Gregg Popovich became the head coach of the San Antonio Spurs in 1996. Doc Rivers began coaching the Celtics in ‘04. Erik Spoelsta started his tenure with the Miami Heat in 2008, five years ago. That makes Spoelstra the third most tenured coach in the NBA.
That’s right. If you want job stability, the NBA head coaching circuit is not the place to look.
In the past month, George Karl, head coach of the Denver Nuggets and 2012-13 NBA Coach of the Year, was sent packing. Lionel Hollins, who brought the Memphis Grizzlies to their first ever Western Conference Finals, is now also looking for work. Vinny Del Negro coached the Los Angeles Clippers to their best record in franchise history. He’s currently polishing up his resume. PJ Carlesimo won 49 games with the Brooklyn Nets this season, their first ever season in the borough. He’s now receiving a paycheck from ESPN as an NBA analyst. Last month, the Milwaukee Bucks made the playoffs. They fired their coach, and his predecessor, within a matter of months. Apparently, making the playoffs is hazardous to one’s career.
During a recent on-air interview, Carlesimo said it best. He tried to explain why so many qualified individuals had been relieved of their duties. To paraphrase a man who has coached in Portland, Golden State, San Antonio, Seattle, Oklahoma City, Toronto, Brooklyn, not to mention bringing a Seton Hall team to the national championship game and earning a gold medal with the original Dream Team, upon being fired by the Nets, Carlesimo responded that he didn’t think the owner had realistic expectations. That probably holds true for most of the owners in the league.
Now, this is obviously not something you would want to tell your employer. Imagine going into a job interview, suit and tie all dapper, then telling your prospective boss you’re not going to succeed. I’m pretty sure a callback is not in your immediate future.
But Carlesimo is right. NBA championships come only to the select few.
Since 1983, that’s thirty years ago, only ten men have won NBA titles as head coach: KC Jones, Pat Riley, Chuck Daly, Phil Jackson, Rudy Tomjanovich, Gregg Popovich, Larry Brown, Doc Rivers, Rick Carlisle and Erik Spoelstra. And four of those guys have only won one!
It’s not the easiest thing in the world to do and if you want to, you better be lucky enough to have a superstar in your lineup. All of those men were fortunate enough to coach the most dominant players of their generation, i.e., Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, meaning if you want to crack that elite list, you better find yourself some talent.
“Unrealistic expectations,” as Carlesimo put it, have spawned the coaching carousel that is the National Basketball Association.
Gregg Popovich IS the San Antonio Spurs. He will never be fired. Even after Tim Duncan retires, Pop might continue to give it a go but he’ll likely ride off into the sunset, taking on a cushy office position. He already makes their personnel decisions. Spoelstra will also likely continue to coach in Miami, at least as long as LeBron is there and Pat Riley doesn’t ride him for underachieving. Nobody else’s job in the league, however, is safe. Not a single NBA soul.
Win and you’re in. Lose and expect a phone call. That’s the way of the NBA world these days.
This isn’t the NFL or Major League Baseball where the majority of teams start the season with a clean slate and a legitimate opportunity at a championship. This is the National Basketball Association where only a handful of teams can win. Those teams have superstars and far more realistic expectations.
After nineteen years in the league as a star point guard, Jason Kidd was hired to succeed PJ Carlesimo as head coach of the Brooklyn Nets. His team boasts two of the league’s superstars but as PJ hinted, that’s probably not enough to win a championship. I sure hope Kidd knows what he’s getting himself into.