Why being an NBA head coach might be the most thankless job in pro sports
While I watched members of the Orlando Magic sit in a crowded room for the NBA Draft Lottery in May with the worst record in the league (20-62) and the best chance of earning the top pick in the draft, I thought about the last time I had seen this movie play out for Orlando back in 2004. They had finished only one game better than the 2012-13 team at 21-61. The Magic still had a hobbled Grant Hill making max money on their dime, had just traded disgruntled superstar Tracy McGrady to the Houston Rockets in a trade, and had fired a coach earlier in the season after he started the season a miserable 1-10. That coach’s name was Doc Rivers. Four years later, Doc Rivers was an NBA Championship coach while the Magic unceremoniously ran another coach, Stan Van Gundy, out of town in 2012 thanks to the egotistical Dwight Howard.
Then I remembered the guy who coached the Magic at one point between Rivers’ and Van Gundy’s tenures. It was Brian Hill, and his story was even more of a cautionary tale than the other two. Hill had been the head coach for the Magic from 1993 to 1997 during the days of Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway, a young and talented inside-outside duo that was sweeping the nation. Two years into the era of Shaq and Penny, the Magic were in the NBA Finals after becoming only the second team in NBA history to eliminate the Chicago Bulls when Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson were at the lead. They were promptly swept by the Houston Rockets in the Finals, but the future could not have been any brighter in Disney country for the NBA. They even went 60-22 the next season under Hill before facing off against a rejuvenated and reloaded Bulls team that had just finished 72-10. It was supposed to be an epic clash between the new kings versus the elder statesmen in the league. And then it got ugly.
The Bulls put on a sweep of the Magic that hurt the team infinitely more than the loss to the Rockets the year before ever could. Chicago clinched the series in Orlando’s building, firmly dominated them in three of the four games, and also convinced a young and reaching-his-prime Shaq Attack to pack his bags, move over to the Western Conference, and sign a lucrative deal with the Los Angeles Lakers. The Magic fans were shell shocked, to say the least. They had gone from being the next big thing in the NBA to just another team in one year. Halfway through the 1996-97 season, the team’s first without Shaq, Hardaway grew tired of Hill’s demands under the stress of a 24-25 record and made a demand of his own to the Magic ownership: Fire Hill or trade me. Within days, Hill was gone.
If you want to delve into the conundrum of NBA coaching and its immediate pitfalls under the weight of heavy and unreasonable expectations, the Magic’s coaching history is a good place to start. Brian Hill was one series away from winning an NBA Championship, then two years later he was damaged goods. They rode out four decent but forgettable seasons under Doc Rivers, only to dismiss him in a vain attempt to appease McGrady. All the while, Rivers helped turned the Boston Celtics into a title contender once again. The Magic got back to the Finals in 2009 under Van Gundy, only to fire him right before letting their best player walk away, for the third time in 16 years. The message is steady and it is more prevalent than ever in the last few months in the NBA coaching ranks: Get your shit together, or get your bags packed.
The job hunting waters are always fairly hot in the summer for NBA head coaching vacancies, but this year, they are flat out blazing. There are going to be 13 new head coaches in November, more at one time than any previous season. The Celtics, Nets, 76ers, Bucks, Pistons, Cavaliers, Hawks, Bobcats, Nuggets, Clippers, Kings, Suns, and Grizzlies are all hiring new voices for the bench. The most telling statistic of this recent rash of “Help Wanted” signs in the front of NBA organizations is the fact that 7 of the 13 teams with new head coaches reached the postseason last year, one of which made the Western Conference finals. I am not even counting the fragile nature of Mike D’Antoni’s employment with the Los Angeles Lakers. Three of the teams won 56 games or more, which goes to show that even having a great regular season doesn’t guarantee you anything if you’re the one holding the clipboard when the horn sounds. P.J. Carlesmo went 35-19 as the interim coach of the Brooklyn Nets before going seven games against the Chicago Bulls in the playoffs, and he got his pink slip the next day. There is an inside joke in the league that winning the Coach of the Year award is a kiss of death because most coaches who win the award are fired within two years. The higher the stakes, the more it hurts when a star player gets eliminated in the playoffs, and God help your coach if the star player feels like he was wronged in the process.
Just ask Vinny Del Negro. The Los Angeles Clippers had their best season in franchise history under him, and after being eliminated in the first round by the Memphis Grizzlies and a suspected “pow wow” by superstar free-agent-to-be Chris Paul, Del Negro was shown the door by the owner. Now even owner Donald Sterling, who has been well known for being tight on the wallet, has gotten in on the title chasing action by snagging Rivers away from Boston to coach the Clippers on a 3-year, $21-million deal after more than a few organizations sought out his services. Before you knew it, the Celtics went from being a perennial playoff team to a team in rebuilding mode, with the construction hat being worn by a fresh face in Butler University head coach Brad Stevens. In 2004, Rivers’ coaching status was so toxic after the Magic dumped him that he took an announcing job at ESPN for the remainder of the season in case he could not find an opening in the summer. Nine years later, he was the most sought after coach on the open market since Phil Jackson. I wonder what Del Negro is thinking right now.
The Grizzlies did the Clippers one better by letting go of Lionel Hollins just weeks after winning two playoff series. The dismissals of Hollins and Nuggets coach George Karl were the easiest to figure out from a fiscal perspective. Karl, who had just been won the Coach of the Year award, was going into the last year of his deal while Hollins’ deal expired and both teams scoffed at expensive contract extensions in favor of finding a new voice. The Nuggets looked outside and hired Brian Shaw from the Pacers while the Grizzlies promoted lead assistant Dave Joerger to the top spot. But as good as that sounds in the spin cycle, it is quickly trumped by the overall stupidity of both moves. The Nuggets have only reached the playoffs once since 1994 without Karl at the helm, and now they have to figure out how to win a playoff series without him? The Grizzlies have never won a single postseason game that Hollins didn’t coach for them, and now they want to get to the NBA Finals without him? That is a stretch both ways, to say the least.
The volatility of NBA head coaching changes goes beyond old mantras like “Be careful what you wish for” or “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Some hirings and firings make so little sense, like the Nuggets and Grizzlies’ current situations, that owners and GM’s simply cross their fingers and hope that it works. As nonsensical as the moves can be, the path of righteousness is more linear than we are led to believe. It works in all professional sports. The way the owner keeps the fans happy is by winning, and doing it consistently. The way the GM keeps the owner happy is by maintaining solid rosters top lined by superstar talent. But most importantly of all, the way the coach keeps everyone happy is by putting the best players in a comfort zone and motivating them to play at a peak level at the right time. And that is where the NBA deviates from all other pro sports. In baseball, football, and hockey, GM’s and coaches/managers are usually emperors for the day. In the NBA, players (and their sizeable guaranteed contracts) rule the roost. That’s the ultimate downfall of the head coach in the NBA. He has to keep everyone happy, especially the players.
We have seen every coaching movement in the book to make stars happy in the last decade or so outside of females coaching NBA players (And trust me, more than a few teams considered hiring Pat Summitt long ago). The most common ones are the lead assistants or protégés getting their shot at the brass ring, like Maurice Cheeks taking over for the Pistons after being a top aide for the Thunder. The San Antonio Spurs will be losing two key assistants this offseason as Mike Budenholzer takes over as the head coach for the refurbished Atlanta Hawks and Brett Brown will do the same for the rebuilding Philadelphia 76ers. The next popular pick is selecting defensive gurus like Tom Thibideau in Chicago or, to mention a failed attempt, Scott Skiles in Milwaukee.
But the styles of coaching do not end there. There was Seven Seconds or Less in Phoenix and there was Grit n’ Grind in Memphis. Phil Jackson won 11 titles with the Triangle offense, Erik Spoelstra won two titles playing small ball, and Rick Carlisle won a title playing zone defense! There are the three-pointer-reliant offenses like Kevin McHale’s with the Houston Rockets and Mike Woodson’s with the New York Knicks. We have seen coaches change their philosophies as they go along (How different are Gregg Popovich’s Spurs then and now?). We have seen college coaches like Stevens and Mike Dunlap, retired players like Jason Kidd, and guys who dabbled in announcing like Rivers and Mark Jackson get cracks at it. We have even seen reunions like Brian Hill in Orlando and, next season, Mike Brown going back to Cleveland only three years after the Cavs firmly dismissed him in a vain attempt to keep LeBron James from leaving (Sounds familiar?).
I am not sure if being an NBA head coach is the most stressful or the most headache-inducing job in pro sports, but it damn sure might be the most thankless one. When Scotty Brooks, a dead ringer for Brian Hill during the Shaq and Penny days in Orlando, was coaching the Oklahoma City Thunder to the NBA Finals last year, he was not guaranteed a contract extension until the playoffs were over. Even as LeBron James has gotten the monkey off his back and won back-to-back titles in Miami, I don’t hear too many words of orgasmic praise falling down on Erik Spoelstra, a man who has coached his team to the NBA Finals three seasons in a row. Only four other coaches have done that since the NBA/ABA merger of 1976. If the Celtics had eliminated the Heat in the Eastern finals last year, Spoelstra would almost certainly have lost his job. Now he has two rings on his fingers. What if Brian Hill had actually won back-to-back NBA titles in Orlando in 1995 and 1996? What if Mike D’Antoni’s Seven Seconds or Less Offense actually turned the corner and won a title in Phoenix in 2007? There are so many “what if’s” in head coaching lore in the NBA, which is what has made the list of ring bearers so elitist for the last three decades. But that is slowly changing, too.
Before 2008, I used to love the stat that since 1982, only eight head coaches had won NBA championships, six of whom had won multiple titles. Since 2008, we have added three new members in the club in Rivers, Carlisle, and Spoelstra. Although this past Finals was a battle of familiar faces between Spoelstra and Popovich, there is bound to be an influx of new names etched on the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the remainder of the 2010’s. With only Popovich and Spoelstra remaining among active coaches with multiple titles, as well as the most tenured coaches in their respective conferences, we may see new title winning coaches in a similar frequency to what we saw in the 1970’s when we had eight different coaches win titles in that decade alone.
Outside of the four ring bearers still coaching in the league, the only other active coaches who have even reached the Finals are Scotty Brooks in Oklahoma City, Rick Adelman in Minnesota, and Mike Brown back in Cleveland. A rejuvenated Rivers will try for his third trip to the Finals, his first without the Celtics, to keep the young guns at bay next season, but history will not be on his side. When Jackson went to the Lakers and Pat Riley went to the Knicks and Larry Brown went to the Pistons, those teams already had championship pedigree; the blueprint to a title was somewhat in place. The Clippers have never reached the Western Conference Finals, let alone the NBA Finals. For Rivers to win a title with the Clippers would be an unprecedented footprint in the record books in the vein of Popovich winning the first championship for an original ABA franchise back in 1999. Staples Center is used to trophy ceremonies, but will the basketball gods shine on the other home team for once with Rivers’ title experience at the forefront?
The increased variety of names on the NBA championship stage is the main reason behind so much turnaround in coaching circles this offseason. The window of opportunity for new coaches to win an NBA championship is probably wider than ever, and no name is too small if you have the right players in the right place at the right time. The reason gambling becomes an addiction is not just because you want to win, but because of the perception that you could win at any given moment. If you have to roll the dice five times in a row and bottom out in order to reach the jackpot, you convince yourself do it. If you have to fire three coaches to find the guy who will hit the right note to an NBA title, you do it. I can hear the owners talking to these guys in my head right now. “Thanks for the 56 regular season wins, Coach. But we have bigger fish to fry, and our daylight is quickly closing. Go clean out your desk.” Poor Brian Hill. He was years ahead of his time, it seems.
Some teams like the Charlotte Bobcats and Detroit Pistons change head coaches like they change their drawers, but some drawers might not be worth changing at the end of the day (Okay, that came out gross, but you get my point). In 2003, Joe Dumars dumped Carlisle, who had just gotten the Detroit Pistons to the Eastern Conference finals, in order to hire Larry Brown and it paid off with an NBA title in 2004 and almost another in 2005. Five years later, he made another calculated risk by firing Flip Saunders, who had gotten the Pistons to the Eastern finals three seasons in a row, and replacing him with the unproven Michael Curry. The Pistons have been in the pits of the league standings ever since. What if the Pistons had just stuck to their guns with Carlisle, who wound up winning an NBA Championship as the head coach of the Dallas Mavericks two years ago? It would have been an ideal situation, but that is why they are called ideals: No one wants to stick to the plan long enough to see it come together. The sparks of potential that Detroit saw in Carlisle and Orlando saw in Doc Rivers shined brightest elsewhere long after the two teams had already kicked them to the curb, and they have wallowed in misery ever since.
In all irony, the best coaching hires are the ones that happen seemingly by accident, when the owner is forced to hire an interim coach when the season falls apart and you just leave things to chance. Brooks, Spoelstra, Frank Vogel of the Pacers, and Mike Woodson of the Knicks all have two things in common: They all won playoff series this year, and they all worked as assistants on the same team and moved one chair over when the head guy either got canned or quit. History is on their side, too. In 1981, the Lakers fired Paul Westhead after Magic Jackson told Jerry Buss that the coach had to go. Buss replaced Westhead with an unproven assistant who had had a mediocre playing career and had been an announcer a few years earlier. His name was Pat Riley, and he won 6 titles as a head coach after that. In 1989, Phil Jackson was an assistant to Doug Collins (who was replaced this summer as the Sixers head coach) after some success in the CBA before Collins was ousted and Phil awkwardly scooted over to the top spot with his Zen sensibilities and his stoic demeanor. Now he is the most celebrated coach in modern pro sports.
There is no league or fan base with a higher level of scrutiny for players or coaches depending on how many rings they win than it does in the NBA, almost to an unfair degree. As the repetitive list of title-winning head coaches for the last thirty years will tell you, greatness can be greedy. But there is also a thin line between greatness and madness. One misstep can send a dynasty down in flames and one lucky break can send the next new coaching wunderkind of the NBA up to walk that line while the rest envy his spot. At the end of every season, there is only one happy team while the other 29 rack their brains all offseason hell bent on finding that golden ticket. Greatness comes from your ability to fight the weight of the world, but like the Joker said in The Dark Knight: “Madness can be like gravity, all you need is a little push.” For many NBA coaches who have failed to win it all, that little push could be the one that puts them on the wrong side of history, the ever growing unemployment line.