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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?

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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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