Front offices across the NBA seem to be panicking a bit these days. Job security has long been an oxymoron for coaches in this league, but even by that what-have-you-done-for-me-lately standard, this offseason has been a particularly volatile one.
Twelve coaches have been fired since the season ended, including the coach of the year and five others who led teams to the playoffs.
Setting franchise records for victories in a season gets you fired these days. Leading your team to the Western Conference finals gets you fired these days. One tough season coaching a roster full of dead-legged journeymen and still-learning rookies gets you fired these days.
"Coaching has never been valued less and blamed more," said ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy, former coach of the Knicks and Rockets. "Failure gets you fired and success gets you fired."
While the ground all around them has never been more unstable, the last two coaches standing this season have found the kind of level footing that has become increasingly rare. The San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat, tied 2-2 in the NBA Finals heading into Sunday night's Game 5, have become the models for stability and managed to rise above the chaotic fray engulfing much of the rest of the league.
"I think it's a terrible state for the profession right now," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "We see it differently, the San Antonio organization and the Miami Heat organization. (To have) true success in the NBA you must have consistency of culture. When you see that type of turnover over and over and over, it's impossible to create any kind of sustainable consistent culture."
The Nuggets, Clippers, Grizzlies, Bucks, Nets and Hawks all fired their coaches after playoff runs this season. The Bobcats fired Mike Dunlap after one season on the job, while Mike Brown made it all of five games into his second season with the Lakers before he was run out of town.
Brooklyn owner Mikhail Prokhorov fired two coaches this season — Avery Johnson less than a month after he was the Eastern Conference coach of the month and P.J. Carlesimo after the Nets lost to the Bulls in the playoffs.
"It's disappointing that Lionel Hollins takes his team to the Western Conference finals and they are going to go in another direction," Hall of Famer and ESPN analyst Magic Johnson said last week about the situation in Memphis. "You can't get better than Lionel Hollins, and you can't get better with what you have; just a tremendous season.
"Do I like what's going on today? No."
Warren LeGarie represents some of the biggest names in the coaching business, including Hollins. He said he doesn't see a crisis brewing, but he does believe periods of upheaval like this "are going to become more common than not."
"No matter what, you've got to keep your seat belts fastened because there's a lot of turbulence out there," LeGarie said. "I tell my guys to try to improve their relationship with the front office as much as possible and keep the lines of communication open. No one likes surprises."
George Karl led the Nuggets to the playoffs in all eight of his seasons and earned coach of the year honors this year after helping a starless team set a franchise record with 57 victories. He told The Denver Post that he thought the decision to fire him was "very stupid," and Gregg Popovich won't argue with him.
In his 17th season as coach of the Spurs, Popovich is the longest tenured coach in the league. The manic approach that many NBA owners take to changing coaches, in his eyes, runs counter to the philosophies that made many of them successful in other pursuits.
"As you think about it, it seems like it would apply no matter what your business is," Popovich said. "If you can have continuity, a good group, a team, so to speak, and all that that entails and keep it in a continuous manner so that it grows more or less upon itself, within itself and the knowledge and understanding continues to grow you have a pretty good understanding. You can deal with adversity and you cannot get too pumped up about success but just enjoy it and realize how fleeting it might be.
"But the change, change, change, change, change thing doesn't really work. You can see that in a lot of organizations."
Spoelstra has only been on the job five seasons, but that makes the baby-faced 42-year-old a relative gray beard in this business. He is the third-longest tenured coach in the league behind Popovich and Boston's Doc Rivers.
It all starts at the top, with Spurs owner Peter Holt and Heat owner Micky Arison long considered two of the more level-headed owners in the league. Arison has worked with President Pat Riley since 1995, while Holt, GM R.C. Buford and Popovich have been the power trio in San Antonio since 1997.
"The continuity I think breeds, it breeds trust, it breeds camaraderie, it breeds a feeling of responsibility that each member holds towards the other," Popovich said. "The ability to be excited for each other's success, not to develop territory and walls, but to stay participatory. To be able to discuss, to argue and come out at the end on the same page with the same passion and the same goals."
"And I think without continuity that's pretty impossible, because all the immediate tendencies of instant success starts to take over and that just breeds failure."
The tranquility, and volatility, seems to trickle down to the players. Before coming to the Heat three years ago, Chris Bosh spent seven seasons in Toronto. He played for three different coaches and five different general managers in that time and only made the playoffs twice.
"I've been a part of organizations where the GMs and coaches have been like musical chairs," Bosh said. "It's hard to get stability. The players are in and out. Here it's comforting to know you can work with the same people and get to know the same people."
If there was any team that could be tempted to bow to public pressure it is the Heat. Playing under a white-hot spotlight ever since LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Bosh teamed up in the summer of 2010 has brought unparalleled scrutiny. Spoelstra was deemed by some not experienced enough to coach such a star-laden roster, and Bosh has heard calls for him to be traded for two years.
The Heat ignored all of that and now find themselves in their third straight finals, two victories away from their second straight championship.
"When people don't see success right away, they just want to fire everybody and trade everybody and move on from there," Bosh said. "It takes patience. I think a lot of people up top understand that. The coaching staff understands that. I think now we're in a position to really be successful, hopefully, for a while."
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