CHICAGO – How does that saying go about better to rent than buy?
That certainly applies to NBA coaches, 11 of whom have been let go since the start of the 2015-16 season. Of course, given that the average salary is close to $5 million and that many are fired with at least a year left on their deals and sometimes more, like with Kevin McHale in Houston or Tom Thibodeau in Chicago, you can rent something very, very nice.
The latest departures were Dave Joerger in Memphis and Frank Vogel in Indiana, both considered something of a surprise and with the appropriate cacophony of angry voices about the inequity of it all from the chorus of former coaches who occupy most of the TV analyst positions and those still coaching. Vogel’s Indiana Pacers were in the conference finals consecutive seasons until Paul George missed a year with a broken leg; Joerger’s Memphis Grizzlies won more than 60 percent of their games with him as coach.
Boston’s Brad Stevens, considered one of the young breed of head coaches, is now tied for sixth in seniority among all NBA coaches. And one of the coaches ahead of him, Toronto’s Dwane Casey, probably would have been fired if the Raptors didn’t win that seventh game over Indiana and Vogel. And Casey still might be if the Raptors can’t get past the Miami Heat.
There are some coaches who are secure: Gregg Popovich, certainly. Not only for his team’s success, but he basically runs the organization. There’s Rick Carlisle, who is on his third job in Dallas, and Erik Spoelstra in Miami, the latter under the firm guidance of team president Pat Riley.
Terry Stotts in Portland also is more senior, though he had been teetering without a new contract this season until the Trail Blazers’ surprising run to the second round. It probably saved his job even as management broke up the team after last season.
That’s the main point: It’s their ball and they are going to take it home when they are done.
These jobs aren’t about so-called fairness. Plus, the landscape has changed and it has made the NBA more of a results-now business than ever. And since it’s more difficult to fire the players — though it happens frequently, as well —you fire the coach, as that old bromide goes.
There’s the dreaded Internet society, which now is all about instant analysis and a demand for something done. And right now!
Sports always has been a results-oriented business, but now it is more than ever in the NBA as ownership lines up with the corporate world. Corporate managers answerable basically to stockholders are replaced all the time when the company’s results sink from one year to the next. The business world just doesn’t happen to be monitored like the sports world.
But it’s colliding with the ongoing changes in NBA ownership.
NBA teams once were widely owned by family operations, which acted in a conservative manner befitting their patriarch. That’s changed with the public nature of teams and the increasing value that has mostly run out the family operations and replaced them with high-flying, business-oriented owners, many associated with equity type of investment hedge funds.
It’s another reason why analytic management has become so prevalent in the NBA, if not all sports.
This generation of owners comes not from sporting backgrounds, but from business. They analyze not only from the bottom line (profits/wins and losses), but using mathematical formulas. So they are comfortable analyzing their teams with mathematical formulas. Because that’s how they achieved success in their businesses.
And their businesses change managers based on year-to -year results.
So why not with their new businesses?
Also, coaches essentially are mercenaries.
They come to teams generally as a fixer-upper. They’re brought in less for relationships than results.
That’s where Riley is different as he tries to groom his coaches from within the organization, working their way up so that he can develop a relationship. It’s similar, though reversed, in San Antonio, where Popovich developed his general manager, R.C. Buford, in a long working relationship.
Otherwise, they are gypsies brought in to fix something at the moment.
That hardly suggests a long- term relationship.
Consider, Joerger was an assistant under former coach Lionel Hollins and pretty much was rumored to have undermined Hollins with management. It happens in business, we are told, also. He got the job. But then this season, he openly questioned the state of the roster even before all the injuries. You also have to get along with your bosses.
Vogel did, but his bosses wanted him to change the team’s style of play. He didn’t seem capable as he was more comfortable with a slower defensive game, like Thibodeau in Chicago. Maybe the boss isn’t always right. As employees know. But they are the boss. It’s different when you are making about $5 million a year. You can act a bit more independent and do what you want. But then don’t be surprised and don’t whine when the boss tells you to leave.
George Karl in Sacramento had no chance with an organization generally regarded as the league’s most unstable with the player who perhaps matches that in DeMarcus Cousins. Change has been the Kings’ only constant.
Phil Jackson always thought he was going to hire Steve Kerr. And Kerr was always talking about working for Jackson as he felt he owed his playing career debt to Jackson, whom he much admired. Until the Golden State job and family considerations interfered. So Jackson with little time to find someone else settled on a former player, Derek Fisher. But just because you coach them doesn’t mean you know them. Fisher got the $20 million guarantee and told Jackson to stop calling. A team is doomed without a good management/coach relationship.
Jackson always used to tell me a coach’s voice has a maximum of seven years with any group, usually less even in ideal circumstances. Jackson following that plan was ready to resign from the Bulls after the 1995-96 season. But the Bulls then won 72 games and another title. Jackson still was considering leaving, and players literally came to his house to ask him to stay. So even if Kurt Rambis hasn’t been a successful coach, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he is hired in New York as he and Jackson have long been close and think similarly.
And what’s wrong with having Phil Jackson’s voice with your new coach?
Coaching an NBA team is a great job; the unusual part is it comes with the pension in advance.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”