When it comes to coaching in the NBA, it’s what have you done for us lately?
Only two years ago, coach Mike Budenholzer led the Milwaukee Bucks to the NBA championship. It was the Bucks’ first title since 1971. Only two coaches have ever won a championship with the Bucks.
The Bucks were so grateful that they fired him this month.
Only two years ago, Monty Williams took the Phoenix Suns to the NBA Finals, where they lost to Budenholzer’s Bucks. One year ago, Williams was named Coach of the Year after the Suns won a league-best 64 games. The year before Williams became coach, the Suns won a league-worst 19 games to complete their fourth straight losing season. Williams was fired Saturday after his team was defeated in the conference semifinals for the second straight year.
This probably won’t surprise you: NBA coaches have the shelf life of guacamole. Even good ones.
Budenholzer was a good sport about it. He wrote a thank-you letter to Milwaukee and to the team.
“The city of Milwaukee and the entire Bucks organization took us in and treated us like we were part of their own family,” he wrote.
Then they didn’t and kicked them out of the family.
As the NBA playoffs progress toward the championship finals, the coaches know one thing is uncertain. Even if they win a championship, they aren’t going to be around long. They’re just buying time — so they can be fired later.
In the NBA, it’s what have you done for us lately?
When the Bucks exited the playoffs in the first round this year, the rest was fait accompli. Budenholzer was fired. He had a won-lost record of 271-120 and five division championships. In his worst season he was 46-26. In his last season he was 58-24, a 70.7 winning percentage and the best in the NBA.
This was not the fate you would expect for a coach who won a championship a little less than two years ago, but maybe it should be. Three of the last four coaches to win an NBA title have been shown the door. Steve Kerr is the only survivor, but then he’s taken the Warriors to the NBA Finals six times in eight years and won four of them. He’s made it difficult to be fired.
Frank Vogel coached the Lakers to the championship in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. He was fired two years later following a 33-49 season. He’s been fired three times in six years (Indiana and Orlando also dismissed him as head coach).
Nick Nurse took the Toronto Raptors to the championship in 2019 in his first season as head coach. He was fired four years later following a 41-41 season in which the team failed to qualify for the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. He had a won-lost record of 227-163 with the Raptors.
Coaches are hired to get fired, or so the saying goes. The 2017 season marked the first time in 46 years that not a single coach was fired. The league made up for it during the 2017-18 season, when nine teams made coaching changes.
According to the Sports Teller website, from 2010 to 2022 (13 seasons), seven teams made five or more coaching changes — the Cavaliers led the list with seven, followed by the Lakers and Kings (six each), Hornets, Timberwolves, Knicks and Magic (five each). Eight teams made four coaching changes.
The average tenure of NBA coaches is three to four years. Lenny Wilkens (32) and Don Nelson (31) are the longest-tenured coaches ever, but they coached for multiple teams. Gregg Popovich has coached one team — the Spurs — for 27 years. Jerry Sloan coached the Jazz for 23.
Larry Miller, the late owner of the Utah Jazz, used to say that if he fired a coach, then it didn’t reflect well on his ability to hire good employees, so he hired well and gave his coach time to do his job. He had just two coaches during the nearly 30 years he oversaw the team — Frank Layden (who voluntarily resigned, citing burnout) and Sloan.
Such longevity almost never happens in the NBA. Some coaches get tossed before their seat on the bench is warm. The Suns fired Earl Watson just three games into the 2017-18 season. Watson told reporter Ben Bolch that he had actually been given a two-week termination notice in training camp before the start of the 2017-18 season. He joins a list of about a half-dozen coaches who have lasted 50 or fewer games. Jerry Tarkanian’s NBA coaching career endured 20 games.
As of Sunday night, Doc Rivers seemed likely to be the next coaching casualty. His 76ers lost to the Boston Celtics, marking the 10th time Rivers has coached a Game 7 loss, double the number of any other coach in NBA history.
NBA execs are either terrible in their hiring practices or they’re too impatient and too quick to pull the trigger.