Ranking the Job Security of NBA Coaches
Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks looked at ease, smiling, maybe a little blinded by the light of a camera shining in his eyes during his pregame interview outside the visiting locker room at Golden State.
The job security of an NBA coach is as erratic as Mikhail Prokhorov’s contentedness, and while I didn’t want to ruin the moment of relaxation, I had to pose a question that’s easiest to toss to the coach with the league’s best record.
Hey coach, can you tell me about the pressures of coaching in the NBA?
“Pressure?” he said, being facetious. “There’s no pressure, look at my face: fresh, no worries about tonight.”
Brooks earned his position as head coach of the Thunder after being named interim when P.J. Carlesimo was fired in November 2008.
“I mean it’s pressure, but the pressure is on the players more so than the coaches,” Brooks said Wednesday prior to facing the Warriors. “Not that I don’t worry and care, but players are the ones that have to make the shots and make the plays.
“I’m a part of that but I don’t look at it as pressure. I look at it as this is what I love to do.”
But while players may or may not make the plays, coaches almost always take the fall.
Brooks is one of 30 head coaches in the NBA, all who understand the must-win attitude of owners like Prokhorov, who fired Avery Johnson of the Brooklyn Nets just weeks after he won Coach of the Month honors.
Johnson is one of three coaches already fired this season, as the Los Angeles Lakers split early with Mike Brown, and the Phoenix Suns recently parted ways with Alvin Gentry.
The seat of an NBA coach heats and cools season-to-season and even month-to-month.
Here’s a brief appraisal of coaches at different levels of security with their teams.
Sitting on Ice
Some coaches are institutions—successful or popular to the point of near unconditional love.
You wouldn't break-up with Mila Kunis or Jessica Biel. In the same way, Gregg Popovich and Doc Rivers are untouchable in their cities.
Popovich is the longest-tenured coach in the league, as he has been with the San Antonio Spurs since 1996. During that time, he's had 15 consecutive postseason appearances and has won four NBA titles.
He's not going anywhere.
In Boston, Rivers has created a system of success, as the Celtics earned a title in 2008 and have been in the playoffs six of eight seasons under Rivers.
In the last five years, the Celtics have advanced to at least the conference semifinals three times.
After Avery Johnson was fired in December after being held responsible for the Brooklyn Nets' 14-14 record, Boston's president of basketball operations Danny Ainge was asked about the status of Rivers. The Celtics also had a record of 14-14.
Ainge told A. Sherrod Blakely of Comcast SportsNet New England: "Doc has proven his worth as a coach. There's nobody I want more to coach my team than Doc Rivers."
Scott Brooks of the Oklahoma City Thunder is evolving as the third-most comfortable coach in the league. His team owns the league's best record, which includes a NBA Finals appearance last season. Brooks signed a deal worth roughly $4.5 million per year last June.
After the success of the Chicago Bulls last season, Tom Thibodeau was paid a similar four-year, $18 million extension before heading into this season.
The way the Bulls have played, as a top-four team in the Eastern Conference without Derrick Rose, Thibodeau is much more likely to win Coach of the Year than he is lose his job.
The Seat Is Comfy
You can throw an extra pillow of ice on a chair after an NBA title.
Vinny Del Negro is throwing down the lob pass tossed up by Los Angeles Clippers vice president of operations Gary Sacks who assembled the franchise's talented roster.
That depth of talent in Los Angeles creates both ease and difficulties when it comes to matchups and minutes. Del Negro moves throughout the Clippers' locker room with comfort and humor, proving likeable amongst the veterans on that roster.
George Karl, after the Denver Nuggets struggled with a road-heavy schedule early, has his team at 9-3 in January, as the Nuggets have moved into the sixth spot out west.
The Seat Is Becoming More Comfortable
If there was an award for Most Improved Coach of the Year, it might go to Mark Jackson of the Golden State Warriors. Jackson began his coaching career with a 22-44 record that featured more injuries than a nursing home football game.
This year, Jackson has his Warriors 11 games over .500 and in the fifth spot of the Western Conference. Jackson is getting the most out of three rookies and has Stephen Curry and David Lee playing at career-high levels.
Frank Vogel is back. Of late, so are his Indiana Pacers.
After losing star Danny Granger to injury and suffering a slow start, Vogel now has the Pacers fifth in the Eastern Conference and has made Paul George an All-Star.
Mike Woodson has the New York Knicks back on the NBA's stage, and his defense is playing a leading role. He was able to get Carmelo Anthony to buy into his team's defensive plan early this season, but can the coach sustain the superstar's drive?
Woodson's security will ultimately be decided in the postseason.
This Seat Is Feeling Warm
Larry Drew is in the last season of his three-year contract with Atlanta.
After beginning the season as one of the league's surprise darlings with a 20-10 record through Jan. 1, the Hawks have since gone 4-8.
That's not to say a coach and his team won't go through a rough stretch, but the fact that Hawks general manager Danny Ferry told Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the Hawks don't plan on reevaluating Drew's contract until the offseason is not a great sign.
Drew told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
I made up my mind going into the season that my focus was just to do the best I can. The normal thing would be to look over your shoulder but I made up my mind, given my situation, that I’m just going to go out and coach every game. Just do what I can. If it works out, it works out. If it does not, it does not. I’ve been in constant talks with my agent about everything. The way we are looking at it is, we’ll just see what our options are at the end.
It appears that Drew may have to do something special with the Hawks this postseason to earn another contract with Atlanta.
Monty Williams, Rick Adelman and Byron Scott are starting to feel heat, but the youth of their teams and an established trust can act as a cooling system. Williams, in particular, has already shown how quickly he can advance young talent.
The Toronto Raptors are waking up under Dwane Casey, including a stretch of eight wins in nine games from December into January. Casey has a deal that goes through next season, while the contract of Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo expires at the end of this season.
Sam Amick and Jeff Zillgitt of USA TODAY Sports wrote based on knowledge of two sources: "Casey is not in jeopardy at the moment, and the more relevant question is how long it will be until Colangelo makes a roster move that helps his own situation."
Randy Wittman of the Washington Wizards has the worst record in the league. Though his contract is through next season, losing is never a cause for security.
The Hot Seat
A team with one of the league's best records at 27-14 still with a coach on the hot seat is truly a symptom of today's NBA.
Lionel Hollins seems destined to be the old grumpy guy in a Moneyball-type movie about the direction of the Memphis Grizzlies' front office who recently hired stat hound John Hollinger.
The 59-year-old coach isn't happy with the status of his future with the Memphis Grizzlies, according to Geoff Calkins of the Commercial Appeal, who recently quoted Hollins discussing an experience with new Grizzlies owner, Robert Pera:
He was at our opening game and I tapped him on the shoulder and introduced myself, but we didn't talk. It is what it is when it comes with changes of ownership. You go and you keep doing your job and either they like it or they don't like it, or even if they like it, they may want to go in a different direction and you just have to be prepared for whatever.
Calkins also wrote that Hollins went on a local Memphis radio show and "downplayed the importance of advanced statistics, saying 'We get hung up on statistics a little too much, and I think that's a bad trait all over the league.'"
The other trait of the league could be allowing franchises to be ripped from the grasps of small-market cities. The Sacramento Kings could be headed to Seattle if the Maloofs are able to push through the sale of their drowning franchise. Current head coach Keith Smart would not survive the sale of the team.
Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov obviously isn't messing around. After firing Avery Johnson, interim coach P.J. Carlesimo will need to make an incredible impression to keep the big-money owner from finding the biggest name available.
And of course, no list of potential changes would be complete without the Los Angeles Lakers.
Throw out contracts, throw out fair shakes: If Mike D'Antoni does not make the playoffs, there's little to support the Lakers hanging onto him as coach.
For three years and $12 million, the Lakers might not be so quick to pull the trigger on a firing this time around. But when was the last time anyone could predict what will happen next in the league's best drama?
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