For as long as we can remember, head coaches and job security have become a combination seldom seen in today’s NBA. The likes of Terry Porter and Maurice Cheeks stand in rare company as coaches who were fired after less than one season on the job—Porter with the Phoenix Suns in 2009 and Cheeks with the Detroit Pistons in 2014. Since then, more head coaches have been hired and fired than one would ever want to count. For perspective, though, consider the following: once next season begins, at least 25 NBA teams will have changed coaches since 2013.
Said differently, across the entire league, only five head coaches have managed to last three or more seasons with their current team. The complete list is as follows: Gregg Popovich (1996), Erik Spoelstra (2008), Rick Carlisle (2008), Dwane Casey (2011) and Terry Stotts (2012).
The contemporary NBA team changes it head coach the way NBA players change their sneakers, and now it has reached the ridiculous point to where seemingly winning doesn’t even protect a head coach anymore. Tom Thibodeau was the the most recent example of an excellent coach whose productive output couldn’t save him, and this past week, we saw Frank Vogel and Dave Joerger join the ranks of the unemployed after Vogel’s contract wasn’t extended by the Indiana Pacers and Joerger was fired by the Memphis Grizzlies.
It seems as though NBA front offices have recently forgotten the most important concept as it relates to assembling a winner: it starts at the top.
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The term “creature of habit” would be an appropriate synonym for “NBA player,” because most of these guys are machines. If you had an opportunity to hang out and converse with your favorite NBA players, you would probably be surprised to hear that Player A has a pair of lucky socks that he wears for every home game or that Player B eats the same meal prior to each game. Some players shoot the same number of jump shots from a particular place on the floor prior to a game while others are remarkably consistent with dietary habits and exercise regimens.
Why then, has the modern NBA front office seemingly lost all patience with the idea of marrying itself to a head coach? Once upon a time in the NBA, the head coach was considered to be the personality of the team in the same regard that Mike Krzyzewski is Duke.
Once upon a time, the general manager of an NBA team was married to his head coach, for better or worse. Yet today, we see coaches removed quicker than Stephen Curry can pull up in transition. What isn’t lost on me is that the teams that tend to perform better are those that have been together for a while. In more recent years, we have seen the likes of Steve Kerr and David Blatt (although he himself has since been removed) come in and immediately have success. What has been lost, apparently, on NBA front offices, though, is that these gentleman are the exception and not the rule. And specifically as it relates to Thibodeau, Vogel and Joerger, the three seemed to have been sabotaged by the very front offices under whom they served. What each of the three have in common is that while their rosters got weaker, they got stronger. As they saw talent walk out through the door, they refused to accept anything less than 100 percent from those that were within earshot.
Still, remarkably, they each found themselves unemployed due to issues not seemingly related to what they were able to help produce on the court.
Expectations are a helluva thing and while it should be pointed out that Shaquille O’Neal’s Lakers needed Phil Jackson to help them get over the top the same way Chauncey Billups’ Pistons needed Larry Brown to do the same for them, a team without a consistent voice and one that is supported by the front office will always come up short. In today’s NBA, the head coach needs to be treated more like a necessary part of the team than an inconvenient spare tire that is tossed aside as soon as he hits a pothole. Not every team has a superstar, but each team should build itself and its offensive system around the top player on its roster. The head coach should be the one to determine who that individual is and it is he who should help the general manager build a team and a system that, in the long run, has an opportunity to be successful.
When Jason Kidd was hired by the Brooklyn Nets, the ink on his retirement papers was still wet. I remember having a conversation with a former NBA head coach who was not coaching at the time and he told me that he wasn’t a bit surprised by the move. According to him, Kidd’s hiring was merely an indicator of the diminution of the perceived value of a head coach. In hindsight, asking Kidd to coach a team featuring Deron Williams, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Joe Johnson seemed doomed from the beginning. According to this former head coach, the prevailing sentiment and ideology amongst front offices back then was that anyone could coach. It seems that the sentiment remains.
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If we didn’t all make mistakes, then pencils wouldn’t have erasers. Front offices make mistakes with free agent signings, with draftees and certainly with head coaching hires. But we have officially reached the point of ridiculousness somewhere over the course of the past year. Apparently, now, not even winning can keep a head coach in a job, and when that begins to become the norm in the NBA, that’s scary. In professional sports, winning should be the bottom line, but we are now reaching the point where politics, minute restrictions and insecurities are leading to capable leaders being shown the door.
If you give a head coach a contract, you should honor it. Back in 2012, Avery Johnson was fired by the Brooklyn after turning in a 14-14 record over the course of the season’s first 28 games. Johnson took the Brooklyn job having compiled a 264-194 record, which yields of win percentage of .735. He endured some long seasons in New Jersey as the team bided its time prior to the move to Brooklyn, and in the end, after being given rosters devoid of talent and being forced to try to make things work with the trades his front office was pulling off, Johnson got a whole 28 games from his bosses. How kind of them.
Double standards are nothing new in the NBA, but here’s an idea: what if a general manager were only allowed to hire two head coaches over the course of his entire tenure? Because the truth of the matter is that if you scour the league, you will find many more inept general managers holding on to jobs for much longer than they should than you will find a head coach who doesn’t know what he’s doing. And if you, as a general manager, change head coaches as often as you change your underwear, it means that you lack one of the requirements necessary for being a good general manager—choosing a good head coach.
Coaching is one of the most underrated, under-appreciated professions in all of pro sports. You have to not only endure the same travel and scheduling limitations as the players, you spend your off time planning for them and trying to find ways to get them over the top. It’s tough business, and what’s most unfortunate about it is that the trend that we are now seeing is one that says that even success in this role isn’t enough to keep a man in a job.
Let’s hope that moving forward, we will begin seeing the same sort of standard applied to the likes of general managers and team presidents, because mind you, even David Kahn of the Minnesota Timberwolves lasted four years on the job.
And if you think something is wrong with that—you’re right.
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