The phrase “coaching for his job” has become old hat within NBA circles. In a “what have you done for me lately?” league, every head coach is sitting on the hot seat. That’s especially true, however, for Frank Vogel of the Indiana Pacers and Scott Brooks of the Oklahoma City Thunder—who could both be gone by season’s end.
It only takes one poor playoff performance for guys on the sidelines to get the axe. George Karl learned that the hard way in 2012-13. After a 57-win campaign with the Denver Nuggets—which earned him the league’s Coach of the Year award—he was fired after a disappointing first-round showing against the No. 6 seed Golden State Warriors.
Former Memphis Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins also drew the short straw last year. He led the Grizz to the Western Conference Finals—the best playoff run in franchise history—but was let go during the summer.
Is it possible that Brooks or Vogel could suffer the same fate? Both are facing 2-1 series deficits, but which guy is under more pressure to turn his squad’s fortunes around?
The Case Against Vogel
The No. 8 seed Atlanta Hawks have been a matchup nightmare for Indiana. With a collection of big men that are comfortable shooting the three-ball and spreading the floor, the Hawks have rendered All-Star center Roy Hibbert all but useless.
He hasn’t blocked a single shot in the series, and he’s shooting 29.4 percent at the rim. Despite being a hindrance on both ends of the court, however, Vogel has decided to stick with the 7’2” skyscraper.
"I have confidence in Roy Hibbert. He hasn't played well in this series to this point. But I do have great confidence in Roy." - Vogel— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) April 25, 2014
Vogel on Hibbert: "We’re not going to quit on him. We’ll keep working with him. We’ll keep trying to figure it out."— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixSI) April 25, 2014
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing time and time again while expecting a different result. Of course, it’s hard to blame Vogel for staying in Hibbert’s corner, because Indy’s championship aspirations hinge on him playing well, regardless of what happens in the Atlanta series.
The truth is, Indiana’s problems stem from far more than the head coach alone.
Oddly, the Pacers have posted a 13-15 record since the beginning of March (including playoffs). They’ve been a sub-.500 team for quite a while for a variety of reasons:
- Because Hibbert is experiencing an epic slump.
- The team is surrendering more points per 100 possessions (102.8) than it is scoring (99.1) over that span, per NBA.com.
- Paul George’s scoring efficiency has fallen off of the grid after receiving MVP consideration early in the season.
In fact, even President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird is not exempt from scrutiny. The NBA legend and former Executive of the Year dealt veteran swingman Danny Granger at the deadline for Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen. It appeared to be a solid move on paper, but trading the former star has crippled team chemistry.
Following the trade, George took to his Instagram account to post the following photo and caption:
"On a serious note upset day for me losing a big brother and mentor hate to see him leave us.. You helped me so far along the way big bro! Still one of my toughest match ups.. Nothing but love for you geezy!"
Granger’s impact on the locker room may have had more sway than Bird anticipated when he swapped him for fresh faces.
Anyone still doubting the Danny Granger trade had an impact on the #Pacers chemistry? Didn't think so.— Ethan Norof (@Mr_Norof) March 10, 2014
Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski even reported recently that Turner and new teammate Lance Stephenson engaged in a “practice-floor fistfight.”
There’s really no excuse for the Pacers’ drastic collapse. They sport the same starting five they’ve had all season long but are completely out of sorts.
Vogel should receive some blame, but Bird can’t be excluded for trading Granger. Also, the players are primarily at fault for not playing up to their usual standards.
All this Vogel stuff is dumb. Highly doubtful a coach would get fired after earning a 1 seed, especially when 1/2 NBA would show interest.— Adam Fromal (@fromal09) April 24, 2014
The fourth-year head coach has failed to make proper adjustments against ATL, but his shortcomings barely scratch the surface of his roster’s inherent problems.
The Case Against Brooks
The man patrolling OKC’s sidelines has been under scrutiny for a while, and Russell Westbrook’s brother, Ray, is among the critics.
Russell Westbrook's brother ---> RT @whynotraywest We need a new coach ASAP like rocky!!!!!!— Royce Young (@royceyoung) April 25, 2014
Despite overseeing a roster with Westbrook and MVP front-runner Kevin Durant, the Thunder have struggled in crunch time against the Memphis Grizzlies. They have lost two overtime affairs in three games.
There are some coaches who make stars even better (Erik Spoelstra), and there are some stars who help their coaches survive (Scott Brooks)— Adam Fromal (@fromal09) April 25, 2014
Brooks is gaining the unenviable stigma that his stars are thriving in spite of him, not because of him. That’s not a solid recipe for a guy on the coaching hot seat who is also staring a first-round exit square in the face.
Unlike Vogel, the questions surrounding Brooks have been swirling for quite some time. ESPN’s Bomani Jones wrote an article for SB Nation two years ago and made an interesting comparison:
What’s the difference between Scott Brooks in Oklahoma City and Mike Brown in Cleveland? These sorts of comparisons make people uncomfortable, but think about it. Both were young coaches, inherited superstars before their second season, made their teams defensively respectable and offensively simplistic. In the process, both won lots of games and greatly exceeded expectations in their third seasons (Brooks in the conference finals in 2011, Brown in the NBA Finals in 2007).
And…Brown was fired after winning 147 games and three playoff series in his last two seasons with the Cavs, and being run over by a ball-dominating superstar he couldn’t control. Those are the breaks.
That offensive simplicity has continued in the series against Memphis. Too often KD and Westbrook are expected to isolate, then take and make tough shots. It’s bailed OKC out of more than a few jams, but predictability in a playoff setting leads to losses. Memphis knows that two guys are going to try and beat them, so they focus all of their attention to stop them. (Having a lockdown defender like Tony Allen certainly helps.)
Brooks’ lack of adjustments irked SB Nation’s Mike Prada, who said the following via Twitter:
Four guys around Durant and nobody’s in a position to catch a pass and make a play. Rinse, repeat. Where are Scott Brooks’ adjustments?— Mike Prada (@MikePradaSBN) April 25, 2014
Of course, that fails to include Brooks’ insistence on starting Kendrick Perkins. His player efficiency of 6.32 ranked him 334th out of 337 qualified players during the regular season, per ESPN. Both rookie Steven Adams and veteran Nick Collison have been more productive.
Which coach is under more pressure to win?
At this point, though, Brooks is facing more pressure.
While the Pacers have been floundering for months, there’s no reason why OKC should be bounced out of the first round with the talent that they have. Is it possible that Brooks has received too much credit to this point? In a league where everyone has to adapt and improve, that’s totally fair to say.
The dueling banjos continue to hoist up attempts without any sense of offensive balance. Those are the two guys you want taking shots if you're an OKC fan, but the offense has to at least include set plays other than "give the ball to KD" and "give the ball to Russ."
That's partly on management for dealing James Harden away for spare parts, but it's hard to imagine Brooks returning, regardless if he fails to reach Round 2.