How to Know When An NBA Coach is About to Get Fired
The signs are written on the wall in dry-erase marker.
Ambiguity flickers beneath the hot seat of an NBA coach close to being fired, but the warnings usually begin to drip in inevitable fashion.
This season, the firing ceremonies have already commenced, and the process of no-comments and insincerity often plays out like this:
1. When the talent is unsatisfied
Any guy on the sideline is easier to replace than elite talent, and the league has proved it will remove a coach if a player so desires.
Dwight Howard, despite denying that it was the case, clearly was at least one voice that led to the Orlando Magic firing Stan Van Gundy one year ago.
Van Gundy said last year that he was told Howard asked that the coach be fired, according to the report from Ian O'Connor of ESPNNewYork.com:
I was told it was true by people in our management. So right from the top.
They haven't told me anything and they don't need to. I'm the coach right now, and I'm the coach until they decide I'm not the coach. It's 12:02 right now. If they want to fire me at 12:05, I'll go home and find something to do. I'll have a good day.
The awkward award was delivered in this video when Howard entered in the middle of that conversation between Van Gundy and reporters as if nothing was wrong. Howard was caught in his dishonesty, and this footage is the furthest piece of proof that words are meaningless, especially when it comes to coaching changes.
Four coaching changes have already been made this season, but the muddy rhetoric that precedes a firing was most evident with Mike Brown and the Los Angeles Lakers.
As Brown learned in Los Angeles earlier this season, it can begin—or end—with a look.
The death stare of Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant was a signal that Brown's job was in complete danger.
Clearly, Bryant must have had a voice in the firing, considering such an early move would not be made without his approval.
RIP MIKE BROWN'S COACHING TENURE: 2011-2012. CAUSE OF DEATH: KOBE DEATH STARE.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) November 9, 2012
2. When a "vote of confidence" is spoken publicly
Although that viral video symbolized Brown's uncertain future with the team, it seemed management was going to be patient with its coach.
Or so they said.
The front office stepped in with the dreaded "vote of confidence," which carries about as much weight in the NBA as a Bryant playoff guarantee—they're just meaningless words.
So when Lakers executive vice president Jim Buss told Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com in November that he was still very confident in Brown despite the team’s 1-4 start to the season, it obviously meant nothing:
I have no problems with Mike Brown at all. He just works too hard and he's too knowledgeable for this to be happening.
So either the system is flawed or something's going on. Or, like the Triangle, it's very hard to pick up and understand. I'm not a basketball mind like he is or the players are, and the players are fine with it, so I just have to be patient.
One day later, Brown was fired. One day.
Pretty amazing turnaround from "vote of confidence" to "you're fired." Steve Nash has played 1.5 regular-season games, by the way.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) November 9, 2012
Oh, did you expect the decision makers to be honest?
When an owner begins to provide words of comfort, the end is near.
3. When nothing is said
Sometimes, the only confidence comes through dollar signs, and the Cavaliers gave that to Byron Scott with an offseason extension that takes him through next season.
But as speculation builds in Cleveland that puts Scott, like numerous other coaches, on the hot seat, there's been no voice of public reassurance.
The decision makers are silent on the issue. Neither owner Dan Gilbert nor general manager Chris Grant have addressed Scott's contract.
Cleveland's brightest source of pride, All-Star guard Kyrie Irving, won't touch the topic, either.
"Until that time comes, I'm not really worried about it. To even imagine that, I'm not going down that road. I'm focused on finishing the season with him and that's all that matters right now," Irving said in an Associated Press report.
Asked whether he supports Byron Scott and would be disappointed if he were fired, Irving did not want to address the topic at this time . .— M.S. Boyer/J. Valade (@PDcavsinsider) April 7, 2013
It doesn't mean that speculation has ceased. The topic of Scott's future is the main storyline as the team moves towards the end of the season with a 24-52 record.
Cavaliers second-year forward Tristan Thompson, however, did make it clear how he felt to the Associated Press.
"All the rumors about Coach Scott and hot seat and all that crap, that's bogus. It's up to us to come out and compete and play hard because we're the ones out there. When he was out there playing, he won championships. So it's up to us to come out there and play," Thompson said.
4. Coaches speak with skepticism
When coaches are in trouble, they begin to speak the language of uncertainty. That's what Lawrence Frank is doing right now with the Detroit Pistons, who are 26-52 as part of a rebuilding process.
No one understands the heat of the coaching seat more than the men themselves, and Frank isn't talking like a guy who has been reassured of anything.
Frank told the Associated Press on April 6:
'When you have a record like we have, it comes with the territory,' Frank said. 'That's the nature of this business. It's results oriented.'
Frank is in his second season with the Pistons and went 25-41 last year. He said he has not had any discussions with Dumars about his job status.
'I haven't asked because I understand,' Frank said. 'I've been in this for a little bit. You just do the best you can and focus on what you can control.'
Frank also brings into play his version of dodging a truthful answer. A high-character coach, Frank's name was thrown out as a potential candidate for the coaching opening at Rutgers University.
How did he respond? Of course, he denied it.
5. And sometimes, of course, the signs lead to nothing
Vinny Del Negro, despite leading the Clippers to their first Pacific Division title this season, remains in doubt to return with the Clippers next season. ESPN's Marc Stein recently hinted that it would take a divine postseason to return.
Could a deep playoff run save him? Even that might not be enough entering the most critical summer in the Clippers' history, with Chris Paul becoming a free agent July 1 and Clips management having always planned to let Paul have a big say (assuming he wants one) before any coach gets another long-term deal from them.
Del Negro looked to be close to losing his job in Los Angeles last season, and ESPN's Chris Broussard quoted a source as saying, "Vinny has lost the team. They don't want to play hard for him." Of course, Del Negro held on despite the beginning of those whispers.
While plenty of coaches are on the hot seat, which of these coaches is most likely not to return next season?
Del Negro joins Larry Drew of the Atlanta Hawks and Lionel Hollins of the Memphis Grizzlies as a coach in the last season of his contract with much to prove come playoff time.
Ultimately, all these signs act as smoke to the fire underneath a coach's hot seat.
The losses mount, the players lose confidence in their leader and management seems unsteady even when speaking words of assurance.
It's easy to tell when a coach is nearing the end; we've grown accustomed to the process.
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