With last week’s (somewhat) surprising firing of Knicks head coach Derek Fisher, he became the fifth coach to be relieved of his duties already this season. Prior to Fisher, the axe had already fallen on the tenures of Kevin McHale (Houston), Lionel Hollins (Brooklyn), David Blatt (Cleveland) and Jeff Hornacek (Phoenix).
Clearly hunting season is open on coaches and rumours are flying as to who is next in the cross hairs, with names of George Karl (Sacramento), Sam Mitchell (Minnesota), Byron Scott (LA Lakers) and Randy Wittman (Washington) being bandied about.
NBA coaching has always been a high risk, high reward role, but lately, it seems like coaches are being driven to extinction if they cannot deliver immediate, tangible results for their franchise.
Ever Shortening Tenures
The average current NBA coach tenure is two years & seven months (947 days) and that’s including Gregg Popovich who, after becoming coach of the Spurs on December 10th 1996, is the exception to the role's instability.
Without him, the average tenure drops to just under two years (713 days). NBA front offices clearly have very little patience when it comes to delivering success – and this behaviour is likely to have been reinforced by the success of the Warriors’ Steve Kerr and - for all it was worth to his tenure - the former Cavs head coach, David Blatt.
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Whilst Kerr was able to immediately elevate the Warriors to championship-level status, how much of that was down to him rather than the evolution of his very talented roster? Equally so, when Kerr missed the first 43 games of this season recovering from back surgery and interim head coach Luke Walton guided the Dubs to a 39-4 record, was that a really testament to Walton’s coaching prowess?
It’s a strange concept to think that a coach, who often has little say in personnel decisions, can turn around a franchise’s fortunes quickly. There will only be one winner each season, meaning that every year 29 teams will know they need to improve somewhere.
So is changing coaches the catalyst to delivering a title? Of the last 5 NBA champions, asides from the Warriors, the other four titles were shared between the leagues three longest serving coaches, Pop, Erik Spoelstra and Rick Carlisle.
All The Kings' Men
Perhaps more pertinent questions would be, at what point should a franchise give up on a coach? And what kind of ripple effect can it have for a franchise? The Kings are a perfect example of the damage that instability can cause.
Since the start of 2011 season, Sacramento have had Paul Westphal, Keith Smart, Mike Malone, Ty Corbin and now George Karl as head coach. Minority owner Vivek Randadive took control of the franchise in 2013 and promptly installed Pete D’Alessandro as GM. Within two years, D’Alessandro was dismissed and replaced by Vlade Divac - who now has rumours surfacing about his own long-term prospects.
Asides from drafting DeMarcus Cousins, a legitimate and dominant star in the league, the Kings have squandered draft picks and failed to significantly improve the roster through free agency. The constant churning of coaches has bred an air of distrust within the franchise and has led to consistent rumours of a disgruntled star, alongside a coach who appears to be on his last legs in the role.
But I’m getting away from the point here, which is that a coach only has a certain amount of influence over a group of players. Franchises need to truly believe that the person they hire shares the same philosophy, ideals and vision as the franchise to help get them from point A to point B (note: not necessarily winning a title).
It seems that coaches shoulder too much of the responsibility when teams fail and too little when they succeed. As a singular person, it’s a lot easier to replace a coach than it is for a GM to rebuild a roster to an elite level, which takes a lot of luck and foresight in drafts, trades and free agency.
Plenty Available Talent
That said, perhaps the recent glut of firings is a covert attempt by teams to lure and entice some of the big free agent coaches ready for next season, before this one is even done.
Tom Thibodeau is one of the most highly respected coaches around the league and is expected to be in high demand to take over the reins somewhere this summer, if not sooner. Alongside Thibs; McHale, Blatt, Walton, former Thunder Coach Scott Brooks and college coach John Calipari will also likely be in demand.
With so many coaches queuing to get on (or back on) the ride, the trend looks set to continue for some time yet.