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Why do Lawrence Frank teams start seasons so slowly?

Lawrence Frank is articulate, his belief in defense, his openness to advanced stats, his communication skills and the work it must’ve took for him to even become a NBA head coach considering he had no playing experience at the pro or college level is a testament to how passionate he is. But despite all of those good qualities, he’s the owner of a weird trend in his career. Check out how his teams have started through the first 20 games of each full season he’s been a head coach:

  • 2011-12 Detroit Pistons: 4-16
  • 2009-10 New Jersey Nets: 1-19* (Note: Frank was fired after the team’s 0-16 start, but since he coached that team out of training camp, he’ll take the … uh … credit? I guess? for that 20-game start)
  • 2008-09 New Jersey Nets: 11-9
  • 2007-08 New Jersey Nets: 9-11
  • 2006-07 New Jersey Nets: 8-12
  • 2005-06 New Jersey Nets: 9-11
  • 2004-05 New Jersey Nets: 7-13

That’s an underwhelming 49-91 record (.350 winning percentage) combined in the first 20 games of each season he’s started a year as a team’s head coach. This year, with the Pistons at 0-7 , obviously that negative trend is continuing. It’s obviously troubling, but it’s not a complete reflection on Frank as a coach — if it was, Frank wouldn’t be on his second head coaching job. I do think it’s a fair question to ask, though. Why do Frank’s teams, even some of his good teams in New Jersey, get off to sluggish or, in a couple of cases, downright awful starts? Here are some theories:

He believes in ‘earning’ minutes, but it doesn’t mean what we think it does

That’s a common talking point among coaches. It sounds simple enough — you reward the players who work the hardest and who make the fewest mistakes, regardless of talent. Frank seems to be patient in this approach, via Dave Pemberton of The Oakland Press:

“No numerical goals,” Frank said. “Our goals are literally brick by brick. ‘Did we get better today?’ If we did, we add a brick. If we didn’t, we don’t. If we got worse, we’ll take one away. We are giving a physical representation of the effort that is required in order to get better.

“I think if your habits are … better than your opponent the wins will take care of themselves. But if you’re cheating the process, you’re taking shortcuts, if you’re not doing things and preparing in a championship way then you’ll also have to suffer those consequences as well.

“I’ve never talked playoffs ever. Even with teams that were predicted to go deep or even some teams that were predicted to go to the finals. To me, it’s all about the process. I don’t get into predictions. I just get into our habits every single day. I believe if you make today count and your true to the process then those thing will take care of themselves.”

I think most fans have assumed that Frank’s insistence on playing veterans like Jason Maxiell and Tayshaun Prince at the expense of young players this season, or playing players like Prince, Ben Wallace and Damien Wilkins over younger guys last season, is that he thinks the more predictable veterans will lead to more wins. I’m not convinced, though. Frank understands the game at the NBA level better than anyone writing for or likely anyone reading this site. You can’t convince me that Frank looks at a freak of nature athlete who can do things in his sleep that only one or two others on the planet can do like Andre Drummond and says, “Well, I think Maxiell gives us a better chance to win.” Even a person without any kind of basketball knowledge can look at the two players and know that Drummond is the more talented player. I truly believe Frank believes in the vague ‘process’ he always alludes to, and part of that ‘process’ is consistent habits on a daily basis in practice and games. So a more experienced, professional player like Maxiell, who obviously got himself into good shape, worked on his game and is playing for another NBA contract, probably has pretty consistent daily work habits. A 19-year-old guy like Drummond who is in what is really his first serious job likely hasn’t figured out how to have consistent daily habits yet because he simply hasn’t had to. So if it’s obvious to everyone watching the games that Drummond is better based on watching only the games, I think that’s fairly clear evidence Frank is willing to sacrifice wins to try to convince a young player of the importance of preparation. It’s important to remember that coaches and management are looking at a bigger picture than we are. We see a few Drummond highlights and crave more. But if we were watching Maxiell eat Drummond’s lunch in practice every day — not saying that is happening, but who knows? — we might have a different perception of his readiness to be a consistent contributor.

When we hear ‘earning minutes,’ we look at what Drummond has done in games and the potential he offers long-term and say, ‘Well, that’s it. He’s earned them.’ For coaches, particularly coaches of bad teams, I’m not sure we can assume they draw the same conclusions that we do because they see a much larger picture of what is going on.

He lets young players play through mistakes if they play hard

Brandon Knight is exhibit A here. Knight had one of the highest turnover percentages among starting point guards last season and one of the lowest assist percentages. He didn’t play great defense, he didn’t shoot a good percentage and he didn’t get to the free throw line much. But, by all accounts, Knight is incredibly mature and hard-working for his age. He does seem to have consistently good habits off the court when it comes to putting in the time necessary to improve. As a result, Knight played as large a role as any rookie in the league. He was able to play through mistakes likely because his effort and his practice habits were always at a high level even if his production in games was not.

When Frank was hired, Justin Rogers of MLive pointed out that young players Devin Harris and Brook Lopez both played large roles:

Harris’ role expanded in the Nets’ offense and he flourished under Frank. In 2008-09, the only full season Frank coached Harris, the point guard posted career-highs in minutes, scoring, free-throw attempts, rebounds, assists and steals.

In the two years since, Harris’ numbers have not approached the numbers he posted that season.

Frank also had success with rookie big man Brook Lopez that season. In his first season in the league, Lopez posted respectable averages of 13.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 30.5 minutes.

Obviously Lopez has continued to improve since Frank’s departure, but it should be noted that he posted career-best numbers in shooting percentage, shot blocking and rebounding rate in the one year under Frank’s tutelage.

Even on some of those better New Jersey teams, young players like Nenad Krstic and Zoran Planinic, who were both 21 in their first seasons in the league, saw consistent action as reserves.

There are certainly coaches out there who will always play veterans over young players despite evidence that the young players might be better. We’ve seen a couple of the worst offenders here in Larry Brown and Flip Saunders, who have both been consistently bad at playing and developing talented young players in their careers. I don’t think it’s fair to portray Frank that way, though. He has shown a willingness to play young players over veterans, provided they meet his high standards for being prepared. That’s not a defense of what he’s done with Drummond this season, but I think it’s important to understand that he’s also not some rigid old curmudgeon of a coach. If a young player earns his trust, he’ll play him, and hopefully Drummond is arriving at that point, even if it should’ve happened a few weeks ago,

His teams get better as the season goes on

Here’s a look at the final 20 games in each of his seasons as a coach:

  • 2011-12 Detroit Pistons: 9-11
  • 2008-09 New Jersey Nets: 7-13
  • 2007-08 New Jersey Nets: 8-12
  • 2006-07 New Jersey Nets: 13-7
  • 2005-06 New Jersey Nets: 15-5
  • 2004-05 New Jersey Nets: 15-5

A few of those records are still underwhelming, but, particularly last season, also represent modest improvements considering the poor starts the teams had. At the very least, it represents a possibility that Frank’s teams begin to buy in more to what he wants, learn his offensive and defensive systems and have more success as the season goes on. We watched firsthand last season. The Pistons at the start looked like they’d threaten for the worst record in the NBA. They obviously weren’t that bad. They were a .500 team for more than a month to end the season. They obviously weren’t that good, based on the start this season. But as long as the team continues to be receptive to Frank — and so far, there has been no evidence of discontent with the coach except for a very minor passive aggressive complaint from the usual suspect — it’s a good bet that the Pistons will look significantly better, including their developing young players, by the time this season is over.

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Tags: Andre Drummond Brandon Knight Lawrence Frank

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