Transactions: 11/22-12/5 (Coaching Change Edition)

Oklahoma City Thunder 

11/22    Fire P.J. Carlesimo and name Scott Brooks interim head coach 

Not much has happened in the NBA on the transaction front the last few weeks except for a good old fashioned coaching dump off.  In each of the three cases of coach firings, the terminations do not seem to be no-brainers.  All three teams have played poorly, compared to even modest expectations.  Yet there are clear mitigating factors in each instance.  Starting with P.J., we know the knock…the team wasn’t winning and they were afraid that Kevin Durant was not developing.  In terms of the youngsters, both Jeff Green and Durant actually look a bit better than last year so far.  The real problem was blow out losses all over the place.  Of course, it’s not clear how the Thunder can hope to win with the current roster.  When a team accumulates cap room and youngsters, it generally loses a lot and badly.  The Sonics are a bad defensive team (24th in defensive efficiency) and a horrible offensive team (last in offensive efficiency) to boot.  While I’m not a huge Carlesimo fan, Phil Jackson or Red Auerbach would stink coaching this team too.  As for Brooks, he was a heady player but we have no idea how he’ll be ultimately as a coach.  In the short term, it seems like he’ll be in the exact same boat as Carlesimo, taking lumps with chance for modest improvement near the end of the year.  While Thunder management doesn’t really have to worry about being fair to its coaches, this job is rigged for failure in the short term and any deck shuffling is only meant to distract the fans. 

The odd thing here is that, if you assume the Thunder are a new franchise and not a continuation of the Sonics (as the NBA has stated they are not), P.J. is going to end his Thunder coaching career with one win.  That got me wondering who the low man for coaching victories for each franchise (excluding interim coaches).  Let’s take a look:

-Atlanta Hawks, Andy Phillip, 6 wins: Phillip was a recently retired legend in 1958-59 when the Hawks hired him to coach their veteran squad that had won the title the year before (previous coach Alex Hannum left the team in a contract dispute).  Phillip started 6-4 but was fired after losing to the Syracuse Nats by 30.  In Greg Marecek’s “Full Court: The Untold Stories of the St. Louis Hawks,” the firing is recounted: “Phillip would schedule practice in the mornings based on the times his wife wanted him to make breakfast.  [Owner] Ben [Kerner] had enough.  ‘We had a ball game where we lost to Syracuse by an astronomical score (120-94 on November 18, 1958) and I went up to Benny and said, ‘Look, I hate to tell you this but the players are telling you something,” recalls [former Hawks GM Marty] Blake.  ‘You should go upstairs and fire Phillip and after he leaves make [current player and local star] Ed Macauley your head coach.’  ‘Fire him?’ said Kerner.  ‘I’d have to give him his $10,000 salary.’  Replied Blake: ‘$10,000, $15,000, it don’t mean a thing if your team is going to go down the drain.  I don’t care what the record is today, this isn’t working out.'”  It’s not clear why it wasn’t working but Macauley did work out well and Phillip never coached in the NBA again.

Boston Celtics, Satch Sanders, 22 wins:  Even in bad times, the Celts tend to stand by their coaches so much so that there are few really quick firings.  Satch Sanders has the fewest wins in Boston history (22), though he was ostensibly an interim coach.  First he took over for Tom Heinsohn late in the 1977-78 season and then he started 1978-79 before being fired after 14 games (with a 2-12 record).  If you don’t count Sanders, Carr’s two-years as coach/GM were far from great.  After a mediocre first year in 1995-96 (33-49) he gutted the team to go after Tim Duncan, the consensus first pick in the 1997 Draft.  We all remember how that worked out: Carr was good at the losing part (15-67 in 1996-97) but he was fired anyway and they missed the pick (getting the third pick and Chauncey Billups).

Charlotte Bobcats, Sam Vincent, 32 wins:  Like Leonard Hamilton before him, Vincent was another Michael Jordan find that was let go quickly after players and MJ had complaints with the coaching style. 

Chicago Bulls, Larry Costello, 20 wins:  Costello was a Hall of Fame player and coach but his final attempt at coaching with the 1978-70 Bulls ended unceremoniously, being fired after a 20-36 start.  The Sports Illustrated 1978-79 preview hinted at the problems that arose later: “Chicago is bringing back Larry Costello, known in his Milwaukee coaching days for his short hair and 400-pound playbook. Surely the stern and humorless Costello would have trouble relating to the likes of Norm Van Lier and Artis Gilmore. ‘There are no problems,’ says Bulls Managing Partner Jonathan Kovler.  To his credit, Costello thinks his two years out of the league helped him bridge a gap between NBA generations. ‘I’ve seen happy teams and unhappy teams,’ he says, ‘and I think I know what makes the happy teams happy.'” 

Cleveland Cavaliers, Don Delaney, 7 wins:  In the messy Ted Stepien years of the early 1980s, Delaney was the GM who had to deal with him.  Near the end of a horrendous 1980-81 season, Delaney took over for coach Bill Musselman and went 3-8 to close the season.  Delaney started 1981-82 as the coach and went 4-11 before being fired.  Stepien went through three more coaches that year, the last of whom was Musselman again.  The mess was really Stepien created (check his drafting/trading record) and the coach firings were just cherries on a failure sundae.  Of course when he fired Delany, Stepien told the New York Times that Delaney “understands why I’m doing what I’m doing.  He’s an organization man.”

Dallas Mavericks, Quinn Buckner, 13 wins:  Buckner was considered a smart guy and bright coaching prospect in 1993, when the Mavs hired him to try to rebuild an awful team from the ashes.  He has some talent to work with in second-year pro Jimmy Jackson and rookie Jamal Mashburn.  It did not work out well.  Buckner tried to impose a triangle offense that never stuck and his Bobby Knight trained outlook did not work well with the players.  It was one thing to ride the rookies but Buckner also wasn’t great with veteran Derek Harper, a true pro, and consequently, Buckner lost the team and was fired with prejudice after the season.  Patricia Bender’s excellent site recounts some of the money quotes from back in 1993-94, which are best summed up by then owner Donald Carter: “It wasn’t just young players.  It was young and old.  The bridges that were burned weren’t just under one or two people.”  Buckner was in a tough situation to begin with few competent veteran players but he clearly misread how to make it through the growing pains. 

-Denver Nuggets, Bill Hanzlik, 11 wins:  Like M.L. Carr, Hanzlik was part of a plan to gut the roster to get draft picks and start over.  Hanzlik went 11-71 in 1997-98 with a truly pathetic team.  It was so embarrassing that Hanzlik and GM Allen Bristow were both fired, despite the fact that they essentially executed the plan to stink. 

-Detroit Pistons, Earl Lloyd, 22 wins:  Lloyd is famous for being the first African American player in the NBA but he was actually the first African American assistant coach when he was hired by the Pistons in 1968.  He became the second African American head coach when he was hired when he took over for Jan Van Breda Kolff in 1971-72.  Despite a 20-50 record, Lloyd was brought back for 1972-73 but was fired after a 2-5 start.  He then became the first African American coach to be replaced by an African American coach, when Ray Scott took over (and did a nice job the next few years).

Golden State Warriors, Dave Cowens, 25 wins:  Cowens is an interesting story.  He looked like a very promising coach with the Hornets in the late 1990s before leaving after feuding with George Shinn.  When he went to the Warriors, however, things were bad.  He went 17-65 in his 2000-01 debut for a team that ranked 28th and in defense and offensive efficiency (he replaced the equally doomed P.J. Carlesimo).  After an 8-15 start in 2001-02, Cowens was canned.  Cowens fell out of the head coaching loop and is now an assistant with the Pistons, though he may get another shot at some point.

Houston Rockets, Tex Winter, 51 wins:  Winters is famous for his Triangle Offense and the fact that he’s been around Phil Jackson for roughly 25 years.  Winter’s only NBA head coach shot came with the Rockets in 1971-72 and 1972-73.  He wasn’t bad (34-48 the first year and then 17-30 before being fired in 1972-73).  The Rockets haven’t had any really brief coaching tenures, so Winter is the low man in their history.  I didn’t find too much on Winter in Houston but a 1997 article from the Seattle Times Company quotes Winter’s assistant Frank Hamblen attributing the firing to the fact that the stars wouldn’t take to the triangle:  “We had trouble because Elvin Hayes was so selfish. The ball would go into him in the post and it never came back out.”

Indiana Pacers, George Irvine, 54 wins:  Irvine was a Pacers executive (and former ABA player) who the Pacers tabbed to coach the team in 1984-85.  Irvine had two uneventful 20-win seasons before being sent back upstairs (Zander Hollander stated in the 1985 Guide that Irvine’s main qualification was his low salary demand).  He has a 6-14 interim run for Indiana again in 1988-89 and had a similar gig with the Pistons in the 1990s. 

Los Angeles Clippers, Tates Locke, 16 wins:  With all the failure in Clippers history, the fewest wins actually comes from the Buffalo years (before the franchise was a laughingstock).  Locke was a college coach at Clemson in the started out 16-30 in 1976-77 and was let go in one those determinations that he wasn’t a pro coach (a la Jerry Tarkanian).  Locke is much more well remembered for his systematic violations of NCAA rules in the 1970s and 1980s.  His violations seem tame by today’s standards but Locke’s public violations and his willingness to discuss them make him a kind of a Neil Armstrong for slimy recruiting. 

Los Angeles Lakers, Jack McKinney, 10 wins:  Life is not fair sometimes.  Before the 1979-80 season, McKinney was hired to coach the Lakers and a rookie named Magic Johnson,  not to mention Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Norm Nixon, and Jamal Wilkes.  Dream job?  McKinney started out 10-4 but then was involved in a serious bicycle accident and suffered a head injury.  He was succeeded by assistant coach Paul Westhead, who led the team to the title.  Meanwhile, McKinney rested with the promise that his job would be waiting for him when he was ready.  Problem was the team was playing so well the team wouldn’t allow McKinney to return and he was let go in May 1980 for Westhead anyway.  

The whole incident was bizarre on many levels.  McKinney was apparently on his way to play tennis with Westhead when he was injured.  Westhead, a friend and an assistant coach, took over, initially as an interim coach, but later got the permanent gig, much to McKinney’s consternation.  McKinney would get another job in 1980-81 with the Pacers, but his best shot was gone because of cycling and not because of any choices he made while coaching. 

Memphis Grizzlies, Brian Winters, 23 wins:   The first coach in Grizzly history dealt with some of the worst teams in creation. After an ugly 1995-96 season (15-67, Winters was relieved 43 games into the 1996-97 season.  

Miami Heat, Ron Rothstein, 57 wins:  Another debut coach for an expansion team.  Rothstein was the defensive specialist coach for the Bad Boy Pistons before getting hired by the Heat to man their first team in 1988-89.  Rothstein had a young team and improved the team slowly in three seasons (15-67, 18-64, and 24-58 from 1988-89 through 1990-91) but was still let go for Kevin Loughery before 1991-92.  Rothstein also filled in as head coach last year when Pat Riley took one of his sabbaticals. 

Milwaukee Bucks, Larry Krstkowiak, 31 wins:   The Bucks, for the most part, have been a stable NBA franchise.  From 1968 to 1987, the Bucks had only two coaches (Larry Costello and Don Nelson).  Even after that, most coaches were around a while (Del Harris, Mike Dunleavy, and George Karl all lasted over four seasons).  In recent years, the Bucks have retreated from having stable head coach tenures and have been really itchy about firing coaches, as neither Terry Stotts and Larry Krystkowiak could last two full seasons.

Minnesota Timberwolves, Jimmy Rodgers, 21 wins:  Of the futile 1990s Wolves, Rodgers just edges out Sidney Lowe and Bill Blair for fewest wins. 

New Jersey Nets, Don Casey, 44 wins: Casey was a career assistant in the NBA who got a shot with the Nets in 1998-99 when John Calipari was fired in the beginning of the lockout season.  Calipari was 3-17 with a team that had a ton of injuries (Sam Cassell notably) and was generally underperforming what was expected of a young team with some talent (Kerry Kittles and Keith Van Horn).  The Nets tired of Calipari for a lot of reasons and they brokered a deal at the same time to trade Cassell for a young star named Stephon Marbury, who was demanding a trade from Minnesota.  Marbury had a very good year and helped rally the team to 13-17 in the final 30 games.  After the year, the Nets let Casey twist in the wind as they went after both Phil Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy.  When those options fell through, Casey came back and he didn’t do too much with his second chance.  In 1999-00, Casey got his full shot but it didn’t work out.  The Nets were a pretty good offensive team (10th) but with some poor defenders (Marbury and Van Horn) and a terrible center situation (Jim McIlvaine and Jamie Feick) the team went 31-51 and Casey was fired for Byron Scott.  Casey didn’t get another head coaching gig.  Ironically, Casey’s only other NBA coaching experience was nearly identical in results.  Casey took over for Gene Shue in mid-1988-89 and despite a mediocre run, he was brought back for a full year in 1989-90.  The team went 30-52 and Casey was fired.

New Orleans Hornets, Dick Harter, 28 wins:  Yet another coach of an expansion team.  Harter was a fiery defensive coach tabbed to take the first Hornets team.  He went 20-62 in that first year (1988-89) but was fired after an 8-32 start in 1989-90.  He helped spearhead several good defensive teams as an assistant before and after the Hornets stint.  It was thought that his intensity grated on the young players a bit in Charlotte.  Zander Hollander desribed Harter’s style as “war-is-hell.”  Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer just published his memories of the first Hornet season with some amusing Harter anecdotes.  Here’s a sampling: 

-“My colleague, Tom Sorensen, once asked coach Dick Harter what his problem was with Muggsy Bogues. First, Harter jumped on a chair and yelled menacingly over Tom’s head. Then Harter dropped to knees, waving his arms desperately at the height of Tom’s chest. That was Harter’s way of saying a 5-foot-3 point guard wasn’t his preference.” 

-“[E]very Hornet was sick of Harter’s tales about Larry Bird’s work ethic – how he was at the Boston Garden hours before home games, running and shooting with a monk-like zeal. So that first trip to Boston, the guys all looked forward to proving Harter wrong. Then they show up for shootaround, and there was Bird – running the stairs by his lonesome.” 

New York Knicks, Larry Brown, 23 wins:  Can you believe that 2005-06 is already three years ago?  As bad as the Larry Brown-Isiah Thomas dynamic felt at the time, in retrospect it turned out worse, producing the worst coaching run in team history. 

Orlando Magic, Johnny Davis, 31 wins: While the Knicks’ recent bad decisions are remembered it’s worth recalling that the Magic were pretty clueless in the mid-2000s too.  Davis was hired to try to turn Orlando into a contender.  Of course, trying to win based upon a backcourt of Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley made no sense, as neither was near as good together as Tracy McGrady, the guy they traded to acquire them.  Davis had the team at 31-33 but he was fired anyway (and unfairly so), after which the team promptly tanked to 5-13. 

Philadelphia 76ers, Roy Rubin, 4 wins:  The Sixers have a ton of coaches with under 35 wins for the franchise (Randy Ayers, Johnny Davis, Fred Carter, Doug Moe) but Rubin was associated with the legendary bad 1972-73 Sixers.  Rubin was a college coach out of Long Island University and hoped to help rebuild a weak Philly team.  The team was much worse than he realized and went 4-47 before being fired.  Kevin Loughery took over and improved the pace a little by going 5-21 to finish out the season, for a 9-73 total record, which is worst of All-Time.  Had the team maintained Loughery’s pace of wins and losses, the Sixers’ would’ve been a more ordinary awful 19-win team.  As for Rubin, he never did coach again, moving into finance only to think of basketball when he is bothered by reporters every time a weak team might challenge the loss record

Phoenix Suns, Butch Van Breda Kolff, 3 wins:  Van Breda Kolff was fired after going 3-4 to start the 1972-73 season.  I really can’t get any tangible reason for why Van Breda Kolff was fired so quickly.  He was a veteran coach, known for his temper and his battles with Wilt Chamberlain in Los Angeles, but certainly he was entitled to more than seven games in Phoenix.  The 3-4 record was somewhat disappointing considering the team was 49-33 the year before.  Still, GM Jerry Colangelo did no better in replacing Van Breda Kolff, posting a 35-40 record the rest of the way.  After firing Van Breda Kolff, Colangelo was cryptic in his reasoning: “I realize that some people might say that I didn’t give him a full shot, but I must make decisions on my true feelings and I don’t believe the job was being done.”  Not sure what that means but clearly the Suns saw something they didn’t like.  Van Breda Kolff got a job in the ABA the next year and closed out his coaching career with three seasons with the New Orleans Jazz (1974-1977). 

Honorary mention goes to Cotton Fitzsimmons, who went 0-8 in his second tour of duty as Suns coach, though his total wins for the franchise in his first stint is quite impressive.  

Portland Trail Blazers, Rolland Todd, 41 wins:  History will tell you that not a single Blazer coach was ever fired without getting a full season and Todd, the Blazers’ first coach, was the only coach that didn’t last two full seasons.  Moreover, since 1976, every head coach in Portland has lasted at least three seasons (only Mike Schuler and P.J. Carelismo didn’t make it to a fourth season).  As for Todd, he was a college coach out of UNLV.  He did a decent job for an expansion coaching, going 29-53 in 1970-71 but was cut loose after starting out 12-44 in 1971-72.  Todd bounced around afterwards, coaching in Europe and in the basketball minor leagues. 

Sacramento Kings, Jack McKinney, 1 win:  McKinney is “lucky” enough to make the list twice.  Unlike in Los Angeles, the problems with the Kings were more conventional in nature–he was coaching a bad team in a bad situation.  McKinney was hired by the Kansas City Kings in 1984, right after McKinney was let go by the Pacers.  According to McKinney in his book “Tales from St. Joseph’s Hardwood“: “[the Kings] had already announced their plans to move on to Sacramento after the season.  My heart wasn’t really in KC, and after one month I turned in my coach’s whistle.  I think I left the profession prematurely, but I did feel more relaxed afterwards.” 

San Antonio Spurs, Jerry Tarkanian, 9 wins:  This is one of the least surprising entries, as everyone remembers the Tarkanian flame out.  Tark the Shark, the great coach at UNLV, tried his hand in the NBA with the David Robinson Spurs in 1992-93 but he was fired after a 9-11 start.  Everyone assumed that Tarkanian was canned because, as a college coach, he couldn’t handle the NBA rigors.  Of course, we know that’s not a specific answer just a conclusion.  So let’s see what was actually said back in 1992 and see if we can learn something…

Harvey Araton of The New York Times did a post-mortem of the firing in December 1992: “What was the point of the San Antonio Spurs’ firing of Jerry Tarkanian late last week? Specifically, it was a disagreement between Tarkanian and the Spurs’ owner, Red McCombs, over how immediate the team’s needs for an experienced point guard were. Spiritually, it was a fatal miscalculation as to how far a coach in the National Basketball Association can push before the owner shoves him out the door….McCombs agreed that the two appeared to get along, which only made Tarkanian’s recent behavior more bewildering.  ‘He started writing me letters about what we had to do with the team,’ said McCombs. ‘I said, ‘Why is he writing me letters when he sees me at the games or can pick up the telephone and talk to me any time he wants?’ 

‘Hey, I only wrote two and they were nice letters,’ said Tarkanian. ‘I’ll tell you what the second one said. I wrote: ‘The acquisition of J. R. Reid has really strengthened our front line. Now if we can go get us a point guard, I think we can achieve the high expectations you have for our team.’  Asked what those expectations were, Tarkanian said, “Every time we’d lose two in a row, he’d come in and say, ‘We shouldn’t be losing. We’re better than this.’…McCombs insisted his expectations for the Spurs — who lost two of last season’s starters (Willie Anderson and Terry Cummings) to injury and failed to re-sign their point guard, Rod Strickland — were realistic.  ‘I didn’t expect we could win a championship,’ he said. ‘But I had a coach who honestly believed he couldn’t compete with the best teams with the 12 guys we gave him, including David Robinson, the best center in basketball.'” 

McCombs replaced Tarkanian with John Lucas, who installed backup Avery Johnson at the point and the team improved quite a bit.  As for Tark, he went back to college.  Was Tark to blame for his quick firing?  From reading this article, I have to conclude that McCombs just didn’t think Tarkanian had professional coaching chops and found him annoying and I’m also not quite sure why Tark was writing him letters either. 

Seattle SuperSonics, Bob Hopkins, 5 wins:  Hopkins is involved in one of the more famous stories of the in Seattle history.  Hopkins was a decent pro in the 1950s for Syracuse and a cousin of Bill Russell, who had been the GM/coach in the mid-1970s.  When Russell stepped down, Hopkins replaced him as coach for the 1977-78 season.  Hopkins started out 5-17 before being fired for Lenny Wilkens.  As we all remember, Wilkens went 42-18 and led the team to the NBA Finals and Hopkins never coached again.  In retrospect, some think Hopkins got something of a raw deal.  Slick Watts in his “Tales from the Seattle Supersonics” said that Hopkins: “had a passion for the fame.  I think his passion was too great for athletes.  I thought he was responsible for getting the players who won the championship.  But he will never get credit for it.  They should put a little picture of Bob by Lenny’s picture in the Hall of Fame.”

Toronto Raptors, Darrell Walker, 31 wins:  Walker, was a tough defensive point guard in the 1980s and a buddy of Isiah Thomas.  Isiah installed Walker in as the coach for the Raptors’ second season (1996-97).  Walker was an Isiah hire and when Isiah left the franchise, Walker was now on borrowed time and exacerbated the problems by being very frank about the team’s struggles and flipping the fans the bird after being ejected from a game.  Walker was finally let go (officially it was a resignation) when the team traded star point guard Damon Stoudamire, the last vestige of the Isiah regime.

Utah Jazz, Scotty Robertson, 1 win:  If any situation mirrored the Carlesimo/ Oklahoma City situation it was with the New Orleans Jazz in 1974-75.  The Jazz were in their first season and clearly weren’t going to be very good.  Robertson started off 1-14 (a bit worse than P.J.’s 1-12 start this year) and was let go because management didn’t like seeing the obvious results of the talent they gathered.  It was impossible to expect respectability from an expansion team but Robertson was fired anyway (he would go on to coach the Bulls and Pistons and later become a ubiquitous assistant coach around the NBA in the 1990s and 2000s).  Perhaps it was karma but Fred Rosenfeld, the president who fired Robertson, was also fired a few weeks later.

Washington Wizards, Mike Farmer, 1 win:  Farmer was a heady veteran for several teams in the NBA in the 1960s.  After 1965-66, Farmer was hired to coach the Bullets, who were supposed to be pretty good, with Gus Johnson (they had gone 38-42 but made the playoffs the past two seasons).  A 1-8 start was enough to get him fired. 

Toronto Raptors 

12/3    Fire Sam Mitchell and name Jay Triano interim coach

Mitchell is the coach who had the biggest expectations going into the season.  The Raptors, despite their weaknesses, should be a little bit better than they’ve been.  The question is whether Mitchell’s history and present performance earned him a bit more time.  Without knowing all the behind the scenes facts, I would’ve thought that Mitchell was entitled to a little more time, particularly since they did not even have a clear replacement ready.  Mitchell may not have won a playoff series but the team has been solid before.  Is an 8-10 record really that much of a tragedy at this point?  Letting Mitchell go is a justifiable move but I, personally, err on the side of keeping stability unless there is a good reason to change and, here, I didn’t see such a reason.  Perhaps Colangelo wanted a chance to hire his own man (he inherited Mitchell) but this probably could’ve waited until January before the plug was pulled. 

Triano is an  interesting hire, as the first Canadian head coach in the NBA and a long-time Toronto assistant.  I don’t have much of a read on whether things will change playing time-wise here with Triano.  His first order of business will have to be to figure out how to allot playing time at shooting guard and small forward, where Anthony Parker, Jason Kapono, Jamario Moon, Andrea Bargnani all have drawbacks. 

Washington Wizards 

11/24    Fire Eddie Jordan and name Ed Tapscott interim head coach

This is probably the least fair firing of all three.  Yes the team was terrible but Jordan has been the most successful coach in Washington in almost 30 years (admittedly that is not the highest standard to judge against).  The team was obviously going to stink without a healthy Gilbert Arenas and the failings here are much more related to upper management decisions.  It’s not that Jordan is a genius but four straight playoff appearances entitled him a chance to at least see if he could make the team work when Arenas returns.  Unless Ernie Grunfeld gets really lucky in the draft or trade market, the Wiz will not likely improve in the near future and blaming Jordan seems to be a case of scapegoating.   Of course, the firing won’t change anything here.  The team is built poorly and eventually managements poor choices will come home to roost.

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