Brown, Spoelstra, VDN: Why NBA Coaches Are the Fall Guys

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Brown, Spoelstra, VDN: Why NBA Coaches Are the Fall Guys
Brett Deering/Getty Images

When you look at the playoff landscape, one team in particular seems to stand out as a model of continuity and competence. The Spurs have been at this for roughly a decade and a half, with Gregg Popovich always secure in his decisions. But this is the notable exception that proves the rule: NBA coaches are as powerless as they are scapegoated. 

You would think making it to the second round of these playoffs would ensure some job security. Yet, rumors persist that Erik Spoelstra, Vinny Del Negro and Mike Brown are on seats hotter than the Iron Throne. These men are coaching for their jobs and by extension, their careers. 

This is not uncommon among NBA game managers. According to Lynn Zinser of the New York Times, the median coaching tenure is 1.3 seasons. It's an occupation that lines the pockets of real estate agents, and a predicament that further furrows the brows of some of the most perpetually stressed out American public figures. NBA coaches are endangered from the time they grab the clipboard. So what gives? Why is almost every other coach on the firing line? Here are the reasons. 

1. Salaries

There was a moment in Game 3 of Pacers-Heat where Dwyane Wade yelled at Erik Spoelstra in full view of everyone. This appeared to be insubordination, or worse, downright mutiny. But to think this would be to misunderstand the NBA org chart, a fluid document that often places superstars above their so-called managers. Just look at the pay structure. Spoelstra is due to make $2.75 million this year. Wade—after taking a pay cut to play in Miami—is due to make $15.69 million, almost six times as much as his coach. If you earned nearly six times what your co-worker did, would you consider him to be your boss? It is exceedingly difficult for an NBA coach to maintain control over players whose salaries demonstrate that they are his superior and not the other way around. 

2. Stars matter

Wade's pay relative to Spo's isn't some mistake by the Heat. Superstars are incredibly rare and highly influential in a five-man game. Just look at Wade's teammate, LeBron James. The Cavs went from the best record with LeBron to the worst record without him, all within the span of one year. If you wonder why the Orlando Magic bow and scrape before the altar of Dwight Howard's dallying, it's because a team can make the playoffs with Howard and not much else. According to Basketball-reference.com, Howard created 14-15 wins in 2011, above what an average player provides. This figure might even understate the impact of a two-way player (defense is hard to statistically quantify). 

3. Coaches matter less than players do

Perhaps some coach out there can provide 15 wins beyond what the average coach does, but there isn't much in the way of proof. According to Stumbling on Wins, an economics-based book on basketball, few coaches actually improve their teams (With Phil Jackson and Don Nelson cited as historical exceptions). While a great coach can be the difference between winning and losing a playoff series, he's never the difference between worst team and title contender—as the aforementioned LeBron James was in 2010. Remember when vaunted Phil Jackson couldn't get past the first round with the Smush Parker Lakers? Notice how the much maligned Vinny Del Negro only needs Chris Paul and Blake Griffin to look like a genius against the Grizzlies

4. Superstar salaries are too low

This is an odd statement, considering how I noted that these players make so much more than coaches do. Well, they should be making even more than that and would be in a soccer-style open system. Due to the max salary restriction, the best players are given far less than a free market structure would allow. This actually augments the value of a superstar to his team, and it means that there is no bargain in sports quite like a great NBA player. If Dwight Howard commanded a salary of $50 million, the Magic might tell him to hit the bricks. Because he actually earns roughly 40% of that figure, Orlando must keep him. This gives Howard power at his coach's expense.

...

The above confluence of factors, combined with how the public can always fault the coach for something is bad for Mr. Whiteboard's job security. It's a precarious position to be an NBA coach and not an entirely fair one. 

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