Over the past week, three playoff teams found themselves in need of new coaches. Only one was technically fired.
In Houston, interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said no thanks to even being considered for the permanent job. But Daryl Morey had fired Kevin McHale just 11 games into the season, saying "The team was not responding to Kevin. There is no time in the West."
Morey might have done McHale a favor. Bickerstaff said he'd rather take a demotion than spend another day as coach for the Rockets, calling them a "broken team" and "fragmented bunch."
In Indianapolis, Larry Bird decided not to even consider extending Frank Vogel's contract. Vogel immediately became the hottest commodity on the coaching market.
Saturday morning in Memphis, Chris Wallace fired Dave Joerger for not being committed enough. So, if you're not committed enough, you get fired. Wait, what? How does that inspire commitment again?
And oh, by the way, that was coming from the guy who refused to commit to their previous coach who posted a 65 percent winning percentage over his final two years with the team. When Lionel Hollins took over the team, its previous winning percentage had been 29 percent. And now Wallace is complaining about loyalty.
As J.A. Adande puts it:
That’s 3 playoff teams who will have new coaches (MEM, IND, HOU). Not far from 5 non-playoff teams who fired coach (MIN, SAC, BKN, WAS, LAL)— J.A. Adande (@jadande) May 7, 2016
Once upon a time, Detroit was a part of this annual coaching carousel. Thankfully, they no longer are and won't be anytime in the near future.
I'm always surprised by the amount of support that comes from the national media for firing coaches. A fired coach, especially by a reasonably decent team, doesn't represent a problem with the coach. It represents a problem with the organizational culture. It represents a problem with the organizational structure.
Each of the three teams currently without a coach is a great reflection of that concept. The Pacers are led by an old-school player with a big name in a state where he has a lot of history. Sound familiar? Houston and Memphis also bring a top-down approach that has never led them past a particular ceiling.
Folks love to talk about the current buzzes in the game. Right now, you might think that it's playing small and building a three point arsenal. It's not. It's empowering coaches.
Who is the general manager for the Golden State Warriors? Seriously, I have no clue. The best franchises create their coach as the face of their club. Even the Miami Heat, with the famous and egotistical Pat Riley calling their shots, have managed to adopt this with Erik Spoelstra.
And it only makes sense. The Pistons have seen this. When you don't position the coach as a person worth respecting, folks don't respect him. Players walk out on them, don't show up for practices, don't bother playing hard.
But listening to the national folks, these firing/releases/terminations/parting of ways/whatever all make perfect sense. Matt Moore, who I have a lot of respect for, says:
No because they were both extreme.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) May 7, 2016
Hollins resisted modern approaches, Joerger wanted a younger roster. https://t.co/Vyn2TCCxtL
Seth Rosenthal, also a great basketball mind, says:
Every time a good coach becomes available, a good job also becomes available :/ https://t.co/KneL4iTUyZ— Seth Rosenthal (@seth_rosenthal) May 7, 2016
I disagree. The problem wasn't Hollins resisting a modern approach. The Grizzlies ownership resisted a modern approach. The buzz at the time was analytics. So their thought was that by firing a coach who resisted analytics and hiring a front office fella who embraced numbers in John Hollinger, they had taken care of the problem.
Nope. Data driven decision making is important in any business. But that doesn't mean that every person in a business needs to be a data driven individual. It takes a variety. When you run a business or department, you don't want to hire someone who looks/thinks/acts like exactly like you. You want them to complement you, but also look at things in a way that you do not.
Look at Lawrence Frank, who was supposedly a f'ing idiot (AFI) according to most Pistons fans. As far as I'm concerned, he led teams with 25 and 29 win talent (or worse) to 25 and 29 wins. But without him, we still might not know what a pick-and-roll weapon Andre Drummond represents.
Frank found the chemistry between Will Bynum and Andre Drummond during the preseason. Two and a half years later, Stan Van Gundy looked to build the entire franchise around a replication of that model by trading, and subsequently investing $80 million, in a kinda similar player in Reggie Jackson.
Frank drew the ire of fans when he said "It's not rotisserie basketball. It doesn't work quite like that. There are a lot of variables with it."
At the time, he was speaking of playing Drummond big minutes as a rookie and holding him accountable for his mistakes. But he could also have been talking about benching Jonas Jerebko in favor of Charlie Villanueva. Villanueva had been a disappointment and Jerebko a fan favorite. But Villanueva was willing to jack up the three point shots, opening up the paint for Bynum and Drummond's pick and rolls, while Jerebko was more cautious -- and going through a tremendous shooting slump.
Point is that it's true, there are a lot of variables when it comes to running a team, any team. Whether on a basketball court or office room. Talent matters, fit matters, decision-making matters, but everything is kind of nebulous. Firing a coach for trying to make something nebulous work because you have some other nebulous preference is dumb.
Otherwise we might as well just plug in by WS/48 and let things happen. Analytics-oriented doesn't always equate to smart.
And Seth said that when a good coach becomes available, a good job also becomes available. Tell that to Michael Curry. More likely, when a good coach becomes available, it means that there's a general manager who should have become available.
Chris Wallace said about the Joerger firing that "The decision was made because I believe you need a deeply committed leadership team in order to establish the strong culture needed for sustainable long-term success" and "being an NBA head coach is about more than just coaching a 48-minute game."
Joerger made the playoffs despite playing a NBA record 28 different players this season, and got fired. And considering how he let Hollins go, Wallace should probably find a mirror and take a long look in it before he whines about the commitment of his staff.
Which, finally, brings us back to the Pistons and the good news for Detroit. Last season, Tom Gores hit on one of the most important pieces of the future of the NBA -- a change in the organizational chart.
Coaches are more important than general managers. General managers should report to coaches. Whether by accident, whether by doing what it takes to land a blue chip coach like Stan Van Gundy, Gores hit on what will one day be the future of the league.
The reporting structure in the NBA simply doesn't make sense. One guy has the responsibility of building a roster and telling a coach to make that roster work, then expecting that this group of highly complex individual personalities is going to respect that individual enough to perform at a high level.
NBA coaches know more about basketball than we do. We know that Jonas Jerebko is and was better than Charlie Villanueva. But what we don't see is the dynamic on the rest of the floor that led Frank to making the change from Jerebko to Villanueva.
More importantly is the fact that for two consecutive years, Frank was told to go win games with his best point guard as Brandon Knight in his first two seasons. Where his best power forward was Jason Maxiell. Look at those rosters in retrospect. They were terrible.
Lawrence Frank was never AFI. Joe Dumars turned in a terrible performance as general manager. Lawrence Frank was a scapegoat who coached those teams to a result their talent warranted.
If the buck stopped at Lawrence Frank and he was responsible for the performance of his general manager, do you really think he would have gone into a season with Brandon Knight and Jason Maxiell as starters?
Through Stan Van Gundy, we've seen the difference. With the coach as the true leader of the team's performance, a legitimate partnership with the general manager is created. Stan Van Gundy is able to see opportunity where a general manager sees waste, which is how Marcus Morris finished fifth in the league in minutes played this season. We've seen how excited a coach is to work with someone else's players in that only two players from Joe Dumars' Pistons are still on the roster.
Typically, a general manager accumulates talent and tells the coach to make it work. But talent doesn't matter if fit isn't present. And even if both talent and fit are there, what about culture? How is someone who isn't in the locker room on a daily basis supposed to say that Player B fits? Yet if the general manager believes Player B fits, the coach doesn't, general manager fires coach.
Check out this piece from DBB about Stanley Johnson potentially not playing in the Summer League.
Thanks to Jason for transcribing, we know that SVG had 750 words to say about Johnson. Jeff Bower had 200. Who do you want to have the greater investment in a young player, to be more thoughtful about the development of a young player, SVG or Bower?
This change is going to happen around the league, but it's not going to happen particularly organically or quickly. The NBA still employs its archaic chart and logic. It's rare that a coach is handed the keys to the franchise, a perk that is saved for the special few.
Larry Bird, Chris Wallace, and Daryl Morey aren't going to pull a J.B. Bickerstaff and say "give me a demotion" any time soon. Why would they? They have almost no accountability. If a team struggles, it's the coach's fault. But it would be in their franchises' best interest to hire a coach to whom they report.
But well, maybe it's about power a little bit. SVG is regularly outspoken about quick trigger coach firings, even just in January, calling the Cleveland Cavs firing David Blatt "absurd."
Van Gundy said, "You can't even make a flimsy case for the fact that the guy wasn't meeting expectations. So obviously, there's something else going on, and that's what I'm saying -- none of us now has any clue, whatsoever, what the expectations for coaches are."
And that is a big part of the problem. The expectations from general managers to coaches are arbitrary and nonsensical. Morey put together a team that was an absolute mess and fired his coach 11 games into the season because it started out 4-7. So the expectation is never start a season at 4-7. Joerger was fired because he was generating interest from other teams. So don't be an attractive coaching candidate either. Vogel wasn't retained because...well, because...um. Hell if I know. Because perhaps one day the Pacers would regret having one of the top coaches in the league, I guess?
But back to Thib's point, the coach-general manager partnership will never truly thrive until the team is being built to the coach's specifications and preferences. Can you imagine the absurdity of a NCAA basketball coach reporting to the director of recruiting? It's the same concept. It's an alignment that makes no sense.
More teams are getting there, but right now it's more of a recruitment tool for smaller market teams to attract top coaching talent than a true paradigm shift. Mike Budenholzer was given President of Basketball Operations duties in addition to his role as coach, but only after they parted ways with Danny Ferry in the wake of his scandal. Gregg Popovich, Thibodeau, and Doc Rivers are the only other NBA coaches with final say over roster decisions.
Trends within the game come and go. But when you can structurally and organizationally get out in front of a major trend in a way that the Pistons have, you're going to be successful. Congratulations to Tom Gores for making it happen.