At this point in the NBA season, it’s pretty common to hear fans of poorly performing teams ask, “Why haven’t we fired this guy yet?” Whether that is a poorly performing coach, a struggling front office or even players on the roster that may not be living up to expectations, the questions persist.
While few positions in the NBA last forever, there is a process to all of it that is easy to overlook. In many cases, the writing is on the wall is easy to see in some of the situations, but despite that transparency, pulling the trigger is often strategic.
For the front office, does a team want to gut its process mid-season if meaningful change is not possible? The best time to make organizational change is in the off-season. That’s when team ownership can dig into a proper search. Unless there is an obvious choice from the assistant-GM circle, few teams can gain the permissions necessary in-season to really look at the entire field.
While it’s a common practice in the front office world to never stand in the away of advancement, there are hurdles teams have to clear to meet with and ultimately hire someone working for another team. There have been cases where that’s been allowed: The Nets, for example, secured Sean Marks from the Spurs mid-season last year, but that’s usually the outlier.
Changing a front office is a big undertaking. The staff in place are often part of the reason for the change, so it’s not just hiring a new leader – it’s replacing a big chunk of the support staff too.
This is the same issue with head coaches. Often when a head coach is replaced, it is when it is deemed that the situation cannot be salvaged. That often results in an assistant coach being tapped as the interim, and that usually happens when the season is deemed lost.
Like front office searches, finding a new head coach usually requires a lengthy search and interview process that is best accomplished during the off-season. That’s when the widest field is typically available, and affords the new incoming coach a chance to not only field a proper coaching staff, but the time to have some influence on roster-building and install new things in the summer months.
As for swapping players, it’s easy to say, “We should trade this guy.” But the truth is, a trade is a two-sided proposition. While you may be ready for change, that does not mean your counterpart is. That’s the art of the deal, finding a trade partner aligned with your timeline. Teams spend a significant amount of time prospecting for trade options, most of which they do not execute on. So while there is often a lot of activity around trade talks, getting a team to consummate one is tough.
Most teams are motivated by deadlines, which is why you see more transactions around the trade deadline, the free agency window and the NBA Draft than any other time. There is a line that cannot be crossed, and it forces decisions.
Not only is a trade disruptive to team chemistry, there is a human element that’s easy to forget about. New players have to acclimate to new living conditions, find practice time, learn plays and fit into established processes. Not all players can do that quickly, and many teams hold off on trades if they are not sure it improves the situation. Change for change’s sake is not something teams look to unless the culture of the team requires it.
Another element is where the team is in the standings. This year there are five teams in the Eastern Conference (Milwaukee, Detroit, New York, Orlando, and Philadelphia) within six games of the eight seed. The right mix of wins and losses with roughly 38-40 games to play could change the field dramatically. In the West, all seven teams currently out of the playoff picture (Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, Dallas, Minnesota, LA Lakers, and Suns) are within five games of the eight seed.
Some teams may view the small gap as the reason to trigger a trade to improve, while others may see the difference as a reason to stay the course. Staying the course is often a known quantity, while trades can just as easily destroy a team as reinforce it. Because the gap is so small, most teams are not willing to blow up a team within reach of a playoff berth. Coaches or executives on the bubble need the playoffs to secure their future a lot more than a potential draft pick.
It is easy to say from afar that a team should fire a coach or executive or trigger a trade to rip a team apart for the future, but it’s another thing for the ownership and management of a specific team to green light that, especially with what’s often at stake in the grand scheme. Botching a trade could see a general manager fired, and botching a coaching change could end up the same way.
Keep in mind the people making the call on trades, coaching changes and executive changes have skin in the game, usually their own. There are long-reaching consequences for overreacting or being too quick to pull the trigger.
Historically, there are no quick fixes in sports. Usually, when teams make reactionary decisions, they pay for them long after those decisions are made. So, when you ask, “Why haven’t we fired this guy yet?”, keep in mind it’s a complicated decision and one that most teams won’t make on a whim, even if it’s obvious from the outside that a change needs to be made.
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