The first explanation we seek when something goes wrong is from the person in charge, a natural level of responsibility for a leader.
A car crashes, who was driving?
Plane falls out of the sky, who was the captain?
Train goes off the tracks, who was the conductor?
Coaches love to compare themselves to these kinds of engineers, guiding their teams down the road, through the sky, or along the tracks, pulling just-the-right levers at just-the-right time to give their team the edge towards victory.
Remember the time David Blatt compared himself on the sidelines to a fighter pilot, frantically making split second life-or-death decisions? And we all laughed and then LeBron fired him?
The reality of coaching in the NBA (I think) is a much slower paced, less glorious existence that balances tantalizingly on the cliff of the context that surrounds the job.
82 games is a long time, and each season is the result of years of plans (and foiled plans) that funneled together to create the unique circumstances for that season.
The Lakers didn’t just stumble into LeBron James and Anthony Davis (although they did maybe kind of stagger into it), they drafted assets and interesting young players, cleared cap space for LeBron, then transferred to the assets to the New Orleans Pelicans for Davis.
Even the bad teams, like the New York Knicks or Charlotte Hornets, are the end results of years of mismanagement, not one split second decision by a coach.
What if the Knicks don’t re-sign Carmelo to a max in 2014 (or don’t trade for him in the first place? Or use the amnesty on Amar’e Stoudemire instead of Chauncey Billups)?
What if the Hornets hit on literally any draft pick during the Kemba Walker years?
So really, when you combine these two things; first the prior circumstances that helped to shape today’s team, then the team’s current performance, you begin to get a clearer understanding of what an NBA coach is all about.
The evaluation can’t be a night-to-night, but it should be based on an extended body of work.
Why then, not even a month into this very young, very new NBA, do teams already find themselves questioning their head coach’s position?
The phenomena of “we started 3-7, or 2-8, or whatever it might be, it must be the coaches fault and we need a spark,” has never really caught on with me.
It’s a myth that these teams off to slow starts are in need of a simple “spark,” a Pat Riley type-figure to get the ducks in order and get things moving positively.
The Godfather took over after Stan Van Gundy stepped down from the Miami Heat head coach mantle in December of 2005.
Riley, already referred to as “Coach” by most people in the organization (or as “The Great Pat Riley” by Shaq), took over an 11-10, injury plagued team that was severely underperforming.
You know the story: Riley provides the “spark,” the Heat finish the remainder of the season 41-20, and Dwyane Wade has one of the best NBA Finals performances of all-time to beat the Dallas Mavericks and Dirk Nowitzki for Miami’s first championship.
Typically when teams get off to bad starts, it’s just because they’re bad, not because there is a guru waiting to spark them, or two of the top 50 players of all-time on the roster.
There are dozens and dozens of examples frantic front offices panicking and implementing “the spark” strategy. A random one:
The Wizards got off to a 13-19 start in 1998 before firing head coach Bernie Bickerstaff and naming Jim Brovelli his interim, who promptly went 5-13 in the strike-shortened season.
The following year, Gar Heard was brought in as head coach and made it only slightly longer than Bickerstaff, going 14-30 before being ousted by Michael Jordan in favor of Darrell Walker, who went 15-23 to close the year.
It doesn’t matter if Jesus Christ himself was drawing up out of bounds plays on the sideline, those Wizards teams weren’t winning with those rosters (although the Mitch Ritchmond-Rod Strickland duo might have worked a few years prior), or the coaches on that bench.
So why does it matter that they flew through four coaches in two seasons, if they were likely destined to lose anyway?
Because what the hell were Jim Brovelli and Darrell Walker supposed to do in the interim role!?
The interim head coach tag is the equivalent of hitting pause on your franchise for the remainder of the season. No, it’s the equivalent of saying you don’t drink soda because you only drink Diet-Coke.
Guess what, that’s still soda!
Do you think Brovelli is running anything different than Bickerstaff was, or that Walker (a total unknown to coaching and picked by Michael Jordan off a golf course, yes, really) was going to be able to grab a team by the nuts for a few months and get them locked in? Because I sure don’t.
Even before Sunday news conference, Knicks president Steve Mills had started to lay internal groundwork for the eventual ouster of coach David Fizdale. ESPN story with @malika_andrews: https://t.co/FqJY7v6WxW
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) November 11, 2019
All the young guys on the team go into a kind-of purgatory, while all the old guys just roll their eyes and start thinking of the offseason. Not to mention you just flushed multiple offseason’s of planning down the drain entirely.
And guess what, the team stays terrible! Everyone just stops moving until the offseason, because how can you possibly remain present when you know people probably aren’t going to be there in 8 months?
(Let the record show the Wizards love the early firing panic move. They did it again in 2008 after a 1-10 start from Eddie Jordan, replacing him with interim Ed Tapscott because Ed is obviously more serious than Eddie.
Tapscott predictably didn’t save the mess, went 18-53 the remainder of the season and was replaced by Flip Saunders… who had back-to-back losing seasons before the Wizards canned him early on in year number three after a 2-15 start. Okay, maybe the Flip firing was justified).
The league’s basement is historically littered with teams that fly through coaches during the season.
- Clippers fire Jim Lynam for interim, eventual replacement Don Chaney halfway through 1984-85.
- Clippers fire Gene Shue for interim, eventual replacement Don Casey halfway through 1988-89 (Did Donald Sterling hire coaches just because they were named Don)?
- Clippers fire Mike Schuler halfway through 1991-92 for one season of Larry Brown before he gets the hell out of there.
- Nets fire Dave Wohl for Willis Reed in 1987-88, Reed bolts after a year.
- Knicks, (pick one), but my favorite is Derek Fisher for Kurt Rambis.
- Cavs fire Bill Musselman and replace him with general manager Don Delaney in 1980-81. Delaney started the following season as head coach before Chuck Daly was hired to finish the season…let’s see how that goes….
- Cavs fire Chuck Daly in 1981-82, just 41 games after signing him. He is replaced by…BILL MUSSELMAN! Cavs owner Ted Stepien said about his new/old head coach, “I never realized what a great job Bill did!” Musselman went 25-46 during his first stint with the club, and 2-21 during his second. He was replaced again during the 1982 offseason.
Those teams were bad before they fired their coach, and were always going to be bad after it.
The most likely result of your team firing its coach midseason is a sort-of residual effect that bleeds into following seasons. It’s not a spark on a dying fire, it’s a blanket on it.
There are, it should be noted, a handful of the mid-season coaching moves actually working outside of the famous Riley-Van Gundy swap., most of which sharing similar details. A couple notable ones:
The Supersonics did it in 91-92, with KJ Jones being replaced by George Karl, who promptly delivered seven consecutive winning seasons, acting as the perfect temperament for high intensity players like Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp who needed an equally fired up coach to get through to them.
Karl, in fact, is perhaps the best mid-season coach money can buy. He did it again in 2004-05 when the Nuggets brought him in to replace Jeff Bzdelik and interim Michael Cooper, who went 13-15 and 4-10 respectively before Karl was hired.
The Nuggets finished the season 32-8 and went on to have eight consecutive winning seasons under Karl, who became best friends with Kenyon Martin during the time period.
Some more successes quickly, because I am FAIR AND BALANCED:
- Frank Vogel replaces Jim O’Brien for the Indiana Pacers in 2010-11, two ensuing Eastern Conference Finals trips.
- Mike Woodson replaces Mike D’Antoni for the New York Knicks in 2011-12, leads to the greatest Knicks team since (and for the forseeble future) the following year.
- Gregg Popovich replaces Bob Hill, can’t remember what team, in 1996-97, never heard from again.
- Lionel Hollins replaces Marc Iavaroni for the Memphis Grizzlies, created Grit N’ Grind.
- Ty Lue replaces Flyboy David Blatt for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2015-16, immediately wins a championship.
The common thread: A) These teams already had talent or B) The coach was a genuine top tier coach.
By and large, most teams are operating without the first, which leads to a lot of shuffling around in search of the second.
Vogel walked into the last perfect team of its era with Roy Hibbert and Paul George, Woodson had Carmelo still in his prime, Pop had Duncan and Robinson and his own brain, Hollins had Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, Ty Lue of course had LeBron.
The formula generally even holds true going further back down the timeline:
- Rick Adelman replaces Mike Schuler for the Portland Trailblazers in 1988-89, two Finals trips and six winning seasons.
- Lenny Wilkins replaced Bob Hopkins for the Seattle SuperSonics in 1977-78, wins one Finals, loses another, and the Sonics are winners for six of the next seven years.
- Doug Moe replaces Donnie Walsh for the Denver Nuggets in 1980-81, make the playoffs for the next nine years.
Again, these are all fairly unique circumstances for a coach to step into.
Adelman got to be the good cop as opposed to his predecessor’s bad cop for Clyde Drexler in his prime, Wilkins was like an early version of Riley – already in the building as director of player personnel and well respected for his past time served, and Moe oversaw stacked Denver rosters for a decade.
These are pretty much the furthest possible scenario’s you can get from the Clippers’ Sterling era, or Musselman’s Cavs.
(one last Musselman fun-fact for the road: his son, Eric, is the current head basketball coach at the University of Arkansas, now you know).
Too often does a teams’ firing of its coach during the season feel like a desperate shot into the dark rather than any type of a strategic move either for the present or the future. The move has to focus on moving towards the future rather than simply escaping the past and buying yourself a little bit of time.
I’d like to see coaches like Scott Brooks for the Wizards and David Fizdale for the Knicks get to work out their teams through a whole season before judging their ability to connect.
I guess what I’m saying is that if the point of losing in today’s NBA is to get prepared for when you have the assets to win, firing your coach midseason is typically a bad way to do that. And history proves it.
I mean, do the Wizards or Knicks making a move now actually benefit the Rui Hachimura’s, Admiral Schofield’s, Kevin Knox’s or RJ Barrett’s on either team?
I don’t see any compelling evidence to feel that it will, but it will at least make everyone feel good about themselves for a minute.