“We all know getting into this about the volatile aspects of the job are, but being humans you hope for fairness and that sort of thing,” Popovich said. “But the bottom line is that most firings have nothing to do with the ability to coach, and that’s the sad part.”
While Popovich is an institution, his program the envy of every organization in the NBA, very few have emulated arguably the most important part of his success: giving a coach the time to implement his vision and carry it through.
Since the end of last season, 11 teams – more than a third of the entire league – have changed coaches, and 17 have made a change within the last two years. Other than Popovich, only two coaches – Erik Spoelstra with the Miami Heat and Rick Carlisle with the Dallas Mavericks – have been on the job for more than five seasons.
Sometimes, making a change can lead to plenty of success. Golden State replaced Mark Jackson with Steve Kerr before last season, and immediately won 67 games and the franchise’s first championship in 40 years in doing so. But it’s just as likely to lead to more instability and, in many cases, more changes as teams try and search for the right mix to find success.
“I was having a conversation about that with [assistant coach] Lawrence Frank the other day,” Clippers point guard Chris Paul said. “I don’t know the answer to [why there are so many coaching changes].
“[But] it’s kind of odd sometimes when you’re seeing a team paying three coaches at the same time.”
One thing that the three coaches with the league’s longest tenures – Popovich, Spoelstra and Carlisle – have in common is that they’ve won championships, and the Spurs, Heat and Mavericks are considered to be three of the best organizations in the league. But despite seeing the success that the stability of those organizations has provided, teams have been far more likely to have a quick trigger finger when issues arise. That’s been especially true for franchises such as the Sacramento Kings and Brooklyn Nets, teams well-known for the dysfunction and chaos in recent years, and who have basically had a new coach every season each of the past few years.
Those situations are emblematic of the difficulties that come with trying to coach an NBA team, a job that’s only gotten more difficult in recent years. As player salaries have skyrocketed to be several times more than even what the best coaches in the NBA are paid, players have garnered more and more power within their organizations.
That’s not to say that players didn’t have power in the past – for example, Magic Johnson famously demanded that either he be traded or Los Angeles Lakers coach Paul Westhead be fired in 1981, and Westhead was quickly sent packing. But players have steadily gained more power in the years since then, and have also learned how to use it to their advantage.
The way the media has evolved, turning into a 24-hour news cycle that endlessly dissects everything that’s happening with a team, has also contributed to it. There’s no better example than when LeBron James bumped shoulders with Spoelstra walking back to the bench after a timeout early in his first season with the Heat, leading to days and days of speculation about whether it was intentional and, if so, what it meant about their relationship.
“Maybe teams, organizations, fans, are looking for a quicker turnaround,” said Heat forward Chris Bosh. “I think we’re in that society nowadays where people want instant gratification, and it’s a tough situation to be in, because building a team takes time. It takes years and years, if not a lifetime.
“And being a head coach, sometimes, it can be so many different things. It can be politics. It can be players not responding to you. It could just be a new, fresh voice needed to spark everybody up. But yeah, the turnaround is very quick, and it’s kind of unfortunate, but there will be new coaches filling those spots. That’s the name of the game nowadays.”
Take what happened with Blatt in Cleveland, for instance. When he was hired in late June of 2014, he was inheriting a team that had a young core of players including Kyrie Irving and the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, Andrew Wiggins. But within a couple weeks of his hiring, James had stunned the world – including the Cavaliers – by deciding to come back to Cleveland to play for them.
Now Cleveland had a coach James had no connection with, and one that he took over six weeks to finally meet, doing so in between takes for his role in the movie “Trainwreck” in New York. If there was any doubt about how he felt about things before then, that was all the proof anyone needed that this was destined to be a rocky situation.
It came as no surprise, then, when there were rumors of discontent with Blatt practically from the start of last season. Even after Cleveland made to the NBA Finals and won two games against the Golden State Warriors after losing both Irving and Kevin Love due to injury, it became more and more obvious that if Cleveland didn’t win a championship, Blatt would be shown the door by the end of this season at the latest.
Eventually, Cavaliers general manager David Griffin decided to make the move last month, citing a need to have better harmony in the locker room, something that he thought Lue could provide. And, if he’s unable to do so, Cleveland will no doubt make another change.
“I think maybe the owners are running out of patience,” Lue said. “I’m not sure. Just talking to the guys, it’s good to get a long-term deal, because you never know what’s going to happen in this league. In our situation alone, we’re number one in the East and we got to the NBA Finals last year, and then something like this unfortunately happens.
“I think you just have to continue to see improvement every year. A lot of times, I know ownership, they get anxious, and they probably think they’re better than what they really are. So that tends to play a part in it.
“But there’s been some unfortunate situations, and you just have to prepare every day, and be prepared for the worst.”