Shortest NBA Head Coaching Stints Ever

Kelly Scaletta@@KellyScalettaFeatured ColumnistFebruary 21, 2014

Shortest NBA Head Coaching Stints Ever

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    When Joe Dumars fired Maurice Cheeks on February 10, it ended his run just 50 games into his first season as the Detroit Pistons head coach, raising the question: What were the shortest coaching stints ever?

    ESPN conveniently offered a list of coaches who barely had time to get unpacked before they started repacking, but that only tells us the “who,” not the “why?” and that’s the fun part!

    Here are the intriguing stories of how the five shortest-tenured coaches came to meet their early demise, and a couple of others, who, while they didn't quite qualify for the list, still make for some interesting conversation.

    The list only includes coaches who started the season with a new job. No interim coaches or midseason hirings were included. They are placed in the order of fewest games coached.

Honorable Mention: Mike Brown, Los Angeles Lakers, 87 Games

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    Mike Brown was hired as the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers before the 2011-12 season.

    Some coaches have big shoes to fill, but none have ever had as big a pair as the one Brown needed to step into. He was the only coach ever to replace someone who had won 11 NBA championships—Phil Jackson.

    Not only that, the Lakers hired Brown without “consulting” Kobe Bryant first. As Los Angeles Times writer Mark Medina wrote upon the hiring:

    In a move that will largely define the Lakers' future, the organization hired Coach Mike Brown and left Kobe Bryant out of the process.

    In a move the success of which will partly depend on the strength of that relationship, the two are already off on a bad foot.

    And in a move that's surprising and frankly disappointing, having a conversation with the team's star player may have avoided a potential problem that lies ahead.

    Brown survived the season, in large part by acquiescing to Bryant and the rest of the team. Basically, it seemed like as long as he didn’t “coach,” the team was fine with him.

    By letting the inmates run the asylum the Lakers got to the playoffs, and that was enough to help him keep his job.

    Then, during the offseason, it must have felt like Christmas in summer for Brown. The Lakers added Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to the All-Star pairing of Bryant and Pau Gasol.  

    They now had a starting five that would feature four potential Hall of Fame players. Their fifth starter, Metta World Peace, was a former Defensive Player of the Year. It was also the only team to ever court two former MVPs and two former DPOYs.

    This was a positively historic starting five—or at least it was supposed to be.

    But then reality happened. Through their eight preseason games, the Lakers came up empty. Then, while they dropping their fourth regular-season game in five tries, as Mike Ozanian of Forbes details it, Bryant “fired” Brown with an infamous "death stare":

    Anyone who believes that Los Angeles Lakers owners Jerry Buss or billionaire Phil Anschutz fired coach Mike Brown isn’t living in reality.

    Hip Hop Wired had it right yesterday when it wrote that Bryant’s death stare during a loss to the Utah Jazz meant that Brown’s days were numbered. Bryant is the second biggest star in the NBA, behind only LeBron James, and he and Brown have been squabbling since last season and the acrimonious relationship intensified with this season’s 1-4 start, despite Bryant saying he supports Brown.

    And that was the end of Mike Brown’s tenure with the Lakers, as he won only one game with what was argued to be the best starting five ever assembled. 

    He is now coaching the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Honorable Mention, Larry Brown

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    What list of management fiascoes would be complete without the standard mention of James Dolan and the New York Knicks?

    Larry Brown, who had previously coached seven different teams to the playoffs, came into New York with great fanfare and a large salary in the summer of 2005. The ‘Bockers inked him to a five-year, $50 million deal—the biggest in NBA history.

    What started as a big contract quickly became an absolutely visceral player-coach feud. It was pretty clear that Knicks superstar Stephon Marbury and Brown weren't going to get along. After all, Brown was as team oriented as they come, and Marbury literally referred to himself as “Starbury.”

    They weren't just talking it out privately, either. They were throwing haymakers in the press, per ESPN, in March of 2006.

    Marbury got things rolling by complaining that he wasn’t being given enough offensive freedom.

    Brown, in response to criticisms from Marbury, said:

    We're 17 and 45. You want to say because we don't have freedom that's why we're losing? That's fine, you can say that all you want. But the reality is, we foul more than any team in the league; since the fifth week of the season we're the second-worst field-goal percentage defensive team in the league; we turn the ball over more than any team in the league; we're close to the fewest blocked shots of any team in the league.

    I've been coaching how many years? A long time, I never left a team in worse shape than I got it. Not once. Now think about that. Think about me and think about the guy who's talking. All right? I've never asked anything of my players any different than I'm doing right now. Think about that.

    Marbury’s response?

    I think it's personal now. I don't think it's about basketball anymore. Now it's to the point where he's putting his 30-year career against my 10-year career. You know, coach is a great coach is what everyone says. We're supposed to be better than what we are. Did it happen now? No."

    He always crosses the line. That's not nothing new. Certain coaches deal with certain things certain ways, and he handles his things through the media as opposed to sitting down and talking with people. And still, if you sit down and you talk with coach, it's liable to get back to everybody, so you're really not safe there either.

    It’s safe to say they weren't overly fond of one another. They spent more energy fighting each other than fighting for wins. The Knicks were a dismal 23-59 in 2005-06.

    As a result, Dolan canned Brown at season’s end.

    And, that’s where the fun got started. Dolan didn't just fire Brown, he did it for “cause,” meaning that Brown had breached his contract and the guaranteed payment for the rest of it wasn't going to be paid.

    Not surprisingly, Brown didn't see it that way.

    Eventually the two parties settled out of court for $18.5 million.

    This sets up the fabulous joke:

    “When is Dolan not Dolan?”

    “When he’s not dolin’ out money for Brown’s contract." Baddump. 

    Brown is now coaching 'Southern Methodist University. 

    *As a footnote to this story, Isiah Thomas, Brown’s successor, had an even worse relationship with Marbury.

Maurice Cheeks, Detroit Pistons, 50 Games

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    Maurice Cheeks stepped into the perfect storm for an inevitable firing when he assumed the position of Detroit Pistons head coach last summer. The story of why has more to do with the Pistons’ general manager, Joe Dumars, than it does with Cheeks, though.

    The first thing that needs to be understood is that Dumars has "legacy" status in Detroit. He’s been a major factor in all three of Detroit’s championships. He was the NBA Finals MVP for one of them, in 1989.

    Then, after his playing career, he was the general manager who assembled the team that won the franchise's third championship in 2004. That included making a trade for Rasheed Wallace, which helped to put them over the top. From the 2002-03 season to 2007-08, the Pistons made it to at least the conference finals every single year. In 2004, Dumars was named the NBA’s Executive of the Year.

    That’s an impressive run, and enough to earn a little latitude.

    But, since then it’s been a steady stream of disasters for the Pistons. They were bounced from the playoffs in the first round of the 2008-09 season and haven’t been back since. Over that six-year span, the Pistons have had Michael Curry, John Kuester, Lawrence Frank, Maurice Cheeks and John Loyer serve as head coach.

    And, of the mere five teams with a worse total winning percentage than Detroit since 2010, only the Kings are presently worse. And, a lot of the reason why is on Dumars.

    In 2009, he issued two of the dumbest contracts in recent history: a five-year, $55 million deal for Ben Gordon and a five-year $35 million pact for Charlie Villanueva. He also re-signed an aging Tayshaun Prince for an ill-advised four-year, $27 million deal.

    The Pistons weren’t just losing, they weren’t capable of winning because they were badly constructed. Then the players got nasty. In 2011 a core group of players rebelled against then-coach Kuester. They’re all gone now too. But it’s part of Dumars' recent history.

    He has been struggling to come back. He made some trades to get rid of the Gordon contract first and then the Prince contract. That opened up cap space for last summer.

    Because of the turnstile of coaches, the player rebellions and the bad contracts, this was supposed to be a summer of reprieve for him. He was desperate to make a splash-signing in free agency.

    The problem, though, was all the "splash" names had no intention of going to the Motor City because there was just no allure there. They have some nice young players in Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, but they also had too many missing pieces.

    Meanwhile, in another storyline, Josh Smith was stewing in Atlanta, thinking he deserved a max contract. When you have a GM desperate to pay someone too much and a player desperate to get paid too much, the two are going to inevitably work out a deal—and they did.

    The problem wasn’t so much that Smith didn’t have talent as much as he had redundant talent. His offensive strength—scoring at the rim—was duplicated by both Monroe and Drummond, and you can only fit so many humans in the restricted area.

    That meant Smith was going to be asked to do his scoring from the perimeter. The problem with that is Smith is a horrible jump-shooter, sinking just 30.7 percent of his jumpers from more than three feet for his career.

    Then, Dumars made another move, taking on Brandon Jennings in a sign-and-trade. He shoots a whopping 35.2 percent on his jumper from outside the restricted area. While that's better than Smith, it's still bad. 

    Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated wrote what went wrong with the Pistons’ offseason.

    The roster’s awkward construction, which at present hinges on a symbiosis between Smith and Jennings that may be impossible. Both are prone to fits of terrible decision making with the ball, and yet the current Pistons will rely on the two players as integral elements of the offense. Without the kind of moderator who could channel possessions away from Smith and Jennings in problematic spots, Detroit will likely struggle to create a high-functioning offense necessary to be anything more than a low-seeded playoff team.

    And that was kind of the best-case scenario. The “problematic spots” seem to be more of a constant than an occasion. Cheeks was handed a roster that depended on the shooting of two poor but eager jump-shooters.

    Cheeks was handed a badly designed team and was blamed for the design not working. He’s just another coach, in a long list of Piston tragedies, being blamed for the failures of Dumars. Meanwhile, Dumars’ failures are overlooked by a too-forgiving ownership group because of his legacy.

Gar Heard, Washington Wizards, 44 Games

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    Gar Heard started the season as the coach of the Washington Wizards on June 17, 1999. He was hired by Washington Wizards general manager Wes Unseld.

    Then, halfway through the 1999-00 season, the Wizards made a surprise announcement: Michael Jordan was assuming the responsibilities of president of basketball operations.

    Jordan wasted no time in letting everyone know who was in charge, as Steve Wyche of The Washington Post wrote at the time:

    Michael Jordan set the tone for his new job as president of basketball operations and part owner of the Washington Wizards yesterday, saying he would answer only to majority owner Abe Pollin, that his influence would be felt throughout the organization and that ‘until we get ourselves on track everybody is disposable.

    After a five-month courtship, Jordan finalized a deal early yesterday morning that would give him five years to help transform the Wizards, who have not won a playoff game in 12 years, into a winner. Jordan said that Wes Unseld will remain with the team as general manager and that Susan O'Malley will continue as CEO and president of business operations.

    ‘I'm going to have my imprints and footprints all over this organization,’ said Jordan, who will commute between Washington and his home in Chicago. ‘I look forward to turning this thing around. Right now we're an underachieving team.’

    Jordan wasted no time living up to his word. Less than two weeks later, Heard was fired by Jordan without the ex-Bulls star ever speaking to him.

    Sports Illustrated reported:

    Jordan gave coach Gar Heard the cold shoulder. Jordan spent virtually no one-on-one time with the coach while negotiating in secret to replace him.

    Jordan was not around when he fired Heard on Saturday night. He was in Atlanta for the Super Bowl, while Heard and his players were feeling good about a gritty victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

    The article quotes Heard as saying, “I think they had their mind made up when he got here. I never got an opportunity to talk to him.”

    Jordan had apparently seen the slated replacement, Darrell Walker, though.

    To adapt the idiom: In this case it was better for a coach to be seen and not Heard.

Rudy Tomjanovich, Los Angeles Lakers, 41 Games

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    Rudy Tomjanovich had a long and illustrious tenure coaching the Houston Rockets from 1991-92 to 2002-03. During that 12-year stretch he won as many NBA championships, two, as he had losing seasons. He was the perfect choice to fill the rather large shoes of Phil Jackson. 

    However, he only lasted 41 games as Lakers head coach after being signed in the summer of 2005. The Lakers were actually playing reasonably well, going 24-19 under their new leader.

    Tomjanovich was also tasked with the responsibility of coaching arguably the most stressful player in the league to coach, Kobe Bryant, who had indisputable talent, and what we'll call "confidence," to go with it. 

    This came right after the release of Jackson’s book, The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its Soul, in which Jackson was critical of some aspects of Bryant (and complimentary of others).

    Bryant was perceived by many to be an uncoachable player—a diva who wanted to be the man and played with a chip on his shoulder—and the book certainly fueled that speculation.

    Tomjanovich, on the other hand, had a life of physical hardship. He was nearly killed by a Kermit Washington punch during his playing days. He struggled with alcoholism. He successfully fought off bladder cancer in 2003.

    Perhaps that life caught up to him when he was getting ill in 2005 while coaching the Lakers. That is what caused him to resign.

    Some, per Chad Ford of ESPN (subscription required), jumped at the chance to stir the coals that Bryant was a problem, claiming that the “real” reason Tomjanovich was stepping down is that Bryant didn't want him to coach and had forced him out. 

    According to ESPN, Tomjanovich claimed otherwise, saying of Bryant, “My time with [Kobe] has been great. Everybody sees the great plays on the floor, but I'm going to remember those private moments.”

    Contrary to the notion of Bryant wanting more of a role, it was more likely the exact opposite. Per Ford:

    Bryant approached Tomjanovich and asked him to re-install some of the elements of Jackson's triangle offense. What the Lakers were running was putting too much of the onus on Bryant on the offensive end. Other guys weren't getting involved and Kobe was wearing down from carrying the team on his back every night.

    Tomjanovich obliged. The Lakers started performing better. Still, Tomjanovich struggled to cope with the myriad of forces pressing against him.

    Based on what both player and coach have said, there was no feud. It seemed there was more admiration and respect between Bryant and Tomjanovich than discord. That Tomjanovich never even hinted at wanting another NBA coaching job reinforces that it was just about health. 

    The physical and mental stress of coaching in the NBA just became too much. Not everything is a conspiracy. He has stayed in retirement since. 

Bob Weiss, Seattle Supersonics, 30 Games

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    Bob Weiss became the head coach of the Seattle SuperSonics in 2006, getting promoted from within.

    According to an Associated Press report posted by ESPN at the time:

    Usually smiling, Weiss was promoted from assistant to head coach on July 18 after Nate McMillan left for Portland and was a popular choice of All-Stars Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. He was also a cheaper option, as Seattle passed on higher-priced candidates like Flip Saunders and Paul Silas.

    The AP report also points out that the SuperSonics were not a traditionally patient master when it came to losing, stating:

    Weiss is the third coach fired by Seattle during the season since 1992. In 2000, Paul Westphal was let go after a 6-9 start, replaced by McMillan. In 1992, K.C. Jones was fired after an 18-18 start and replaced by George Karl.

    And it wasn't his first stint, either, or his first time losing. 

    The 63-year-old Weiss previously coached Atlanta, San Antonio and the Los Angeles Clippers and has an overall record of 223-299. 

    In a sidebar contained in that link, Chris Sheridan explained it might not have all been on Weiss:

    After losing key pieces when Antonio Daniels and Jerome James left as free agents, this year's Sonics have dealt with a host of personnel issues, including Danny Fortson's ongoing feud with the referees and the league office, Vladimir Radmanovic's season of limbo while he waits to become an unrestricted free agent, Reggie Evans' suspicion that management has been trying to trade him and Luke Ridnour's recent demotion to the bench in favor of Damien Wilkins.

    While that might have been the case, the issue with the team was defense. Laissez-faire coaching styles rarely produce good defenses, and this seemed to be the case.

    The SuperSonics were the worst defensive team in the league at the time of the firing. That also proceeded to be the case through the end of the season, as Seattle finished dead last in both points per game allowed and defensive rating.

    Although, to be fair, the Sonics gave up 3.2 fewer points after the All-Star break than before.

    In sum, Weiss was given another an opportunity to prove himself in spite of previous failures. This was in part to appease the players, and in part to save money. However, it quickly became apparent that he wasn't going to succeed, and rather than muddle around with getting lost in a losing quagmire, management acted quickly to dump him. 

    Weiss is currently an assistant coach with the Charlotte Bobcats. 

Jerry Tarkanian, San Antonio Spurs, 20 Games

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    The shortest-tenured coach to assume a new job at the start of a season is Jerry Tarkanian, who was brought on to lead the San Antonio Spurs in the summer of 1992.

    Tarkanian came in with an illustrious collegiate coaching record at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, having turned a previously unknown school into a powerhouse that made the Final Four four times and won an NCAA championship in 1990. 

    Amid allegations that UNLV was tied to reputed sports fixer Richard Perry, Tarkanian announced his resignation. The success he had was enough for San Antonio to take a gamble on him. 

    It was an experiment that didn’t make it to the end of the calendar year, much less the season, and Tarkanian was “terminated” on December 18, 1992.

    The entire story was covered, quite hilariously (and ironically), by New York Times writer Robert McG. Thomas Jr., who was primarily known for his obituaries.

    A few quotes from the article highlight the events:

    A professional coaching career that began with the jitters and included bouts with chest pains, team dissension and unaccustomed underachievement came to an abrupt end yesterday afternoon when Jerry Tarkanian was dismissed as coach of the San Antonio Spurs hours before the team's 21st game of the season, against Dallas at home.

    The move, which came as San Antonio struggled with a 9-11 record, was announced by the team's owner, Red McCombs, who made it sound like an execution.

    "Coach Tarkanian has been terminated," he said.

    Adding to the epitaphic flavor of the piece, he points out that the job actually landed Tarkanian in the hospital:

    By the end of November, the pressure on Tarkanian was so intense that he was hospitalized briefly while suffering from chest pains, and by early this month some of his players, in particular Dale Ellis, were in open rebellion, complaining publicly about Tarkanian's tactics. 'Difference of Opinion'

    And, much like a funeral, he was absent at the presser which announced his demise:

    Tarkanian, who had met with McCombs before the owner made the announcement at a news conference in San Antonio, did not appear at the session and last night team officials said they had no idea where he was. During McCombs's brief appearance, no mention was made of Tarkanian's contract, a three-year deal paying him $500,000 a year.

    What a memorial be without a recitation of his famous last words?

    Tarkanian may have actually brought about his own dismissal with a letter he sent to McCombs on Monday urging the acquisition of a point guard and arguing that the team could simply not win without one. 'All I wanted was a point guard,' he said.

    “All I wanted was a point guard.” Oh, the humanity!

    And that’s how the NBA coaching career of Jerry Tarkanian came to rest in peace.

    His NBA career was survived by his collegiate career, though, as he coached six more successful years at Fresno State.