NBA: Coach Firings Often Overlook Bigger Issues

Life as an NBA coach can be crazy at times. One minute you’re Mike Brown, coach of the greatest team in NBA history and the next minute you’re on the unemployment line. One day you’re Avery Johnson, Coach of the Month and the next day you’re left to contemplate what went wrong. For coaches who have experienced past success like Brown and Johnson, is their firing an indictment of their lack of coaching prowess? Or is it more realistically a case of unrealistic expectations?

The Lakers with Mike Brown entered this season with lofty expectations and dreams of hanging their 17th championship banner in June. A horrible preseason and a slow start to the regular season led to Brown losing his job. Brown did make some ill-advised moves, including using the Princeton offense, but his firing masked the flaws of this Lakers team. The Lakers are an old team with few athletic players in a league where that matters. The Lakers this offseason decided to add Steve Nash who was an All-Star last season but is 38 years old. Dwight Howard entered this year coming off a serious back injury, and it can be argued how much of an upgrade he is over former center Andrew Bynum. Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol are both in their thirties and have a lot of mileage in their legs from lengthy postseason runs and Olympic basketball. All of these factors do not lead to a team starting off a season 15-0 and winning 70 games. A preseason and five regular season games is not enough time to define what a team’s identity will over a 82 game season.

Avery Johnson coached the Nets to an 11-4 record this November and was named the Eastern Conference Coach of the Month. In December, the Nets played to a 3-11 record and Avery Johnson was fired. The Nets are playing their first season in a new arena in a new city with plenty of hype surrounding the team. The team’s management believes the team is good enough to contend for a championship and Johnson wasn’t the man to get the team to that title. The Nets problems aren’t with Johnson’s coaching; it’s with the team that was put together and unrealistic expectations. Last season the Nets finished the season with a 22-44 record and this year the team’s major offseason addition was adding Joe Johnson. Johnson was widely considered to be untradeable due to his massive contract, and while he is an All-Star caliber player he is not a player a franchise can be built around to contend. After a year of speculation over Dwight Howard coming to the Nets, the team re-signed Brook Lopez to a max contract. Let’s not forget that this is a player who’s never made an All-Star team. The team possesses few relatively gifted defensive players, and All-Star guard Deron Williams has regressed from his play in Utah. The Nets do not have a championship contending roster and to place the blame on Avery Johnson makes no sense.

In the NFL, coach firings during the season are extremely rare. The philosophy is to wait out the entire season before deciding to fire the coach. In the NBA where the season is longer, teams don’t always choose to wait out the year before firing the coach. The problem with deciding to fire the coach early in the year is that firing the coach usually takes the place of examining poor roster construction, or a lack of patience by management. In a sport where the season takes place over 82 games, a quick fix is rarely the solution.

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