The league has shifted from what have you done to what have you done lately, and its coaches have less room for error than ever before
Hall of Fame basketball coach Al McGuire once said of the coaching profession, "It's a profession in which, the longer you stay, the closer you are to being fired." That statement has never felt more true than it does today in the NBA. Since the beginning of the playoffs, we have seen the following coaches be shown the door: Nick Nurse, Mike Budenholzer, Monty Williams, and Doc Rivers. All 4 of these coaches have experienced success with Coach of the Year honors and some have won NBA titles. But the NBA is becoming a “what have you done for me lately”, and coaches are perhaps more disposable than they have ever been.
The Trouble With Parity
This year the NBA has been applauded for having the most wide-open field to win a championship in many years. There is no dynasty currently, even the number one seed Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference has been considered a beatable team by many during the season. We have seen evidence of this as the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks lost to an 8-seed Miami team in the first round, and that Miami team is now in the Eastern Conference Finals. In the West, the 7-seeded Lakers are also in the Conference Finals after disposing of the 2nd-seed Memphis Grizzlies and 6-seed Golden State Warriors.
What this parity has meant is that a championship feels attainable in a way that it hasn’t since the early 2000s. There is no dynasty, no unbeatable team, and no daunting force that causes teams in the middle of the pack to reconsider trying to win games. There are many good teams in the league currently, but there truly is no cream of the crop. This has led owners of teams to feel that they are good enough to make a run and win a title, along with all the extra revenue that provides.
This has placed added pressure on coaches to succeed, teams are making moves to win now and if they cannot deliver the ultimate prize then they will be discarded quickly. We saw this with Phoenix as the team promptly fired coach Monty Williams after a second consecutive season ending with a blowout loss in the second round. Only this time, it was after the team had made a trade to acquire Kevin Durant. Mike Budenholzer was let go from the Bucks after an early exit in the first round, a mere two seasons removed from him leading them to a championship. There used to be a sense that a championship delivers a coach a grace period, but this is no longer the case. Professional basketball has always been a results-driven game but that has never been more apparent than it is today. And because we are talking about a league in the NBA that has become increasingly player-friendly, coaches are often the first casualties of a failed campaign.
A Players League
The impact of coaching varies depending on the sport. In the NFL, it is one of the most important strengths to possess alongside strong quarterback and offensive line play. In basketball, it is a little more complex. When you have a young team, it is vital to have a coach that can reach players and get the most out of them to compete at a high level. Without this disaster beckons, look no further than the fate of Stephen Silas with the Houston Rockets this year. But when it works, think Scott Brooks in his early Oklahoma City days, coaching is incredibly important.
But as the talent increases, the role of a coach changes from one of a tactician to a manager of egos. It is often said that the NBA is a players league, but the reality is that it is a superstars league. The top 25 players in this league dictate much of what happens in a season and who ends up where. The NBA features more star trades than other American leagues because the league’s structure is such that top-end talent is coveted beyond anything else. What this means for coaches is that they are left holding the proverbial short end of the stick.
If a team is underperforming, the first thing to go is usually the coach. Let’s take the Brooklyn Nets from a couple of years ago as the best example of this. That team was built around Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, and they did not have much depth beyond that because of tying all their resources to two elite players. When it became clear the experiment wasn’t working, it wasn’t Durant or Irving to be removed first, it was head coach Steve Nash. The players were eventually jettisoned to Dallas (Irving) and Phoenix (Durant), but the coach had to be removed first for that to happen.
Finding the Middle Ground
It almost feels untenable that the NBA coaching carousel continues the way it has this season. Coaches are now given the shortest leash that they have ever been given. Many equate this to the player empowerment era that saw players controlling their destinies. Others can point to rich owners that are so used to success at such a high level that they are impatient and want immediate results. The reality is that coaching is still a grinding and intense aspect of the game that does not have the glamor of superstar play and rich luxury boxes.
There is a dedication to coaching that is one of the few remnants of the old NBA that we still have today. The game has lowered players' minutes, increased their contracts, embraced load management, and gotten overall more opulent and decadent. But the coaching profession is still very much a craft for the weary, a job that not many can do well. The Steve Nash experiment in Brooklyn showed that any great player cannot just jump into coaching, it is a decision-making position with very real consequences.
That is not to say that there aren’t tenured coaches in the league. Erik Spoelstra, Gregg Popovich, and Steve Kerr have been with their teams for many years and are fixtures on those sidelines. But for newer coaches, the stakes are high and success is demanded. I do not doubt that Nick Nurse and Monty Williams will get other opportunities, but the question has to be asked if the way that teams are viewing the coaching profession as disposable is the right approach. Star players are given chances year after year to perform in the playoffs. And yet, they are not traded for missing a shot or not closing out on a shooter. There needs to be more of a balance in the axis of blame in the NBA because as it stands right now being a head coach in this league is a treacherous path indeed.