By MIKE HERNDON
The most fickle creatures on the planet, ranked:
1. NBA owners
It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or who you are. If you’re an NBA coach, you are only one bad season away from getting fired. Sometimes, as we’ve learned this year, only one bad playoff series away.
Take, for instance, Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer. He led his team to an NBA title just two years ago. The Bucks have been among the best teams in the East in each of the two years since, but they lost to the Celtics in the second round last year and were upset by the Heat in the first round this year.
Never mind that Giannis Antetokounmpo missed two games of the series and played sparingly in a third, with the Bucks going 1-2 in those games. Apparently, the embarrassment of being the top seed in the East and losing to the 8th-seeded Heat was too much for its ownership group, led by a couple of hedge fund managers and Jimmy Haslam. Yes, the same Jimmy Haslam who gave Deshaun Watson $230 million fully guaranteed as owner of the Cleveland Browns.
But Miami, of course, isn’t your usual eight seed, as Boston has found out. Do you think, while they watched the Heat snatched the first three games from the Celtics in the conference finals, that the Bucks might have realized they overreacted?
Or consider Monty Williams, who got fired in Phoenix after the Suns lost to the Nuggets without Chris Paul, who was sidelined for the majority of the series. The Suns have a new owner, Mat Ishbia, who went out and got them Kevin Durant at the trade deadline. But a second-round loss to the West’s top seed without his point guard was apparently enough for Ishbia to pull the plug on Williams, who led the Suns to the finals two years ago, before he even got a chance to coach Durant for a full season.
It’s not as though just plugging Durant in a lineup – even one as talented as the Suns – guarantees you a title run. Just ask Brooklyn.
Doc Rivers was also let go in Philadelphia, where he’s had fewer excuses and less success than Budenholzer and Williams. And Toronto fired Nick Nurse after missing the playoffs for a second time since he led them to an NBA title in 2019. This, after the Raptors failed to resign or replace their lone superstar, Kawhi Leonard.
It won’t be surprising to see these teams simply swap their fired coaches. Indeed, Nurse is one of the leading candidates in Milwaukee, and may end up landing his pick of the open jobs.
But if they looked at the teams that are still playing, they might find that patience is a virtue. Erik Spoelstra has been Miami’s coach for 15 years and hasn’t won a title since going back-to-back with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in 2012 and ’13. James reportedly wanted him fired shortly after arriving in Miami. And Spoelstra’s Heat missed the playoffs three times in five years between 2015 and 2019.
But Pat Riley told LeBron that his coach wasn’t going anywhere, and maintained that stance through the down years. The Heat have been rewarded with a finals appearance in 2020 and are one win away from heading back this year.
Michael Malone has been calling the shots in Denver for eight years now, all of them with Nikola Jokic, despite missing the playoffs in each of his first three seasons. The Nuggets could have easily lost patience — Sacramento fired Malone from his first head coaching job after less than a year and a half. But Denver stuck with him and now the Nuggets are headed to their first-ever finals after sweeping LeBron and the Lakers.
The coach of last year’s NBA champions, Golden State’s Steve Kerr, missed the playoffs in back-to-back years in 2020 and ’21, winning only 15 games in an injury-riddled 2020. He had more clout built with three NBA titles between 2015-18, but as we’ve seen, there comes a breaking point for anyone in the NBA. And it seems to come sooner than anywhere else.
Great players can make great coaches, of course. Kerr has had the core of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green throughout his career, and had KD for part of it. Spoelstra had LeBron and Wade a decade ago and now has Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. Malone has Jokic and Jamal Murray.
But impatient owners and GMs can get in the way of great players. The Warriors could have run off Kerr in 2021. Riley may be the only man in the league who’d refuse to cave in to LeBron, particularly after the Heat had just made such a big splash in signing him. And no one would have batted an eye if Denver had fired Malone after missing the playoffs for the third straight year in 2018. Or, like Budenholzer, after losing in the first round last year.
Instead, we watched one of these coaches hoist the NBA trophy last year, and we’ll likely watch the other two battle for this year’s championship. That’s the value of strong, patient ownership. The rest of the league should take note: Sometimes that patience pays off.
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