What Have You Done for Me Lately? Impatient Owners+Superstar Egos=Fired Coaches
If you're looking for job security, don't coach in the NBA.
The last couple of weeks, a number of championship coaches and NBA Coach of the Year winners have been shown the door.
Mike Budenholzer, who led the Milwaukee Bucks to the league title just two years ago, was fired a week after his team's shocking loss to the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs. (Given that the Heat are annihilating Boston and will advance to the championship finals, that defeat doesn't look quite as shocking).
All Budenholzer had done in Milwaukee was post the league’s best regular-season record in three of his five seasons on the job. He was 271-120 in the regular-season and 39-26 in the playoffs and was voted NBA Coach of the Year in 2019 and also back in 2014 with the Atlanta Hawks.
Another recent championship coach and Coach of the Year (2020), Nick Nurse, led Toronto to the 2019 NBA crown but was ousted last month after the Raptors lost to the Chicago Bulls' in a play-in game. Nurse posted a 227-163 record in five seasons as coach. Doc Rivers, one of the most respected coaches in the league, was fired last week by the Philadelphia 76ers after they were eliminated in the conference semi-finals by the Boston Celtics.
In 2007, Rivers coached Boston to the NBA championship, the first of 16 consecutive winning records he has posted as a head coach of the Celtics, LA Clippers and 76ers. Earlier, he was named Coach of the Year while leading the Orlando Magic.
Yet another former coach of the Year, Monty Williams, was fired by the Phoenix Suns last week after they were knocked off by the Denver Nuggets. (Again, given that the Nuggets are headed for the Finals, this wasn't a surprise).
Williams resurrected the franchise from one of the league's laughingstocks into the winningest team in the NBA over the past three seasons. He was 194-115 (.628) in the regular season and 27-19 in the playoffs, winning a franchise record 64 games in 2021-22 and reaching the NBA Finals in 2021.
Rivers and Williams were both victimized by what I refer to as the "super team" syndrome, whereby a franchise acquires one or two star players to bring them a title and will accept nothing less.
In Rivers' case, the superstar, James Harden, was inconsistent and disruptive. Williams was on the clock when his team traded for Kevin Durant. Nothing less than a title would suffice. The fact that Phoenix was ousted with two starters--guard Chris Paul and center Deandre Ayton--sidelined by injury was somehow overlooked.
And so it goes in the NBA, where the easiest solution to a disappointing season or playoff is always to fire the coach. Whether that coach won a championship a few years earlier means nothing. The question is always, "what have you done for me lately?"
As in, "what have you done for me this season?"
Consider the fact that three of the last four NBA championship coaches have been fired since winning the title--Nurse (2019), Frank Vogel of the LA Lakers (won in 2020, then fired last year), and Budenholzer (2021). The only survivor is the Warriors Steve Kerr. Kerr has won four titles in his nine years with the Warriors. His fired colleagues only lasted three (Rivers and Vogel), four (Williams) or five years (Budenholzer and Nurse). Fortunately the job pays well...an average of about $5 million. And in all likelihood, Budenholzer, Nurse, Rivers and Williams will all find new jobs in the near future.
Only to be fired again in three to five years.
Icons Passing: It's always a little sobering when your contemporaries start to pass on. For those of us who've worked in the sports world, the last few weeks have been particularly unsettling. Three of our generation's sports icons have passed away. Vida Blue, born the same year as your humble columnist, died on May 6 at the age of 73. Blue was so dominant in 1971 that he won both the Cy Young and MVP awards after posting a 24-8 record with a 1.82 ERA. His Oakland A's teams won three straight World Series titles from '72-74.
A couple of days later Joe Kapp, the Cal Bear and Minnesota Viking QB best known for his Super Bowl and Grey Cup appearances--and coaching his alma mater when the most famous play in college football transpired in 1982--passed away at 84.
The final blow came last Thursday, when Jim Brown, the greatest running back in NFL history, died at 87. I always considered Brown to be the best player in pro football history until Jerry Rice came along. Now he's No. 2.
Brown was not only one of our country's greatest athletes--he starred in four sports at Syracuse--but also an influential activist and a successful movie actor.
2023 has been a bad year in general for sports stars. Earlier this year we lost Bobby Hull, one of the top hockey players of all time, as well as Willis Reed, the anchor of the New York Knicks NBA champions, and Charles White, USC's Heisman trophy winning running back.
Some of these folks--Blue (substance abuse), Brown (domestic violence), Hull (pro-Nazi leanings and spousal abuse)--weren't model citizens, to be sure. But on the field, the court and the ice, they were superstars.
They were all heroes of my generation, and now they're gone.
I must be getting old.