In Murky Waters: The Unclear Expectations on Head Coaches
As coaches go, Rick Carlisle
is a pretty thoughtful guy. He usually avoids using one too many clichés, and though he measures his words, he only measures them enough to avoid a league fine. After all, that’s what his boss, Mark Cuban, is for.
Carlisle, Cuban, and the other key players in the Dallas front office have maintained a very positive relationship during the head coach’s first five-plus seasons with the Mavericks, an increasingly important thing in today’s NBA. Only two head coaches (Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra) are longer-tenured with their current teams, and Spoelstra beats Carlisle by a matter of weeks. Not coincidentally, those three coaches are three of four active bosses that have won a title. The other, Doc Rivers, had been with the Boston Celtics since 2004 before moving west this summer.
It’s silly and almost counter-intuitive to argue that allowing coaches to stay with a franchise longer increases their odds of winning a championship, because bad coaches will usually not win, and good coaches will usually avoid the chopping block. But the ways by which new, young head coaches find jobs (and lose them, more often than not) are changing.
Thirteen teams will be led by new coaches this season, and nine of those skippers have never coached an NBA game before. That means that Carlisle, the president of the coaches association, has an interesting, unprecedented situation on his hands. More coaching changes took place this season than ever before. Sixteen of the 30 head coaches have spent one season or less with their current teams. And they’re replacing some of the most familiar – and relatively successful – faces in the league during the past half-decade or so: George Karl, Lionel Hollins, and Vinny Del Negro, for example, all lost their jobs, each after taking their teams to the playoffs. Karl won 57 games in Denver last season, the most the franchise has ever won.
“People are going to argue that this is one of those cycles,” Carlisle said during a surprisingly candid pre-game presser before the Mavs/Hawks preseason game last week. “One of those years where there’s a lot of change. Those guys are gonna be in a great position to get a year away – to get some rest, to recharge. And with that kind of success in their recent past, they’re going to be highly desired whenever more jobs open.”
That’s what one would think, at least. But the coach/GM dynamic is arguably more important now than ever before. And if that dynamic isn’t working, there’s not much hope for reconciliation with other like-minded teams. Take Hollins, for example. The former Grizzlies coach took the team to its first-ever Western Conference Finals, but he was a staunch opponent of last season’s Rudy Gay-for-Tayshuan Prince trade, and it was no secret that he and writer-turned-basketball VP John Hollinger thought differently about analytics and the general way the team was assembled. Hollins said so himself before the Gay trade even happened.
“We get hung up on statistics a little too much, and I think that’s a bad trait all over the league that’s taken place,” he said, later adding, “Analytics has a place. It can’t be the be all end all. I’m still trying to figure out when the Oakland Athletics won a championship with all the analytics they have. It takes talent.”
Whether or not you personally agree is irrelevant, because Hollinger is the boss. The same can be said in Houston with Daryl Morey, in OKC with Sam Presti, and anywhere Masai Ujiri goes. The day of the rockstar general managers is here. (Hollinger’s official title with Memphis is Vice President of Basketball Operations.) The media declare Houston to be Daryl Morey’s team, not Kevin McHale’s. Scott Brooks is often considered a hindrance to the Thunder’s success, although Presti rightfully received the brunt of the blame for the Thunder’s playoff letdown after the objectively questionable James Harden trade last season.
There’s a culture change. Ten years ago, if a coach was not considered the face of management, he was considered a weak coach. The Lakers, Knicks, and the 2006 Heat were Pat Riley’s teams. Phil Jackson ran the Bulls (much to Jerry Krause’s chagrin) and Lakers. Jeff Van Gundy was the ‘90s Knicks. But the old guard is gone now. The only possible exception is Gregg Popovich, whose coaching tree is as impressive as it is extensive. However, Popovich has more power than most (or all) current NBA coaches. He’s the last head man with super power, with an exception possibly being Doc Rivers, though the near-miss on the Redick deal leaves his level of power unclear. It’s difficult to look at the players on the floor and completely believe that they’re playing with the head coach’s personality. Gone are the gritty, mean defenses. In are the corner 3s. It’s a data-driven game now.
Carlisle said the void of power is a natural byproduct of the gradual retirement of that old guard: Jackson, Riley, Van Gundy and brother Stan, Jerry Sloan. “These guys were at the very top of the profession,” he said. “When you get a bunch of those guys that step away, there’s going to be a little more instability.”
In the past, every GM would probably be looking to find the next Jerry Sloan – a head coach to whom they can give all the power, similar to how college coaches are and always have been treated. But no more. Even crummy teams like the Bobcats are led by star power from the top, though Michael Jordan is famous for reasons other than his savvy for fielding a watchable team.
The popular trend, then, is for an owner or general manager to find a coach from within the organization (or one from a revered program like San Antonio’s). What’s the best way to do that? Look no further than Carlisle and his 2011 Finals opponent Spoelstra, both of whom began their careers as video coordinators (once Carlisle was done playing professionally). Carlisle is now considered an absolute mastermind, and the last still-employed head coach to win a title before Carlisle and Spoelstra was Gregg Popovich. His longtime assistant coach, Mike Budenholzer, now coaching in Atlanta, is another example of someone who climbed the ranks through the video department.
“Those guys are so deserving of their opportunity, and you can make an argument that (coach) Bud should have been a head coach a long time ago,” Carlisle said. “They’re down there in San Antonio, where they kind of lay low, and they have a great situation.”
But that’s where things grow dark. Budenholzer spent his career in the shadow of Popovich, just as Spoelstra spent time on the bench next to Riley, and just as Carlisle spent time beside his mentor Bill Fitch. All of those coaches have/had huge personalities. But with the specters of their former extremely powerful bosses looming – not to mention the added pressure from increasingly strong and influential front offices – new coaches need time to learn the ropes, but are often not afforded it. Monty Williams is already on the hot seat in New Orleans, although his front office didn’t make it easy to be successful until a few months ago. It’s tough to win when the GM is rebuilding.
Suddenly, the newly minted coaches are less powerful than expected and are saddled with unrealistic expectations. However, unlike before, when the mantra was “win or else,” today’s could be “buy in or else.” Hollins won in Memphis. And I get it: ownership and management changes happen, and typically when they do, the new guys want to get “their guys” in the coaching seat. (That in part explains the other coaching changes Carlisle addressed.) But one could argue Hollins was only let go because he disagreed with Hollinger and the rest of the Memphis brass. Fair or not, that’s reality. And reality sure does change quickly.
That leads me to wonder: is taking a head coach job with a front office you even kind of disagree with even worth it? Doc Rivers barely survived his first summer in LA, and Hollins could not have done much better in Memphis. Climbing up through an organization is even riskier.
“Sometimes it’s not the greatest thing to choose to leave (as an assistant),” Carlisle said. “Over the years, I was faced with some of those decisions as the assistant — whether to go somewhere and move one seat over, or was it better to stay in a more stable position and keep learning before you take that jump into the deep end of becoming a third (assistant) to a second, a second to a first, trying to find the right situation.”
It’s difficult to blame assistant coaches who want to make the leap, but at the rate coaches are being let go (James Harden completed his rookie season before all but four coaches were hired to their current jobs) it might not be worth the risk. You can win – you can win a lot – and it still might not matter. Carlisle might say the landscape is changing, but the climate of that landscape is awfully cloudy.