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If you are an NBA head coach, you are well advised to keep your resumé updated and to have a moving company on speed dial.
Gregg Popovich, who has coached the San Antonio Spurs since 1996, understandably enjoys job security after leading his team to five championships, but most NBA coaches are just keeping their seat warm for their replacement.
The NBA coach who has held his current job the longest other than Popovich is Erik Spoelstra, who has led the Miami Heat since 2008.
Media members were calling for Spoelstra to be fired after the LeBron James era started slowly in the 2010-11 season, but Spoelstra had Heat president Pat Riley’s backing and eventually guided Miami to four straight NBA Finals and back-to-back titles in 2012-13.
Dallas’ Rick Carlisle, who led the Mavericks to the 2011 championship, was also hired in 2008. The NBA’s 26 other coaches (the Denver position is currently vacant) were all hired no earlier than 2011.
Two NBA coach of the year winners were recently fired: Oklahoma City’s Scott Brooks (2010) and Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau (2011).
During the 2014-15 season, Oklahoma City overcame a series of injuries to finish 45-37, tied for the eighth best record in the strong Western Conference. New Orleans claimed the final playoff berth over Oklahoma City based on the head-to-head tiebreaker.
In six full seasons with Oklahoma City, Brooks led the Thunder to the Western Conference Finals three times and the NBA Finals once. The Thunder won four straight Northwest Division titles.
Thibodeau won 100 games faster than any coach in NBA history. The Bulls suffered through a wave of serious injuries during Thibodeau’s tenure – most notably to Derrick Rose, the 2011 NBA MVP – but never missed the playoffs.
In 2014-15, Chicago finished third in the Eastern Conference (50-32) and lost to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference semi-finals. Cleveland subsequently advanced to the NBA Finals.
Both Brooks and Thibodeau have been replaced by college coaches (Billy Donovan and Fred Hoiberg, respectively) who have no NBA head coaching experience.
The track record of college coaches who jump to the NBA with no previous NBA coaching experience is not the best. John Calipari and Rick Pitino are two great college coaches who posted losing records during their NBA tenures, though Pitino did have some success during his stint with the New York Knicks.
Lon Kruger, Tim Floyd and Mike Montgomery are just three examples of good college coaches who seemed completely overwhelmed in the NBA. Granted, they were not blessed with the most talented rosters, but neither did they do anything to improve their teams.
Larry Brown won championships in the NBA (Detroit 2004) and college (Kansas 1988), but he is the exception that proves the rule. Brown was an ABA All-Star who had great success as an ABA coach before he won his NBA title.
Golden State’s Steve Kerr and Cleveland’s David Blatt have shown that it is possible to find success as an NBA rookie coach, but Kerr inherited a very good team, while Blatt has been blessed with the opportunity to coach LeBron James.
Two questions worth asking when a coach is fired are:
1. Could the fired coach have done anything better?
2. Are there any available coaches who are better than the fired coach?
Applying those questions to Brooks and Thibodeau, it is difficult to see how either coach could have got any more out of his team and it is difficult to believe that there are available coaches who would have done better given the same circumstances.
Brooks’ Thunder have been perennial contenders, except for this season when 2014 MVP Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook both missed substantial portions of the season. The Thunder annually rank among the league leaders in defensive field goal percentage, an indication that Brooks has put a sound defensive scheme in place.
Thibodeau’s Bulls have likewise been perennial contenders despite a host of injuries, and have also annually been among the leaders in defensive field goal percentage.
Despite all of the talk about how analytics and three-point shooting have revolutionised NBA offences, defence is still very important. Much is made of how Kerr has boosted Golden State’s offence but it is just as significant that Golden State ranked first in defensive field goal percentage.
Maybe Donovan will be the next Steve Kerr and lift the Thunder to the top of the Western Conference. Maybe Hoiberg will be the next David Blatt and catapult the Bulls to their first NBA Finals appearance since the Michael Jordan era.
However, based on how much Brooks and Thibodeau got out of their teams despite trying circumstances, it seems unlikely that those teams will improve after these coaching changes unless they also change their rosters and/or have better fortune in terms of injuries.