Udoka and One-and-Done Coaches

It’s hard to really process the bizarre saga of Celtics coach Ime Udoka and his recent mysterious year-long suspension but let’s do the best we can with what is out there.  We don’t have the full details but the generalities sound bad and it seems likely that Udoka will not return as coach once his suspension is lifted.  Indeed, it’s hard to see how Udoka can credibly coach his team if his character is so compromised.  Rather, the more likely outcome is that Boston is seeking to impose a financial penalty to save some of the money it would owe Udoka when they terminate him in about a year.  Yes, they could argue that Udoka was terminated for cause, which could void his contract, but the suspension is likely less contestable than an immediate termination and it shows the public that Boston took the misconduct seriously.

Since it is likely that Udoka will be canned after a single season and might never be an NBA head coach again, it got me wondering how many one-and-done NBA coaches there have been.  There are a bunch of rookie coaches who quit or were fired part way into the season (Jerry Tarkanian and recently John Beilein) but there haven’t been too many who lasted a full year and were kicked to the curb and never coached again in the pros.  Of that specific group, a few of them are young enough that they may get a second shot at some point:  Igor Kokoskov went 19-63 in 2018-19 with Phoenix and is now an assistant again and Nate Bjorkgren went 34-38 with Indy in 2020-21.  Putting aside those two maybe future NBA coaches, here’s the list of NBA one-and-done coaches whose careers are certainly over and how their mini-tenures went down…

Quinn Buckner, Dallas 1993-94:  Buckner was the heady Hoosier point guard who had a solid NBA career mostly for the Celtics.  He went on to be a pretty good broadcaster.  His reputation as a player and analyst got him a shot with the rebuilding Mavs.  Lord, did that go badly.  The Mavs were coming off of an 11-71 season but had a few talented players (Derek Harper and young Jimmy Jackson and Jamal Mashburn).  Buckner might’ve had a bit too much of the Bobby Knight shtick in him and the players really didn’t like it.  The Mavs started out 1-23 and, according to an agent, Buckner had “alienated everyone in the organization, including the towel boy.”  The Mavs finished 13-69 and Buckner was fired for, according to owner Donald Carter, “burned bridges.”  Buckner seemed to overestimate his leverage over the players and was a bit too belligerent.  Carter said: “It wasn’t just the young players. Let’s face it, it was young and old. The bridges that were burned weren’t just over young players.”   Buckner returned to the television booth thereafter and coaching was never again on the radar for him.

Michael Curry, Detroit 2008-09: Curry had a nice career as a defense-only role player, mostly with Detroit. He was an assistant coach with the Pistons in 2007-08 and was slated to take over this great defensive Pistons team that had been title contenders for seven years.  Detroit had just canned Flip Saunders after a 59-23 season where they lost in the Eastern Conference against a powerhouse Celtics team.  Two games into Curry’s coaching career, Joe Dumars traded their best player, Chauncey Billups, for an a 33-year old and ill-fitting Allen Iverson.  Even if the trade hadn’t been made, this was a tough job as core players Rip Hamilton (age 30), Rasheed Wallace (age 34), and Antonio McDyess (age 34) were declining in any event.

Detroit fell to 39-43 and were swept as an eight seed in the First Round.  The title contention run was decisively over and Dumars fired Curry.  At the time, Dumars called the firing “difficult” but stated that “it has become clear that we needed a more experienced coach to help guide us through this [rebuilding project].”  After his firing, Curry did some assistant coaching with Philly from 2010 to 2013.  Since then he has coached in college.

Frank McGuire, Philadelphia 1961-62:  Unlike some of the other coaches on this list, McGuire was a Hall of fame college coach.  He coached St. John’s from 1947-1952 before coaching UNC from 1952-1961, where he beat Wilt Chamberlain and Kansas in 1957 to win a title. McGuire was forced to resign in 1961 due to NCAA violations (and was replaced by his assistant, Dean Smith).  Eddie Gottlieb of the Philly Warriors lured McGuire to coach a young pro Wilt immediately after.  McGuire said in “Tall Tales,” that, since 1957, he “had been intrigued with Chamberlain.  I had read that he was uncoachable and a bad guy, but I refused to believe that….I looked at films of Wilt and the more I saw, the more I wanted to coach him.”

McGuire said he told the players that “Wilt was the most dominant force in basketball history and I wanted him to get him the ball two-thirds of the time.”  The Wilt-centric offense worked well enough, as Wilt scored 50 ppg and the team went 49-31 (though the offense was 4th of 9 teams in efficiency) before losing a tough seven-game series to Boston in the Eastern Finals. 

After the season, the Warriors moved to San Francisco and McGuire opted to go coach at South Carolina where he lasted from 1964 to 1980 and made a few Sweet 16s.  McGuire said he left the Warriors because the NBA was rinky dink compared to college: “I was amazed at how small-time the NBA was, compared to college….Wilt was making a hundred grand and we had no tape for his ankles.”

Kevin O’Neill, Toronto 2003-04:  O’Neill had coached Northwestern in the 1990s and was an assistant in the NBA in the early 2000s before getting the Raptors job in 2003.  He was tasked with salvaging the Vince Carter Era, which was teetering after a terrible 2002-03 season.  O’Neill, however, went 33-49 and made questionable decisions on and off the court. 

As described by John Hollinger in his 2004-05 Pro Basketball Forecast, O’Neill insisted on playing offensive zeroes Robert Archibald, Lonny Baxter, Corie Blount and the aforementioned Michael Curry.  Hollinger pointed out that “Curry finished the year with an impossibly low PER of 3.61, the worst in the NBA, and killed what was left of the offense [they finished 28th].  Toronto’s Offensive Efficiency was nearly 11 points lower when Curry was on the court….O’Neill nevertheless managed to find 1,230 minutes for him….That playing time often came at the expense of [Jerome] Moiso, but also superior players like Morris Peterson, Lamond Murray, and about half of the NBDL….Half the fractured locker room thought [Curry] was a spy for O’Neill.”

So, O’Neill made bad decisions and had a bad vibe with the players. Moreover, he sealed his fate by popping off publicly after the season and stating that “the franchise is just excited to be part of the NBA and not focused on winning.”  Interim GM Jack McCloskey said O’Neill admitted that the statement was bad: “[h]e said ‘You know, Jack, I screwed up yesterday. You told me to play things cool. I made a mistake.”  O’Neill was still defiant and told the press that “I’m not for everybody.  I’m not a guy that walks down the hallway and is warm and fuzzy. If being dedicated to winning is abrasive, I’m abrasive.”  O’Neill never got another NBA head job but also had a messy firing with USC in 2013.

Leonard Hamilton, Washington 2000-01:  Hamilton was a solid college coach who GM Michael Jordan tabbed to rebuild Washington.  MJ hoped for a playoff run with vet holdovers (Juwan Howard, Mitch Richmond, and Rod Strickland) and second-year prospect Richard Hamilton.  The same core was bad the year before (29-53) and Jordan had little reason to think it would get any better.  Still, this seemed like the start of a rebuild and time for Hamilton to learn the ropes and develop Rip Hamilton.

The Wiz were actually worse in 2000-01, dropping from 29-53 to 19-63.  Leonard Hamilton abruptly quit right after a game in early April 2001, without warning the players.  Though it was a resignation, it was very clear that Jordan, who was quite frustrated with the losing, had a hand in the removal.  Hamilton was cursed out on the bench by fringe player Tyrone Nesby in a game in January and was not apologetic about it.  Hamilton had a three years and $6 million left on his deal guaranteed and he quit right after a long meeting with Jordan.  It was pretty likely that Hamilton took some sort of buyout to get out of the misery (as a post-script, Hamilton was and is still a very good college coach.  He was hired by Florida State in 2002, and has been the coach there ever since.  FSU was first in the ACC this year before the tourney was cancelled).

John Wetzel, Phoenix, 1987-88:  Wetzel had played with the Suns for years and had been assistant from 1979 to 1987.  Wetzel’s timing couldn’t have been worse.  The Suns were hit with a big drug scandal that season and slumped to 28-54 due to the tumult.  Jerry Colangelo wanted to clean house and try again with Cotton Fitzsimmons, so Wetzel was canned.  It was not clear what soured the Suns on Wetzel specifically, but Colangelo said he wanted a coach with experience “with a presence who can mold [a young team].” 

In fact, I stumbled onto the answer when I happened to be reading “Breaking The Rules,” Mike Tulumello’s recount of the 1995-96 Suns. In one passage, Tulumello wrote about how Colangelo compared then-coach Paul Westphal with other ex-Suns coaches: “Colangelo had decided that Wetzel, a fine assistant coach, was too low key to run the team In addition, Colangelo had been taken aback by Wetzel’s reaction to the decision he and Fitzsimmons made to trade Larry Nance, the team’s cornerstone…Wetzel acted with deep emotion to the trade, a response that raised Colangelo’s eyebrows to the roof. This was, after all, a business in which bodies are moved constantly, usually with as much sentiment as trading pork futures”

So, Colangelo was sure that Wetzel was not head coach material abruptly. Fitzsimmons did immediately turn the Suns into a contender.  Wetzel remained an NBA assistant through 2004.

Mike Dunlap, Charlotte 2012-13:  Coming off of a moribund 7-59 2011-12 lockout season, Charlotte reached for Dunlap, who was an assistant coach for a blah St. John’s team.  In addition, Dunlap had very limited pro experience (two years in Denver as an assistant to George Karl from 2006-08).  So how did this happen?

 According to ESPN at the time, “the Bobcats had narrowed their choices to Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan, Indiana assistant Brian Shaw and Lakers assistant Quin Snyder, sources said…Sloan pulled himself out of the running last week, and after meeting with Shaw and Snyder, Jordan decided to re-open the field and brought Dunlap back in for an interview on Monday, sources say. Impressed, Jordan offered Dunlap the job.”  Charlotte GM Rich Cho said they chose Dunlap because they had “a strong emphasis in player development was extremely high on our priority list,” and Dunlap was known “as a teacher of the game amid his peer.”

The Bobcats did improve, marginally, to 21-61 under Dunlap and the SRS “improved” from -13.96 to -9.29. One would figure that Dunlap had a few years to turn around this dumpster fire but he was fired after his first season.  Conner Boyd of Bleacher Report argued that the firing was quite proper.  Boyd wrote that “Dunlap’s rotations were mind-bogglingly awful and lost this team more than a handful of games. Having his entire bench on the floor with a single-digit deficit with two minutes left is bad coaching, and Mike Dunlap is to be held responsible.”

Boyd also noted that player-relations was a problem too: “[Dunlap] pushed four-hour practices regularly and exhausted players on or before game days….Many players had predominantly negative things to say about Dunlap after the season ended. Qualms ranged from long practices and pure exhaustion to his cold demeanor and inability to connect with the players. For a guy who was supposed to develop the young core, Dunlap instead was viewed as negative and unapproachable.” 

Charlotte jumped up to a playoff team under Steve Clifford the next season.  Dunlap went on to have a decent stint as a head coach at Loyola Marymount from 2014-2020.  Since then, he has been assistant with the Bucks where he helped win a title. [Thanks to www.BlogaBull.com for catching that we missed Dunlap initially].