When NBA commissioner Adam Silver, National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts, NBPA president Chris Paul and their chief deputies met in June to discuss “the league’s collective response to the social justice issues in our country” ahead of the season restart, the two sides discussed “strategies to increase Black representation across the NBA and its teams,” according to their statement.
Not two weeks into the playoffs, three of the NBA’s eight Black head coaches this season are now in search of jobs. Alvin Gentry received his walking papers from the New Orleans Pelicans after five seasons, the last two landing in the lottery. Jacque Vaughn’s run as interim coach of the Brooklyn Nets ended with a depleted roster in a first-round sweep, although he remains a candidate for the position. And Nate McMillan was fired on Wednesday by an Indiana Pacers franchise he led to the playoffs in each of his four seasons at the helm.
This is not to say any of those moves were racially motivated on a conscious level. Gentry often fell short of expectations throughout his tenure in New Orleans, although injuries and roster turnover played significant roles. Vaughn at the very least earned himself serious consideration. And early reports have the Pacers potentially prioritizing an offense-first approach to McMillan’s defense-first mentality. Los Angeles Clippers assistant Tyronn Lue, who is Black, is considered a leading candidate for at least two of those positions.
But this should be of grave concern to a league that rightfully considered eight Black head coaches a shortfall in a billion-dollar corporation that counts three-quarters of its employees as African American, especially as players have peacefully led a strike in protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake. You can bet the league office and the NBPA will be watching closely how the five vacant positions are filled.
“The league needs to do a better job in particular when it comes to hiring African Americans at every level,” Silver said on a conference call in June that included Paul and Roberts, among others. “It’s something that we have been focused on with our teams. We already used one of our most recent Board of Governors meetings to discuss it and to present specific data on where there are weaknesses in our hiring practices.”
The New York Knicks named Tom Thibodeau, who is white, their head coach last month over a list of 10 other candidates, half of whom were Black. In December, when a Knicks team built to lose started 4-18, the organization fired David Fizdale, one of seven Black head coaches entering this season. Only Clippers head coach Doc Rivers, Detroit Pistons coach Dwane Casey, Atlanta Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce, Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams and Cleveland Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff remain. Rivers and Casey are former Coaches of the Year. Williams, Pierce and Bickerstaff were all in the first year on those jobs this season.
In a league that has seen less turnover on its benches of late, Rivers is the only Black head coach who has held his position for longer than two seasons. That is evidence of a broken system. The annual list of top coaching prospects intrepidly reported by ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz has no shortage of qualified candidates.
Look at the teams many of those aforementioned coaches have been tapped to helm. The Pistons, Suns, Hawks and Cavaliers have been dead-end jobs for much of the last two decades, save for when LeBron James was in Cleveland. Naturally, poorly run organizations are going to have more coaching vacancies, but many Black coaches have not yet enjoyed the luxury of choosing between jobs, which often means accepting positions destined for failure in the name of experience. Only, once they gain that experience, they have statistically been less likely to earn second and third chances, as Thibodeau just did in New York.
Of the handful of most desirable jobs in the past five years, all have gone to white head coaches. Look to last summer, when talks between the Los Angeles Lakers and Lue broke down when the head coach of the 2016 champion Cavaliers felt insulted by a three-year contract offer after first-year head coach Luke Walton had previously been given a five-year deal. The Lakers instead hired Frank Vogel to his third head coaching job in five seasons, and he has excelled, as have Mike Budenholzer on the Milwaukee Bucks, Nick Nurse on the Toronto Raptors and Mike D’Antoni on the Houston Rockets, all of whom replaced Black coaches.
The point is not to say those men have not proven themselves as stellar hires. It is that we have no idea whether a Black head coach would have excelled in the same position, because they rarely get the chance.
McMillan is a prime example of how exceptionally well a Black head coach must perform in the NBA, not only to stay on the job, but to earn the respect that comes with it, and the Pacers fired him two weeks after giving him a one-year extension, perhaps a parting gift for helping a small-market franchise stay relevant.
It is hard to reconcile what Pacers general manager Kevin Pritchard said in a statement on Aug. 12:
“What Nate has done in four seasons with our franchise merits this extension. Between injuries and changes in personnel, he and his coaching staff have adapted and produced positive results. He also represents the franchise, the city and our state in a first-class manner.”
With what Pritchard said in his statement on Wednesday:
“This was a very hard decision for us to make; but we feel it’s in the best interest of the organization to move in a different direction. Nate and I have been through the good times and the bad times; and it was an honor to work with him for those 11 years [in Indiana and Portland].”
After leading the Pacers to a Game 7 against James’ Cavaliers in their 2018 first-round series — as close as any other coach in the Eastern Conference has come to eliminating the four-time MVP from the playoffs this past decade — McMillan’s Pacers did nothing but exceed expectations, developing Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis into All-Stars along the way. McMillan won 60 percent of his games over the past two seasons, despite losing Oladipo for half of each. Oladipo missed last year’s playoffs, and Sabonis missed this year’s, when Oladipo still was not 100 percent healthy. Both ended in predictable first-round sweeps.
McMillan finished no worse than sixth in Coach of the Year voting each of the past three years. There is no excuse beyond McMillan not wanting to coach next season for him not to fill a vacancy in Brooklyn, New Orleans, Philadelphia or Chicago. If the NBA is serious in its effort to improve hiring practices, McMillan will not be the only Black coach to secure one of those positions, because three of them are highly desirable (sorry, Bulls fans). And even then, the league will only be where it started this season: Short of its goal.
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