For those gentlemen – and who knows, maybe ladies, too – who aspire to one day reach the pinnacle of the basketball coaching profession, be advised that institutions you hope to work for may not be run in the most rational manner.
Hornacek just became the latest NBA head coach to lose his job, although compared to others, the Phoenix Suns looked positively patient. It took them all of 49 games to decide Hornacek – who was the runner-up Coach of the Year two seasons ago – was not the man for the job.
Blatt was asked to leave after 41 games, Hollins was dismissed after 37 and McHale lasted only 11.
Although Blatt’s firing seemed to generate the strongest reaction, it could be argued that McHale’s was, on the surface, the craziest. In five seasons, McHale’s teams won 59.8 percent of their games. Last season, they survived injuries that caused Dwight Howard to miss 41 games, still earned the second seed in the West, then advanced to the Western Conference finals before losing in five games to the eventual champion Golden State Warriors. The thought that McHale’s job was in danger was ludicrous.
After he was fired, however, McHale admitted to the Houston Chronicle that players were not responding to his coaching. “It wasn’t working,” he said. So the Rockets have at least a plausible excuse for making a change after a 4-7 start, although they have managed only to make it to .500 at 25-25 under J.B. Bickerstaff. At this point, it doesn’t look like a coaching change was a cure-all.
Hollins had a decent 214-201 record when he arrived in Brooklyn, but as Sheridan pointed out quite forcefully, the mess he inherited was toxic and he became a scapegoat for the inept way the franchise has been run. Tellingly, the Nets are 2-10 since Hollins departed.
Hornacek is the latest to go, fired on Monday. In defense of Phoenix management, the Suns were 14-35 after going 39-43 last season. Yes, there was that not-so-minor matter of losing Eric Bledsoe, their best player, for the season because of a knee injury, but apparently that was not an acceptable excuse.
Lousy assistant coaching was also not an explanation for their shortcomings because Suns management eliminated that in late December when Hornacek’s top two assistants were fired. The Suns had opened the season 7-6, then lost 15 of their next 20. When the 76ers came to town with a 1-30 record and left 2-30, that was it for Mike Longabardi and Jerry Sichting. They were gone.
And how did that work out? The Suns managed to win two of their next 17 games.
The interesting part of Blatt’s firing is that a number of NBA coaches were outraged by it, and hardly anyone else was. The Cavaliers were 30-11, so they weren’t exactly struggling. But in a five-day stretch, they lost to the Warriors and Spurs, although the latter wasn’t that bad since it was in San Antonio by only four points.
Against Golden State, however, the Cavs lost by 34 on their home court. And Blatt, who had an 83-40 regular season record and 14-6 in the playoffs, was sent packing. Dallas coach Rick Carlisle was the most outspoken, saying several different ways that Blatt was an accomplished coach. Carlisle also made this prediction:
“David Blatt is going to be a highly sought-after coach this summer, if and when there are openings.”
But will he? Some of the stories that provided details leading to Blatt’s departure painted him as a coach with major insecurities and one who was uncomfortable confronting star players. NBA owners and general managers read those stories written by reputable reporters. It has an effect on them.
They also watched in the playoffs when Blatt lost count of his timeouts. They watched when LeBron James changed a key play late in a game, which resulted in James taking and making the game-winning shot. Other players have changed plays, but after a season of stories about Blatt’s slow adjustment to the NBA, it was another indication that he did not quite know what he was doing.
When I wonder whether Blatt will be a hot commodity in the offseason, I think about Avery Johnson. Actually, the two have little in common. Blatt spent most of his coaching career overseas; Johnson played 16 years in the NBA, then made a quick transition to coaching.
The one thing they do have in common is they won big and won right away. Johnson took over for Don Nelson late in the 2004-05 season, had two 60-win teams and, like Blatt, went to the Finals once, only to lose.
Johnson lasted a little more than three seasons in Dallas and built a record of 194-70. Despite that, he was fired because the intense style that enabled him to overachieve in the NBA despite being 5-10 and 170 pounds wore out his relationships with players.
Johnson was out of coaching two years after leaving the Mavericks but then got the Nets job. Without the talent he had in Dallas, Johnson’s teams went 60-116 and he was fired. Again, like in Dallas, Johnson’s intensity wore on the players.
In the two seasons after leaving the Nets, Johnson became a forgotten man. He still had a record of 254-186 and a winning percentage of .577. But because of his reputation, he was not in the running for any head coaching job, and there were many. Ultimately, he had to go to college coaching to get a job at Alabama and with the roster changing regularly, it might be the perfect place for him.
So I’m wondering if Blatt will be like Johnson. Is his record so good that he gets another chance? Or are teams so leery of him that he will not be a serious candidate anywhere?
If Blatt can’t get a head coaching job, it would make sense for him to be a top assistant somewhere to gain experience. But he does not seem like the type of guy who would consider that.
On the other hand, Blatt should be aware that only a few NBA teams have foresight. It seems unlikely he will be “highly sought-after,” but when general managers see no major problems with a head coach at the beginning of a season but then become aware that something is wrong after 11 games, 30-something games or 40-something games, well, there is hope.
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Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.