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Winning Wasn’t Good Enough For These Coaches

Posted by Neil Paine on September 2, 2010

In sports, expectations can be a funny thing. While in the end no amount of losing is truly tolerated, some coaches can get away with sub-.500 seasons while others can be fired despite a reasonable amount of success, all because of front office expectations for the team. Take a football example -- Marty Schottenheimer, for instance. Schottenheimer was fired by the Browns in 1989 despite a 40-23 record (with 4 playoff appearances) in the previous 4 seasons, simply because Cleveland could never quite get over the hump in the postseason. Fast-forward 18 years, and Schottenheimer was canned by the Chargers for the very same reason, despite 3 straight winning seasons and a 14-2 record in 2006. In each case, the team was no more successful under Schottenheimer's replacement (perhaps revealing that management's expectations were too high in the first place), but that's of little consolation to the unemployed coach who, for the most part, did his job well.

So with this phenomenon in mind, here are ten NBA coaches for whom winning simply wasn't enough -- namely, the top 10 W-L seasons by coaches who were fired the following offseason:

10. P.J. Carlesimo, 1996-97 Portland Trail Blazers (49-33)

The Paul Allen-era Blazers have a history of axing reasonably successful coaches because they failed to meet high postseason expectations. Rick Adelman was the first, having been dismissed after 47 wins and a 1st-round exit in 1994, but P.J. Carlesimo continued the trend when he was fired after 49 wins in 1997, again because Portland was unable to get past round 1 during his 3-year tenure as coach. At one point, there was a 6-year span where the Blazers won an average of 47 games per season, lost in the 1st round of the playoffs every year, and went through 3 head coaches. As you'll see in #8, Carlesimo's successor Mike Dunleavy briefly broke that pattern, but ultimately succumbed to the same fate as both of the men who preceded him.

9. Ed Macauley, 1959-60 St. Louis Hawks (46-29)

"Easy Ed" piloted the Hawks to 46 wins and an NBA Finals berth, but after St. Louis lost to Boston in 7 games, owner Ben Kerner made his 6th coaching change in 5 seasons. Ousting Macauley in favor of Paul Seymour, Kerner's explanation was that the Hawks “didn’t look good” even in victory. St. Louis would stay just as successful after Macauley's departure, making the Finals -- and losing -- again under Seymour, but he too was eventually fired, 14 games into the '62 season.

8. Mike Dunleavy, 2000-01 Portland Trail Blazers (50-32)

In a case of being both the beneficiary and victim of "Schottenheimer Syndrome," Dunleavy replaced P.J. Carlesimo in 1997-98 because the team's moderate success didn't meet Portland's expectations (see #10). Starting with his second season as their coach, Dunleavy did what he was brought in to do, not only advancing the Blazers past round 1 for the first time in 7 years but also guiding them to the Conference Finals in 1999 and 2000 (coming within 10 minutes of being favored in the Finals, in fact). However, Portland's now-infamous locker room had also begun to spin hopelessly out of control under his watch. After a disappointing but not entirely surprising 2001 season (50-32, 1st round exit), Dunleavy was fired and Maurice Cheeks was left to deal with the Jail Blazers at their peak dysfunction level.

7. Rick Carlisle, 2002-03 Detroit Pistons (50-32)

Taking over for George Irvine in 2001-02, Detroit improved by 18 wins and Carlisle won Coach of the Year honors in his first season as a head coach. But following another 50-win season in '03, Carlisle clashed with GM Joe Dumars and was relieved of his duties in favor of Larry Brown (ironic, since Carlisle's Pistons had beaten Brown's 76ers in the playoffs a month earlier). Brown would lead Detroit to a title in 2004 and another Finals appearance, but would be quasi-fired himself after the 2005 season.

6. Avery Johnson, 2007-08 Dallas Mavericks (51-31)

Johnson's run as the Mavericks' bench boss started strong with a 16-2 finish to the 2005 season, a 60-win Finals appearance in 2006, and 67 regular-season victories in 2007. Things went downhill from there, though, as Johnson was tactically outmaneuvered by Don Nelson in Dallas' embarrassing 1st-round loss vs. Golden State in '07, to be followed by a 51-win 2008 season that saw him struggle to fit newly-acquired Jason Kidd into the team concept. After another 1st-round exit, Mark Cuban dismissed Johnson as head coach, hiring Rick Carlisle instead. However, despite the change, they haven't really been any more successful than they were under the "Little General".

5. Jeff Van Gundy, 2006-07 Houston Rockets (52-30)

A common theme for the coaches on this list is an inability to get out of the first round of the playoffs; in fact, one might be tempted to think they'd have more job security if they hadn't made the playoffs at all! In Van Gundy's case, he directed Houston to the playoffs in 3 of his 4 seasons despite losing to injury 126 combined games from his two superstars, Yao Ming & Tracy McGrady. No matter, though: when the Rockets lost a bitter 7-game first-round series to Utah after a 52-win regular season, JVG was relieved of his duties and embarked on a broadcasting career. His successor in Houston, Rick Adelman, managed to coach them to the 2nd round in 2009, but his overall record is only mildly better than Van Gundy's was.

4. Jimmy Rodgers, 1989-90 Boston Celtics (52-30)

When Celtics legend K.C. Jones retired after the 1988 season, Boston aimed to maintain continuity by promoting longtime assistant Rodgers to the head job. But despite inheriting what had been a 4-time Finalist under Jones, Rodgers' tenure was rocky from the start, with Larry Bird missing all but 6 games in '89 with foot injuries (the team would go 42-40 without their best player). And even with a healthy Bird the next year, the C's suffered their second straight 1st-round exit, prompting Boston to ax Rodgers and hire Chris Ford. Ford would squeeze a couple more 2nd-round appearances out of the roster, but age and the untimely deaths of Len Bias & Reggie Lewis had the Celtics lottery-bound by the mid-90s.

3. Mike Woodson, 2009-10 Atlanta Hawks (53-29)

When Woodson came to Atlanta in 2005, the Hawks were in shambles, and the first-year coach had to weather a brutal 13-69 season before things got any better. They did eventually turn it around, though: in 2009-10, Woodson became the first coach in NBA history to see his team's record improve in 5 straight seasons. However, for all of the Hawks' progress, postseason success was elusive -- the team won just two playoff series during Woodson's tenure and established the 2nd round as its apparent ceiling. And while we don't know what the future holds for Woodson's replacement Larry Drew, with deals like the 6 year, $119 million contract they lavished on Joe Johnson this summer, it seems unlikely that his tenure will follow any path except Woodson's in reverse.

2. Flip Saunders, 2007-08 Detroit Pistons (59-23)

Saunders was hired by Detroit on the heels of back-to-back Finals appearances under Larry Brown, a legend whose messy divorce from the club didn't exactly create the most ideal situation for a new coach taking over a veteran team. Even so, Saunders' first Pistons squad stayed remarkably injury-free all season and cruised along unchallenged until struggling vs. Cleveland in round 2 and being upset by Miami in the ECF. Detroit won "only" 53 the next year but still went to the Conference Finals for a 5th straight year before losing to the Cavs on an historic performance by LeBron James. In Saunders' 3rd season, the Pistons won 59 games, made yet another Conference Finals, and were a late Game 6 collapse away from forcing a 7th game with the eventual-champion Celtics. But despite the gaudy win totals and relatively deep playoff runs, GM Joe Dumars felt the Pistons needed a "new voice" and fired Saunders in favor of Michael Curry. The result? Detroit has declined by a whopping 32 wins in the two seasons since Saunders' departure.

1. Mike Brown, 2009-10 Cleveland Cavaliers (61-21)

In a list dominated by teams that largely stayed intact but changed coaches, Brown's circumstance is somewhat different. Yes, like the other names on this list, Brown's teams consistently fell short of their championship goal. And in fact, over the past 4 years the Cavaliers actually went backwards -- from the Finals in '07, to the Conference Finals in '09, and finally the Conference Semis in 2010. However, in Brown's case the roster was not necessarily returning in one piece, regardless of the coach's fate; instead, all of that hinged on LeBron James' free agency decision. And true or not, the general perception is that Cleveland fired Brown mostly in an attempt to sway James into staying. In a way, though, it's actually fitting that the #1 coach on this unfortunate list would also have the most ignominious departure: fired in a desperate, last-ditch effort by management to kowtow to a star player.

If we can take away anything from this depressing list, it's this: changing coaches after a successful season is seldom the magic solution that pushes a team over the top. In fact, the best-case scenario after a firing like this is usually just more of the same, and often the team can't even maintain that. Why? Because the painful reality is that the team was probably never really good enough to win a championship in the first place. Everyone thinks they're a handful of moves away from winning it all, but sometimes you just have to learn to accept the truth about how good you really are. Unfortunately for these coaches' former teams, they had to learn that lesson the hard way.

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3 Responses to “Winning Wasn’t Good Enough For These Coaches”

  1. Jason J Says:

    Interesting post, Neil. It's odd to see all these coaching changes lined up like this.

    You know who I thought kind of got the raw of the coaching deal that nobody ever mentions because his successor has 10 rings as a coach? Doug Collins.

    In 1988 Chicago won 50 games and advanced in the playoffs for the first time since the the fall of Rome. In 1989 the team won three fewer games, but Collins integrated 4 new starters while losing his best big man defender and rebounder, AND they advanced to the conference finals and extended the eventual champs to 6 games.

    He was fired the next year, and while no one can say anything bad about Phil Jackson's results, can we really be sure Doug Collins wasn't on the same path? Pippen and Grant were evolving from young athletes to serious ballers. The end result in the playoffs in 1990 was one more win than in 1989, not a dramatic post-season improvement (in fact Jordan left the playoffs that year in tears after they lost to Detroit for the 3rd year in a row).

    Given that the young Bulls were naturally improving, and the aging Pistons were naturally deteriorating, it almost seems inevitable that Chicago would have won a ring pretty soon. Now 6 rings in 8 years balancing all those egos, that's another story. But did Collins deserve an axe for his tenure in Chicago? I don't think so.

  2. Neil Paine Says:

    Yeah, Collins almost made this list -- like you say, he had 47 wins and was still fired. Although I remember they had something about that in The Jordan Rules (still one of my favorite basketball books ever), that Collins couldn't deal with Jordan... There was some incident where Collins wanted practice on Christmas eve, Jordan refused to come, and Collins eventually begged him just to make an appearance so he could save face. Sam Smith seemed to feel that Jackson's calculating style was the only one that could bring the full potential out of MJ.

  3. Jason J Says:

    I remember that. There's also a story about Jordan refusing to finish a scrimmage because he thought Collins was rigging the "officiating" against his team. However, the two men clearly like each other now. Jordan hired him in Washington, and Collins can't say enough good things about Michael as a person and a player. Everybody from Dean Smith to Bob Knight (Olympics) to Collins to Jackson to Daily raved about Jordan's coachablility at one time or another, so they probably could have reached common ground. Hell, I'm sure Jordan was pining for Doug's spread offense when Jackson instituted the triangle!