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NBA AM: Is It Time To Fire The Coach?

It’s easy to blame coaches for team struggles, but do they really have the authority you think they do?… Are the Suns gearing up to keep Markieff Morris?

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Coaches Under Fire

One of the things we try to do in this space is clarify processes in the NBA. While there will always be misconceptions, sometimes the real process of how things get done is lost in incorrect beliefs about the process.

One of the biggest examples of this is how fans perceive the power of NBA general managers. While there are a small handful of NBA executives that have autonomy, the large majority answer to someone above them either in a team president role, a CEO role or directly to an owner. Very few are empowered to just make deals on their own and most are the leader of a collaborative process that involves a lot of voices, especially when those decisions involve money or significant roster changes.

This is important to note, because there are a few NBA head coaches that are under fire from their fan base under the misconception that they alone control the roster, which (like the general managers they answer to) is far from the case.

To be clear there are outliers – Gregg Popovich in San Antonio has roster autonomy, but that is because he is Gregg Popovich. The number of coaches that have autonomy is even smaller than the number of GMs that have it.

This becomes important when looking at the situations in Los Angeles with the Lakers and New York with the Knicks.

First, it’s important to state this – Byron Scott was not hired or retained to supervise a ground up rebuild. The hope for Scott was that he would be credible enough to would-be free agents that the Lakers could nab a named guy or two this past summer, pair them with Kobe Bryant and actually compete for something in Bryant’s final year.

That did not work out and even after the Lakers made the Roy Hibbert trade and inked guard Lou Williams and forward Brandon Bass to free agent deals, the hope was still to be in the hunt. Right or wrong, the Lakers have been a little bit in denial about where they truly stand in the grand scheme.

Today there is a better understanding of what’s next for the franchise, and while the Lakers still believe the future of their franchise lies in obtaining a proven star in free agency or trade, there is a sense that a longer rebuild is needed and that Scott may not be the right guy to skipper it. But there is nothing gained making a change this season, mainly because the roster is trapped between two agendas – veterans that can play and young guys that need development time.

This comes to the point. While Scott does have the franchise’s approval to play who he feels he should play, his decisions on playing the young guys from the bench was not made in a vacuum. There have been open discussions with management about how and when to play the rookies and there is a clearly defined plan for them. The young guys are not overly thrilled with the short leash they are on with Scott, but what’s surfaced inside the process is that the idea of just turning the young guys loose hasn’t helped them. The biggest gains and best games have come when the young guys, specifically rookie D’Angelo Russell, were coached more and given more structure.

This runs almost counter to the public perception that Scott is somehow holding the young guys back, when in fact their best games have come in situations where Scott has created structure – something he did not do much of early in the season.

In New York there is a similar theme, that head coach Derek Fisher is the source of the problem and that he is limiting the Knicks because of his rotations and in-game planning. That may well be true, but Fisher is not operating in a vacuum either.

Fisher was hired because Knicks president Phil Jackson viewed him as the best conduit for what Jackson wants to see happen with the Knicks. Fisher just happens to be the instrument of that. Fisher also has a staff of very hands on guys that have been in Jackson’s circle for decades.

It’s easy to blame Fisher for the Knicks’ struggles because he is the face-guy, he is the guy that has to talk to reporters after games, but what’s lost on the Fisher situation is that he is Jackson’s guy and is executing in many ways the plan that Jackson and the entire staff have agreed on.

The Knicks are going nowhere quickly and there is a sense from the fan base that maybe it’s time to focus on the future and let the young guys like guard Langston Galloway and rookie Jerian Grant play a bigger role. The problem is the Knicks, much like the Lakers, are not ready to concede the season. Again, right or wrong, the Knicks view themselves as a team that could turn the corner and get in the playoffs. As things stand today the Knicks are roughly five games out of the playoff picture; their view is that a small trade or someone meeting the challenge could swing them in the right direction.

The last part of both situations is the notion that firing either guy would change anything.

In LA, the Lakers are transitioning out of the Kobe Bryant era and changing the coach isn’t going to change the way Kobe is used in his swan song season. The Lakers from the top down wouldn’t sign off on it. So if nothing is really going to change on the court, why fire Scott who is doing basically what he was asked to do? It might make fans feel better to see Scott gone, but the truth is outside of a few guys wanting bigger roles, the roster is OK with Scott and the season is not going to change much.

Sources close to the process say that Scott’s job will be evaluated after the season and if it is deemed a change is needed it would happen then, and allow the Lakers to do a full and complete search for the right guy for the next part of the rebuild.

As for the Knicks, as much as fans are crying for Fisher’s head, he is simply the face guy of a process. The next guy on the bench isn’t going to change the process. There is a sense that maybe Knicks assistant Kurt Rambis could do a better job, however given how his run with the Timberwolves went, is he really a better guy for the team or simply a different guy?

The problem with the Knicks is they are underachieving on a lot of fronts and that may have more to do with the systemic things they are being asked to do or worse yet the construct of the roster.

None of those issues change if Fisher is replaced. That’s not to say that Jackson won’t be pressured into a change in the offseason – keep in mind Jackson himself signed a five-year deal in March of 2014, so this season would mark the third season of the experiment. Given Knicks owner James Dolan’s history with patience, Jackson’s run of total autonomy over the Knicks might not last if he sticks to his guns on Fisher as head coach if the Knicks fail to reach the postseason.

It is easy to buy into the idea of a coach having total roster authority, the truth is most of them do not – especially when it comes to significant franchise pieces.

The majority of general managers travel with their teams and are involved in the entire game process, including coaching meetings. Very few major roster decisions are reached without the GM being involved. That’s not to say GMs are micro-managing the process, but to believe that a coach is running is team without input from above is a little misplaced. It’s a far more collaborative process than gets reported.

Morris’ Future in Phoenix

The Phoenix Suns are reportedly prepared to bring Markieff Morris back into the fold after suspending him for two games due to the big man throwing a towel at head coach Jeff Hornacek. However, before doing that, it’s been reported by Yahoo’s Marc Spears that the franchise is expecting a verbal apology from Morris to not only the coaching staff but also to the team. Furthermore, the Suns are said to want Morris to recommit to the team in how he will handle himself in games, practice and in conditioning and treatment sessions.

Sources close to the process say that while trading Morris is still an option, the team understands how low his trade value is right now and that moving him would return very little value or – worse yet – contracts that would eat into the Suns expected $20 million in 2016 salary cap space in July.

As things stand today the Suns understand that in order to get anything for Morris he has to play better and resolve some of the issues surrounding him.

Morris’ name has been linked to a number of situations, but one team that as been named as having interest in Morris bluntly said that the teams and players out there are more like Phoenix’s wish list for Morris than anything that’s likely to happen.

Sources close to the Suns’ thinking said that the team is prepared to give Morris a chance to reclaim some minutes and help the team; however if there is another issue, the Suns have apparently made it clear they would have no issues suspending Morris for a longer period or sending him home if he continues to be a distraction to the team.

Based on how the Suns are approaching the Morris situation, it does not seem like a posture a team would take if they were ready to make a trade. The Suns seem like a team that is resigned to the fact that Morris may not be nearly as tradable today and they may be stuck with him for the foreseeable future.

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Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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