The day after Christmas, the Brooklyn Nets lost 108-93 to the Milwaukee Bucks, looking for all the world like the worst team in the NBA. After a hot 11-4 start, the Nets had collapsed, losing ten of their next thirteen games, culminating in the Bucks loss, which dropped them to .500. Star point guard Deron Williams, who missed the game with a sore wrist, had said the week before that his poor play was due in part to trouble he’d had adjusting to coach Avery Johnson’s isolation-heavy offense, and the losing streak was causing unprecedented criticism for both Williams and his coach. After the Milwaukee loss, surly Nets forward Gerald Wallace minced no words: “Guys are content with the situation we are in,” he said. “I’m fucking pissed off about us losing, especially losing the way we are losing.”
Owner Mikhail Prokhorov, in his occasional pop-ins to North America, has consistently proclaimed that he would accept nothing but championships for the Nets, but suddenly it didn’t even look like the team was going to make the playoffs. The rollout of Barclays Center this year, in just about every way, has been a rousing success—you hear the words “Beyoncé” and “Bob Dylan” a lot more than “Bruce Ratner” these days—but the one thing the Nets-Barclays-Prokhorov crew could not afford was a poor first season for the Nets. The Brooklyn Nets needed to be different from the New Jersey Nets. This would not do.
So, faced with discord and losses, they did what countless teams have done before them and countless teams will do again: They fired the coach. Prokhorov and general manager Billy King pulled the trigger the morning after the Bucks loss; Prokhorov even flew in from British Columbia, cutting his heli-skiing vacation short “to solve this problem,” he told reporters. Because the Nets had a game the next day, assistant coach P. J. Carlesimo was hired as interim coach, but Prokhorov made it clear he had his eye on big game, even potentially Lakers and Bulls legend Phil Jackson. “This is totally unacceptable,” he said.
The Nets had an angry, struggling superstar, a furious owner out for blood, a budding fan base in danger of revolting, a lame-duck coach mostly known around these parts for being strangled by Latrell Sprewell, and a media horde eager to label the Great Brooklyn Experiment a failure. The coaching change was a confession: The Nets were adrift.
So, of course, the Nets rattled off twelve wins in their next fourteen games, Deron Williams regained his All-Star form, and the Knicks—the early-season surprise success story of the NBA—all of a sudden found the Nets hot on their heels in the race for the Atlantic Division crown, culminating in an MLK Day matinée at the Garden in which the Nets looked the superior team in just about every way. Simply by the removal of one coach and the (temporary) installation of another, everything changed for the Nets, overnight. Their defense has tightened, the offense is more free-flowing, the superstars (Williams, but also Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez) look like they’ve all woken up from an extended slumber. They’re now one of the best teams in the NBA, just like that.
Such a situation may sound familiar to city sports fans: It’s not all that different from what happened last season after the Knicks parted ways with head coach Mike D’Antoni and elevated then-interim coach Mike Woodson to the top spot. Before D’Antoni’s ouster, the Knicks were 18-24; immediately afterward, they won eight of their next nine games. It was, like with the Nets, as if someone simply turned on a light switch: Carmelo Anthony looked energized, previously feuding teammates suddenly got along, and the fans acted like nothing had ever gone wrong in the first place.
Of the four teams that have fired their coaches since this NBA season began, two of them (Brooklyn and Milwaukee) have dramatically better records than they did before, one (Phoenix) only fired its coach two weeks ago, and the fourth is the Lakers, with D’Antoni, a coach whose fans (and, apparently, players) would like to see fired even though he hasn’t been there ten weeks. Firing a coach appears to be a magic trick. Right?
With the possible exception of NFL coaches, who are starting to be fired after only one year on the job, there isn’t a sport with higher coaching churn than the NBA. Only three coaches in the league—San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, Boston’s Doc Rivers, and Denver’s George Karl—have been with their current teams longer than six seasons. (Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who still feels like he just got here, would be the fourth-longest-tenured coach in the NBA.) Seven NBA coaches were fired in the 2011–12 NBA season; two have already gone down in 2013, and it’s only January. The Knicks have had seven coaches since 2004; the Nets have had six. Firing coaches isn’t an executive move or a reaction to strife so much anymore as it is a built-in strategy; it’s a feature, not a bug. And apparently it works.