Coaching stability? Every NBA team likely to start fall with same coach as year ago

But some doubt trend, citing 50-plus win coaches being fired several years ago

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Every NBA team will start training camp with the same coach it had a year ago.

Or to put that another way, the NBA’s owners and general managers went through the entire 2016-17 season, the postseason and so far the always unpredictable offseason without firing anyone from the elite group of 30 head coaches.

It’s been almost 15 months since the last NBA bench boss got axed; Memphis cut loose Dave Joerger in May 2016. Joerger was one of seven coaches relieved of their duties after the 2015-16 season. Four others had been whacked with the season in progress.

In 2014-15, it was four coaches fired during or after the season. On average, over the previous three years, about three got dumped.

For sheer Xs & Os, this is a fortuitous time to have some coaching continuity. Remember, the NBA is tightening up the preseason, cutting back from eight to six tune-up games and starting the regular season a week sooner. So having systems already in place, with shorter learning curves all around (except perhaps in Houston while blending Chris Paul with James Harden), should be a good thing.

Still, this is unprecedented stability within the coaching ranks, certainly in the NBA’s “modern” era. The last time the league began and finished a season with all its head coaches intact, it was 1970-71 and there were barely half as many teams (17). As recently as 2008-09, six coaches — OKC’s P.J. Carlesimo, Washington’s Eddie Jordan, Sacramento’s Reggie Theus, Toronto’s Sam Mitchell, Philadelphia’s Maurice Cheeks and Minnesota’s Randy Wittman — were fired before Christmas.

So how might we explain this unexpected change? A fluke? Front-office bosses asleep at the wheel? Owners who’ve grown tired of paying two or three different guys at once for the same job when they’ve fired coaches with money and years left on their deals?

Or something more positive?

“I don’t believe it’s a fluke,” Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “In the last few years, I believe that ownership really has seen the value of great coaching. And put a higher value on it.

“Contracts have gotten stronger. Length of contracts has gotten better for coaches. There’s no doubt that in today’s NBA, ownership understands the importance of continuity and staying the course. They deserve a lot of credit for finding their way to this point.”

Easy for Carlisle to say? Sure, he’s about to start his 10th season working for innovative Mavs owner Mark Cuban but a .572 winning percentage, seven playoff appearances and an NBA title in 2011 has much to do with that too.

It’s satisfying for Carlisle to say in his capacity as president of the National Basketball Coaches Association. As he surveys the current job security of coaches employed by his and the other 29 teams, Carlisle is pleased that — coincidental or not — it has come in the year of Michael H. Goldberg’s passing. Goldberg was the NBCA’s executive director for more than 30 years who worked tirelessly to boost head and assistant coaches’ status and benefits. He’ll be honored at the Naismith Hall of Fame induction ceremony in September as a John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award winner.

“It’s really been a great revelation this year,” the Dallas coach said. “There was virtually zero controversy involving coaches, about them being replaced or anything like that. We’re in a very strong position as a profession. The coaches that are in place have earned their contracts. They’ve earned their security. And they’re providing tremendous value.”

Not that some of the men fired prior to this seam in time weren’t. No wonder some folks aren’t convinced.

“I don’t see any indication that there’s a new mindset, where people are thinking, ‘We need continuity with our coaches’” one Eastern Conference executive said. “I think it’s just an anomaly probably.”

Added a longtime East coach: “A couple of years ago, they were firing head coaches that had won 50 games.”

George Karl won 57 games and the NBA’s Coach of the Year Award in 2013 but still got fired by Denver after the playoffs. Lionel Hollins led Memphis to a 56-26 record the same year and got axed. Mike Woodson got New York to 54 victories that season, was the same guy when they won 37 in 2013-14 and got dumped.

Certainly, the fact that 12 of the 30 teams began last with new coaches — the 11 changes made during or after 2014-15, plus Orlando hiring Frank Vogel in the wake of Scott Skiles’ unexpected resignation — reset the coaching clock for 40 percent of the league. Shiny new contracts signed, say, for five years with $25 million still have significant time and dollars remaining on them.

That means it’s important to give those staffs a chance, while not burning through the owner’s wallet without some certainty of improvement.

There are other possible factors at work to lessen firings.

Remember that old saw about how “you can’t fire the players, so you fire the coach?” The last two collective bargaining agreements between the owners and the union have rolled back the length of players’ contracts, with amnesty in the first one and a continuation of the “stretch” provision through this current one. Those made it easier to change the roster — “fire” the players, in essence — as did six- or eight-year contracts giving way to four- and five-year deals.

So instead of bringing in a new coach to work with players with whom a team might feel stuck, greater player movement can soon enough fit the roster to the coach.

The nearly 1-to-1 affiliation NBA teams now have with the G League has enabled the parent club to install its system and playbook with the minor league team. That argues for coaching stability, too, lest a change at the NBA level require an overhaul of the developmental team.

“Many teams, and the Dallas Mavericks are one of them, believe that their best chance to improve is internally,” Carlisle said. “With a great staff, great player development and really working with our younger guys.”

The Eastern Conference coach has noticed more interaction between coaching staffs and their front offices, driven in part by the focus on analytics. “I think there’s more collaboration between coaches and general managers now,” he said. “There’s more meetings, there’s more collaboration, there’s more ‘this is how we’d like to play.’

“They’ve hired younger coaches for the most part, too. If you tell [Stan] Van Gundy what to do, he’ll tell you to stick it in your hat. You tell Billy Donovan — who you gave a chance to [work in the NBA] — you might hear ‘OK, that’s good, let’s talk about it.’”

Another possible factor: Turnover in general managers or presidents of basketball operation. Someone’s getting fired, in other words, but not necessarily the coaches.

When Sam Hinkie got nudged aside in Philadelphia, Bryan Colangelo didn’t feel any obligation to remove Brett Brown, the long-suffering coach who signed onto Hinkie’s “Process” and now, maybe, in 2017-18, has a team that will be expected to win some games. Orlando needed a change, so it was GM Rob Hennigan but not Vogel shown the door.

Committing to rebuilds seems to get embraced more by entire organizations, most notably by the Sixers in Brown’s solid footing despite “his” 75-253 record. Atlanta will retain Mike Budenholzer as it takes a step back and Chicago will do likewise with Fred Hoiberg. Hoiberg also was the handpicked choice of Bulls GM Gar Forman, so any speculation about the coach’s future invariably gets linked to Forman’s.

In Indiana, Larry Bird stepped down as POBO but Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard worked with coach Nate McMillan in Portland, so there was no rush to change. Cleveland’s Tyronn Lue and Milwaukee’s Jason Kidd were never in jeopardy as new, inexperienced GMs took over the Cavaliers (Koby Altman) and the Bucks (Jon Horst).

Then there’s Dwane Casey surviving his frustrated boss Masai Ujiri’s vow of a “culture reset” after Toronto got swept by Cleveland in the East semifinals. As for the two-job guys — the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich, the Pistons’ Van Gundy, the Clippers’ Doc Rivers and the Timberwolves’ Tom Thibodeau — they aren’t working for bosses with itchy trigger fingers.

It remains to be seen, though, what sort of expectations and timetable Jeff Hornacek faces in New York with Phil Jackson gone. Impatience, underperformance and allegedly pivotal offseason moves that don’t translate quickly might drop cannonballs into the otherwise tranquil coaching waters.

“Next year, there could be four guys gone before Christmas,” the East coach said. “I’m not trying to caution you, but we could be right back in the thick of it.”

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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