In 2013, Nuggets coach George Karl won Coach of the Year and responded as follows: “Coach of the year? I’m not sure I want that legacy. Have you seen what happens to guys who win coach of the year?” Karl was let go by the Nuggets less than a month later. Five years later, Dwayne Casey suffered a similar fate (Denver chose not to give Karl a new contract while Casey was affirmatively fired). Still, management had the same beef, a disappointing postseason. Karl’s observation got me wondering if there really is some sort of COY curse. Let’s take a look at the tenures of other COY winners and see what we can learn.
Before proceeding though, a little background on COY. The NBA has given out COY since 1962-63 and all that time, there has been a tension between giving the award to coaches who had really good teams and met expectations or to coaches that over performed with teams that didn’t seem quite as good. We will run through every winner and give a little background on the more interesting situations. With this all in mind, let’s see what we can learn with a year-by-year look:
-1962-63, Harry Gallatin, Hawks (post COY tenure, 1.5 seasons): Gallatin was a rookie coach taking over a team that had a ton of talent (Bob Pettit) but had played poorly the previous season. The Hawks rebounded to 48-32 and lost 4-3 in the Conference Finals. Gallatin followed that up with a similar season in 1963-64 before being fired midway through 1964-65.
-1963-64, Alex Hannum, Warriors (post COY tenure, 2 seasons): Hannum was a Hall of Fame coach but it’s not clear why he won COY that season. The team had an identical record as the year before and lost to the Celtics handily in the Finals. The next season, the Warriors traded Wilt Chamberlain and plummeted to 17-63. Hannum kept his job for another season and rebuilt to 35-45 with rookie Rick Barry. Despite Hannum’s nice recovery, he was fired. Sports Illustrated described the firing: “[Owner Franklin] Mieuli’s firing of Alex Hannum last spring made little sense. Hannum, the best pro coach there is, was let go supposedly because he would not stay in San Francisco during the summer and run clinics. The real reason was a clash of two strong personalities—Hannum’s and Mieuli’s—and the decision has come back to haunt the Warriors.”
-1964-65, Red Auerbach, Celtics (post COY tenure, 1 season): This doesn’t really count obviously. Red retired to focus on being GM.
-1965-66, Dolph Schayes, 76ers (post COY tenure, 0 games): Our first guy fired after being COY! Schayes had the core of the great 1967-68 juggernaut. Schayes’ problem was that the Celtics smoked Philly 4-1 in the playoffs. In Schayes’ defense, the teams were relatively even on paper, so a Boston win wasn’t shocking. The issue was that Philly didn’t even make it competitive. In “Season of the 76ers,” Wayne Lynch quoted a March 1967 Sport magazine article which explained the firing as a Wilt Chamberlain issue: “Schayes got fired because, well, it was apparent one of them had to go, and how do you fire Wilt Chamberlain? Before Chamberlain got Schayes fired, he embarrassed him. He forgot to show up at practices….At the very end, when they were blowing the playoff to the Celtics, Chamberlain missed a practice and Schayes said, ‘Well, he could have practiced foul shooting.’”
-1966-67, Red Kerr, Bulls (post COY tenure, 1 season): Kerr was a rookie coach and he had a rookie Bulls’ franchise. The Bulls weren’t actually any good but they impressed voters by somehow making the playoffs (despite a 33-48 record). This was an aberration of an unusually weak conference (the Bulls were easily swept in the playoffs). Kerr had ostensibly the same season in 1967-68 (going 29-53 and making the playoffs despite a 1-15 start) but the Bulls fired him anyway. In 2007, Kerr wrote a retrospective about his career where he described the parting of the ways: “In my second year, I had an argument with our owner Dick Klein. He said that if I wanted to go somewhere else, then I was welcome to go and do what I wanted. I mentioned it to [Phoenix GM Jerry] Colangelo, and he suggested that I come out there [to coach] since we had worked those first two years in Chicago together.” All this aside, it’s not clear how Hannum, who went 68-13 in Philly, didn’t win this award.
-1967-68, Richie Guerin, Hawks (post COY tenure, 4 seasons): In his fourth season as coach, Guerin (who replaced COY winner Gallatin) turned the Hawks from .500 to a 56-game winner. It was a nice job but they lost in first round of the playoffs to a .500ish Warrior team.
-1968-69, Gene Shue, Bullets (post COY tenure, 4 seasons): A solid coach in the middle of a solid run.
-1969-70, Red Holzman, Knicks (post COY tenure, 7 seasons): A great coach in the middle of a great run.
-1970-71, Dick Motta, Bulls (post COY tenure, 5 seasons): A solid coach in the middle of a solid run.
-1971-72, Bill Sharman, Lakers (post COY tenure, 4 seasons): A great coach in the middle of a great run.
-1972-73, Tom Heinsohn, Celtics (post COY tenure, 4.5 seasons): A great coach in the middle of a great run.
-1973-74, Ray Scott, Pistons (post COY tenure, 1.5 seasons): In his second season, Scott was able to get the Dave Bing/Bob Lanier core to play very well (52-30) but they lost to Motta’s Bulls in the first round of the playoffs. Despite having the same team the next year, the Pistons slumped to 40-42 (due to a big drop in team defense). Scott was fired midway through 1975-76. According to the New York Times, Scott’s firing occurred “because there was a communications breakdown.” Scott never coached in the NBA again.
-1974-75, Phil Johnson, Kings (post COY tenure, 2.5 seasons): Johnson would later be Jerry Sloan’s assistant for a few decades. In the 1970s, he took over the Kings and led them to a 44-38 record in 1974-75 behind Tiny Archibald and Sam Lacey. The West was so bad at the time that the Kings were the three seed with their barely .500 team. The Kings missed the playoffs the next two seasons and Johnson was fired in the midst of his third straight non-playoff season. Johnson seemed to be a weak COY pick at the time. Both the Bullets and Braves had better teams and more impressive improvement from the previous season.
-1975-76, Bill Fitch, Cavaliers (post COY tenure, 3 seasons): A solid coach in the middle of a decent run.
-1976-77, Tom Nissalke, Rockets (post COY tenure, 2 seasons): Nissalke’s first year in Houston was a success because he took a .500 team and won 49 games and went to the Eastern Conference Finals. Nissalke was, in fact, a journeyman coach but he caught some reflected glory by having new center/force of nature Moses Malone. Nissalke was fired two seasons later after getting swept in the first round of the playoffs. Nissalke would go on to coach Utah and Cleveland with little success.
-1977-78, Hubie Brown, Hawks (post COY tenure, 3 seasons): A solid coach in the middle of a decent run.
-1978-79, Cotton Fitzsimmmons, Kings (post COY tenure, 4 seasons): A solid coach in the middle of a decent run.
-1979-80, Bill Fitch, Celtics (post COY tenure, 3 seasons): A solid coach in the middle of a decent run. Had some help in the form of a rookie named Larry Bird.
-1980-81, Jack McKinney, Pacers (post COY tenure, 3 seasons): McKinney’s tough story is well-known. He got his break as a rookie coach in 1979-80 with the Lakers. L.A. was stacked with talent (namely, rookie point guard Magic Johnson) but McKinney was seriously injured in a bike accident and sat out the rest of the season. The Lakers won the title that season and decided to keep interim coach Paul Westhead going forward. McKinney landed on his feet with the Pacers the next season and went 44-38 with a middling cast (Billy Knight and James Edwards). The Pacers declined the next three seasons and the Pacers did not renew his contract. McKinney was immediately hired by the Kings for 1984-85 but things got worse quickly. The Kings started out 1-8 and McKinney resigned only nine games into his contract. In a New York Times report, McKinney said that “[t]rying to do this has become extremely frustrating to me. The stress has given me many sleepless nights…until I have reached a point of being burned out.” McKinney would never coach again. Remember McKinney’s career when someone tells you that success is a choice and not, to any degree, a function of luck.
-1981-82, Gene Shue, Bullets (post COY tenure, 5 seasons): Shue’s second tenure with the Bullets wasn’t as good as his first. Shue knocked around .500 behind Jeff Ruland for over half of the 1980s in DC. The Bullets were 43-39 in 1981-82 and there were a ton of better choices for COY.
-1982-83, Don Nelson, Bucks (post COY tenure, 4 seasons): A good coach in the middle of a good run. This was the year that the Bucks actually swept Larry Bird in the playoffs (which got Fitch fired).
-1983-84, Frank Layden, Jazz (post COY tenure, 4.5 seasons): A solid coach in the middle of a solid run.
-1984-85, Don Nelson, Bucks (post COY tenure, 2 seasons): A good coach in the middle of a good run.
-1985-86, Mike Fratello, Hawks (post COY tenure, 4 seasons): A solid coach in the middle of a solid run.
-1986-87, Mike Schuler, Blazers (post COY tenure, 1.5 seasons): Schuler replaced the legendary Jack Ramsay and helped Portland jump to 49-33. Schuler was a rookie head coach and got credit for improving the team. The Blazers had a ton of young talent (Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey) and looked ready to explode. Schuler built on that success to go 53-29 the next season. Unfortunately, the Blazers could not get past the first round either season. In 1988-89, Portland started out 25-22 and Schuler was fired in bitter fashion in February 1989. The Los Angeles Times detailed Schuler’s personality problems: “By all accounts except his own, Schuler was to blame. Less than three years after taking control, he had:
–Feuded for two years with Clyde Drexler, the Trail Blazers’ best player.
–Feuded this season with Kiki Vandeweghe, arguably the team’s second best player.
–Bickered with reserve forward Steve Johnson, upset with his role after being a starter most of his career.
–Angered many on the team by practicing on Thanksgiving Day, the only NBA team to do so.
–Systematically lost respect of nearly every other member of the team, to the point that even forward Jerome Kersey, once a staunch pro-Schuler supporter, said his firing was needed.
Proof, perhaps, that Schuler lost control of the situation could come from his comments after the firing. In speaking with a reporter from the Portland Oregonian, Schuler talked as if he said he was not aware of the problems that were so obvious to everyone else.”
Schuler was replaced by the easygoing Rick Adelman, who led Portland to two NBA Finals. Schuler went on to a brief stint with the Clippers. The team struggled and Schuler was not able to develop a solid young core (Ron Harper, Danny Manning, Charles Smith) to the playoffs. It was hard for anyone to really do well with Donald Sterling but the Clippers also complained about Schuler’s sharp-edged personality: “[o]ne sign that Schuler’s days were numbered came when the Clippers defied the coach by refusing to practice on the holiday honoring Martin Luther King’s birthday. There have been other signs, as well. [Center Olden] Polynice, who said Sunday night that Schuler ‘forgot about people’s feelings at times,’ earlier complained about the difficulty of playing for a coach who probably wouldn’t be around much longer.” Schuler was replaced by Larry Brown, who immediately led the same Clipps core to the playoffs. Schuler never got another head coaching gig but lasted as an assistant for over a decade.
-1987-88, Doug Moe, Nuggets (post COY tenure, 2 seasons): A solid coach in the middle of a solid run.
-1988-89, Cotton Fitzsimmons, Suns (post COY tenure, 3.5 seasons): A solid coach in the middle of a solid run.
-1989-90, Pat Riley, Lakers (post COY tenure, 0 games): Traditionally, the truly great coaches rarely win COY but Riley earned it in 1989-90. The first post-Kareem Lakers were really good. Still, Riley may have pushed them a bit too hard. Despite having the best record in the NBA, the Lakers were smoked 4-1 by the Suns in the second round. The disappointing playoff finish, combined with players having fatigue from years of Riley’s intensity got him a pink slip. At the time, the Lakers were nice enough to call it a resignation but, no doubt about it, Magic and company wanted him out.
Jeff Pearlman’s awesome book “Showtime” detailed Riley’s last press conference: “The oddness of the event cannot be overstated. First, nearly everyone affiliated with the Lakers had known Riley was being dumped. Second, most of the reporters in attendance arrived under the assumption that he was being dumped. Third, Magic Johnson, the closest thing Riley had to a basketball son, was nowhere to be found…..Fourth, those assembled could surmise the Lakers had already decided upon a replacement. [The replacement, Mike Dunleavy] was, after all, sitting alongside Riley.”
Roland Lazenby’s “The Show,” interviewed some key players who admitted to burnt out. Byron Scott told Lazenby that “[i]t got to the point where we’d heard this speech before and to the point where he got tired of saying it.” James Worthy also told Lazenby that: “[b]y the end of [1989-90], the fire was not there. As far as the team was concerned the locker room was dead. For the first time since I had been with the Lakers, it was a job.”
Riley has been introspective about his end with the Lakers. In an ESPN interview with 2015, he blamed himself for getting fired: “When I became Mr. GQ in 1988 is when things began to change for me with my relationship with the players. You have to watch out for that when you’re a head coach. I went through a period of time from 1987 to 90 where my ego got totally out of control…. But I was young, had a great team. We won all these championships. I was getting all this credit. Armani and I became good friends. I always loved clothes and that moniker sort of stuck.”
The irony of all this is that the playoff upset that caused the firing was not an actual upset. The Suns had nine fewer wins than L.A. but they had a higher SRS rating (7.09 to 6.74) and the Lakers had no one to guard young Kevin Johnson and Jeff Hornacek (Scott was badly out played by Horny). This does not mean the players weren’t sick of Riley but he might’ve deserved another chance.
-1990-91, Don Chaney, Rockets (post COY tenure, 0.5 seasons): Chaney was a journeyman coach but somehow caught lightning in a bottle that season. The Rockets lost Hakeem Olajuwon with a broken orbital bone and looked to be headed to the lottery. Somehow, Chaney was able to keep the team respectable 15-10 without Hakeem by playing a very old and undersized Larry Smith at center. When Olajuwon returned, the team won 13 straight and finished the year 52-30 (though the Lakers swept them in the playoffs). Alas, the Rockets slipped to 26-26 in 1991-92 and Chaney was fired in midseason. This led to Rudy Tomjanovich’s great run in Houston. Chaney had two more head coaching gigs but never won more than 37 games or made the playoffs again.
-1991-92, Don Nelson, Warriors (post COY tenure, 2.5 seasons): A good coach in the middle of an interesting run.
-1992-93, Pat Riley, Knicks (post COY tenure, 3 seasons): A great coach in the middle of a good run.
-1993-94, Lenny Wilkens, Hawks (post COY tenure, 6 seasons): A good coach in the middle of a good run.
-1994-95, Del Harris, Lakers (post COY tenure, 3.5 seasons): A decent coach in the middle of a good run.
-1995-96, Phil Jackson, Bulls (post COY tenure, 2 seasons): A great coach in the middle of the best run.
-1996-97, Pat Riley, Heat (post COY tenure, 6 seasons): A great coach in the middle of a good run.
-1997-98, Larry Bird, Pacers (post COY tenure, 2 seasons): A good coach in the middle of a good run.
-1998-99, Mike Dunleavy, Blazers (post COY tenure, 2 seasons): A good coach in the middle of a decent run.
-1999-00, Doc Rivers, Magic (post COY tenure, 3.5 seasons): Ultimately, a good coach but not really great on Orlando.
-2000-01, Larry Brown, 76ers (post COY tenure, 2 seasons): A good coach in the middle of a decent run.
-2001-02, Rick Carlisle, Pistons (post COY tenure, 1 season): A great coach but lasted only one more season because of friction with the front office. He was fired in 2002-03 after getting swept by the Nets in the Conference Finals (partly due to an injured Chauncey Billups). At the time, Ric Bucher wrote that: “[t]he only explanation is that Rick Carlisle was slipping motor oil into Joe Dumars’ coffee.” Bucher did note that the explanation given was that Carlisle was “rigid in how he dealt with the front office as well as his playing rotation.” Carlisle was slow to play rookies Tayshaun Prince and Mehmet Okur. Ultimately, this annoyance combined with Larry Brown becoming available convinced Detroit to make the move. This was, objectively, a questionable move but it worked (the Pistons did win it all in 2003-04). Nevertheless, I think it was likely that Carlisle could’ve won a title with that same team (the Rasheed Wallace trade in mid-2003-04 seemed to be the bigger factor in winning that season than Brown’s coaching).
-2002-03, Gregg Popovich, Spurs (post COY tenure, still going….): A great coach in the middle of a great run.
-2003-04, Hubie Brown, Grizzlies (post COY tenure, 12 games): Hubie was 71 at the time and had turned Memphis into a playoff team for the first time in its horrible history. Brown quit only 12 games into the next season due to “[u]nexpected health-related issues.” In reality, Brown was too old for the grind. At his press conference resigning, he said: “I need on a daily basis an energy and a stamina, and then with me it’s a spirit. But the key is spirit. See, the spirit is what gives you the passion on a daily basis. One day you wake up, you don’t have that, and that’s when you’ve got to understand that it’s time you’ve got to walk.”
-2004-05, Mike D’Antoni, Suns (post COY tenure, 3 seasons): A good coach in the middle of a good run.
-2005-06, Avery Johnson, Mavericks (post COY tenure, 2 seasons): A decent coach in the middle of a good run.
-2006-07, Sam Mitchell, Raptors (post COY tenure, 1.5 seasons): Mitchell was dealt a tough hand when he came to the Raptors in 2004-05. Franchise icon was not happy and was dumped to the Nets for trinkets (partly due to an alleged fight with Mitchell after VC was needled about his health and effort). After those first two bad seasons, Mitchell won COY in 2006-07. His team went 47-35 and surprised everyone by winning the Atlantic behind Chris Bosh, rookie Andrea Bargnani, and some real filler (T.J. Ford, Anthony Parker, and Juan Dixon). The Raps weren’t actually that good (44-38 projected record) and lost to the Nets and Carter in the first round. The Raps fell to .500 in 2007-08 and Mitchell was canned after the team lost by 39 points in a game in early 2008-09.
-2007-08, Byron Scott, Hornets (post COY tenure, 1.5 seasons): Scott was never known as a great coach but he turned around both the Nets and Hornets. In both cases, Scott had a bunch of help from transcendent point guards. In New Orleans, he had a young Chris Paul coupled with peak Tyson Chandler and David West to defend and bang. The Hornets won almost 50 games the next season but Scott was abruptly fired after a 3-6 start in 2009-10. Why such a short leash after two very good years? There were rumors that CP3 didn’t love Scott but Marc Stein wrote that a bad playoff showing in 2008-09 (Denver beat them by 58 points at home in game 4) and the bad start were enough to get Scott canned.
-2008-09, Mike Brown, Cavaliers (post COY tenure, 1 season): It’s good to have LeBron.
-2009-10, Scott Brooks, Thunder (post COY tenure, 5 seasons): A good coach in the middle of a good run.
-2010-11, Tom Thibodeau, Bulls (post COY tenure, 4 seasons): A good coach in the middle of a good run.
-2011-12, Gregg Popovich, Spurs (post COY tenure, still going….): A great coach in the middle of a great run.
-2012-13, George Karl, Nuggets (post COY tenure, 0 games): Karl coached the Nuggets to nine straight playoff appearances and won only one series. In 2012-13, Karl won 57 games (his best showing in Denver) but was upset in the first round but the Warriors, who were led by some guys named Curry and Thompson (in retrospect, that loss doesn’t look quite as bad). In any event, Karl’s contract was up and the Nuggets didn’t want to pay him and the Denver Post wrote that President Josh Kroenke “believes he can attract an outstanding coach based on the young talent on the roster.” It’s clear that Karl can be a pain in the ass, but Kroenke was wrong. Denver has not made the playoffs since and cycled through some mostly meh seasons.
-2013-14, Gregg Popovich, Spurs (post COY tenure, still going….): A great coach in the middle of a great run.
-2014-15, Mike Budenholzer, Hawks (post COY tenure, 3 seasons): A good coach in the middle of a decent run.
-2015-16, Steve Kerr, Warriors (post COY tenure, still going….): He looks pretty good!
-2016-17, Mike D’Antoni, Rockets (post COY tenure, still going…): Should have won in 2017-18 too.
-2017-18, Dwayne Casey, Raptors (post COY tenure, 0 games): See above.
So, what have we learned from this exercise? Four coaches were fired the same season they won COY and, in each case, the firing was due mostly to a bad playoff showing. Five more coaches lasted only one season or less after winning COY. Most of these departures were due to retirement (Auerbach) or feuding with the front office. The vast majority of COYs, however, have been very good coaches and had strong tenures. In addition, it appears that the voters have improved the past 20 years at picking COYs who ended up having extended records of success thereafter. So, Karl was wrong. There is no COY curse. Winning COY is usually a good sign but (and this is a big but) coaches, even good ones, are clearly not built to last.