Power Rankings for the Week of March 28th: Coach Firings Report Card Edition

As the season wraps up in a few short days, the attention for evaluating many of the non-contending teams shift to what the teams will do in their offseason to come back stronger (or weaker, for #TeamTank).  One of the primary ways front offices make their evaluations is coaching staffs and like every year, certain fanbases clamor for struggling teams to fire their head coaches.  Before looking to this offseason, I thought it would be interesting to review coaching changes that have recently been made and evaluate their effectiveness.  Obviously, many of these changes will accurately be assessed in the next coming years, so consider this a “short term” report card of some of the moves.

Omitted: 

Magic (Vaughn so bad anybody is an improvement, interim not extended)

Kings (because WTF)

Nuggets (Substitute Vaughn for Brian Shaw – same explanation)

Timberwolves (RIP Flip)

Nets (ownership cleaned house – not just coaching)

The Compelling Firings

OKC Thunder

Coach Fired: Scott Brooks

New Coach: Billy Donovan

Coming into the 2014-15 season, it was somewhat surprising that Scott Brooks was still the head coach.  Too often plagued with the same problems – poor staggering of the KD, Russ, and Ibaka trio; poor end of game offensive execution, and just not being able to make the Finals again after their lone trip in 2012.  The 2014-2015 season itself, however, was an injury-plagued disaster.  Scott Brooks did the best he could with a group of players that simply were not talented enough to compete in an extremely tough Western Conference.  Scott Brooks still got their team to 45 wins, missing the playoffs to the Pelicans due to a miracle 3 point shot against OKC that gave New Orleans the tie-breaker.  I don’t think Scott Brooks had a better coaching year than 2014-15, yet at the end of the season was still fired.  The timing was extremely curious, especially as Kevin Durant is entering free agency and seemed to be on the same page as Brooks.  When it comes to motives, I think Sam Presti and management were feeling the pressure of not being back in the finals since 2012 and the Harden trade and most importantly that Presti had his eyes on Donovan for some time and Billy Donovan was finally ready to leave Florida and join the pros.

How has the decision turned out? I simply don’t see how Billy Donovan has been much better.  While the staggering of minutes hasn’t been an issue as of late, many critical games have been potentially lost to the slow adjustment on that front.  I believe Donovan has done an excellent job with handling the Kanter/Adams dynamic, maximizing both of their talents with both of them largely being unable to share playing time on the floor.  The major issue that still remains with this team, however, and what I would’ve wanted to be priority number 1 is a late game offense that goes beyond isolations.  This team is without a doubt more talented than most in the league and has what it takes to beat the Warriors or Spurs in a playoff round – yet they’ve failed to close games when they’ve been ahead because of their extreme predictability in late game situations.

Here’s how everything that Sam Presti has done will be viewed: was it enough to convince Kevin Durant to stay? I’d argue that either somebody that Durant had a relationship with like Kevin Ollie or somebody who had an established NBA pedigree would have accomplished that better.  Donovan has certainly improved some things as I’ve mentioned, but there’s enough of an expected learning curve that won’t make this a home run by any stretch.  At some point you’re making changes to make changes and that’s never a good thing.

Verdict: Has not met goals, I rate this decision as “making a change for change sake”.

New Orleans Pelicans

Coach Fired: Monty Williams

New Coach: Alvin Gentry

The New Orleans Pelicans have changed names, changed owners – but one philosophy remained: that they needed to build a really good team around Anthony Davis and build it now.  It has been an extremely misguided approach from the moment they drafted him in which they have built a roster of players that don’t fit will together, those players are not young enough to be considered true assets; and to top it all off they have mortgaged draft picks and cap flexibility for the coming seasons.  With all that being said, Monty Williams was still questioned on his rotations, relying on Tyreke Evans too much, not being able to build a good defense with both Davis and Omer Asik (healthy), and more so it was no surprise that Monty was fired when he was.  While the front office did a poor job assembling the roster from a longevity standpoint, there was still some talent and due to the Pelicans’ sense of urgency, maximizing wins was an objective that in their eyes Monty Williams failed at.  Despite the flaws of the roster, the Anthony Davis factor was enough to lure many big name coaches, and they went with Alvin Gentry.  I was rejoiced about this choice because I enjoyed Alvin’s work in Phoenix and then his impact on the Championship Warriors team was another factor that led me towards

How has the decision turned out?  Surprisingly poorly! There is no question that injuries have plagued another season for this squad, but I would argue that with a similar set of circumstances and a similar roster, Alvin Gentry has done a far worse job as coach.  Continuing to use Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson off the bench for longer than was necessary was a mistake, as is continuing to start Omer Asik who is absolutely a nonfactor as a basketball player.  I can explain away the Jrue/Ryan Anderson criticism by the fact that Jrue has been hurt and is on a minutes restriction, and I can explain away the Asik decision as a front office directive (who have egg on their face due to his contract), but one thing I can’t explain away? The Pelicans offense is just awful.  No imaginative sets, no innovative use of their weapons – it’s just not there.  This is the one area in which I though Gentry would be far superior to Monty Williams and it simply hasn’t happened.

Verdict: In the short term – right decision, bad hire.  Long term – if Gentry just converted to a Tank General at some point in the season and the Pelicans come out strong next year? I’ll be very wrong about this.

Chicago Bulls

Coach Fired: Tom Thibodeau

New Coach: Fred Holberg

Fascinating, fascinating situation in Chicago.  That ownership and management simply can’t keep a good thing going for too long because they never feel they are getting enough credit.  For some time prior to firing Thibs, they had been leaking disparaging stories to the press about his resistance to their suggestions and the fact that he was wearing down the players.  I don’t deny any of that isn’t true, because it seems like he’s a very intense coach that could possibly have a short shelf-life wherever he goes, but damn does he make teams better.  His offensive “struggle” is overstated, he is one of the most influential defensive minds in NBA history, and his teams consistently have played hard for him.  His one major, and accurate, criticism was the amount of minutes he played his key players.  Joakim Noah and Luol Deng have had premature declines, but they also had their premature peaks with Thibs.  Thibs consistently dealt with adversity (usually injury-related) very well and his Chicago Bulls put up some of the more impressive fights we have seen from teams.  Why did the front office make the change? They were sick of Thibs and it’s possible Thibs was sick of them.  Who did they bring in? Fred Hoiberg.

How has the decision turned out?  Well, if their number 1 objective was to simply get rid of Thibs and any remains of Thibs, they succeeded.  One of the first moves they made was to bring Joakim Noah off the bench, completely tweaking the chemistry of that locker room immediately.  From a basketball perspective, it is hard to argue that bringing Pau Gasol (whom I worship, love, adore, admire, and admire some more) off the bench while starting Noah with a stretch 4 like Mirotic would’ve been a fantastic decision.  On top of that, all of the “fight” that these Bulls were known for, specifically their effort on the defensive end, is gone.  They have been losing to terrible teams while not putting up any sort of fight and it’s remarkable how things have fallen.  All is not lost, however.  If the Bulls want to complete their Thibscopy, they’ll be able to move on relatively quickly.  Noah and Gasol figure to be gone, players like McDermott look promising, and the Bulls will have to transition away from Derrick Rose after his current contract is over.  The team still has talent, has always kept a clean (to a fault sometimes) salary cap, and will still be a free agent destination.

Verdict: Achieved all off court objectives, none of the on-court ones.

Houston Rockets

Coach Fired: Kevin McHale

New Coach: JB Bickerstaff

This move was pretty shocking, but it happened so early in the season it somehow didn’t feel like it got the attention it deserved.  Things had started extremely poorly for Kevin McHale and the Rockets, a team that was a dark-horse for some in the basketball community as a title contender.  Just the season before, they reached the conference finals after beating the Clippers in a remarkable comeback after being down 3-1.  James Harden had his best season ever, and the group of players that Daryl Morey put together seemed to be working in great team harmony.  So what happened? Was it the weight of the expectations on the team? Did Dwight and James individually demand that McHale be fired? To me the best way to identify the motive is that key players were done with Kevin McHale (nobody really angrily supported him) and the fact that the Rockets were expected to be title contenders prematurely.

How has the decision turned out?  The decision to fire McHale that early in the season was always a red flag.  Bringing in a young JB Bickerstaff into a very toxic locker room (per lots of reports and the fact that Dwight Howard is terrible*) adds to the stereotype that Daryl doesn’t factor in team chemistry enough in his decision – putting JB in almost a no-win situation.  The problem wasn’t dissatisfaction with McHale, it was dissatisfaction with each other, and McHale was an easy scapegoat.  The team hasn’t put together any inspirational stretch, it took James Harden 15-20 games to get into game shape, and they are at risk of missing the playoff and losing Dwight Howard for nothing this offseason.

*I’m biased.

Verdict: Bad decision, there should have been more effort to reconcile this rather than bring in somebody unproven and young like JB.

Some not-so-compelling firings

Cleveland Cavaliers

Coach Fired: David Blatt

New Coach: Tyronn Lue

Since I’m just evaluating the coaching decision, this is very simple: LeBron James didn’t like David Blatt, and he liked Tyronn Lue.  What this does to the Kyrie/LeBron dynamic is far more interesting and I’ve written about it and podcasted about it so I’ll let those explain it.  Ultimately, LeBron is running this team, for better and for worse, and this is as simple as that.  I don’t mean to be dismissive, but there’s no real other interpretation of this situation.

Also, I hope there’s a book written about it.

Verdict: Right decision, keeping LeBron happy will always be priority #1. Now LeBron just doesn’t like some of his teammates, and that’ll be resolved this offseason.

Phoenix Suns

Coach Fired: Jeff Hornacek

New Coach: Earl Watson

The front office betrayed the trust of many of their players (Morris twins, Goran Dragic, Isiah Thomas to name a few) and it created an incredibly toxic locker room. Perplexingly, the front office fired some of Hornacek’s assistants before they fired him – maybe as a last resort.  Ultimately Hornacek fell on the sword for the front office’s mistakes and will have to rebuild from what seemed to be a better situation from the outside.  Earl Watson has come in and been quite bad, although this team checked out so long ago.  Playing Len and Chandler together is a beautiful tank move, and with Devin Booker showing true star potential, this might not be that bleak.

Verdict: Bad decision, complete scapegoat – but will result in a high draft pick and quick re-re-rebuild potential.

New York Knicks

Coach Fired: Derek Fisher

New Coach: Kurt Rambis

Derek Fisher didn’t connect with his players and his off-court indiscretions were unbecoming of an NBA professional head coach.  I don’t mind hiring a player to a head coaching job relatively early after their retirement, but I think that spending *some* time as an assistant should be done and I think Fisher simply wasn’t ready.  Phil Jackson’s infatuation and obsession with the triangle continues with him bringing in Kurt Rambis – one of the worst head coaches ever – and the Knicks simply haven’t responded.  Despite Kristaps Godzingis’ presence, the Knicks look like they’re in for a rough few years after some optimism.

Verdict: Right decision, bad outcome.  Need to move past triangle – otherwise only Brian Shaw, Phil Jackson, and Kurt Rambis are viable head coaches – nothing really attractive.

Power Rankings

  1. Warriors (66-7) [LW:1]
  2. Spurs (61-12) [LW:2]
  3. Thunder (51-22) [LW:3]
  4. Cavaliers (52-21) [LW:5]
  5. Heat (42-30) [LW:6]
  6. Raptors (49-23) [LW:4]
  7. Hawks (44-30) [LW:7)
  8. Hornets (42-31) [LW:8]
  9. Clippers (45-27) [LW:9]
  10. Celtics (43-30) [LW:11]
  11. Pacers (39-34) [LW:10]
  12. Trailblazers (38-36) [LW:12]
  13. Pistons (39-35) [LW:13]
  14. Jazz (36-37) [LW:15]
  15. Grizzlies (41-32) [LW:16]
  16. Wizards (36-37) [LW:17]
  17. Mavericks (35-38) [LW:14]
  18. Rockets (36-38) [LW:19]
  19. Nuggets (31-43) [LW:22]
  20. Timberwolves (24-49) [LW:21]
  21. Bulls (36-36) [LW:18]
  22. Bucks (30-44) [LW:20]
  23. Kings (29-44) [LW:24]
  24. Magic (30-43) [LW:23]
  25. Nets (21-51) [LW:26]
  26. Pelicans (26-46) [LW:25]
  27. Knicks (30-44) [LW:28]
  28. Suns (20-53) [LW:27]
  29. Lakers (15-58) [LW:29]
  30. 76ers (9-65) [LW: 30]

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