The NBA coaching carousel is shockingly quiet. Does this mark a permanent shift in sideline turnover or are we in a weird vortex of random stability? Paul Flannery and Tom Ziller discuss that and the few warm seats in this week’s Flanns & Zillz.
ZILLER: We just had the first season since the early 1970s during which not a single NBA head coach was fired. The regular season has been done for two weeks, and not a single head coach from the 14 lottery teams has been fired. This is not remotely normal. The average NBA head coach tenure is less than three seasons. We had incredible turnover in the prior couple of seasons, but no one saw this coming.
Is this a blip, or a good trend?
I think a lot of this is simple economics. Who wants to pay another coach to win 27 games when you've already got one guy making a million? Or, if you're the Knicks, who wants to pay three coaches to do the same job?
We also value coaches a lot more than we used to. Take Steve Clifford in Charlotte. The Hornets had a down year. That kind of mini regression after a breakthrough used to put a small market coach on the hot seat. Ain't no hot seat for Cliff, and rightly so. We all know he's one of the best.
One year does not a trend make, however. I figure we'll see a lot of turnover next season and maybe even into the summer.
ZILLER: I think you're right. All of the attention paid to costly coaching decisions probably made a few GMs and franchise owners realize there's a problem.
I think there are a couple of fluke reasons for the year of stability and a couple of structural issues. First, the Kings and Knicks both hired new coaches in the offseason; those teams are usually prime candidates for a midseason canning, and they were both off the table from the jump. (Firing a coach in the middle of their first season is quite rare, even in the NBA. Shout out to Mo Cheeks.) The basic fact that we had massive turnover the last two summers and during the 2015-16 season creates a situation where a lot of underperforming coaches are still getting the benefit of the doubt.
More structurally, I think a couple of things are in play. First, we're seeing the GM-coach become more popular. You have Tom Thibodeau and Stan Van Gundy taking gigs like that fairly recently. They aren't firing themselves.
You also have more frequent opportunity for player turnover due to shorter contracts. In the old NBA, contracts were so long that it truly was much easier to fire the coach than to fire the players. That's still the case, but it's a little bit easier to fire the players via free agency, the stretch provision, and a still-robust trade system.
That's all a long-winded way of saying I think NBA coaching will become more stable over time, but that this season remains an outlier.
This isn't to say we won't have any turnover this summer. You're not worried about Steve Clifford and I agree that he's probably safe at this point. Are you worried about anyone else, in the playoffs or otherwise?
FLANNERY: That’s an important point about player contract length. How many times have we heard, well you can't fire the players? These days, if you think you have the right coach, you can just shuffle the roster. I don't know that the coach-player power balance has shifted all the way over to the sidelines, but it has shifted a little.
You know how I feel about hot seats, so you first.
ZILLER: I take no pleasure in speculating about coaches' employment situations! But it's part of the job for both us and them.
Dwane Casey isn't keeping his job if the Bucks beat the Raptors. That's the only job that really seems at risk at this point. Fred Hoiberg might be in the middle of saving his own job, but we'll see. He’s due a bunch of money still. I still think there's a shoe to drop in New Orleans.
FLANNERY: The other shoe has been ready to drop in NOLA since last summer. Considering the lack of action, there's plenty of time to make a move and get the coach you want, but the whole Pelicans thing is perplexing on a number of levels. I'm sure we'll see some movement eventually.
What I'm genuinely curious about is whether we are seeing a new age unfold. Brad Stevens will be in Boston for as long as he wants. Brett Brown seems entrenched in Philly. Mike Budenholzer has all the power. We already mentioned Cliff — no offense to Kemba Walker, but Clifford’s the face of the franchise. Guys like Erik Spoelstra and Rick Carlisle are institutions at this point. Might we be looking at the era of the legacy coach?
ZILLER: We do seem to be stacking up more coaches as institutions than we have in recent memory. But institutions fall. I'm not convinced Clifford can outlast another losing season, and I think the bill will come due on Brett Brown if there isn't additional progress next season. Carlisle is interesting to me because he's so well-regarded and the Mavericks are usually better than they have reason to be. But he's not winning too many playoff games, you know?
There's a piece of this narrative I am morally obligated to mention here: Diversity in NBA coaching is still bad. There are currently nine head coaches of color in a league that is 80 percent black. Spoelstra and Tyronn Lue are becoming institutions. David Fizdale is set for at least a few years. Doc Rivers is his own boss. Nate McMillan goes into next year on fairly thin ice. Casey and Alvin Gentry might be unemployed by next week. Who knows with Jason Kidd in Milwaukee or Earl Watson in Phoenix. Patrick Ewing fled to the college ranks, so Jerry Stackhouse might be the next former player up.
It's something the league has to watch, to make sure the good ol' boys club is inclusive. (And perhaps soon that it's no longer a club just for men. Paging Becky Hammon ...)
FLANNERY: Coaching trends come fast and furious. We seem to be over the college coach thing, already.
I'm hoping Fizdale's success will open the door for assistants like Stephen Silas and Darvin Ham. Both have been around the game forever. Ham has ex-player cred, but Silas is the son of Paul and both have paid their dues in all manner of assistant coach responsibilities. Both those guys deserve looks and there a dozen other assistants who merit consideration.
We may be overlooking one aspect of this newfound job security: Coaching is really good right now. There aren't that many old-school holdovers left. The game continues to innovate and the coaches are pushing boundaries. Teams crave continuity and sustained success. These are all good things.
ZILLER: Silas is definitely on radars — I wouldn't be surprised if the Warriors find a way to pull him back should Mike Brown continue his grand tour of the NBA elsewhere. (Silas worked heavily with a young Steph Curry before going to work with his dad.)
And amen on the cogent point about there being lots of good coaching. There's relatively little gross misconduct happening on the sidelines these days. That's good for all of us.
Editor’s Note: The piece originally stated there are six NBA head coaches of color in the NBA. There are actually nine.