Jeff Van Gundy, the former coach of the New York Knicks and the Houston Rockets, is one of the most gleefully outspoken color commentators in professional sports. As a coach, Van Gundy was known for his defensive schemes and offensive moves, the latter once taking the form of running onto the court to grab an opposing player’s leg. He approaches his current job with the same cranky energy and enthusiasm.
In recent years, as part of the team that calls the NBA Finals, Van Gundy has often spoken up for coaches, whom he feels get too much criticism from the sports media. During games, he generally tries to balance his sarcastic sense of humor with serious insights into players and strategy and unvarnished complaints about the NBA rulebook. The current NBA Finals, between David Blatt’s Cleveland Cavaliers and Steve Kerr’s Golden State Warriors, have garnered extremely high television ratings, and have also allowed basketball fans to dissect the styles of two very different teams. Even Van Gundy seems to be watching the series with unrestrained joy.
I spoke with Van Gundy prior to Thursday’s Game 4 in Cleveland, which he was preparing to call for ABC. Below is a transcript of our conversation, which has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity.
LeBron James is getting an incredible amount of praise for his performances. I’m curious if you think that he would be getting the same sort of praise if his teammates were playing worse defense and his team was getting killed in this series. Would people then be ripping him for shooting too much?
What do you think that says about the state of sports commentary?
I think you write the narrative after you know the result. Listen, I think there has been a huge deterioration in sports journalism.
I am curious to hear you talk more about that.
All negative information is “sources close to” somebody instead of making people put their name to it. And a lot of character assassination is being allowed by non-sourced people, and I find it repulsive. This isn’t major news we are breaking in sports journalism. It’s one thing when it is news that is non-sourced, and it’s another when it is directly hurting a person’s character. If you are going to do that you need to put your name to it.
What sort of thing do you have in mind?
The stuff that David Blatt has undergone through anonymous sources. They have challenged his basketball acumen and coaching and how his players feel about him.
It feels like there are two issues. One is the stuff you are talking about, and the other is this thing about how we judge players. I often wonder whether if you went back to news coverage in 1990, people were saying Michael Jordan wasn’t a winner like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
I think they were and I think it was as ignorant then. So much of it is who you are playing with and who you are playing against. This idea that you are a champion if you win a championship and a non-champion if you don’t … listen, there are true champions competing in this series and they are on opposite sides. Some are going to win and some are going to lose.
I could be the ninth man on this Cavs bench.
There are a lot of interchangeable parts. But for someone to be known as a champion just because they participated with Michael Jordan …Will Perdue is more of a champion than Patrick Ewing. That is ludicrous.
And Michael Jordan never won a championship before Scottie Pippen showed up.
To follow up on the journalism, I was wondering how you feel the revolution in sports analytics has changed sports commentary.
Well it’s definitely more statistically based.
What is your feeling about that?
The statistical people are more definitive. There is no gray area with them. From a coaching standpoint they overlook how hard it is to get humans to do something. The challenge of getting people to do something is much harder in practice than saying, “take layups and free throws and threes.” I think just looking at things in a statistical way is just a bit too simplistic.
To use my favorite team, the Houston Rockets, as an example, are you saying that it may be correct to want to shoot free throws and layups and three-pointers, but it is another thing to get James Harden to turn his game into those things?
It’s not just that. It’s hard to get a layup. It’s not like the other team isn’t participating. They aren’t going to foul you unless you are crafty like Harden. It’s also hard to guard guys like Stephen Curry. It’s easy to say, “they need to run him off the three-point line.” OK. That’s the goal. But to have someone capable of doing that is another thing. I just think sometimes the analysis is so statistically based that they aren’t giving enough credit to how hard it is to do.
Your announcing team is one straight man, Mike Breen, and two former coaches, you and former Warriors Coach Mark Jackson, who also played. Do you think going forward that we might or should have an expert in analytics as an announcer?
Statistics, which I used a lot as a coach, absolutely suck the joy out of the game for me from a viewing standpoint. I wish we would only show the score and some stats, but everything is a stat now. The joy to me is watch the game and watch players compete and do marvelous things athletically.
I somewhat agree but watching, say, Grantland writer Zach Lowe describe why a team has guys rotate to the corner, or some other thing considered analytic, that really does capture the joy of the game. It isn’t just, “this guy’s PER is this.”
If I never heard PER in a game, I would be happy.
I see what you mean, but to me it is much more frustrating to hear people like Phil Jackson or Charley Barkley, the latter whom I worship, going off about three-point shooting. It seems like they are living in a different era.
Yeah. The thing is to me that they make some valid points about the volatility of the three, but I also understand why teams have gone to more threes. I don’t think it has to be that you are an analytics guy or a non-analytics guy. You can be both. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
Do you consider yourself a journalist?
Not at all.
I just don’t. I broadcast games. I think there is a huge difference between print journalism and broadcasting. I don’t have to say, “sources close to LeBron James,” five times a game. I can just put my name to it. I say what I believe. It doesn’t mean it’s right. It’s what I believe.
Have you gotten pressure from the NBA about things you have said on broadcasts.
I think they maybe say things to my bosses.
Do you have a sense of what they are saying?
No, not really.
Has it been at all awkward for your broadcast team to do all these Warrior games given that Mark Jackson was fired by the team last year?
It doesn’t appear to be. We don’t talk like that so I wouldn’t know. But he has done it like he has always done it. He says what he sees.
Do you feel constrained by what you can say about the Warriors?
You seem to me very hesitant to criticize coaches. Is that because you were a coach or because you think coaches generally get a bad rap?
I think coaches should get the same amount of credit in victory that they get in defeat. Everyone says it’s a player’s league but in losses it has become a coache’s league. I don’t know why that is.
There was a broadcast earlier this season where ESPN ranked all 30 NBA coaches, and you and Mark Jackson were criticizing the writers who made the list for putting people near the bottom.
It’s a joke.
But you never said who deserved to be at the bottom. If you rank people from 1 to 30, someone has to be last.
I don’t do that though. You are not coaching against other people, you are coaching your team. The whole idea of ranking everything is a joke.
Why is that?
It’s a joke. The [writers] ranking have no idea why they are ranking. They are ranking by the results of the team.
Look, I think it was absurd for the Thunder to fire Scott Brooks because the team missed the playoffs by one game, if indeed that was the tipping point. That makes no sense. But I also think you can make an argument that Scott Brooks made mistakes.
Well, every coach makes mistakes. To try to say coach X is better than coach Y, that is where journalism is gone, but I wouldn’t be a part of it because I think it is a joke.
If there were a coach out there that you thought was doing a poor job, would you say it?
I don’t know what specific you are giving me.
There must be a coach out there.
No, I don’t think like that. I think there are much bigger differences between players in this league than between coaches. There is a big gap between LeBron James and the small forward for whoever. Far bigger than between two coaches. I focus on what matters most, but we are not in that era. Journalists are tied in to players and management people, and so there is very little criticism of those people. Like David Blatt today. I read an article on ESPN where they said there are still problems between him and his team and you can tell by players not hugging him after games. Now we have reached truly a low point.
That isn’t much different than a lot of political journalism, where we judge people by the body language they give off when they stop at Chipotle. Anyway, I think there is a pretty big gap between Gregg Popovich and Byron Scott.
Did you think that when they were in the finals against each other?
The Conference finals?
No, the finals, when San Antonio beat New Jersey.
Oh I forgot about that. But as far as I remember Byron Scott wasn’t ranting about three-point shots being evil back then.
That doesn’t make him a bad coach. I don’t understand the whole mentality. It is a player’s league until you lose.
But players get shit too. Chris Paul gets more stupid crap about not having been to the Conference finals.
I agree. But he doesn’t get crap, though. He doesn’t get much comparatively.
You should watch ESPN morning shows, let me tell you.
Well first, well [pauses]—Doc Rivers takes some as a general manager and a coach, more than Chris Paul has ever taken.
Well the general manager criticism seems fair in that case. But on another subject, if you go back to coaching I beg you to do something, and you can tell me if I am crazy. Why do players get taken out in the first quarter with two fouls?
Well some of it could be a normal rotation or fatigue but I agree with you that automatically taking somebody has become a cliché. As if a player not being available the last four minutes is more important—these minutes are more important than those minutes. And nothing has ever proven that to be true.
Even if you were to grant that the last four minutes were more important.
Right but if you did, these guys are still being put back at the beginning of the second quarter! So that implies that the beginning of the second quarter is more important the first quarter.
I think the people who do this do it habitually.
Who is the smartest player you have ever coached?
I have been blessed with a lot. I would never pinpoint one.
OK just give me one that comes to mind.
No, I would never single anybody out.
I was going to ask about the dumbest player you have ever coached but it now seems unlikely you will answer.
I am not doing that either.