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Head to Head: Firing a Winning Coach

Many successful NBA head coaches have been fired in recent years. Is it fair for a winning coach to be let go?

Basketball Insiders



Should a winning team fire their head coach? Nate Duncan and Moke Hamilton discuss:

The decision not to retain a coach is always a difficult one, but becomes especially so when the team has seen some success.  Yet with the departures of George Karl, Lionel Hollins, Vinny Del Negro and Mark Jackson over the last two years, such firings have seemingly become commonplace.  When is such a firing justified?  Here are some questions and guidelines for such a decision.

What is the Coach’s Contract Situation?

Karl and Jackson had one year remaining on their contracts, while Hollins’ had expired when he was not retained.  Coaches’ contracts are typically guaranteed, and ownership often is not happy about having to pay more than one coach at a time, especially for years to come.  Meanwhile, the fact that a coach’s contract is close to expiring can change the calculus.  Instead of a choice between retaining the coach another year and firing him, there may become a (real or perceived) requirement to extend the coach or let him go.  The potential for Karl to agitate for a new deal during the last year of his contract was one reason cited for his firing, and many believe that “lame duck” coaches cannot command the respect of the players. It is certainly to coaches’ advantage to cultivate this perception to encourage a new contract. Many times, management might be willing to give a coach one more year, but committing for multiple years after that is too much when there are potential trouble signs despite a solid record.

Did the Coach Maximize the Team’s Potential?

This inquiry requires a frank assessment of the talent on hand.  For example, the Warriors’ were a very solid third in defense, but 12th in offense on a per possession basis.  The latter mark was a disappointment to many for a team perceived as high-powered offensively.  But, it is worth noting that, as Jeff Van Gundy noted on a recent podcast, defense is generally much more susceptible to improvement via coaching than offense.  A team must perform a deep evaluative dive, examining everything from play calls to defensive breakdowns to individual player improvement over the coach’s tenure to answer this question.

How Important is the Coach to the Team’s Success?

The Warriors again provide a good case study.  How much credit did Jackson deserve for their performance?  In the case of their defense, was the high ranking due simply to acquiring smart, solid defenders, or did Jackson’s schemes and implementation enable that result?  Such an answer requires management to be plugged into the team.  If the coach is just rolling the balls out, never practicing and not really pointing anything out in film sessions, it is hard to give him credit for positive results.  There must be a rational relationship between the coach’s actions and the performance, and only team insiders can truly be in a position to make that call.

What Effect Did Luck Have on the Coach’s Record?

The 2012-13 Grizzlies made the conference finals in what many would have thought a dream season.  Yet it is important to remember that Blake Griffin suffered a high ankle sprain before Game 5 of their series with the Clippers, and Russell Westbrook missed the entire series with the Thunder.  Then the Grizzlies were summarily dispatched by the Spurs in a sweep, although the games were largely close.  Taking that luck into account, perhaps the team’s true quality under Hollins was not what the conference finals appearance would have indicated.Another consideration is injuries. If a coach failed to fulfill expectations because his roster was injured, he deserves to be graded on a curve as well.

How is the Relationship With Management and Ownership?

Jackson’s combative relationship with management was a key aspect in his firing.  It was much the same with Hollins, who by all accounts was not particularly keen on the Grizzlies’ increasing analytic bent.  That sort of relationship is not conducive to success on the floor, but moreover it simply makes coming to work a lot less pleasant for the decision-makers in the organization. Jackson’s apparent refusal to take input and his increasing bunker mentality convinced the Warriors’ front office that not only was the current situation unacceptable, but that it could not be salvaged. On the other hand, a positive relationship with management with open lines of communication may convince the organization that the coach can improve with the assistance of the front office as time goes on, buying him more time.

Don’t Let the Team’s Distant Past Affect the Decision

One argument oft-cited by Warriors fans and Jackson himself justifying his retention was his success compared to the Warriors’ miserable history.  Indeed, this was probably the best Warriors regular season team since 1975-76.  But the fact the Warriors had not been successful until Jackson is ultimately irrelevant.  The fact that the 1999-00 Warriors were awful has nothing to do with whether Jackson should have been retained. Likewise, the Clippers let Del Negro go after the best regular season in franchise history, but were able to secure a clear upgrade in Doc Rivers. The Wizards, another long-downtrodden team, presumably will retain Randy Wittman.  But their awful history prior to his arrival should have no bearing on the decision.

Is a Superior Replacement Available, and What are the Chances of Obtaining One?

This is pretty simple.  The Warriors will look a lot better if they can hire Stan Van Gundy, a coach most would likely perceive as superior to Jackson.  The Grizzlies had someone they deemed an adequate replacement in-house in Dave Joerger.  One would think that firing a winning coach means there are at least some realistic candidates in mind that the team would feel comfortable with.

How Do the Players Feel About Him?

If the franchise players will not vouch for or, even worse, dislike the coach, that will inevitably hasten his departure.  This is especially so if the team in question has a star free agent, or hopes to attract one.  Chris Paul and Del Negro are the perfect example last year.  Paul by all accounts did not stick up for Del Negro, and was instrumental in bringing Doc Rivers to town as a replacement. If a star of Paul’s caliber weighs in and has the leverage of impending free agency, it makes the decision a very easy one.

Is the Team Rebuilding?

Stan Van Gundy by all accounts did a great job in Orlando from an X’s and O’s standpoint, but with the departure of Dwight Howard in the summer of 2012, it was time for Orlando to rebuild and get a more developmental coach who was more in-line with that philosophy. Van Gundy was technically fired before Howard was traded, perhaps as part of a last-ditch effort to appease him, but the handwriting was on the wall. The ultra-competitive Van Gundy would not have worked well with a rebuilding team, and thus it made sense for Orlando to go in another direction.

Would this Coach Get Hired Elsewhere If Fired?

This is a good way to avoid insular thinking by the organization.  Someone like Van Gundy did such a good job in Orlando that he almost certainly could have had a job these last two years had he not chosen to spend more time with his family while still getting paid by the Magic.  On the other hand, Del Negro has gotten nary a sniff despite his outstanding record the year he was fired.  Many could have anticipated those results before they were fired.

In the case of Jackson, he is no lock to obtain another job.  He is not particularly known for any strategic innovations or running a certain system, and the issues between with his assistants and the front office are well-documented.

Generally, if the perception is that a coach will immediately be snapped up by another team, it may be a good idea to reconsider firing him.  If he won’t, then perhaps it makes more sense.

– Nate Duncan

If there has been one fairly consistent theme as it relates to head coaches over the past five years in the NBA, it is that they have become utterly disposable.

In today’s NBA, it seems that head coaches have become victims of a “chicken or the egg theory” as it relates to a successful NBA team.

Is the team successful because of the coach? Or because of the players that the coach has at his disposal?

It is impossible to know for sure, but while firing a successful head coach may fly in the face of the simple concept of fairness, the truth is that a talented team without a hard-working, talented coach is a rudderless ship.

They need one another and either has the option of walking away if they feel that the relationship is not working out, for whatever reason. I am as against firing a successful coach as I am against a coach deciding that he wants out and resigning or otherwise forcing his way out. And both happen in the NBA—it’s life in this league.

Erik Spoelstra could not have led the Miami HEAT to an NBA championship without LeBron James, just like the Dallas Mavericks needed Rick Carlisle to get them to the promised land. Despite having truckloads of talent, Bob Hill could not lead the San Antonio Spurs to an NBA championship—it took Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich.

Before Phil Jackson, neither Kobe Bryant nor Michael Jordan knew what it felt like to be an NBA champion, and even today, Rick Adelman—one of the more underrated coaches over the past 25 years—could not win an NBA championship with Clyde Drexler’s Portland Trail Blazers, Chris Webber’s Sacramento Kings or Yao Ming’s Houston Rockets.

There is nothing wrong with firing a successful head coach so long as he is given a fair opportunity to take his team to the next level and the decision is not made rashly.

But firing a successful head coach is tantamount to opting to allow a young and promising free agent to walk away. If you go that route, you had better be correct.

So now, we wait and see what becomes of the Golden State Warriors.

Mark Jackson’s ouster is especially disconcerting because of the fact that he helped the Warriors improve their win total for three consecutive years and helped the franchise make the playoffs in two consecutive seasons for the first time since 1992.

Fair or not, the head coach has become the fall guy by default. When a team underachieves, general managers are not the first to be blamed for a team’s disappointment. The coach, it is now believed, is the first one that should go and it is an absolute injustice.

As it pertains to firing a winning coach, it is something that should be done only under the most extenuating of circumstances.

As was the case with Vinny Del Negro about one year ago, he had seemingly lost the faith of his star players and it is extremely difficult for any coach to excel under those circumstances. Former NBA Coach of the Year Avery Johnson met the same fate, as his tenures with both the Dallas Mavericks and Brooklyn Nets ended rather abruptly, despite him having relative success with both franchises.

Last season’s Coach of the Year winner, George Karl, was ousted by the Denver Nuggets just months after he led his team to a franchise-best 57-win season.

Most recently, Maurice Cheeks, Mike Woodson and Mark Jackson were let go by the Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks and Golden State Warriors, respectively.

The success that Mike D’Antoni enjoyed with the Phoenix Suns, for example, was it Steve Nash that helped D’Antoni build the reputation as being an offensive mastermind? Or was it D’Antoni’s doing?

Since the separation, both Nash and the Suns have enjoyed some success, but D’Antoni? Though his teams have been devoid of talent and though he failed to fully connect with Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant, his teams simply have not produced on the court.

What his ouster has shown, at least in this contemporary era, is that a talented team can thrive under a talented coach – any talented coach. The recent trend of first-time head coaches getting jobs—some with no prior experience even as an assistant—goes further to prove this.

– Moke Hamilton



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A Breakout Season for Joe Harris

Brooklyn Nets swingman Joe Harris talks to Basketball Insiders about his second chance with the Nets.

David Yapkowitz



The NBA is all about second chances. Sometimes players need a change of scenery, or a coach who believes in them, or just something different to reach their full potential. They may be cast aside by several teams, but eventually, they often find that right situation that allows them to flourish.

Such was the case for Joe Harris. Originally drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the 33rd overall pick in the 2014 draft, Harris rarely saw the court during his time in Cleveland. He averaged about 6.4 minutes per game over the course of about one and a half seasons with the Cavaliers.

During the 2015-16 season, his second in Cleveland, he underwent season-ending foot surgery. Almost immediately after, the Cavaliers traded him to the Orlando Magic in an attempt to cut payroll due to luxury tax penalties. He would never suit up for the Magic as they cut him as soon as they traded for him.

After using the rest of that season to recover from surgery, he would sign with the Brooklyn Nets in the summer of 2016. He had a very strong first season in Brooklyn, but this season he’s truly broken out.

“I think a lot of it has to do with just the right situation in terms of circumstances. It’s a young team where you don’t really have anybody on the team that’s going out and getting 20 a night,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a collective effort most nights and it can be any given person depending on the situation. It’s one of those things where we’re real unselfish with the ball. A lot of guys get a lot of good looks, so your production is bound to go up just because of the system now that we’re playing.”

Known primarily as a sharpshooter in college at the University of Virginia as well as his first stop in Cleveland, Harris has started developing more of an all-around game. He’s improved his ability to put the ball on the floor and make plays as well as crashing the glass and playing strong defense.

In a relatively forgettable season record-wise for the Nets, Harris has been one of their bright spots. He’s putting up 10.1 points per game on 47.3 percent shooting from the field while playing 25.4 minutes per game. He’s up to 40.3 percent from the three-point line and he’s pulling down 3.3 rebounds. All of those numbers are career-highs.

“My role, I think, is very similar to the way I would be anywhere that I was playing. I’m a shooter, I help space the floor for guys to facilitate,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “I’m opportunistic offensively with drives and such. I’m out there to try and space the floor, knock down shots, and then play tough defensively and make sure I’m doing my part in getting defensive rebounds and that sort of stuff.”

Although Harris didn’t play much in Cleveland, he did show glimpses and flashes of the player he has blossomed into in Brooklyn. He saw action in 51 games his rookie year while knocking down 36.9 percent of his three-point attempts.

He also saw action in six playoff games during the Cavaliers’ run to the 2015 Finals. But more importantly, it was the off the court things that Harris kept with him after leaving Cleveland. The valuable guidance passed down to him from the Cavaliers veteran guys. It’s all helped mold him into the indispensable contributor he’s become for the Nets.

“Even though I wasn’t necessarily playing as much, the experience was invaluable just in terms of learning how to be a professional,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “The approach, the preparation, that sort of stuff. That’s why I learned a lot while I was there. All those good players that have had great, great, and long careers and just being able to kind of individually pick their brains and learn from them.”

When Harris came to Brooklyn two years ago, he initially signed a two-year deal with a team option after the first year. When he turned in a promising 2016-17 season, it was a no-brainer for the Nets to pick up his option. Set to make about $1.5 million this season, Harris’ contract is a steal.

However, he’s headed for unrestricted free agency this upcoming summer. Although he dealt with being a free agent before when he first signed with the Nets, it’s a different situation now. He’s likely going to be one of the most coveted wings on the market. While there’s still a bit more of the regular season left, and free agency still several months away, it’s something Harris has already thought about. If all goes well, Brooklyn is a place he can see himself staying long-term.

“Yeah, it’s one of those things that I’ll worry about that sort of decision when the time comes. But I have really enjoyed my time in Brooklyn,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a great organization with a lot of good people, and they try and do stuff the right way. I enjoy being a part of that and trying to kind of rebuild and set a good foundation for where the future of the Brooklyn Nets is.”

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Mock Drafts

NBA Daily: 2018 NBA Mock Draft – 3/20/18

With most of the major NBA draft prospects eliminated from March Madness, things in the mock draft world are starting to get interesting.

Steve Kyler



A Lot of Mock Movement

With the race to the bottom in full swing in the NBA and the field of 64 in college basketball whittled down to a very sweet sixteen, there has been considerable talk in NBA circles about the impending 2018 NBA Draft class. There seems to be a more consistent view of the top 15 to 20 prospects, but there still seems to be a lack of a firm pecking order. Arizona’s Deandre Ayton seems like to the prohibitive favorite to go number one overall, but its far from a lock.

It’s important to note that these weekly Mock Draft will start to take on more of a “team driven” shape as we get closer to the mid-May NBA Combine in Chicago and more importantly once the draft order gets set. Until then, we’ll continue to drop our views of the draft class each Tuesday, until we reach May when we’ll drop the weekly Consensus Mock drafts, giving you four different views of the draft all the way to the final decisions in late June.

Here is this week’s Mock Draft:

Here are some of the pick swaps and how they landed where they are currently projected:

The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this past summer. The Brooklyn Nets traded several unprotected picks to Boston as part of the Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce trades in 2015.

The Philadelphia 76ers are owed the LA Lakers’ 2018 Draft pick, unprotected, as a result of the 2012 Steve Nash trade with the Suns. The Suns traded that pick to the 76ers as part of the Michael Carter-Williams three-team trade with the Milwaukee in 2015. The 76ers traded that pick to the Boston Celtics as part of the draft pick trade that became Markelle Fultz before the draft; it has 2 through 5 protections and based on the standings today would convey to Philadelphia.

The LA Clippers are owed the Detroit Pistons first-round pick in 2018 as a result of the Blake Griffin trade. The pick is top four protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Milwaukee Bucks’ first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick only conveys if the Bucks pick lands between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the standings today would convey.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the current standings.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves’ first-round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Chicago Bulls are owed the New Orleans Pelicans first-round pick as a result of the Nikola Mirotic trade. The pick is top-five protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The LA Lakers are owed the Cleveland Cavaliers first-round pick as a result of Jordan Clarkson/Larry Nance Jr. trade. The pick is top-three protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Jazz/Wolves Ricky Rubio trade this past summer. The Jazz acquired the pick as part of the Thunder’s deal to obtain Enes Kanter in 2015. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors’ first-round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets’ first-round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick is top-three protected and based on the current standings would convey.

Check out the Basketball Insiders’ Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects –

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NBA Daily: Jonathan Isaac Proving to be Key Part of Orlando’s Future

Basketball Insiders spoke with Jonathan Isaac about his rookie season, injuries, areas to improve on, his faith and more.

James Blancarte



On January 13, the Orlando Magic were eliminated from playoff contention. This date served as a formality as the team has known for quite some time that any postseason hopes had long since sailed. The Magic started the year off on a winning note and held an 8-4 record in early November. However, the team lost their next nine games and never really recovered.

Many factors play a role in a young but talented team like the Magic having another season end like this. Injuries to franchise cornerstone Aaron Gordon as well as forward Evan Fournier and forward Jonathan Isaac magnified the team’s issues.

Isaac, a rookie selected sixth overall in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft, started the season off reasonably well. On November 10, in 21 minutes of action, he registered an 11-point, six-rebound, one-assist, one-steal, two-block all-around effort against the Phoenix Suns to help the Magic get to that 8-4 record. Isaac then suffered an ankle injury midway through his next game and wouldn’t play again until December 17, by which time the team was already 11-20 with the season quickly going sideways. From November until March, Isaac would only play in three games until finally returning to consistent action in the month of March with the season all but decided.

Basketball Insiders spoke to Isaac recently to discuss how he has pushed through this season, staying healthy, his impressive skill set and more.

“I’ve had a lot of time off from being injured so, I think my body is holding up fine along with how much I’ve played. I haven’t played a full season,” Isaac told Basketball Insiders “I feel good. I feel good.”

Isaac talked about what part of his game he feels strongly about and has improved on.

“I think defensively,” Isaac said. “I didn’t expect myself to make strides defensively like I have. I’ve been able to just be able to just do different things and help this team defensively and I didn’t expect that coming in so, that would be the one thing.”

Magic Head Coach Frank Vogel was effusive in his praise of Isaac’s defense and also focused on the rookie’s great defensive potential.

“His defense is out of this world. I mean it’s really something else,” Vogel said. “Just watch him play and everybody’s getting a taste of it right now. They haven’t seen him a whole lot but he’s an elite defender right now at 20-years old and the sky’s the limit for what he can be on that end of the floor.

While Isaac hasn’t logged a huge number of minutes on the floor this season, he has impressed in his limited action. As Coach Vogel stated, anyone who has taken the time to watch Isaac play this season has noticed his ability to guard other big men and his overall defensive impact.

“I think I’ve been able to do a good job on most of the people that I’ve had to guard,” Isaac said.

Missing Isaac’s defense impact and overall contributions partially explains why the Magic cooled off after their hot start. However, with the playoffs no longer an option, younger players like Isaac now have the opportunity to play with less attention and pressure. While it can be argued that the Magic aren’t really playing for anything, the truth is these late-season games can be an opportunity to develop these younger players and determine what to work on during the offseason.

There is more to Isaac than just basketball, however. Isaac discussed other parts of his life that are important to him, including religion and his faith.

“[M]y faith in Jesus is something that I put a lot of emphasis on,” Isaac told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a part of me.”

Isaac did not hesitate to credit his faith when asked if it helped him push through his injuries.

“I would say definitely,” Isaac said. “Especially with getting injured so early in the season and being out for 40 games. That’s a lot on somebody’s mental capacity and then just staying positive, staying joyful in times where joy doesn’t seem like it’s the right emotion to have. And I definitely [attribute] that to my faith.”

Looking forward, both Vogel and Isaac discussed the future and what the young big man can improve on.

“Offensively, he’s grown in confidence, he’s gained so he’s going to give us a big lift and our future’s bright with him,” Vogel stated.

Isaac gave a hint of his offseason training plans when asked what he looks forward to working on.

“I would say consistency with my jump shot. Really working on my three-ball and I would say ball-handling,” Isaac stated.

When asked if there was anything more he wanted to add, Isaac simply smiled and said, “Oh no, I think I got to get to church right now,” as the team prepared to play later that evening.

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