

"I think every coach has a different style, but I think with this team, maybe it's a little easier for Brian because we have a great core and veterans that keep us there," said forward Swin Cash. "So a lot of times it's not so much Brian having to manage or micro-manage because we're consistently telling each other we're staying in the moment. Like we're not talking about stuff in the media, we're not looking ahead, we have to stay focused on the here and now. And getting knocked out of the playoffs in the first round can do that to you."

So for all of the kind words said about Agler, how exactly might we describe his contribution to the team beyond some nebulous personality transfer? Is this merely a case of great players making Agler look great?

One way to think about Agler's influence might be that the underlying thread that unites Hunt's 10 traits of successful coaching is an emphasis on being prepared. Even while coaching a team that generally has more talent than its opponents the hardest work of the coach is keeping the team prepared.

"Coaching is more than just showing up to the game," said Agler before Saturday's Tulsa game in response to a question about the WNBA's new budget-conscious policy that each team travel with only one assistant. "There's a lot of work that goes into it. There's a lot of preparation. And we try to prepare our teams."

Abrosimova described that challenge of keeping a successful team prepared as finding a balance between adjusting to what other teams might do but also recognizing that "you don't want to break something that's working". As much as Agler might talk about keeping the team fresh and sharp by redistributing minutes as the Storm coast to the playoffs, a large part of being ready to handle a playoff atmosphere is to keep the team ready to adjust to potentially shifting circumstances. 

"It's fun for us in terms of every game - like, let's say we play against Phoenix -- every time they do something different and adjust to our defense and they create some new tweaks on offense," said Abrosimova. "So for us it's like a science, it's fun because next game what are we going to do differently to confuse them more, to stop them?

"I think it's really cool because the coaching staff is working extremely hard and when everybody studies you and everybody knows your offense you get to the point where you really have to trust your instincts sometimes, not just run the offense and create something new. Everybody's involved -- coaches and players -- and [there's] a lot of thinking going on but at the same time you have to be aggressive. It's pretty cool right now."

And yet being a brilliant tactician means little if the coach is unable to communicate tactics to the team. Something often heard in comments about Agler was that he has the ability to clearly communicate a message to his team about expectations. It's something that Abrosimova, who played her first two WNBA seasons for Agler, noted as a positive improvement.

"We lost so many games there and he obviously practices real long, but we'd still be practicing right now," said Abrosimova. "After games, before games, it didn't matter because we'd go for 2, 3 hours extremely hard. We were young and inexperienced and he had to push us extremely hard. Now he can just say things and we'll respond to them. Back then, you had to practice, you had to go over certain things multiple times. But he's better at communicating with players, he's more positive now. But he's still the same Brian in terms of, 'I want this, let's get this done'."

So as much as having talented, veteran players might aid Agler as a coach, the fact that the whole team seems to remain "on message" day to day is a reflection of his assertive and consistent communication with his team, according to assistant coach Nancy Darsch.

"That's a huge part of success and I do think he does a great job of that because his temperament is pretty consistent," said Darsch when asked about Agler's ability to coach a team of veterans. "I mean, it doesn't always look like that in-games when people are watching, but on a day-to-day basis in practice and in our meetings and in our film sessions, his comments, his targets, his points are pretty much consistent. As assistant coaches we sing the same song. The veterans, I think they know how to take it -- they don't take anything personal if it is constructive."

A subtle example of the type of criticism Agler might communicate came out during his opening post-game comments about the Storm's 111-65 victory over Tulsa, a WNBA record for margin of victory in which they had a WNBA record 57 rebounds. Even in a game that was near perfect - albeit against an overmatched and weary opponent - Agler managed to sneak in a small point of criticism.

"What I liked about it was that's not the easiest team to play against when they're pressing and we did a good job of handling their pressure," Agler said to the media after the game. "We still had 17 turnovers but the ball movement was so much better."

As Darsch said, this veteran team that is hungry for a championship knows how to take that type criticism as a means to keep the team constantly prepared for the next unexpected challenge.

"He's constantly our opponent," said Bird. "So you could make the perfect play and he'll find something wrong with it -- he's constantly critiquing. He keeps you on your toes, he keeps you ready."

Whereas Hunt might describe that as an "eye for detail", his ability to keep his team focused in defeat - such as coming back to thoroughly discomfit the Shock after losing to them just two games earlier - and humble in victory is reminiscent of the legendary John Wooden's maxim to "avoid the peaks and the valleys".

"They know not to get too high or to get too low and, as Brian says, to live in the moment," said Darsch.

Ultimately, what has been most impressive about the Storm is their ability to remain even tempered as a unit despite a historically successful season that has actually been an emotional roller coaster even though the outcomes have been rather consistent - they have entered the fourth quarter with a deficit 15 times in 28 games (winning 11). Even if those aren't exactly the circumstances any coach wants his team to face consistently, the fact that they are so consistently able to stay calm in those situations is certainly a testament to that consistent temperament that Agler exudes (even while executing the Stanky Leg).

Given that there is no shortage of talented basketball teams - men's and women's - that have racked up regular season wins but collapsed in the playoffs when consistency, details, and mental toughness are magnified what Agler has done is probably worthy of more credit than he has typically gotten. As Abrosimova alluded to, everybody in the Storm locker has been involved in laying the groundwork to reach the team's championship aspirations. But listening to the players and to Agler during the course of the season, it's hard to ignore his distinct influence on this team.

When voting for the 2010 WNBA Coach of the Year award comes up, Agler will likely be a popular choice due to the perfectly sound, if surface-level, reasoning that he has been the leader of one of the winningest teams in WNBA history. But digging a bit beyond the simplest reasoning for granting the award, there are other coaches - particularly Julie Plank of the Washington Mystics and Lin Dunn of the Indiana Fever - who would be legitimate candidates for the honor on the basis of overcoming clear adversity or surviving a very competitive Eastern Conference.

So the real argument in favor of Agler ironically has to do with looking ahead rather than merely looking at the record they've compiled so far -- regular season success is not necessarily the judge of a great coach and if weaknesses are exposed in the playoffs, poor preparation to win on the big stage can get even Coach of the Year winners fired.  

What's therefore most impressive about Agler's coaching performance this season is not just the outcomes but the process of achieving them and the fact that he's managed to keep his team even-tempered and "living in the moment" even when all around them are reasons to have delusions of grandeur before they've achieved the most important goal. It's a noteworthy accomplishment and his players have subtly acknowledged the value of what he's done throughout the course of the season.

"We won by a lot tonight, we were able to rest and he's still talking about the things we did wrong," said Bird after the Storm beat the Shock 75-59 on July 25 to tie the WNBA record for best start at 20-2. "But that's his personality, that's how he is. That's something he won't change. And I think for us though, that'll help us in the long run."

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