Yesterday, our own Jake Lawrence and Jay Exum shared some lively emails they had written to each other after the 2017 NCAA Championship. Over the past eight months, they have had a spirited debate over who can claim the crown as UNC’s best basketball coach - Roy Williams or Dean Smith?
Today, Jake picks up where he left off making a passionate case for Dean Smith. Jay remains committed to supporting Roy Williams in this endeavor. As our second half gets underway, continue to read below and draw your own conclusions.
Again, these have only been edited for typos. No arguments have been changed to support either side of this debate.
***SECOND HALF BEGINS***
(As I was saying yesterday, before our editor cut me off)...Now, where I take great umbrage is when we start talking about players, so let's start moving in that direction. You raise the concern that Dean didn't really have to account for early-entrants to the NBA draft, at least until the 1980's. This is somehow supposed to validate Roy's ability to handle adversity and roster turnover. I don't buy this for two reasons.
First, do McInnis, Stackhouse, Wallace, Carter, and Jamison mean nothing to you? When the early-entrant craze started hitting a fever pitch in the mid-90's, Dean handled that just about as well you could imagine. He adjusted to the new climate with Final Fours in 1995 (McInnis, Stackhouse, Wallace) and 1997 (Carter, Jamison), while giving Bill Guthridge a guaranteed Final Four roster in 1998.
Everyone was trying to figure out how to handle the new generation of players, so you can't credit Roy with seemingly unlocking that mystery without acknowledging that Dean did just fine, thank you very much. If Dean had not retired as early as he did, another title was completely possible. He wasn't just Denny Crum or Bob Knight fading into the twilight of his career.
Second, Roy doesn't get credit for handling that roster turnover like he's the only one experiencing the revolving door of talent. Every school experiences that now! While Williams has done a remarkable job of developing talent over two or three years before he bids them farewell to the NBA, he is not alone in this feat. It's not as though he is playing a bunch of freshmen against a Duke or Kentucky team full of seniors. Roster turnover across college basketball is at an all-time high, whether it's the high number of transfers or NBA draft hopefuls. Credit is due, but let's not act as though he's leading that movement alone and unafraid. Maybe he's doing it better than his peers, but that doesn't necessarily put him above Dean.
The one thing I know for sure from this exchange is that it's going need an editor. Or maybe it'll need to be broken up into more than one post. (Editor’s note: Both were true).
I don't think raising McInnis, Carter, Jamison, etc. does much to impact the argument about the different eras. Jeff McInnis, to pick one, left UNC in 1996. Dean retired in 1997. The reality is that for the vast majority of his career at UNC, early departures didn't exist, and when they began to emerge, they were very occasional. On top of that, I'm not aware of a single example of a Dean Smith player leaving for the NBA before he had put in at least 3 years at UNC. (Editor’s note: As a JUCO transfer Bob McAdoo played just his junior season at UNC in 1971-72 before entering the NBA). There's simply no getting around the fact that consistent excellence is harder now than it was in 1997, because in 1997, great players hung around much longer. And comparing Roy to the coaches of his era is beside the point. His consistency has been best-of- class for his era, as Dean's was. The point is that consistency in the one-and-done era (as illustrated in 2010) is a much more difficult feat than it was in Dean's time. It's just easier to prepare, plan, adapt, recruit and execute when you know that you'll have every player on your roster for at least 3 years.
Regarding the difference in conference structure, I'll leave it at this: show me an example of a 5th-place team in an 8-team ACC seeded as a 2 in the NCAA tournament, and I'll give some ground. Until then, I think that simple math says that a 5th place seed in the modern era compares favorably to a 3rd place finish in the 70's and 80's.
You know what's interesting? The more I've written, and the more we've had this friendly argument, the more absurd the whole thing gets. It's like debating which supermodel rocket scientist you'd rather date, or whether you'd rather have owned Apple or Amazon when it was a penny stock. We have lived in the golden age of North Carolina basketball, and we should be grateful for it. I will support and root for whoever ultimately succeeds Roy Williams when that sad day comes, but the chances that it is another coach that can be added to this conversation are vanishingly small no matter who it ends up being.
Ah! A few points we can both agree on-- we are impossibly spoiled as UNC fans, these emails will definitely need an editor, and we likely will require multiple posts. I suppose anything worth doing is worth doing right. In this case, that means leaving no stone unturned in reaching a conclusion. We're almost there. (Editor’s Note: These two are never “almost there”).
I'll also concede that in any given season (2005, 2009, 2012), Roy had more roster turnover than almost any of Dean's teams. Especially among underclassmen. That certainly has its challenges, and Williams has handled it better than anyone else in his era. Yes, even John Calipari.
Could Dean have found the same success? That's a hypothetical that's probably an exercise in futility. I'm inclined to say "absolutely", but my rationale requires us to pivot to another area where I believed Dean excelled over Roy. Quite frankly, the NBA success of Roy's former players currently pales in comparison to Dean's players.
It would be fair to debate whether or not this truly reflects on one's "coaching". I argue that all aspects of coaching and running a program are intertwined, and thus important.
In Dean's case, the list of NBA stars, champions, All-Stars, and Hall of Famers is long and prosperous, and spanned four decades. Billy Cunningham, Bob McAdoo, Larry Brown, Phil Ford, Bobby Jones, Walter Davis, James Worthy, Michael Jordan, Brad Daugherty, Rasheed Wallace, and Vince Carter (who is STILL playing after being drafted in 1998) are just a handful of the dozen's of NBA players who came through UNC while Dean was coaching. It's fair to say some of those fellas still have more accolades in their future.
Without doing extensive research, I have to ask, is there a school or coach with more Hall of Fame inductees? More total All-Stars and cumulative All-Star appearances? More total champions and cumulative championships? I'd be surprised if UNC and/or Dean Smith isn't the leader in those categories. That is all directly attributed to Dean Smith.
In today's basketball environment, where making the NBA is the ultimate goal of every college player, it's hard to imagine Dean having trouble adapting. Even in the days of the ABA he always understood how to help teenagers prepare for their future in professional leagues.
Roy has done extremely well by developing players and sending them to the league. It could be argued that his success in that department is criminally underrated. Nonetheless, his players have struggled to find the same level of success that Dean's crew did. Maybe it's still early for some of Williams' players, but with the exception of Paul Pierce, who else has made a noticeably better than average NBA career? Harrison Barnes certainly made massive strides this season, so maybe there's hope.
If you disagree with me on this, maybe we both agree that Roy’s players have still had more success in the NBA than the guys down the road in Durham? That in itself is a feat that is not exploited enough.
I think I have to concede the point on Roy's players' NBA careers. He's had plenty of players with happy, successful, and in some cases lengthy NBA careers. But Paul Pierce, the best Roy Williams player from an NBA perspective, is no Michael Jordan. Or James Worthy. Or even arguably Rasheed Wallace, Jerry Stackhouse, or Vince Carter (I'm omitting some other close calls -- Daugherty, Jamison. . . I'll stop now). The question we're debating, though, is who is the better coach. I think that at the end of the day you have to call this one a draw. Dean has more players among the NBA elite. Roy has more titles despite having fewer such players. I don't think that's resolvable.
I do tend to agree with you that Dean Smith -- who was ahead of the curve in terms of putting the personal interests of his players ahead of what he might accomplish as a coach -- would have adapted just fine to the one-and-done era. But I also think that he would have been very much like Roy Williams in terms of his handling of the phenomenon. No matter how talented, it is hard to imagine Dean Smith taking a player who's more interested in his own NBA future than he is in being a member of a college team (Chris Webber in particular comes to mind in this regard).
So you ended with the Roy Williams - Coach K NBA talent comparison. I'm not sure I'd have gone there. Dean Smith has K by a mile. Roy...well that's tricky.
The Duke list of NBA stars is . . . more limited than you might think. The best NBA player Duke has ever had is Grant Hill. I think it's easily the case that Paul Pierce was better.
From there, it's complicated. A lot of guys on both sides that are not as good as Wallace, Stackhouse, Carter, Daugherty, Jamison, and others.
Yeah, it's always tricky to compare success of pro players. It's such a different game, and that gap has only grown in recent years. If anything I think it's obvious that both coaches did an equally outstanding job of preparing their players for the NBA. Though, as a Dean supporter in this back-and-forth we've had, there's an argument to be made that Williams has been better at truly developing talent.
While some of Roy's recruits have not been AS successful as Dean's, I will concede that Roy has handled the current era better than anyone could hope. His ability to truly develop talent is impressive. It's fair to ask if many of these one-year players truly receive career-altering "development" in their lone college season. Kyrie Irving may be the most noticeable example of that.
Roy, however, continues to grow and develop three and four-year players into NBA material when they otherwise may not have reached that potential. I'm not implying Dean could not have done so, but it feels as though the examples are fewer and farther between.
Next topic. Both coaches have achieved results across multiple eras. That requires the ability to adapt and innovate. Convince me that Roy has been more adaptable and original than Dean was.
I'll be honest:
I don't think I can make that argument. As a tactician and innovator, I'm not sure there is an equivalent to Dean Smith in the modern era. He's one of the major reasons we have a shot clock. He understood clock management was hugely important before anyone else bothered to consider it. His book, Multiple Offense and Defense, is still relevant. He was applying analytics to basketball (points per possession, anyone?) before "analytics" was a word that meant anything to anyone. If you are going to make the argument that Dean Smith is a superior coach to Roy, I think this is where your case gets made.
Williams is not without innovation or creativity. Although he would point out to anyone who would listen in his Kansas days (to the point that it got tiring) that everything he knew about coaching basketball he got from Dean Smith, his style is noticeably different. Yes, some of the core principles are the same, but Williams' style of implementing those principles is all his own. You never saw Dean Smith endlessly demanding that his players go faster, faster, and faster still. You never saw him embrace the three-point shot quite the same way. Williams' teams play a more engaging brand of basketball, but it still bears Smith's fingerprints.
But putting aside that Roy added his own twist -- one that fits his personality better than it would have fit his more subdued mentor -- I'd say this is more a study in contrast. Roy does what he does and believes in it deeply, and he's not interested in changing it much.
He's made his bones by sticking with what he believes in when everyone around him kept insisting he needed to change or he'd fail. Instead he's been the class of the modern era, burning through this hot recruiting class after that one, doing what he does, developing players over the long haul and sticking to what he believes in. Unlike some nearby schools.
So, I'll give it to you. On the innovation side of things, Dean wins. But there's something admirable about being old school long past when it was cool to be old school, and kicking ass with it.
Some more points we agree on! This was a closer debate than maybe we expected. But I agree - this is where Dean clearly pulls away. Whether it was the huddling at the free throw line, the tired signal, pointing to the passer, run-n-jump defenses, hoarding timeouts, starting seniors on Senior Night, or the Four Corners offense, Smith’s teams constantly evolved (or forced evolution).
You also hit on an old debate without even realizing it. Some coaches are “system” coaches, and others are not. Dean, for the most part made adjustments to the talent that he had. He even touches on it his book The Carolina Way. Sure, there were some guiding principles that he adhered to - UNC is “Point Guard U” for a reason - but no two teams were truly the same. It’s a major reason I’d still take him over Roy.
However, Roy largely sticks to his system. His three title teams, with slight personnel changes, largely followed similar blueprints. It’s almost as if he has devised a machine that gets the absolute most out of his players, plays to their strengths, but also doesn’t noticeably deviate from year to year.
That may be just as impressive in today’s game when coaches are chasing down the myth of “positionless” basketball while also trying to maintain some semblance of defined structure and more conventional principles. It’s a delicate line to straddle and Roy does it very well. Admittedly, this season will test those theories.
With that delicate truce, I’m not sure there is anything left to debate. I’ll still take Dean. I assume you’ll stick with Roy.
Regardless of our differences, it’s fair to say that we are extremely fortunate to have been born into this particular fandom. We’re just lucky we can even have these conversations. Have I missed anything?
I think that sums it up pretty well. Valiant effort on your part, but I think I’ll stick with Roy. If anyone disagrees, they certainly have more than enough ammunition to supoort those arguments. Now we wait and watch Roy just add to his legacy.
With that, this conversation has reached it’s conclusion. Let us know what these guys got right (and what they got wrong). You can reach Jake on twitter at @therealestrjl. Jay can be found at @burymeinkenan.