The Most Controversial Midseason Coaching Changes in NBA History

Curtis Harris@@prohoopshistoryFeatured ColumnistNovember 21, 2012

The Most Controversial Midseason Coaching Changes in NBA History

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    Mike Brown's early season firing may have been surprising, but it wasn't all that controversial. Yes, the firing happened early in the season, but few people really took up the "Save Mike Brown!" cause.

    However, the NBA's history is littered with controversial coaching moves mid-season that do bring out skeptical and often harsh rebukes from fans, media and even players. You'll notice that most of these controversies have been fairly recent. This isn't because of a harbored bias toward these recent events. Instead this speaks to a realization that prior to the mid-1990s, NBA teams rarely fired a coach during the season who was winning games.

    So without further ado here are the controversial occasions when NBA teams switched horses in the middle of a stream. Giddy up!

    (as always a hearty thanks to basketball-reference for their statistical help)

Gene Shue

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    Philadelphia 76ers (1977-78)
    Record: 2-4

    A 2-4 record and the coach gets fired? Sounds like Mike Brown redux, except when you consider that the previous season Shue had guided the 76ers to the NBA Finals where they lost to the Portland Trail Blazers.

    Not only that, but over the course of Shue's tenure in Philadelphia he had improved the team's record every season. He was hired after their nine-win campaign in 1972-73 (the worst in NBA history) and got the team to 25 wins in 1973-74, then to 34, 46 and finally 50 wins in the season they appeared in the Finals. Add to all that Shue's stellar record with the Baltimore Bullets (three 50-win seasons and a Finals appearance) prior to coaching Philly and his firing is bewildering.

    So what gives?

    To quote the hilarious Boston Herald headline when the firing went down in November 1977: "The Shue Didn't Fit".

    To be precise, the owner of the 76ers, Fitz Dixon, didn't particularly like Shue after having purchased the team in 1976. It appears to be a case of a personality conflict and a new owner itching to make his imprint on the team by axing the coach installed by the previous regime.

    A shame since Shue was the 4th-winningest coach in NBA history at the time. At least his replacement was a great coach. Billy Cunningham would coach Philly for 8 seasons and make 3 NBA Finals, winning the title in 1983.

Paul Westhead

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    Los Angeles Lakers (1981-82)
    Record: 7-4

    The Lakers were Westhead's first NBA coaching gig. He took the team over midway through the 1979-80 season and racked up a 50-18 record. The Lakers in Kareem's final MVP campaign and in Magic Johnson's rookie season won the title.

    So, naturally, a year-and-a-half later the coach was fired.

    The Lakers started slowly that 1981-82 season with a 2-4 record, but seemingly righted the ship by  reeling off 5 straight wins. Still, Westhead was fired.

    Owner Jerry Buss explained his reasoning at the time, chronicled by the Daytona Beach Morning-Journal. He wanted a return to fastbreaking, exciting basketball. Keep in mind that the Lakers under Westhead had averaged 115 points in 1979-80, 111 points in 1980-81 and were averaging a supposedly timid 108 points in Westhead's 11 games in the 1981-82 season.

    So what gives?

    The Answer: Magic Johnson and Westhead had a tiff in Utah on November 18. Westhead accused Magic of being disinterested, Magic declared the offense stale and demanded a trade. Westhead was fired the next day.

    It did appear that Lakers players were generally dissatisfied with Westhead's offense that year, but Magic sounded positively ecstatic about the whole ordeal when asked about Westhead's removal, as recalled by Sports Illustrated:

    "Yeah, I'm happy and so are him and him and him," Johnson said, gesturing toward the empty lockers of teammates Norm Nixon, Jamaal Wilkes and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose happiness votes..

    For his role in the firing, SI declared Johnson "a greedy, petulant and obnoxious 22-year-old."


Larry Brown

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    New Jersey Nets (1982-83)
    Record: 47-29

    Serial coaching philanderer Larry Brown makes his first appearance on this list. And he makes it in a style only he could.

    Brown wasn't fired, didn't suffer an injury or have a nervous breakdown. He just decided to leave a team that was 47-29, had All-Star players in Buck Williams, Otis Birdsong and Micheal Ray Richardson for the opportunity to coach the University of Kansas.

    Yes, he left a highly talented and winning NBA team to coach college kids. Brown didn't even bother to finish the NBA season, which was absolutely possible before taking the Kansas helm.

    Ian O'Connor spoke with long-time, die-hard Nets fan Frank Capece on one occasion about the Larry Brown skedaddle. Capece had this to say:

    "I arrived one day and Larry Brown wasn't there anymore," Frank Capece said. "I walk in the door and this guy named Bill Blair was coaching. We didn't even know who the heck he was. We were devastated. We had no inkling beforehand. I said, 'We must really be inferior. Nobody would ever walk out on the Lakers or Knicks with six games to go.' "

    But that's life as a New Jersey Net. Surely Brown wouldn't pull the same trick on another NBA team a decade later.


Larry Brown

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    San Antonio Spurs (1991-92)
    Record: 21-17

    Nah, Larry totally ditched another team midway through a season.

    Brown left San Antonio after 38 games in the 1992 campaign, but this time around he didn't leave for the NCAA. Instead he took over as the coach of the Los Angeles Clippers. Yes, Larry Brown gave up on a team with David Robinson to have the privilege of leading a Donald Sterling owned band of unfortunates into battle.

    Amazingly, Brown did get the Clippers to the playoffs that season and the next. He subsequently ditched the Clippers for the Pacers and has since coached about 80 other NBA teams. He's the Runaway Bride of NBA coaching.

    PS - Brown's Texas Two Step this year made him the only person to ever coach two different teams in one season.

Don Nelson

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    New York Knicks (1995-96)
    Record: 34-25

    If you remember Don Nelson coaching the Knicks, you also probably remember drinking Crystal Pepsi. Nelson's New York tenure lasted about as long thanks to his lackadaisical coaching style that completely flew in the face of everything New Yorkers had come to know and love from the Pat Riley regime: hustle, boot camp practices, defense.

    Nelson also rubbed players the wrong way. John Starks was benched in favor of Hubert Davis and Patrick Ewing grumbled about his diminished offensive role. The discord eventually made its way, unsurprisingly, into the New York media and Nelson was toast by March of 1996.

    Herb Williams, seemingly a veteran of every New York Knicks coaching change since 1958, described how he hoped the transition from Nelson to new coach Jeff Van Gundy would run smoothly:

    "This is a veteran team and we've been together for a while. We're used to doing things a certain way," backup center Herb Williams said. "Take the Chicago Bulls, for instance. Even when Mike wasn't there, they still ran the triangle offense."

    As we now know the Knicks quickly reverted to the grind it out, pound it down, muck it up brand of basketball that made Riley proud and the rest of us recoil in horror watching it happen.

    Late 1990s NBA was a painful watch.

Byron Scott

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    New Jersey Nets (2003-04)
    Record: 22-20

    A former Showtime Lakers guard, Byron Scott lifted New Jersey from the NBA cellar to back-to-back Finals appearances in the early 2000s. This was a stunning turnaround for a franchise so widely panned. After all,  Larry Brown did leave them for a college team mid-season once upon a time.

    But perhaps it was the addition of Jason Kidd to the New Jersey roster that really pumped up the team's success.

    It surely was Jason Kidd, though, who instigated the demise of Scott's New Jersey tenure. In January of 2004, Scott was axed as Nets President Rod Thorn intimated that Scott's message had worn thin on players. Jason Kidd's message shortly after the firing certainly confirms, and likely informed, that opinion:

    "Sometimes change or a different voice is good. And in this case, with [Scott's replacement] Coach Frank we all feel confident."

    The Nets confidently lost to Detroit that postseason in the semifinals and have yet to get beyond the 2nd round since.

Don Nelson

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    Dallas Mavericks (2004-05)
    Record: 42-22

    Oh look, it's Nellie again. After burning bridges in New York, Don Nelson ended up in Dallas in the late 1990s and resurrected a moribund franchise.

    Entering the 2004-05 season, Nelson's Mavericks were a perennial playoff team, but ill health was beginning to ruin his ability to ably run the Mavericks show. Add to this the presence of a clear successor in waiting (Avery Johnson) and it may seem surprising, but not controversial, for Nelson to resign 64 games into the season.

    Things are never as they seem at first glance. Yes, the above was all true, but so was Nelson and owner Mark Cuban's growing disdain for one another. This expedited Nelson's departure from Dallas. It also fueled three years of litigation for Nelson to receive money he said was owed him by Cuban.

    Finally, in August 2008, Nelson won the case and $6.3 million from Cuban. The judge in the case threw out Cuban's absurd counter-suit that Nelson had used "insider information" to defeat Dallas in the 2007 playoffs when Nelson was coaching the WE BELIEVE Warriors.

Stan Van Gundy

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    Miami Heat (2005-06)
    Record: 11-10

    The Heat were Stan Van Gundy's first NBA head coaching gig and he did a marvelous job. In his inaugural season (2003-04), the Heat with Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Eddie Jones and Dwyane Wade rallied from a slow 0-7 start to finish 42-40. Then they defeated New Orleans in a classic 7-game first round series before bowing out in 6 games to the mighty Pacers in the semifinals.

    After the monumental Shaq trade during the 2004 offseason, Van Gundy got Miami to 59 wins in the 2004-05 campaign and was just a game away from the Finals when Wade was injured in Game 5 of the series forcing him out of Game 6 and limiting him in Game 7. The Pistons took that series, but the Heat were the better squad, injuries aside.

    But just 21 games into his third Miami season, SVG resigned.

    The reason given was that he wanted more time to spend with his family. However, conspiracies abounded then and now: did Shaq push him out? Did Pat Riley happily pull the rug out from under Stan's feet?

    Given O'Neal's legendary lethargy and also truculence concerning the situation in the years since, most notably calling Van Gundy a front-runner coach, my money is on him instigating the situation.

    But this controversy remains a mystery...

Dwane Casey

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    Minnesota Timberwolves (2006-07)
    Record: 20-20

    A longtime assistant with Seattle SuperSonics, Casey finally got his head coaching break in 2005 when Minnesota named him their new permanent coach following the dismissal of Flip Saunders. The Wolves went a so-so 33-49 his first season.

    However, in his truncated 2nd campaign, the Wolves were a respectable 20-20 with a roster made up of the spectacular Kevin Garnett and a slew of awful parts. Ricky Davis was clearly and legitimately the 2nd best player on that team. THAT'S FRIGHTENING.

    Still, the Wolves weren't satisfied with the situation and Casey was fired in favor of Randy Wittman, who to this day has never had a winning season and maintains a .323 win percentage as coach. This is like dumping off your "terrible" Honda Civic for a Ford Pinto: burning, destruction, mayhem.

    Minnesota has yet to really recover from the series of baffling moves by GM Kevin McHale in this era, while Casey has since been inexplicably passed up for the Clippers and Bulls coaching gigs in favor of Vinny Del Negro, but has finally gotten a second chance in Toronto.