Where does Erik Spoelstra rank amongst coaches in the NBA all-time?
USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt explains that while he’s never won a NBA Coach of the Year Award, Erik Spoelstra still deserves to be discussed amongst the greatest coaches of all time.
Sports Seriously, USA TODAY
DENVER — Doc Rivers is a good coach.
So is Mike Budenholzer and Monty Williams. Same with Nick Nurse, Frank Vogel and Ty Lue.
Maybe even excellent coaches.
What do they have in common? They were all dismissed after multiple successful seasons that included championships for Budenholzer (2021, Milwaukee Bucks), Vogel (2020, Los Angeles Lakers), Nurse (2019, Toronto) and Lue (2016, Cleveland).
Williams was Coach of the Year in 2021-22. Rivers helped the Sixers to the third-best record in the league this season.
Good coaches get fired in the NBA.
“The most volatile aspect of employment within the NBA is being an NBA coach, hands down,” Lakers first-time head coach Darvin Ham said.
Of the coaches since 2015 to have won a championship, just Golden State’s Steve Kerr remains with that same team.
For Williams, Budenholzer and Rivers – all fired after losing playoff series in April and May – results didn’t meet expectations this season.
With owners and front offices trying to capitalize on legitimate championship windows – star players are only star players for so long – patience is tight-rope wide, and coaches are the easiest scapegoats.
“None of those guys I’ve been surprised,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “We all understand the jobs that we sign up for. If you wanted to have a job where you’re going to be secure for 40 years, being an NBA coach is not that job.”
Not that they don’t know that. Malone is the son of former NBA assistant Brendan Malone, who spent two decades in the NBA.
“Now, there’s a reason my father tried to talk me out of becoming a coach,” Malone said. “He had lived it with six kids, and he understood the pitfalls of that job. I was just too dumb and stubborn to listen to him. … But we all understand the rules when we sign up for this, and it’s unfortunately one of the nasty parts of our business.”
The Nuggets hired Malone in 2015, and eight seasons in, he is the fourth-longest tenured coach with the same team behind San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, Miami’s Erik Spoelstra and Kerr.
Over the past three seasons, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Phoenix were the top three most victorious teams. With Giannis Antetokounmpo on the Bucks, MVP Joel Embiid on the Sixers and Devin Booker and Kevin Durant on the Suns, championship expectations remain. Had any of those players voiced unhappiness about a coaching change, it’s unlikely a change would’ve been made. Likewise, if any player wasn’t pleased with the incumbent, that also would have prompted change.
Those are coveted jobs, and the franchise − either front office or ownership − wants someone else. Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey inherited Rivers as new Suns owner Mat Ishbia did with Williams. Owners and front-office execs like to be involved in selecting a coach.
That’s part of dismissing a good, or great, coach. Another part is human relations.
A new voice and approach are necessary to re-energize players. Those championship coaches all replaced coaches who fell short. Kerr for Mark Jackson in Golden State. Lue for David Blatt in Cleveland. Nurse for Dwane Casey in Toronto. Vogel for Luke Walton.
Change does work.
But it’s worth the risk for certain teams. And if the new coach doesn’t win a title soon, they will be out of work, too. It comes with the job.
Follow NBA columnist Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt