The Dizzying Coaching Carousel
June 17, 2013 by Ross Lancaster • Print Story •
Unless you've been living under the world's biggest, sports-free rock, you know that perhaps the most compelling NBA Finals in a generation is currently going on between the Spurs and Heat. It's featured blowouts, last-second heroics, dominant performances, and two teams that seem determined on taking each other's best shot and responding the next night.
With only two possible games remaining as the series heads back to Miami, it's anybody's guess as to how the season will conclude. But whoever wins the title, be it tomorrow night or Thursday, a strong case can be made that the Spurs and the Heat are the two strongest, best run, and most stable organizations in the league, despite all their differences in style and swagger.
In Miami and San Antonio, essentially the same front office management teams have been in place for the last 18 years. Personnel moves under Pat Riley in Miami and R.C. Buford in San Antonio are thought out well in advance with the best interests of the team. If either organization has a large or relative sea change in philosophy, such as the Heat adding LeBron James and Chris Bosh in 2010, or the Spurs beginning to run their offense more through the perimeter three years ago, the team dedicates itself to the change and doesn't change midstream.
So, in the two teams that are still playing as the calendar clicks over to the latter half of June, the other 28 teams have a model to work off of, that smart, consistent management and leadership in coaching and the front office can work wonders and lead to success.
Nearly half of those remaining teams changed their coaches, or will have a new coach by the time the 2013-14 preseason. With the possibility that Doc Rivers might not return to the Celtics, over 40 percent of the league could have a new coach.
Coaching turnover is, of course, understandable in a league like the NBA where the gap in quality from the best teams to the worst teams is perhaps the biggest of any major league (Orlando finished 46 games behind Miami in the East standings this year) and where the vast majority of teams harbor playoff ambitions or greater in a league where about half the teams make the postseason.
However, the most incomprehensible thing about this year's coaching changes is just how many coaches will not return to their teams after having strong or even outstanding seasons. A total of six playoff teams will have new coaches, including three teams in the Nuggets, Grizzlies, and Clippers that had top-six records in 2012-13. When you consider that P.J. Carlesimo won nearly 65 percent of his team's games in charge of the Nets after taking over for Avery Johnson in midseason and was not retained, the number of coaches of top-level teams who were let go grows.
One of these departures was defensible. Vinny Del Negro, despite an excellent record the past two seasons with the Clippers, probably reached his personal ceiling with the team. The former NBA veteran had the services of the league's best pure point guard, a prodigious young talent, and several other productive and talented contributors. However, the team had chemistry issues, and often appeared overmatched against the league's best clubs and coaches.
You can't be nearly as sympathetic about the letting go of both George Karl in Denver and Lionel Hollins in Memphis. Each coach guided their teams to a franchise record in wins in 2012-13, and each coach had a well-defined style that the players embraced and loved playing to. In other words, each coach provided the kind of stability for their organization that helps sustain success in today's NBA.
In a puzzling turn of events, there is a better than zero chance that Hollins and Karl could take over each other's team from 2013. That switcheroo would probably benefit the Grizzlies better than the Nuggets, as Karl has more of a proven track record of adapting his coaching style to his team's personnel than Hollins.
On the other side of the league, well down the standings from 55-win teams like the Nuggets and Grizzlies, there has been a trend for a while that sees rebuilding teams often give up on a coach after one or two years. Then, if those short-term hires follow other short-term coaches, it can lead to a team losing several years in a constant culture of instability.
Take the recent history of the Detroit Pistons, for instance. After making six consecutive Eastern Conference Finals from 2003 to 2008 under Larry Brown and Flip Saunders, the team is now on its fourth coach since 2009. Not coincidentally, the Pistons' last trip to the playoffs (a four-game sweep to LeBron's Cavs) came in 2009. No coach has lasted more than two years in the Motor City since Saunders.
Organizations like the Kings and Bobcats have had similar recent patterns, and have been regulars in the draft lottery.
It's worth mentioning that when Popovich, then San Antonio's GM, hired himself to be the team's head coach early in the 1996-97 season, he promptly went 17-47 for the rest of the year. Spoelstra finished just above .500 his first two years with the Heat, and was bounced from the first round both times. After the team obtained LeBron and Bosh, he was constantly embattled by rumors of Riley swooping in to coach the team, as he did with Stan Van Gundy in 2005.
Coaches don't usually put it all together in their first couple seasons, and organizations with successful teams don't have to change coaches. The league's front offices would be better served to realize both points.