Philadelphia, PA – You know it's a tough business when the man voted the very best at what he does gets fired a month after being told of his greatness.
That's what happened to the NBA's reigning Coach of the Year, George Karl, on Thursday. The Denver Nuggets showed Karl the door despite owning the most active wins among NBA coaches and making the playoffs nine times in nine years with the club.
"George has been an instrumental part of our success over the past decade, and we appreciate everything he did to keep us among the top teams in the Western Conference," Nuggets president Josh Kroenke said in a statement. "He is a Hall of Fame coach whose legacy in Denver will last for years to come. George is a legend in the game of basketball and I could not have more respect for him as a person and coach."
Sounds like a wonderful coach. Good thing they fired him.
The unemployment of good basketball coaches is not specific to the Nuggets.
The Los Angeles Clippers canned Vinny Del Negro after he helmed the team to a franchise-best regular-season win total.
Lionel Hollins took the Memphis Grizzlies to the organization's first Western Conference Finals. The team told him to look at other jobs if he so desired. He so does.
Larry Drew made the playoffs all three seasons with the Atlanta Hawks. Like Hollins, he wasn't under contract this season and Hawks brass didn't cry in their soup about it. Thus, Drew is the head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks.
During the season, Mike Brown was given all of five games before given his papers. Five games and the Lakers decided they saw enough.
Avery Johnson won Eastern Conference Coach of the Month honors in November. He was dismissed on Dec. 27.
What is going on here? Does the NBA not value good head coaches at all?
"Teams think they're aggregating something that they have a certain group of players that they want to get more out of, and they think they're not getting out of it," NBA commissioner David Stern said. "So what you do is you think about changing the coaches or you think about reconfiguring the roster, or you think about having another general manager.
"The thing you're unlikely to reconfigure is ownership. I've learned a lot in my 30 years. That's one that doesn't get reconfigured."
So is it a matter of expectations being too high?
Realistically, before the season, did anyone think a team other than the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers or San Antonio Spurs was going to win the NBA Championship? On the fringe, you had the Indiana Pacers, Nuggets, Grizzlies, Nets and New York Knicks. Maybe, under the perfect storm of circumstances, the Boston Celtics could contend.
Anyone other than those mentioned, and honestly, anyone other than the Heat, Thunder or Spurs, suffered severe delusions of grandeur. You can't tell an owner that, but it's reality. It also doesn't change the fact that NBA coaches have short shelf lives.
"It's obviously a pretty volatile situation to be a head coach in the NBA, no doubt about it," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.
The bigger picture is that via free agency, smart men can build championship contenders quickly. All you have to do is spend wisely and attain superstars as cheap as possible.
Take for example, the Houston Rockets. They acquire James Harden for relative peanuts. He blossoms outside the shadow of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Chandler Parsons turns out to be a steal in the draft. Omer Asik comes via free agency. Now, Houston is a desirable location so much so that reports are surfacing that Dwight Howard is considering signing there as a free agent.
That kind of immediate turnaround has robbed the coaching profession of time. Gentlemen don't get any time to build a roster or a philosophy before they get released. If positive change happen in a year, why isn't it happening to us?
Another factor at play might be the emergence of the superstar assistant. Tom Thibodeau is, at a minimum, one of the five best coaches in the NBA. He was a lifelong assistant, got his chance and everyone knew he'd succeed.
There are several of those candidates either already gobbled up, or are about to be.
Mike Budenholzer was in San Antonio longer than Bowie and now is manning the Atlanta Hawks. Steve Clifford has worked for the Van Gundys among others and now has his chance with the Charlotte Bobcats. Brian Shaw is dating both the Clippers and Nets.
Those coaches come much cheaper than established veterans. If Vinny Del Negro can get 50 wins, why not pay Shaw less and he'll probably win as many? Everyone wants to make that discovery.
Coaches become analysts very quickly, yes, but sometimes coaches are fired for cause.
Karl had only year left on his contract and Denver thought he'd be a pain in the petunia. Also, in nine playoff appearances, eight times the Nuggets were bounced in the first round.
Hollins is a perfect fit for the Grizzlies, or so we thought. Memphis is actively going down the road of statistical analysis. Hollins is more old school than Boston Latin. Reports say he is not a fan of the philosophy. As Brad Pitt's Billy Beane said in "Moneyball," "adapt, or die."
Del Negro is not terribly respected as a coach. Drew is a good basketball man, but if his career ends without a title, no one will be shocked.
Owners sign the checks and with that, have total autonomy. They are making bold decisions that are sometimes financial, sometimes personal and sometimes savvy business.
They're expectations may not match reality, but the ones paying the price are the coaches.
"They may be wrong, but that's what happens," said Stern.
- Every time the Heat lose a playoff game, panic sets in. Miami will be fine. They have to play a little differently because San Antonio won't turn it over. Miami played well, save for four minutes in the fourth quarter. Put LeBron James on the block more often, take less 3-pointers and try to keep Tony Parker as far away from the hoop as possible. It's going to be a great series.
- I have no clue how the coaching carousel will pan out, but here's what I know - three of these four high-profile jobs - Denver, Memphis, Brooklyn and Clippers - will go to Hollins, Karl and Shaw. That fourth team will have some work to do.
- Mock draft coming soon.
- Commissioner Stern on flopping penalties: "You're not going to cause somebody to stop it for $5,000 when the average player's salary is $5.5 million. And anyone who thought that was going to happen was allowing hope to prevail over reason." Oh, and don't forget the fact that a player can still flop without any direct impact on the game other than maybe getting the call he wants.
- Movie moment - Watched "Trouble with the Curve" over the weekend. I was somewhat startled to learn it was the first movie Clint Eastwood acted in without also directing since "In the Line of Fire" back in 1993. I now know why he did it himself.
- TV moment - "Modern Family" has four episodes to start next season to keep me on board. I'm officially out this season on "True Blood." I am excited for the summer return of "The Newsroom." It's not perfect, but it's pretty darn good.