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The average lifespan of an NBA coach is seemingly as short as a 24-second shot clock these days. Stalwarts like Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra and Steve Kerr are outliers in this volatile profession.
After the regular season, the Lakers, Kings and Hornets all made coaching changes with the hope of improving next season. And that’s even though Frank Vogel, despite a disappointing season, won a championship just two seasons ago, and James Borrego won 10 more games each of the past two seasons.
“Everyone’s gonna love you, and then everyone’s going to hate you,” as one former NBA coach told HoopsHype.
So how do those firings happen behind the scenes? HoopsHype spoke with five NBA executives, three coaching agents and a former NBA coach to learn the answers.
Who makes the call?
In the past, it was mostly executives making the big decision to fire a coach. However, with a new wave of owners coming into the league over the past decade, multiple executives have had an owner override them and decide a coach’s fate.
“A lot of times in the circumstances I’ve been in, it’s been ownership driven,” an NBA executive told HoopsHype. “An owner doesn’t like the guy or think he’s doing a good job. Ownership would say, ‘This isn’t the coach for us. We need to move on.’ The owner would force the issues. When the owner doesn’t like the guy, are you really going to stick your neck out there?”
“The owner would simply say, “This is the decision I’ve come to,” another NBA executive told HoopsHype. “This is why. I appreciate your perspective and opinion on this. Ultimately, I’m the one paying the bills. Ultimately, I’m the one who’s accountable for the product we put out on the floor. This is a decision I made.”
Multiple NBA coaching agents echoed the sentiments from the executives that the ultimate decision may be trending towards the owners.
“I think the majority of the owners that are under 10 years in their ownership are more like that (hands-on) than ever before,” one current coaching agent told HoopsHype. “They’re more involved than they ever have been to a detriment. Very few teams have hands-off owners. The majority of them are very active and want to be involved in the process. It’s a toy to them. They enjoy it. It’s scary, but that’s the way it is now, and I don’t see it changing going forward.”
“In the NBA, it’s the owner’s final say,” another coaching agent told HoopsHype. “The GM, who on paper makes the decision, often doesn’t. There are numerous ways the information about the firing gets down to the coach or how it happens. Each team’s dynamic between front office and ownership is dynamic.”
In the end, the decision comes down to a difference in approaches. Coaches are process-oriented. Ownership is results-oriented. Executives, meanwhile, are somewhere in the middle.
Is there vertical alignment between the owner, general manager and coach? When there is, you’ll generally see teams talk about either championship expectations, a roster built to compete in the playoffs, or no mention of expectations or a rebuild.
What factors into the decision?
Whether it’s the owner or general manager who fires a coach, there are usually several factors that lead to a coach’s dismissal.
On the court, does the coach’s playing style align with the strengths of his star players? Do the players get along with the coach? Does the coach make in-game adjustments and draw up effective ATOs (after time-out plays)? Has the team plateaued under his leadership?
“Ultimately, a star player tells a front office person or even the owner, ‘I’m telling you, we’re just tired of playing for this guy,” an NBA executive told HoopsHype. “We have no juice on the floor. Nobody listens to him. We don’t think he knows what he’s talking about. If we were playing for somebody else, we’d be winning more games.’”
Sometimes it’s not a star player in the mold of LeBron James, Bradley Beal, or Damian Lillard. It can be a player who is a professional and well-respected veteran with a lot of credibility who has the ear of the front office or ownership.
“It’s usually not the player, by the way, it’s usually the player’s agent because players talk a tough game, but then they don’t want to be in the middle of that sh*t,” one of the coaching agents told HoopsHype. “Agents are complaining the whole season. You’ve got to take it with a grain of salt. None of the players want to be held accountable for the outcome.”
Off the court, is the coach taking accountability and not stealing the spotlight in press conferences? Does the coach honor requests from ownership or management to play younger players or adjust his coaching style to a more up-tempo offense or small-ball philosophy? Does the coach cost the franchise too much money? Is there a rising assistant coach on the staff or elsewhere worth pursuing?
Other times, it’s as simple as a new owner or general manager wanting to handpick his people. Sometimes, a general manager fires the coach to deflect from poor roster decisions and place blame elsewhere. Lastly, an owner may want to make a move because it looks good in the media with a splashy hire.
“The business is influenced by factors that are beyond anyone’s control,” an NBA coaching agent told HoopsHype. “Whether it be players, agents, or media leaks that are untrue but gain notoriety.”
How to execute the firing?
If the owner decides to fire the coach, the general manager is less likely to tell him he’s fired in some circumstances. Occasionally, the messenger can be the owner. In rare instances, it’s both the general manager and owner.
From an executive’s standpoint, you want to make the decision quickly and swiftly.
“You say, ‘We wish you the best, and we’re going to say good things about you,’” one of the NBA executives told HoopsHype. “Do you have any questions? Some get it. Some are upset, and you help them through it. Then, it’s over.”
Most coaches see the writing on the wall, which leads to a brief conversation.
“They’re usually very brief,” an NBA executive told HoopsHype. “Whoever the decision-maker is sits with the coach and says, ‘This is the decision I’ve come to. These are the reasons I came to the decision. It’s not a negotiable decision for me. However, what I’ll do is honor any request you have to message this a certain way. I’ll also honor any request you might have to help you in pursuit of another employer. I won’t disparage you or say anything negative about you.’ For where we’re going, we’re going to go forward without you in that position.”
However, according to one NBA executive and one coaching agent, some coaches used the time to push back on any criticism they received in the meeting or throughout the season. When that happens, it can become somewhat combative.
“Sometimes it gets very heated for sure,” the coaching agent told HoopsHype. “Sometimes, the coach’s ego gets in the way, and he’s like, “F*ck it. I’m resigning. You’re not firing me.”
The press release
After firing a coach or “part ways,” as most press releases say these days, the executive and coach’s agent usually work together on a press release with the team’s public relations department if they’re leaving on relatively good terms. It’s usually done to best help both parties, but more so the coach, in the best way possible.
“I craft the narrative verbally with the president or general manager of a team, and then he relays it to the PR person who calls me,” a coaching agent explained. “I do it again from my point of view. We get the first draft, and then I tweak it and temper it a little bit. They’re not aggressive versions of the process. If it’s amicable enough that we can get to that stage and do it in tandem, it’s usually not as acrimonious as ones where there are hostility and animosity.”
If there’s hostility or animosity, chances are either the coach, general manager, or owner will leak information to the media to get ahead of the news and help shape the narrative.
“I think people can see through those press releases,” another coaching agent said bluntly. “More often than not, you’ll see the phrase mutually parted ways, but nine times out of 10, the guy got fired.”
Immediately after being fired and leaving the meeting, the coach’s phone lights up like Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
“Everyone’s calling you immediately as it happens,” one former NBA head coach told HoopsHype. “It’s hard to pick and choose who you’re going to speak to, who you want to speak to and what you want to talk about five minutes after you were just told you were let go. The first thing I had to do was call my wife and let her know. I grabbed my staff and let them know. Then, I spoke to my agent a little bit.”
Those calls include former coaches, current coaches, reporters trying to gather intel and the coach’s side of the story, friends, family, etc.
According to the former NBA head coach, he got great advice on what not to do, including reacting to every negative story on why he was fired or clear up stories of the false narratives that come out because someone had to leak something to explain why he was fired.
“I think there’s a lack of decency and humanity in some of the situations,” the former NBA head coach told HoopsHype. “With Borrego, it was a little unfair. He was just extended last year, and he was let go this year, which shows there’s no consistency and support, or maybe even consistency of aligning goals and expectations. Something convinced them to commit to him two more years after last year. Then, something drastic made them de-commit after winning 10 more games.”
In the coming days after the dismissal, it can be a whirlwind for the coach to go through with his agent and family while figuring out his immediate future.
“There are all these stages of emotion that the coach and his family are going through, and you have to go through that with them and those different stages depending on the personality of the coach and family and security they have,” an NBA coaching agent told HoopsHype.
There’s even a sense of gratitude on the emotional spectrum for the coaching opportunity despite a bittersweet ending.
“I’m not going to motherf*ck you for making me rich over the last few years and moving forward,” a former NBA coach said.
You can follow Michael Scotto (@MikeAScotto) on Twitter.