Commentary

NBA coaches are rarely safe

Originally Published: June 18, 2013
By Scoop Jackson | ESPN.com

Hollins-Karl-DelNegroGetty ImagesLionel Hollins, George Karl and Vinny Del Negro led their teams to the playoffs. Karl won Coach of the Year. All three were fired.

When Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra joked in May about being almost relieved that he didn't win NBA Coach of the Year this season over George Karl, it seemed like a glimpse into the volatility of the current coaching market in the NBA.

According to the Miami Herald, Spoelstra said, "It's not quite as definitive as the [Sports Illustrated] jinx, but pretty close."

He was referring to the fact that four of the past seven men (Avery Johnson, Sam Mitchell, Byron Scott, Mike Brown) to win the award lost their jobs within two years of being named the best coach in the league.

It was an inside shot at the culture. But once Karl was actually fired a few weeks later, it became a direct shot at the culture of ownership in the NBA. And with the way this recent epidemic seems to be trending, Spoelstra better start looking for his next up. Especially if his season is over by the time you read this.


Patience.

Synonyms for this word include, but are not limited to, "humility," "composure," "equanimity," "tolerance."

And patient is defined by Merriam-Webster.com as "bearing pains or trials calmly or without complaint."

But let patience meet money and let money be connected to winning or not winning and let those wins/losses be attached to expectations. Suddenly both synonyms and definition become void. Set aside.

According to USA Today, over the past 20 years in the NBA the average amount of changes in head coaches that occur from one year to the next is 6.5. Last season there were only 3.

But since NBA owners had a full, uninterrupted season this year to evaluate the direction of their teams, it seems that once the regular season ended they collectively decided to make sure the law of averages was going to return to its rightful place in the daily operation of professional basketball. They no longer liked what they saw.

And patience is no longer a virtue.

Twelve.

That's how many coaches have lost their jobs since the league-wide 83rd game of the NBA season tipped off. Just eight weeks ago. That's 1.5 per week. At this rate teachers and employees in Chicago's public school system may have better job security.

(Note: NFL teams dismissed seven head coaches and five general managers in the days after the 2012 regular season ended this year.)

There seems to be more rhyme than reason in the releasing of coaches by NBA owners. Nothing makes sense. Despite many teams achieving goals never before reached in their franchise's history, pink slips and exit interviews ran amok.

And this doesn't even include the firing of Mike Brown from the Los Angeles Lakers only five games into the regular season, or the firing of Avery Johnson from the Brooklyn Nets in December after winning the Coach of the Month award for October-November.

(Yet with all the coaches who have been replaced in such a short period of time, there seems to be universal wonder at how the Lakers' Mike D'Antoni has survived the post-season firing trend.)

Irreconcilable differences (wink) seemed to be the reason Lionel Hollins and George Karl in Memphis and Denver were respectively (not respectfully) fired after having their teams raise the bar of possibility to compete in the West for a conference title over the next two years.

Not being able to get the team to justify or compete at the level of their hype (or physical potential) seemed to be the reason Vinny Del Negro was moved out of L.A., and not settling for mediocrity seemed to be why Larry Drew (who has since found other employment in Milwaukee) is no longer in the ATL.

All of the aforementioned made the playoffs. One reached the conference finals while the other three dealt with significant player injuries in losing a particular playoff series, or the disappearance of a player's game over a period of games finally took its toll.

True there are other intrinsic, intimate, detailed and contractual circumstances in play that led to each coach's dismissal, but on the surface -- even on the inside-looking-in in some cases -- it comes off as a collection of panic moves made by organizations in dire quests for immediate gratification over growth.

It's "Owners Gone Wild: Raw & Uncut." NBATV might have a new season of The Association on its hands and just doesn't know it.

There is no leverage for the NBA coach. Not anymore. The tide has turned reckless and owners don't have to answer to anyone or for anything that they've done. Some coaches aren't given comprehensible reasons why they've been fired, but they all clearly understand the NBA's new definition of deliverables.


Getting your team to three NBA Finals in three years may not be enough anymore. Especially if/when you don't win at least two.

In the NBA it's easier to swallow a coach's $6 million extension than try to move $300 million worth of contracts of players who are underperforming for that coach.

[+] EnlargeErik Spoelstra
Robert Mayer/USA TODAY SportsErik Spoelstra was happy to not win Coach of the Year honors.
Therein lies the mindset. Expectations + Money + Patience. An unsettling ménage a trois. A love/hate triangle. One that NBA owners no longer seem to think equates. As the expectations of the teams they put on the floor get bigger, the money gets thinner, as does their patience.

Another synonym for patience is "sufferance." It seems to be more appropriate, doesn't it?

George Gervin once dropped wisdom on me about men and their money. In talking life, he told me you can never get mad about, upset or question how another man spends his money or the choices he makes with it.

He was very specific in the emphasis on the word "his."

As much as the business of the game is to turn a profit, it is also of almost equal importance to win or at least make it seem like an owner wants his investment to have a better return the next year than it did the previous one. And in professional sports, the return on those investments often comes attached with an unrealistic immediacy of needs and wants.

Winning used to provide immunity, used to be good enough. Now winning-it-all seems to be the only way a coach in the NBA is somewhat guaranteed that he'll still have a job once his season ends.

Scoop Jackson | email

ESPN.com columnist