Why the NBA’s Coaching Carousel Reveals What’s Wrong with the Association

  • In just two years, Lionel Hollins turned a 24-48, butt-of-every-joke-in-the-NBA team, the Memphis Grizzlies, into a playoff squad, and  five years after inheriting the job, his team reached the Western Conference Finals. But  last week, Grizzlies’ management announced that Hollins would not remain as head coach of the team he so drastically turned around, notching the Grizzlies’ best-ever record in his final year.
  • In his nine seasons as head coach, George Karl led the Denver Nuggets to a playoff appearance in each one, reaching the Western Conference Finals in 2009. A 17-65 team just two years earlier, his teams ran off this unprecedented list of playoff appearances. Last week, Karl, the 2013 NBA Coach of the Year was fired from his position with the Nuggets, a decision he later called “stupid.”
When winning just isn't enough: The 2013 Coach of the Year wasn't good enough for the Denver Nuggets, who also lost 2013 Executive of the Year Masai Ujir.

When winning just isn’t enough: The 2013 Coach of the Year wasn’t good enough for the Denver Nuggets, who also lost 2013 Executive of the Year Masai Ujir.

  • Inheriting a team that had reached the playoffs just four times in the previous 33 years, ex-Clippers’ chief Vinny Del Negro quickly turned around

not just the franchise but the perception and attitude towards his franchise as a whole. After the team’s best record in franchise history, Del Negro was let go as head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers.

There is only one way to put the recent firings (Hollins wasn’t exactly fired, the Grizzlies decided against renewing his expired contract) of these three prestigious NBA head coaches: Disrespectful. Just look at the way that each of these coaches instantly transformed their respective teams from lovable losers to success stories and championship contenders. No one described these puzzling moves better than NBA Analyst Jeff Van Gundy: “Coaches used to get fired for losing, now they get fired for winning.” Van Gundy is exactly right, as no matter how many wins a team racks up, no matter how radically a coach turns around an entire organization, if he doesn’t have the ring, he can count on being fired. It is nothing but disrespect to fire a coach who has made such a large contribution to the team, fans, and city. The culture around the NBA has become terminally obsessed with winning championships, and winning them now, but building a championship squad is a process that can take a decade, no contender is built instantly.

It wasn’t good enough for Grizzlies’ management that just five seasons after rotting at the bottom of the Western Conference, they reached the Conference Final; they crave a championship and they want it now. This impatience led to parting ways with a fantastic basketball mind and an even better leader on and off the court.

“When things don’t happen quickly, I think some owners become frustrated. Some even
take it personally.”-Gregg Popovich

One of the legends of today’s NBA is San Antonio Spurs’ man-in-change, Gregg Popovich. The four-time NBA champion coach blasted the coaching carousel, telling ESPN, “The change, change, change thing doesn’t really work [and] you can see that in a lot of organizations. When things don’t happen quickly, I think some owners become frustrated. Some even take it personally almost like a little bit of an embarrassment because they’ve been so successful in their own way and have a hard
time understanding the business.” Popovich nailed it right on the head: Many owners continue to change the coaching staff because they want “things to happen quickly” (win a title).

Take Popovich as an example: After he was hired as the Spurs’ top dog, San Antonio went three seasons (one without a playoff appearance) before winning a title. Imagine if an impatient Spurs’ front office had fired Popovich: The four titles currently hanging at the AT&T Center would be nonexistent, the landscape of the NBA would be incomparable to what it is now and the NBA Finals currently taking place would feature the Miami Heat facing off against the…Oklahoma City Thunder? Memphis Grizzlies? Golden State Warriors?

Playoff time!: Lionel Hollins finally brought the playoffs to Memphis, turning around a once rock-bottom franchise, In return, the Grizzlies parted ways with him last week.

Playoff time!: Lionel Hollins finally brought the playoffs to Memphis, turning around a once rock-bottom franchise, In return, the Grizzlies parted ways with him last week.

But this never happened. The Spurs stuck with their lead-man, and now boast of possibly the greatest coach to roam an NBA sideline. Hollins, Karl, and Del Negro all stake claim to numerous accomplishments. The 20 playoff appearances and 14 playoff series victories between them, plus Karl being named the 2013 NBA Coach of the Year, weren’t enough, simply because they never could bring the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy to Memphis, Denver, or Los Angeles instantly. And for that reason, without instant rings and glory, these three coaches were fired or let go. All three certainly will find work in other organizations, but their dismissals represent a larger flaw in the selfish, impatient culture evident in today’s NBA.

The Sam Brief

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70 thoughts on “Why the NBA’s Coaching Carousel Reveals What’s Wrong with the Association

  1. Although unjust for being fired after great seasons, I would argue the style of teams that. Karl and Del Negro coach would never win a title so these moves cut the franchise of another close call next year or the year after.
    Hollins has the right to be the most mad, he had his team on the brink. Maybe a season and a player away. He will be picked up quickly

    • I agree with you that the offensive-minded, defensive-neglecting styles of Karl and Del Negro most likely influenced the firings, but Hollins’ had no justification. Do you think Karl or Del Negro will be hired elsewhere?

  2. Reblogged this on shaynroby and commented:
    Unrealistic expectations and a lack of patience sometimes contribute to making the wait for that ring an eternity for an owner. Lionel Hollins will be missed in Memphis. It was more than likely, a huge mistake in letting him go.

  3. Winning an NBA Title still comes down to talent, not coaches. If Eric Spoelstra had been in Memphis this season, he wouldn’t have been brought back either. If Lionel Hollins were coaching the Heat, he would be coaching in the NBA Finals right now instead of Spoelstra.

    For the moment, NBA owners can’t find a justifiable reason to pay even good coaches like George Karl or Lionel Hollins over $6 or $7 million a year, unless they know for sure it will bring them an NBA Title.

    The same thing happened in Atlanta three years ago, when Mike Woodson was not re-upped by the Hawks. Yes, Woodson had done a good job in Atlanta, but not good enough to justify tripling his pay, so they let him walk.

    Larry Drew replaced Woodson for a mere fraction of what the Hawks would have had to pay Woodson, and he more than likely won just as many games and got the similar results to what Woodson would have if he’d stayed being paid a much higher salary.

    The same thing happened to Larry Drew this year, as he was replaced by Mike Budenholzer. Until teams like Memphis and Denver start breaking through and winning championships with the talent they have on hand, the coaching carousel will continue.

    • I would argue that the 6 or 7 million-dollar contracts for coaches are worth if he’s the right man for the job. If the Grizzlies had invested in Hollins, who knows what would become of the franchise? Hollins was obviously the best man for the job, don’t you think?

      • I absolutely think Hollins was the best man for the job. But in the NBA, you have to be the best man at the best price.

        And not to slight Hollins, but I think he needed to beat the Spurs in order to ensure he kept his job. As good a job as he did, I think the Grizzlies were lucky that Russell Westbrook was injured for the Thunder, otherwise they would more than likely have been eliminated by the Thunder.

        And with the talent they have returning, I think it’s a good bet that the Grizzlies will be right back in the second round of the playoffs, even without Hollins as their coach. But we’ll see.

      • It will be interesting to observe the Grizzlies post-Hollins. They have talent, so will have success, but I don’t know if they can reach their full potential without Hollins. Where do you see him ending up?

      • It’s hard to tell where Hollins might end up. I would say the Clippers if they don’t get Doc Rivers. But hey, if the Rivers goes to the Clippers, Hollins might end up in Boston. You never can tell.

        But I do think Hollins would be an upgrade in LA for the Clippers over Del Negro. And in LA he’d end up in I think a better situation than he was in Memphis. Sometimes things have a way of working themselves out for the best.

      • If the Rivers-to-LA deal happens, he’ll have a rebuilding project in Boston, a team with limited young talent. Personally, I think he’s better off in Memphis than in Boston. What about Karl? Do you think he still has an NBA future?

      • Yes, I think Karl has an NBA future, because he’s so good. The Celtics might be an option for him if Rivers leaves. Karl just did a rebuild in Denver and he got them going in a short period of time.

        I don’t think rebuilding would bother him, and he has the kind of name a marquee franchise like the Celtics might want to replace Doc Rivers.

        However, the determining factor for Karl I think is his asking price, especially for a team like Memphis, who’s not looking to break the bank for a coach.

      • If Memphis does manage to work a contract with Karl, he would be a perfect fit. Though Boston could be an option as well. It sure is interesting as a coaching square has been built between Boston, LA, Denver, and Memphis.

        I see Del Negro as an assistant in the future, I don’t know if he has a head coaching future in the NBA.

      • Del Negro’s situation reminds me of Mike Woodson. When Woodson wasn’t brought back in Atlanta he had to become an assistant again. But he eventually got another shot as a head coach with the Knicks, and I think Del Negro will also at some point.

      • His style (offensively minded, little emphasis on defense) has been proven erroneous time and time again, with guys like Mike D’antoni, Karl, and Del Negro. He may get a chance but I don’t buy into the system.

      • The run and gun systems that D’antoni and Karl run might not win championships, but they are entertaining and can win a lot games if they have the right personnel.

        Sometimes winning that way is a better choice than losing in another. If Del Negro can latch on as an assistant with a good team, it could raise his profile, and lead to another opportunity at some point.

      • I’m not a proponent of the run and gun system, but I can understand why some coaches use it. However, at the end of the day it’s true: “Defense wins championships”.

      • That ancient mantra always seems to come back, but it’s certainly true. Just look at the recent champions throughout all sports (Louisville basketball, Alabama football, Ravens, Heat). All thrived on defense.

  4. With respect, I don’t agree with Karl. He was going to be starting his last year on his contract and since the Nuggets had no intentions of giving Karl an extension, the let him go rather than have him be a lame duck coach. This in turn affords Karl to land a 3-4 year deal with another team. Remember Sam that in 9 years of coaching, Karl only made it out of the first round once.
    The others I agree with you on and would like to throw in three more coaches that ended up at the unemployment line but for a different reason; they had superstars on their teams who GOT them fired. In particular I’m speaking of Deron Williams (Jerry Sloan got the axe), Dwight Howard (Stan Van Gundy became jobless in Orlando), and Carmelo Anthony (Mike D’Antoni did a ‘run & shoot’ all the way to the unemployment office.. at least until the Lakers gig).
    But I digress…
    What you wrote is a sad commentary on the state of NBA coaches recently. The ones that lost their jobs shouldn’t have. Their (the owners) expectations were too high and unreasonable. Good point about Papa..
    Nice article Sam!

  5. Collectively the owners and general managers within professional sports are given so much reverence (far too much) as to their deeds supposedly as captains of industry . Yet where else, but in sports , can mediocrity be seen as good ?

    Eleven of the sixteen teams that made the NBA postseason fired their coaches and this past season 13 coaches lost their as head coaches . We don`t see that sort of turnover during an election cycle in Congress and Senate , . and there mediocrity is simply the norm . Fans are far too willing at times , to accept the excuses or simply remain apathetic .

    • Well said, Alan. For teams in the rebuilding process, making the playoffs (without winning a title) is a step forward, not a bad omen, which is how some owners view it. This also applies to lottery teams: For the Pistons, Lawrence Frank’s firing wasn’t justified, either. Their 29-53 record was due to a lack of talent, not a coaching flaw. What do you think about Frank’s firing?

  6. Sam

    Detroit Pistons` owner Tom Gores wanted his own man and not someone , who he believes would not see things his way . Personally , if I were Gores , the firing would have been that of GM Joe Dumars rater than Lawrence Franks . Phil Jackson is now on board with the Pistons as a special consultant , to assist te franchise in all personnel matters . Somewhat similar to the role that Jerry West now has with the Warriors .

    • I agree. The lack of talent is due to the decisions of the GM, that doesn’t fall on the coach. What about PJ Carlesimo? Personally, I would rather see him in Brooklyn instead of an inexperienced Jason Kidd. He did a fine job with the Nets and has proven to be a dependable coach.

  7. Someting else for you to mull over .

    See link to story provided below .

    L.A. Clippers, Boston Celtics in talks about Doc Rivers (courtesy of USA Today)

    L.A. Clippers, Boston Celtics in talks about Doc Rivers

    By Sam Amick , USA Today

    The Los Angeles Clippers and Boston Celtics are engaged in discussions about a deal that would send forward Kevin Garnett to the Clippers and give them the right to hire Celtics coach Doc Rivers, a person with knowledge of the situation confirmed to USA TODAY Sports.

    The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the private nature of the talks. The person said they are willing to give up two first-round draft picks and young center DeAndre Jordan in exchange for Garnett and Rivers’ rights.

    The Clippers’ unwillingness to give up third-year point guard Eric Bledsoe could be a deal-breaker. They fear that they would be compromising their future by giving him up and are currently contemplating using him in a sign-and-trade that could involve forward Blake Griffin and land the Los Angeles Lakers’ (and free-agent-to-be) Dwight Howard. Other players who are on the Clippers’ radar as possible upgrades by way of a trade involving Bledsoe include Orlando Magic guard Arron Afflalo and Indiana Pacers small forward Danny Granger.

    Garnett has a no-trade clause, but is expected to waive it for the chance to join Clippers point guard and free-agent-to-be Chris Paul in Los Angeles. It’s expected that Paul would re-sign and attempt to win his first championship with the Celtics core that last won it all in 2007.

    Click on link to read in full .


  8. Look at the Nuggets` situation , all you need to be reminded of is owner Stanley Kroenke . ! Te guy may well be wort several billion dollars , but in te past five season, his sports` interests , by way his ownership , can be considered a complete joke . Not only has he lost George Karl but also one of the best young general managers in the NBA, in Masi Urji . Fans are overlooking the pomposity and egos of the owners .

    The NBA maintains a soft salary cap of $58.044 million but look at how many of the teams exceed that figure ? Furthermore, even when they do exceed that cap and then are asked to pay a dollar for dollar figure surcharge for going over that figure , rarely , has it done anything to create a level playing field .

    NBA team valuations and their profitability

  9. sam–fine job of putting the revolving coaches’ door in perspective.

    Question: how many millions will it take for team owners to realize they won’t get their money’s worth without giving a coach more than a year or two to turn around a team?

    • Exactly. Owners and GMs need to wait at least 2-3 years to see how a coach manages his team. The only exception is if the coach is creating controversy AND is clearly not fit for the job (i.e. Mike D’Antoni in NY).

  10. Wait a minute, could it be? Is Sam back? hehe Glad to see you back on the writing wheel buddy. The coach position is truly a revolving door. Gregg Popovich said it best, GMs and owners are getting impatient and are wanting things to happen even though it’s not the right time. Sometimes, the expectations are not always realistic.

  11. Three years and that is how Donald Sterling rewards Del Negro ? And Doc Rivers can look forward to more of the same .. KG and Paul Pierce are unlikely to make that much difference at this stage of their respective careers . AARP …. will be calling on each, very soon . ! .

  12. But why (Doc Rivers) sign a three year contract extension ? Does that make any sense to you ? Rivers has been waffling on that issue far more so than John Kerry explaining himself on a political issue . The NBA is filled with a bunch of idiotic owners and egotistical head coaches . The Celtics` head coach and his agent are now in discussion with the Clippers and it is clear , that he now wants out of Boston .

  13. This is what happens out of the Alice in Wonderland contract for contract deals that the league has become too well known for. Hollins got lost inside the Rabbit Hole, and that’s too bad for Memphis fans. Excellent analysis.

  14. Sam

    LeBron signing for less money , ahh ! Now consider the fact , that his off the field earnings via endorsements will considerably dwarf what he earns on the court annually .

    Courtesy of Forbes.com

    Kobe And LeBron Top List Of The NBA’s Highest-Paid Players

    NBA owners intended last season’s lockout to reduce player salaries and increase parity between small- and large-market teams. While overall player costs are down, the stars are still raking it in. The NBA’s 10 highest-paid players will collectively earn $340 million this year alone through salary and endorsements, with big-market players dominant: Seven of the top 10 suit up in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, while two others hail from sunny, no-income-tax Miami.

    The NBA’s highest-paid player is Kobe Bryant, who will make $59.8 million in salary and endorsements this year. Bryant’s Lakers salary of $27.8 million is $7 million higher than any other player’s. The NBA’s collective bargaining agreement limits individual player salaries to 35% of the team salary cap, which is $58 million this year. But players can also sign deals that are 105% of their previous salary even if it exceeds the cap. Bryant is an exceptional case because he is in his 17th season with the same team at 34 years old and is still playing at an exceptionally high level. The result: Bryant has signed a series of maximum level contracts with the Lakers.

    Bryant, who was voted this month to start in his NBA-record 15th All-Star game, is a popular corporate endorser, earning an estimated $32 million annually off the court from partners Nike, Coca-Cola (he plugs Sprite), Turkish Air, Mercedes-Benz and memorabilia firm Panini. Nike provides the bulk of his sponsorship income. Bryant is a hugely popular figure in China, where Nike is looking to make further inroads. Nike sells twice as many of Bryant’s sneakers in China as in the U.S., according to sources.

    Full List: The NBA’s Highest-Paid Players

    Special Report: The Business of Basketball

    LeBron James of the Miami Heat ranks second with annual earnings of $57.6 million. James accepted a smaller contract ($17.6 million this season) to sign with the Heat than what the Cleveland Cavaliers offered when he left the Cavs in the infamous 2010 “Decision.” Florida offered a lower state tax rate and the Heat provided a clearer path to an NBA title.

    James had a historic 2012 when he led the Heat to the NBA title and the U.S. men’s Olympic team to the gold medal in London. Along the way, he was awarded the MVP award for the regular season and the NBA Finals. Michael Jordan is the only other player to nab the four honors above in the same year.

    James’ memorable 2012 has helped dissipate much of the fallout from his departure from the Cavs. The NBA announced in November that James had the league’s best-selling jersey. He is the NBA’s top pitchman, earning $40 million annually off the court. His sponsors include global titans Nike, Coca-Cola, Samsung and McDonald’s. Audemars Piguet, Dunkin’ Donuts, State Farm and Upper Deck are also part of James’ endorsement portfolio.

    Derrick Rose clocks in third with earnings of $32.4 million. Rose’s income skyrocketed this season in the first year of his five-year, $95 million contract extension with the Chicago Bulls. The point guard also kicked off his new 13-year, $185 million Adidas deal.

    Adidas is fighting an uphill battle in the U.S. in basketball. Nike, including its Jordan Brand subsidiary, is the dominant basketball shoe company in the States with a 92% market share, according to SportsOneS0urce, which tracks sports shoe and apparel sales. Adidas is at 5.5% in the U.S.

    “Today’s athletes do not provide the ROI in terms of footwear sales,” says SportsOneSource analyst Matt Powell. “However, athletes like Lebron and Rose have become more than just shoe endorsers, and act as the face of the brand, which amortizes some of the huge contracts.”


    Click on link to read in full .


    The finances of a number of franchises are now reaching a precarious level , for which David Stern sows no clear picture as to how to deal with those issues .

    tophatal …………

  15. Sports culture and events can mirror what we treasure about our societal cultural, and as this analysis reveals, what we know to be flaws in our societal culture.

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