How Fair Are These NBA Coach-Killer Reputations?

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterMay 19, 2020

How Fair Are These NBA Coach-Killer Reputations?

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    The term coach killer is one no player wants to have, yet plenty of NBA stars have received this label either justifiably or not.

    This could apply to players who have butted heads with multiple coaches throughout their career or simply had a single ugly battle that ended up getting a head coach fired.

    For seven stars who have been labeled as coach killers, we review if these reputations are fair or if they should be considered cleared of all charges.


    Longtime Sports Illustrated writer, author and host of The Dream Team Tapes podcast Jack McCallum joins The Full 48 with Howard Beck to discuss the final episodes of The Last Dance, Karl Malone, the Bryon Russell push-off, MJ and the Dream Team, Christian Laettner and Isiah Thomas.

Stephon Marbury

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    Marbury was one of the most outspoken stars in the late 1990s and early 2000s, for better or worse.

    Right when his career should have been peaking in 2005-06, he was tasked with leading a New York Knicks franchise in disarray. The Knicks were led by Larry Brown, the team's fifth head coach in five years, who signed a five-year, $50 million contract.

    Brown had just won a title with the Detroit Pistons in 2004 while also leading the Philadelphia 76ers to the Finals in 2001.

    When the Knicks got off to a dismal 17-45 start, things got ugly between Brown and Marbury.

    "I think it's personal now," Marbury told then-ESPN writer Chris Sheridan at the time. "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."

    Brown fired back at Marbury through the media as well.

    "So, you're the best guard in the league and the team is 17-45, yeah, it's the coach's fault," Brown told Sheridan. "I don't know why you play a team sport and not be concerned about making your teammates better and helping your team win games. That's the only thing that really matters, and if you're the best player, surely you're going to have some effect on the game's outcome."

    Marbury eventually won the dispute, as he would go on to play two more seasons in New York. Brown was fired after just one season, eventually getting $18.5 million of the $40 million that was owed to him.

    Marbury's feud with Brown led to a messy divorce and a $28.5 million paycheck for Brown's one season on the sidelines.

    Verdict: Possibly a killer, but no one is feeling bad for Brown with that kind of payout

Dwight Howard

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    Howard has spent time with six different organizations in his 16 years, but never has his relationship with a head coach been as bad as it was with Stan Van Gundy and the Orlando Magic.

    Van Gundy spent five years in Orlando, making the playoffs each time, with a run to the NBA Finals in 2009.

    Times were good. For a while.

    While there were already rumors about friction between Van Gundy and Howard, the relationship hit peak awkward during a media session before a 96-80 loss to the New York Knicks.

    Van Gundy told the media that Howard wanted him fired and didn't know if the front office planned to keep him around or not.

    "I was told it was true by people in our management," Van Gundy said at the time, per ESPN's Ian O'Connor. "So right from the top.

    "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."

    Howard came over just minutes later, putting his arm around Van Gundy as a sign of solidarity to tell reporters the rumors were false.

    It would have been a touching move...had Van Gundy not just openly admitted what management had told him about Howard calling for his job.

    Van Gundy would last until the end of the 2011-12 season, with Howard traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in a four-team deal just months later.

    Verdict: Guilty, at least in Van Gundy's case

Gary Payton

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    After making the playoffs in 1999-00, the Sonics traded for center Patrick Ewing to complement a core of Gary Payton, Rashard Lewis, Brent Barry, Vin Baker and Ruben Patterson.

    Head coach Paul Westphal was in his third season with the team, guiding the club from a 25-25 record in the strike-shortened 1998-99 season to 45-37 in 1999-00. Ewing was nearing the end of his career but was still supposed to boost the team for another playoff run.

    The beginning of the 2000-01 season was a disaster, however.

    Westphal and Payton had an on-court shouting match in a game against the Dallas Mavericks, and Payton, Baker and Ewing criticized the effort level of the team.

    Westphal even reportedly left his office to stop bickering in the locker room, offering to step down as head coach if that was what the team wanted. This was just four days into the season.

    Following a 6-9 start, Westphal was fired, and Nate McMillan guided Seattle to a respectable 38-29 finish. He would keep the job until 2005.

    While many of the Sonics veterans supposedly disliked Westphal, Payton was by far the most vocal about it.

    Verdict: Not a killer. Payton and George Karl spent six successful years together. Westphal fell victim to many veterans, including a broken-down Ewing.

Deron Williams

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    Williams and Jerry Sloan spent five-and-a-half years together with the Utah Jazz before Sloan stepped down from his longtime position Feb. 10, 2011.

    Sloan spent nearly 23 years as the head coach in Utah, becoming the first coach in NBA history to win over 1,000 games with the same franchise. He took the team to back-to-back Finals in 1997 and 1998 and reached the postseason 19 times.

    Williams was the No. 3 overall pick in 2005, an outstanding point guard with size who rivaled Chris Paul as the league's best young floor general.

    While Williams developed into an All-Star, his relationship with Sloan deteriorated.

    "I don't want to say we've had a rocky relationship, but we've had our disagreements over the years, probably no more than any other coach and player have arguments," Williams said in an interview on 1320 KFAN-AM (h/t ESPN's Marc Stein). "... We're both very stubborn, and I think that's where we clashed."

    Williams was canceling Sloan's play-calls and calling his own, leading to an emotional halftime dispute.

    While it was clear the two weren't getting along, the timing of Sloan's stepping down was unfortunate given the Jazz would trade Williams to the New Jersey Nets just 13 days later.

    It's true that Sloan's age (68 at the time) may have led to his retirement, but doing so in the middle of the season with a respectable 31-23 record seemed uncharacteristic.

    Sloan had coached and maintained great relationships with Hall of Famers like John Stockton and Karl Malone for decades, so Williams definitely seems guilty here.

    Verdict: Sloan wasn't fired, but Williams is guilty of pushing him to retirement midseason

LeBron James

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    In 17 seasons, James has had seven different full-time head coaches.

    While part of this is his own doing simply by switching teams three times, James' head coaches continue to face some of the highest scrutiny in the league.

    James' first head coach, Paul Silas, didn't even last two full seasons until the Cleveland Cavaliers fired him with 18 games to go in James' sophomore season.

    James spent the most time with Mike Brown (2005-2010), although the Cavs fired Brown (for the first time) shortly before James left for the Miami Heat in the summer of 2010.

    Erik Spoelstra and James spent four successful years in Miami together, apart from some rumors that Pat Riley would take over at first and the cold shoulder that James gave Spoelstra during a loss to the Dallas Mavericks.

    While Luke Walton was fired after just one year with James on the Los Angeles Lakers, perhaps James' worst relationship with a head coach came with David Blatt and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

    Blatt was hired to lead a young team consisting of Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins, a plan that was scrapped as soon as James agreed to rejoin the Cavs in 2014.

    James was given every opportunity to endorse Blatt, yet he would typically come back with the, "Yeah, he's our coach, I mean, what other coach do we have?" lines that didn't exactly spew confidence.

    James also famously "scratched" Blatt's play-call at the end of a Bulls-Cavaliers playoff game in 2015, leading to James hitting the game-winning shot.

    Blatt would last just a season-and-a-half with James, getting fired in January 2016 before the Cavs would go on to win the NBA championship.

    While James never called for the firing of any of his head coaches, he could be labeled a coach killer given the tremendous amount of turnover around him wherever he goes.

    Verdict: Not a killer, but don't expect to keep your job long

Jason Kidd

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    A current assistant coach with the Los Angeles Lakers and former head man with the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks, Kidd was once the star point guard of a New Jersey Nets team led by Byron Scott.

    Kidd and Scott led the Nets to the NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003 and were once again expected to be among the league's best teams during the 2003-04 season.

    A disappointing 22-20 start to the season ultimately led to Scott's firing, one Kidd claims he had nothing to do with.

    Kidd "berated" Scott and the Nets' coaching staff following a 47-point loss to the Memphis Grizzlies in January, with Scott vowing to apply Kidd's suggestions to his coaching.

    When Scott was fired in January, one Nets front-office member told the Associated Press that Kidd had come to management about wanting a change of leadership.

    If true, that's about as coach-killer as it gets.

    Lawrence Frank would take over, leading the Nets to four playoff trips but no more Finals appearances.

    Verdict: Kidd found guilty of killing Scott's coaching career in New Jersey

Kyrie Irving

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    Few players have cycled through head coaches faster than Kyrie Irving, now on his seventh in nine seasons.

    Irving has never played for the same coach for more than two full years, be it Byron Scott, Mike Brown, David Blatt, Tyronn Lue, Brad Stevens, Kenny Atkinson or now Jacque Vaughn. If the Nets replace the interim Vaughn with an outside full-time head coach, that will be eight for Irving in 10 years.

    How many firings, if any, has Irving been responsible for?

    Brown probably qualifies, given he and Irving never saw eye-to-eye, with Brown advocating that Cleveland  trade the then-21-year-old All-Star. The Cavs fired Brown just one season into a five-year, $22 million deal, partly because they were worried Irving wouldn't re-sign with the team.

    Lue and Stevens held their positions after Irving was traded to the Boston Celtics and later left for the Brooklyn Nets in free agency, but Atkinson's dismissal could have been traced back to the star point guard.

    Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports reported that Irving "soured on Atkinson early" but also that "Kenny pushed for the parting just as much if not more than Brooklyn."

    In the end, it likely came down to what Kevin Durant and Atkinson wanted more so than Irving.

    Verdict: Guilty on Mike Brown, cleared of all other coach firings