NBA's Trend of First-Time Coaches Is Both Promising and Problematic

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NBA's Trend of First-Time Coaches Is Both Promising and Problematic
Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

The NBA is a league steeped in change—of race and pace, style and strategy, movement and marketing. More often than not, it’s the players themselves who fire the world-heard shots. They are the revolution’s creators and instigators.

Today, an altogether different coup is quickly changing how we view the NBA power structure.

Call it the Rookie Coach Revolution.

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

In the two months since the regular season ended, three teams have tapped first-time skippers: the Golden State Warriors (Steve Kerr), the New York Knicks (Derek Fisher) and the Utah Jazz with Quin Snyder, whose years of assistant credentials and a stint overseas certainly set him apart from his rookie peers.

Meanwhile, the Cleveland Cavaliers have interviewed at least two would-be first-timers in Mark Price and Adrian Griffin.

Following the 2012-13 season, 13 teams parted ways with their respective coaches. Ten of them hired first-time coaches. Both numbers were unprecedented.

However, as SB Nation's Kevin Zimmerman illustrates, last year’s turnover was anomalous not just for its influx of new names but for the sheer number of open vacancies as well:

An average of seven teams have made coaching changes during the offseason in the last decade, which is up from a 6.5 average in the 10 years before that, from 1994-2003. That's an average of 6.75 offseason coaching changes in the last 20 years. The count includes interim head coaches hired permanently but doesn't account for head coaches hired midseason -- like Mike D'Antoni's hiring after Mike Brown was fired by the Lakers last year.

That’s not to say the oft-bandied “coaching carousel” doesn’t exist. It will likely always be the case that certain names—your Rick Adelmans and George Karls, to take two obvious examples—will always command consideration. Mostly because, dearth of titles aside, they’re really, really good at what they do.

At the same time, the nature of the profession has changed considerably. Thirty years ago, a typical NBA coaching staff included a handful of assistants and trainers at most. Today, it’s not uncommon to see a coach’s team run two rows deep.

Such an exponential growth in the need for support staff was, of course, wholly to be expected. The NBA has grown into a multi-billion dollar business behemoth, with individual teams operating as their own mini-economies.

As each economy grows, more jobs are created. From lead number-crunchers to shooting experts, scouts to tape junkies, coaches want—and need—more information than ever before.

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

The phenomenon hit a high-water mark when a pair of former video guys—the Miami Heat’s Erik Spoelstra and the Indiana Pacers’ Frank Vogel—squared off in 2013 in their first of two Eastern Conference Finals. During that first meeting,’s Mark Montieth penned a wonderful dispatch on the changing face of the NBA head coach.

For his part, Pacers president Donnie Walsh appreciated the seamless relationship between Vogel and Spoelstra’s brand of strategy savants and the increasingly complex nature of NBA playoff series.

"That's what makes a series interesting," Walsh said. "There's a lot of technical changes. The whole league is checking out analytics. It's a good thing. It's healthy. And when teams start winning, everybody imitates who wins."

The effect that expanding coaching staffs has on the recycling of coaches isn’t hard to see: As the talent pool gets bigger, teams have more candidates to choose from. And while hierarchies no doubt exist within individual teams, sustained success by one franchise in particular might mean multiple assistants wind up getting a hard look.

Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Take the San Antonio Spurs. Last summer alone, two longtime Gregg Popovich lieutenants—Mike Budenholzer and Brett Brown—were tapped for head-coaching duties. That would’ve been unheard of 20 years ago.

Moreover, today’s generation of first-time coaches are managing to scale the ranks without what was once believed to be the paramount resume bullet: experience as an NBA player.

To be sure, former players remain and will always remain attractive targets, to the point where some—Mark Jackson and Jason Kidd, for example—can bypass the pecking order completely.

That the shelf life of a coaching stint has dwindled over the years only compounds the league’s continued trending towards more first-time hires.

Back in May, SB Nation’s Tom Ziller took a deep dive into the NBA’s high-turnover coaching landscape:

One current NBA head coach got hired by his team before 2008. That's Gregg Popovich, who has led the Spurs to four titles and a long string of 50-win seasons. Only three other coaches, Erik Spoelstra, Rick Carlisle and Scott Brooks, have been in place since before 2010. And this chart should tell you everything you need to know about the rest of the league.

SB Nation

The average current tenure length in the NBA is 2.4 seasons. That's the equivalent of a coach being hired around January 2012. Popovich, who is finishing up his 18th season in San Antonio, obviously skews things long. If you look at only the 29 non-Spurs teams, the average current tenure is just 1.9 seasons.

Such volatility is made all the more mysterious by the fact that, since 2000, 43 of the 79 first-time coaching hires have tallied an overall winning percentage of .400 or better, a stock that includes skippers hired on an interim basis.

That mark might not be good enough to get you into the postseason (unless you play in the Eastern Conference, that is), but neither is it horrendous.

Unfortunately, as Ziller points out, the blessing of more choice is often undone by a deficit of patience:

Is the quick hook in the NBA a bad or good thing? It's apparent that it can be destructive: what teams with high turnover tend to do is create a constant churn every couple of years. That lack of stability wears on players and creates a culture of uncertainty. In addition, learning new systems takes time and mental energy that might be better used sharpening up fundamentals.

On the other hand, if you hire a coach and realize he's a bad fit within 2-3 years, you can't hang on just for the sake of stability. The sunken cost fallacy comes into play here. Just because you've spent a year under a coach and guaranteed him three years of salary doesn't mean it would automatically be the wrong decision to can him. Each case must be evaluated individually.

Just as consumers will willingly jettison their latest Apple product the instant a newer version hits the shelf, so too have NBA franchises been quick to part with perfectly serviceable basketball minds for the pretense of the next big thing.

Ben Margot/Associated Press

As Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher wrote back in May, the impatience that leads to such high-turnover trends can be attributed, at least in part, to how criticism from fans and media has evolved (devolved, some may say) with the propagation of new media: 

The difference in professional sports, of course, is that websites, social media and hundreds of TV channels have given a voice to just about anyone who cares to spout an opinion that carries far beyond the immediate vicinity.

The vast majority of those opinions are negative.

It doesn't matter that they're also largely uninformed, half-cocked or misguided. They create a sound, weight and perception that, unless an organization is patient, disciplined and a little hard of hearing, can lead to constant turnover.

This leads to constant starting over, which then leads to a well-worn groove in pretty much the same damn place.

What’s more, coaches are all too aware of the double-edged sword the league’s changing dynamics have yielded. Take this pointed confessional one NBA coach—who spoke under condition of anonymity—told Sporting News' Sean Deveney back in November:

Everyone’s scared s---less out there. There’s different criteria being measured on coaches and it is not just winning. You can win your ass off and still get fired. That’s why, we talked about it as coaches—we just got to keep coaching, and take it seriously and not let it be taken away or get minimized, from a coaching standpoint.

What this “different criteria” might be is anyone’s guess, although some factors seem all too obvious: the outsized clout and command of superstars on the one hand and, on the other, a new generation of owners eager to put their stamp on the direction of a franchise.

It’ll likely be years before the unprecedented coaching changes of the last calendar year reveal anything resembling a trusted trend. If the summer of 2016 finds five of the 10 new faces suddenly sacked, perhaps the focus will shift to the calculus at work within particular NBA front offices.

Then again, if how we understand the game continues to grow in complexity, so too must the minds behind the clipboard. Because if the first 120-plus years of basketball have taught us anything, it’s that this game is one where chance and change are as fundamental as drives and dribbles.

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