Is it time for drone coaching in the NBA and MLB?

The New York Knicks are one of the worst teams in the NBA. They’re in desperate need of many things, including a great coach who can successfully explain the complex offensive system they’ve tried (without success) to implement. The good news is they have the greatest coach in NBA history on the payroll. The bad news is he doesn’t coach, because he doesn’t want the wear and tear associated with an NBA travel schedule. In August 2010, baseball’s Chicago Cubs had a similar problem with Lou Piniella, who resigned to take care of his 90 year-old mother.

Pro sports are a grind. Intense hours, incredible pressure and brutal travel. As someone who racked up close to 3 million air miles in a 30 year career, I can attest to the fact that even luxury travel is exhausting, lonely and unpleasant. Private jets and limo coaches can only do so much. Being stuck on a runway for weather for and getting to the hotel a few hours before it’s time to go to work sucks no matter what plane you ride in.

Even football is intense enough that veterans walk away from millions to just to avoid the travel grind, as Kyle Orton did this year. “I just have been going at it for 10 years and it’s just a family decision and I’ve decided to get home and be a dad and call it a day,” Orton said to the team’s website. “Anytime you have a chance to end on a good note and go home and spend time with family that’s really important to me and my wife and we’re just excited to move on.” Baseball and basketball are much worse, with up to 55 out of town games in an 8 month season for basketball, and 90 for baseball in a similar time period.

Maybe it’s time we think about letting drones coach.

Think about the way a drone works. An unmanned aerial vehicle operates in a combat zone, but is controlled by someone sitting in a control room many thousands of miles away. Air Force pilots drop bombs in Afghanistan, but sit in a trailer near Las Vegas, and leave in time to make Little League practice. It’s 9 to 5 war.

There’s no reason not to do the same thing with sports. Think about it. Phil Jackson could coach the Knicks in person during all of their home games and during their “local” rivalry road games, Philadelphia, Washington, Boston and Brooklyn. That’s fifty games a year. For the remaining thirty two road games, the Knicks could use a “road coach,” e.g., the current full time coach Derek Fischer. They could video conference at half-time. That way Jackson avoids the burden of travel, the team learns from an all-time great, and Fischer still gets to hone his craft as a coach. Working through the numbers, that could mean as many as ten extra wins in a season, the difference between making the playoffs and not making the playoffs. Allegedly, Jackson floated a similar idea to the Lakers a few years ago without success.

You could take it even further in baseball, where due to the slow pace of the game, a remote manager could in essence make all the necessary decisions, relaying them to the bench coach via headset. (Indeed, that’s what essentially happens today in some situations. When a manager gets thrown out of a game, he simply goes back to the clubhouse, turns on the TV, and calls his bench coach on the phone.) It’s harder to see it taking hold in sports like soccer, hockey and football, where arguably there’s too much going on to follow it on the screen.

But never say never. There will come a time when all commercial and military vehicles are controlled automatically or remotely, planes, trains, and automobiles. And probably trucks, too.

After all, a coach stands just as much chance of controlling recently departed gunner J.R. Smith from a thousand miles away as he does from six feet.

Categories: Sports

2 replies »

  1. Damn. I thought there were going to be actual drones.

    Also, if you’re the Knicks, ten wins a season isn’t the difference between making the playoffs or not, it’s the difference between being next to last and being next to last by ten fewer games.

  2. Yeah, I trolled a bit with that hed. But to be honest, you could replace the coach of the new york knicks with an old style boom box with a tape loop. “Shoot Melo! Somebody please play defense. Shoot Melo! Somebody please play defence.”

    It’s the East, I’m not sure Jackson couldnt get them to the playoffs.