MIAMI—Miami’s Erik Spoelstra and Denver’s Michael Malone are two of the four National Basketball Association (NBA) coaches to have spent at least eight years with their current team.
They know how rare that is — especially as the league’s coaching changes mount.
Championship-winning or title-contending coaches aren’t safe in the NBA these days. In recent days, 2019 NBA champion Nick Nurse, 2021 champion Mike Budenholzer, 2021 Western Conference champion and 2022 Coach of the Year Monty Williams and most recently 2008 NBA champion Doc Rivers were all fired.
Nurse was fired by Toronto, Budenholzer by Milwaukee, Williams by Phoenix and Rivers by Philadelphia.
“It’s disturbing,” Spoelstra said. “Doc’s a Hall of Famer. … There’s only so many teams that can advance. It’s just a really hard thing to do. Yeah, it’s been a tough couple weeks, hearing the news of just some really surprising firings.”
It doesn’t make sense to Spoelstra, or likely to many other coaches. Spoelstra has the NBA’s second-longest current tenure with one team. San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich has coached the Spurs since 1996, Spoelstra took over the Heat in 2008, Steve Kerr became coach in Golden State in 2014 and Malone became coach in Denver in 2015.
“I understand this business,” said Malone, who leads Denver in the Western Conference finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. “You look around the coaching landscape, if you want a secure profession, coaching is not the one to get into. I should have been a TV reporter.”
Of the last nine coaches to take a team to the NBA Finals, only two — Kerr and Spoelstra — are still with the franchise that they went to the title round with.
Three of the last four championship-winning coaches — Budenholzer in 2021, the Los Angeles Lakers’ Frank Vogel in 2020 and Nurse in 2019 – have since been fired by those clubs. Also no longer with their teams for various reasons after recent runs to the finals: Ime Udoka in Boston, Cleveland’s David Blatt and then Tyronn Lue as well, and now Williams by the Suns.
“This is the nature of this league and I think sometimes it’s the chemistry,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told ESPN in a televised interview before the draft lottery on Tuesday night. ”They don’t go from being great coaches to bad coaches from one year to the next. It has to do with the chemistry of the team, the style, maybe somebody believes the players need to hear a new voice. But I’m incredibly sympathetic. It’s a rough side of this business and I think they understand it. They choose this profession. They’re my friends and I hate to see it.”
Budenholzer’s dismissal left Kerr upset, as he revealed earlier this month — but noted that all coaches understand how vulnerable they are.
“My first response is not necessarily shock, it’s more disappointment because Bud is a fantastic coach,” Kerr said. “He just won a championship and has been wildly successful in his coaching career. But this is the business we’re in. … Expectations every year for every team are so high, and only one team can win. It’s sad news for the coaching profession.”
At least six teams will have new coaches next season — Phoenix, Milwaukee, Toronto, Detroit and now Philadelphia are looking, and Houston has hired Udoka as the replacement for Stephen Silas. There were two in-season moves as well: Brooklyn’s Jacque Vaughn was hired by the Nets in November, and Atlanta’s Quin Snyder was hired by the Hawks in February. And two coaches in the conference finals are in Year 1 of their careers: the Lakers’ Darvin Ham, and the Celtics’ Joe Mazzulla, who had to take over unexpectedly in Boston last fall following Udoka’s suspension for an inappropriate relationship with a Celtics employee.
Mazzulla will meet Spoelstra and Miami in the Eastern Conference finals starting Wednesday. Spoelstra has faced Boston three times for the East title in four years, going up against three different coaches — Brad Stevens in the NBA bubble restart in 2020, Udoka last year and now Mazzulla — and says while the coaches change, organizational stability exists and is crucial.
“Joe was in the bubble. … He’s been part of some really good teams,” Spoelstra said. “That does have an impact. Probably more than anything in this league right now, you’re looking for some kind of organizational stability between the front office and coaching staff.”
There aren’t many examples of that in the league right now. At minimum, 13 of the NBA’s 30 teams will open next season with a coach who has been in place for no more than one season.
Rivers said Sunday that he expected to stay with the 76ers. “No one’s safe in our business. I get that,” Rivers said.
Further proof of that came two days later, when he was dismissed.
“It’s just the business of basketball,” Miami guard Kyle Lowry said. “And one thing about our business is sometimes it gets a little cut-throat.”
Spoelstra has long said part of Miami’s strength is consistency. Managing general partner Micky Arison, CEO Nick Arison, team president Pat Riley, general manager Andy Elisburg and others have been with the Heat for decades — and from the very beginning, in Elisburg’s case, since he’s been with the franchise for all 35 of its seasons.
Spoelstra has been with the organization for more than half his life as well; he was 24 when he started in the video room, and now he’s 52.
“It takes so much time and energy to restart something,” Spoelstra said. “And I think that’s part of the reason why we’ve been able to reboot so many times, over and over and over. We’re not reinventing a new culture and then trying to teach everybody and then all of a sudden, two years later, it’s going to be somebody else doing the exact same thing. But particularly to have proven veteran guys (fired), it’s just been stunning. It really has been disturbing.”
Image credits: AP