The Current State of Coaching in the NBA

With the recent and somewhat surprising firings of Dave Joerger and Frank Vogel, it is evident that the criteria to what makes a successful head coach is more complex than ever. To properly evaluate this it is important to look at this first from a coaching perspective and then at an organizational level.

The head coaching position in the NBA carries with itself multiple responsibilities. Managing players personalities, defining player roles, establishing rotations, managing your staff and their needs, managing team style of play and pace to maximize the chances to win every single night. If a coach is left to make their own decisions, the job is difficult enough. What’s changing, however, is the organization’s role in these decisions.

For years, it appeared as if the Spurs and Gregg Popovich were an anomaly, but as newer owners enter the league the desire to create a similar culture and “program” more than team has increased. What does this mean? To me, it means that the expectation is that the coach’s aren’t evaluated year over year, nor is the organization – the perspective is longer, more patient, and more complex. To achieve this, however, is to have a coach in place that completely buys into this, and I think organizations are more cognizant of this and are willing to let go coaches with good records (recently Blatt, Vogel, and Joerger) to achieve the Spurs formula. The problem? Organizations tend to fail to look in the mirror at themselves. Sure, some coaches will be more difficult and unwilling to adapt to the modern game or new information, and they should be accordingly let go. But what about an organization that itself is flawed?

Coaches that feel threatened by analytics or this desire to create a “program” are a product of a poor organization. With the increased data that front offices are evaluating, it is natural that they give the information to their coaches to integrate into gameplans. Also, with the increased focus on rebuilding the “right way” it is also natural that the front office inform coaches to develop young rookies that the team is looking to as their future, thus asking coaches to amend their rotations. Where front offices err, however, is not establishing a good working relationship and coaches begin to view this information as threatening and not as just trying to help the team win long-term.  Make no mistake, the onus is on the management and organization to create that harmony.

This is why coaches being hired today desire the personnel control – they are creating the “front office – coaching” harmony in the easiest manner possible – by doing both themselves. I wrote in February why I thought this was a mistake. The one sentence summary: When a coach’s horizon of thinking is a few games at at time and a GM’s horizon of thinking is a few seasons at a time, combining these roles is a mistake. The sweet spot will *always* be having a joint effort with multiple people involved.

Overall, I believe that the firing of head coaches at this rate will actually slow down in the next coming years. Circumstances aside, there are already quite a bit of teams that I would classify as secure and on the same page with management – truly building a “program”:

  • San Antonio Spurs: Duh
  • Brooklyn Nets: Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson are in this tough rebuild together
  • Cleveland Cavaliers: Sure, this can be considered volatile – but for better or worse, LeBron, Lue and GM Griffin are all working together. The person on top of the power pyramid is debatable, but they are on the same page.
  • Detroit Pistons: Stan Van Gundy isn’t firing Stan Van Gundy any time soon.
  • Miami Heat: Erik Spoelstra accurately noted that with any other organization he would’ve been fired 2 or 3 times by now.
  • Atlanta Hawks: Repeat SVG joke
  • Dallas Mavericks: Rick Carlisle is as secure as anybody in the league, rightfully so as is the Mavs management.
  • Minnesota Timberwolves: Repeat Atlanta Hawks joke
  • Golden State Warriors: They should be sued for copyright infringement by the Spurs. Closest to nail the Spurs formula, and do it right out the gate with the Kerr hiring
  • Boston Celtics: Hiring Brad Stevens may go down as Danny Ainge’s biggest home run, and this is a guy that built the 2008 championship team overnight

Notable Omissions:

  • LA Lakers: Until I can feel confident about Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak’s standing with Jeanie Buss, I can’t put them here. I believe Luke Walton will get the benefit of the doubt and isn’t going anywhere, the issue comes on the management side.
  • LA Clippers: While I think the criticism of Doc Rivers is slightly misguided, with a new owner inheriting the Doc GM and Coach situation, it’s possible that may change as Ballmer grows restless sitting courtside.
  • Portland Trailblazers: I’m a huge Terry Stotts fan, I’m a huge Neil Olshey fan, yet the contract situation remains unresolved. If I’m a betting man, Stotts gets a long term deal this summer – but until that’s done I can’t put them into this category. They certainly are building a fascinating program in the Northwest.
  • Charlotte Hornets: I really considered putting them in. If Steve Clifford wasn’t fired after the disastrous 2014-2015 season, that alone means that the front office has enough faith in him. In addition, Michael Jordan has put full faith into Rich Cho’s vision – and they have all done a good job. I just need to see one more year of patient MJ for me to give them the full credit.
  • New York Knicks: If Phil Jackson hires Kurt Rambis and officially removes the interim tag – the front office will certainly be on the same page completely, but I don’t know how good that actually is.  Still, they would certainly qualify as the Triangle program of the league.
  • OKC Thunder: Sam Presti and Billy Donovan had an existing relationship and Donovan didn’t leave Florida for any typical job.  There is an expectation of security and Sam Presti has done enough building this contender to validate staying in OKC for a long time.  Why I don’t put them above is after KD and Russ potentially leave, I would like to see how the whole organization shifts.

 

I listed 10 teams as definitively on the same page, with 6 as borderline. Considering the nature of this job, that is a large number. Out of these 16, many of these coaches are relatively new, which to me indicates that this transition has been underway and as more teams try to achieve this dynamic, there will be a little bit more volatility but will eventually settle down. No job is secure forever, of course, and with ownership changes or mood swings, a strong structure can be toppled without warning.

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