The NBA season is barely six weeks old and six coaches have already lost their jobs. P.J. Carlesimo was canned in Oklahoma City, Randy Wittman lost his gig in Minnesota, Eddie Jordan was shown the door in Washington, and Sam Mitchell was dismissed in Toronto. Then just as things seemed to be settling down, Maurice Cheeks got the ax in Philadelphia and then Reggie Theus was fired in Sacramento.
Coaching in pro-sports is one of the more trend-adherent jobs, but who knew that the NBA would so quickly parallel the national economy. Were the NBA more of a cartel, there would have been a press release saying that the NBA coaching jobs were being cut by 20 percent.
The thing is that while this firing line has all the hallmarks of a trend, it isn't. Several of the firings were the result of unique circumstances, while others were the result of standard corrective business procedures that had been delayed into the season. Wittman, for instance, was a bad hire in Minnesota. He had spent two years at the helm in Cleveland (pre LeBron) and went 62-102. If that wasn't damning evidence enough, then at the midpoint of the '06-'07 season when he was handed the coaching job with the Timberwolves, Wittman took over a team that was 20-20. He went 12-30 the rest of the season with largely the same personnel. For this he was given a contract extension (yes, I, too, am in the wrong line of work). It's proof that Minnesota GM Kevin McHale is the worst executive in the game that after a 22-60 season in '07-'08 and a 4-15 start this season, it wasn't the McHale, but rather T-Wolves owner Glen Taylor who pulled the trigger on Wittman, bumping McHale down to interim coach in the process. Minnesota basketball fans can probably only hope that the rest of this season is a countdown to a brighter day ahead.
Carlesimo's dismissal was a textbook case of a hard-driving coach burning out on a young team. No one will mistake the Thunder for a playoff contender, but a good measure of the effort that a coach can extract from a team is defense, and the Thunder under Carlesimo was a horrible defensive team. On average, they allow 109.8 points per 100 possessions, sixth worst in the league and a few slots below where they were last season. The Thunder is in the midst of a long and slow rebuilding effort, and it had become apparent that Carlesimo was not the coach to shepherd a very young roster through this next phase.
Jordan is paying for the sins of his GM, Ernie Grunfeld. By tying up so much money in Gilbert Arenas' ever-frail physique, he cemented the Wizards as a mediocre team. As Wizards fans are learning, it's a far shorter distance from mediocre to miserable than it is from there to the elite. With Arenas and Brendan Haywood hurt, and the rest of the conference on the upswing, a Wizards team that figured to decline went into freefall. It's easier to change coaches than change rosters, and that applies big time to the Wizards.
Reggie Theus got a raw deal in Sacramento. He was hired to manage the team through a rebuilding process. He should have received coach-of-the-year consideration for taking a mishmash of a roster and going 38-44; instead it just raised expectations that the team could contend and rebuild simultaneously. During the offseason, the roster was revamped to center entirely around Kevin Martin and several emerging players. When Martin was injured, the team's offense suffered, and Kings owner Gavin Maloof began to question Theus' abilities in the press; that's always a good sign that it's time to connect with a real estate broker working for a national firm.
Cheeks in Philadelphia and Mitchell in Toronto were similar in two ways. Both men coached teams with reasonable hopes of playing deep into the spring, and each was present when a new GM came on board. Few GMs retain the coaches they inherit, but both Cheeks and Mitchell made their firing difficult by leading their teams so well. Cheeks' 76ers were one of the hottest teams after the all-star break last season. Mitchell won Coach of the Year in '05-'06 with the Raptors. Nevertheless neither ever had much job security and at the first sign of trouble, both men were let go.
ESPN's John Hollinger makes a solid case that this spat of dismissals is only a market correction on the turnover rate in pro-hoops coaching, but six firings before Christmas is unprecedented, and we may not be done. Detroit's Michael Curry could get the boot if his team continues its wildly inconsistent play. Remember, he is succeeding Flip Saunders who was canned for losing in the Conference Finals for three straight seasons. How long is management supposed to tolerate a team toddling along just above .500. Memphis Grizzlies coach Marc Iavaroni is one bad losing streak from his seat getting very warm.
In general, GMs and coaches have a built-in conflict. The player personnel executives are supposed to look out for the team's long term interests while the coach is short-term focused—win now. The problem is that GMs are overreacting to a few bad stretches. Coaches can lose teams and get them back. Around this time four years ago, while most of the NBA was still shaking off the impact of the ugly brawl that spilled into the stands at the Palace of Auburn Hills, a noted NBA coach was leading his team through a desolate six-game losing streak that included five double-digit routs. The team got it together and has been a contender for the last three seasons. The team is the Utah Jazz and the coach is Jerry Sloan, who just celebrated 20 years leading his team.
General managers need to do a better job of managing expectations. Philadelphia was awful this time last year but put it together in the second half. Although Wittman was in over his head (and so is McHale) and Carlesimo may be one of those guys who is a better assistant coach than head man, Jordan, Mitchell, Cheeks and even Theus deserved a chance to right their ships. A lot of this coach firing strikes me as teams panicking over some early-season struggles. The fans deserve more savvy from their team's front offices.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.