At a time when hundreds of thousands of Americans are getting pink slips, it's hard to feel much sympathy for someone walking away with a six- or seven-figure severance package. But at least the assembly-line worker usually gets a few weeks', or at least days', notice; NBA coaches are gone in an instant.
And lately, a staggering number of them are disappearing. So far this season, which is barely a quarter of the way over, six NBA head coaches, or 20% of the total, have already been fired; the latest victim, Sacramento's Reggie Theus, just got the news on Monday. That's a new record for axings before Christmas. The other casualties include Sam Mitchell, the 2006-07 NBA Coach of the Year for the Toronto Raptors, fired by the club on Dec. 3; Maurice Cheeks, the beloved ex-champion point guard for the Philadelphia 76ers, canned by the Sixers last weekend despite winning widespread admiration for turning Philly into a playoff team a year ago; Eddie Jordan, the first coach in 28 years to lead the Washington Wizards to four straight playoff appearances, cut down after a 1-10 start; Randy Wittman of the Minnesota Timberwolves and P.J. Carlesimo of the Oklahoma City Thunder. (See the top 10 sports moments of 2008.)
Coaches, of course, have always been convenient scapegoats for a team's failure to perform, especially as player salaries have skyrocketed. But many observers believe this most recent trend of quick triggers has reached laughable levels. "Head coaches may be hearing all this talk about how 'we're all in this together,'" says Jeff Van Gundy, former coach of the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets and now an ABC/ESPN analyst. "In reality, not really. Unless your name is [nine-time title winner] Phil Jackson, [four-time title winner] Gregg Popovich, [21-year Utah Jazz coach] Jerry Sloan or ['08 champ] Doc Rivers, if you lose three games in a row, you're instantly on the hot seat. I really do believe that."
The flurry of firings no doubt reflects the pressures to win immediately, a pressure that is even more intense in today's floundering economy. "Where teams would be patient with coaches before, today they have to act as quickly as they can," says a team executive. "If a change on the bench can create value for your team, you're going to do it. You can't risk alienating your fans by just standing by while a team loses. In this climate, they won't be responding to those season-ticket notices come spring."
That may all be true. But for every Lawrence Frank whose New Jersey Nets reeled off 13 straight wins after he replaced a deposed Byron Scott in 2004 there are many more instances where early-season firings fail to change a team's fortunes. Excluding Sacramento, which just fired Theus on Monday, the winning percentage of the five teams before their coaching dismissals was .277 (23-60). Since the firings, those five teams have gone a combined 7-28, a .200 winning percentage.
At its root, this year's coaching turnover is an indictment of poor management decisions and unrealistic expectations. If these owners didn't make bad hires in the first place, there'd be no fans daring them to clean house. Sacramento hired the former NBA player Theus, for example, before the 2007-08 season based on just his two strong years of college coaching at New Mexico State not exactly an NCAA powerhouse. Carlesimo, once a successful college coach at Seton Hall University, had never meshed with pro players: in the 1990s, he failed in both Portland and Golden State, where he found himself on the receiving end of Latrell Sprewell's infamous choke hold. Randy Wittman was coaching a team that everyone expected to be cellar dwellers, and proved winner Eddie Jordan has had to deal with a raft of early-season injuries.
And for all their designer suits and million-dollar salaries, most coaches have less power than many fans realize. "It's often said that the NBA is a players' league," notes Van Gundy, who was fired in 2007 after a relatively long run of four years as coach of the Rockets. "What's left unsaid is that it's also a league about the guys who pick the players, the general managers." Not only do they make most of the big player decisions on trades and free-agent signings, but they also get a lot more face time with the people who sign the checks, meeting almost daily with the owner. "Coaches have very infrequent contact with the owners, so they only get the perspective of management," says Van Gundy.
At the same time, the NBA, like most other pro sports leagues, is full of copycats, which means the kind of coach or team that management wants can change very quickly. The Phoenix Suns win by playing an up-tempo style? Maybe we should do that. Oklahoma City fired Carlesimo after a brutal start? The other coaches will fall like dominoes. "Once there's blood in the water, people don't think they're keeping up with the times," says an NBA source familiar with coach-management relations. "These guys can't help themselves."
Today's media landscape only intensifies the pressures. The folks in the owner's suite can't avoid the rants of the bloggers who are calling for the coach's head. "Owners are sensitive to how they are perceived in the marketplace," says veteran agent Lonnie Cooper, who holds the unfortunate distinction of representing all six of the coaches fired this season. (Aspiring coaches, don't duck if you see him Cooper represented Hall of Famer Chuck Daly and all-time wins leader Lenny Wilkens during their coaching careers; Rivers, whose champion Celtics are an astonishing 23-2 as of Wednesday, is also a Cooper client.)
Even if this year's coaching moves backfire, don't expect a more patient approach to return. Coaches will no longer get the chance to grow with their players. "I wouldn't cement this year's record. It's one of those things that will get broken in the next year or so," says Van Gundy. "I don't think anyone cares about how the coaches are treated." Except, of course, for a fellow fired coach.