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.
This is strange. For years, the NBA has had the reputation of a player’s league, in which multimillionaire twentysomethings run roughshod over increasingly weathered middle-aged men in suits. Yet these coaching changes are working, at least here. Did Deron Williams suddenly just become a better player? Did Carmelo thrive because of some magic words Woodson whispered in his ear? Is it really that simple? David Thorpe, a private coach to top NBA players and a longtime analyst for ESPN, has been an integral figure in pro basketball for more than twenty years and is recognized as one of the game’s great minds. There is little in the NBA that he hasn’t seen. So I asked him what was going on. Why does firing a coach seem to make such a difference in a league where coaches are said not to matter?
“It’s not really about coaching,” Thorpe told me. “It’s about culture.” Thorpe tells the story of a player he used to coach who had lost all confidence in his game, to the point that he even asked out of games when he wasn’t hurt or tired. A coach’s job, Thorpe says, is simply to build that confidence back up; this particular coach’s trick was to get that player easy baskets, even with plays not necessarily indicated by the game situation, just to make him feel better. “When you see the ball go in, you feel better about your shot—and everything,” Thorpe says.
That’s to say: A lot of this is a mind game for players. If Deron Williams isn’t playing well because he doesn’t feel comfortable, it doesn’t really matter why he’s feeling uncomfortable, just that he is. So, you remove Avery Johnson (whose system may or may not have been the right fit for Williams) and bring in P. J. Carlesimo, who is a better coach for the moment simply because he’s a new one. He doesn’t have to do anything different from Johnson; he just has to be different from Johnson. It also helps that he was an assistant coach. “As an assistant, he may have a feel for where Avery was rubbing certain guys the wrong way, and he can knock the anvils off their shoulder. Every assistant coach in the league goes out of their way to be the players’ buddy, because he cannot be loyal to the head coach since he may be the next head coach. He needs to know those guys like him.”
It is not so much, then, that Avery Johnson was teaching the Nets a bunch of bad things, or that his system was wrong, or that he didn’t get along well with Williams. It’s just that he was there while a team was losing, and in basketball, as in many sports, losing begets losing. You just need to try something else. Thorpe argues that it’s not dramatically different from, say, switching seats at a blackjack table. “P.J. has been a coach for a long time, and he’s learned a lot of things, and one of the key ones is to stay out of the way and let these guys play,” he says. “I think that the team just was not buying what Avery was selling, and they recognized that with this group of veterans, we could have almost anyone coaching, and as long as they are connected together, then they are going to play better.”
Timing is another factor. Johnson was fired after a series of losses to playoff-caliber teams like the Knicks, Celtics, and Bucks. Carlesimo’s first two games were against the Bobcats and the Cavaliers, two of the worst teams in the NBA. In this way, winning begets winning. “You start to buy in more, and they trust each other a little bit,” Thorpe says. The Knicks did the same thing last year; their first game after firing D’Antoni was against the woeful Portland Trail Blazers, a team they beat by 42 points. Get a little momentum going, and you’re off and running.
Of course, that only works for so long. After all, the best coaches earn their money when their teams are losing, not when they’re winning. “They don’t muddy the waters when things are rolling, and they know how to push the right buttons when they are not,” Thorpe says. But one has to have the authority, or at least some authority, to push those buttons. Popovich in San Antonio has been able to last more than a decade in his current job, in large part because he has uncommon input into personnel decisions. That was a big factor in Phil Jackson’s success, too. Without the ability to retool their roster as needed, there’s not a whole lot coaches can do to turn around a serious losing streak. They can yell, but the players eventually tune them out. They can change schemes, but opposing teams adjust.
Carlesimo and Woodson, for all their success to date, have no such power. Eventually we will hear all the stories of how the players have quit on them—how they need fresh blood, a new perspective, someone to take the pressure off them. After all, Carlesimo and Woodson have been fired themselves. With rare exception, this is the coaching churn, and as long as the players are human beings with insecurities and complications, rather than robots who run pick-and-rolls, it will always be so. A coach is a great coach until he isn’t, at which time you just take a different seat at the blackjack table, and wait for the next deal.
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