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Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra critical of high turnover rate among NBA head coaches

Jun 15, 2013, 9:30 AM EDT

LeBron James, Erik Spoelstra

SAN ANTONIO — The lack of job security for head coaches in the NBA has seemed to reach an all-time high level of silliness this year, and the two who are still playing for a championship believe that the consistency shown by their respective organizations is a big reason why they’re still competing at the latest stage of the season.

There are at least 12 of the league’s 30 teams that will have new head coaches to start next season, and that includes teams like Denver, Memphis, and the L.A. Clippers who just wrapped up wildly successful seasons that ended with trips to the playoffs.

It’s getting to be ridiculous, and the more tenured guys in the game will tell you that a constant level of turnover is far from the best way to build a team for long-term success.

Speaking via conference call on an off day after Game 4 of the Finals, Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra had no trouble at all articulating the specifics of the issue.

“I think it’s a terrible state for the profession right now,” Spoelstra said. “And look, all you have to do … I mean, we see it differently, the San Antonio organization and the Miami Heat organization. For true success in the NBA, you must have consistency of culture. When you see that type of turnover over and over and over, it’s impossible to create any kind of sustainable consistent culture. And we don’t see it as a coincidence. We’ve had the same leadership in our organization now for 18 years. Micky Arison took over (as owner), put (Pat Riley) in charge. Even though we have had four different coaches, it still has been the same culture and relatively the same philosophy. San Antonio has been the same way for 15 years with Pop in charge.”

Gregg Popovich believes that ownership may not be able to fully understand the differences between success that is achieved by leaders in basketball versus those in other businesses they may have been associated with over the years.

“I think that in some cases one might surmise that some owners think it’s easier than it really is,” Popovich said. “It’s difficult to win an NBA game, let alone playoff game‑type situation. It’s not that easy. You don’t just go draft, or make this trade, or sign this free agent and then it gets done. It’s very difficult. And when things don’t happen quickly, I think some owners become frustrated. Some even take it personally, I believe, almost like a little bit of an embarrassment because they’ve been so successful in their own way and have a hard time understanding this business.”

Th Spurs have been the model of consistency, appearing in the playoffs 21 of the last 22 seasons, and winning four titles in nine seasons from 1999-2007. And the Heat haven’t been too bad themselves, missing the playoffs only three times in the last 18 seasons, while winning titles in 2006 and 2012.

There’s something to be said for staying the course, but too many teams don’t have a plan or philosophy that they’re willing to stick with on a long-term basis, and are looking for immediate gratification in the form of a championship or, at the very least, a deep run into the postseason.

But for a variety of reasons, most teams aren’t willing to commit. And for them, the constant upheaval clearly isn’t the answer, even though it’s something that ends up feeding on itself.

“As you think about it, it seems like it would apply no matter what your business is,” Popovich said. “If you can have continuity, a good group, a team, so to speak, and all that that entails and keep it in a continuous manner so that it grows more or less upon itself, within itself, and the knowledge and understanding continues to grow, you have a pretty good understanding. You can deal with adversity and not get too pumped up about success but just enjoy it and realize how fleeting it might be. But the change, change, change, change, change thing doesn’t really work. You can see that in a lot of organizations.”

Spoelstra agrees, and is thankful he’s part of an organization that gets it.

“I think it’s really a shame for the profession of coaching that it’s been so volatile,” he said. “But I’m also very grateful that our organization doesn’t behave in that manner.”

  1. saint1997 - Jun 15, 2013 at 9:40 AM

    Anyone else see that Pop quote about embarrassed struggling owners as a dig right at MJ?

    • redbaronx - Jun 16, 2013 at 9:42 AM

      No. That wasn’t a dig at MJ and that’s absurd on the face of it, though it certainly COULD apply to MJ. You have to remember that his comments could apply to about five teams this offseason. Most prominently Denver and Memphis which had historic FRANCHISE winning seasons (unlike the Bobcats…), and still got the boot (though technically Lionel Hollins contract just wasn’t renewed). Even though Vinny Del Negro didn’t seem to make the right IN GAME calls for the Clippers, this is a relatively new/young coach.

      No. Pop’s comments were certainly not directed at MJ individually the way you made that out to be. But do those comments apply to Bobcats ownership? ABSOLUTELY! They can’t make up their minds on which direction they’re going from month to month.

  2. aaronmushrush - Jun 15, 2013 at 10:10 AM

    I mean when you win 57 games without a star player, take the #3 seed in the West, and win coach of the year and still get the axe I’d say there’s more to this high turnover rate than meets the eye. I have yet to read a legit reason George Karl was fired.

    • fredagsedb - Jun 15, 2013 at 1:40 PM

      Makes no sense to let him and Ujri go. Wierd owner. Don’t understand how he thinks he can make it better? Aren’t they selling enough tickets in Denver with a winning team that played team ball and played their heart out every night? And now Igoudala is also opting out. That team is falling apart. Lottery bound.

    • anhdazman - Jun 15, 2013 at 11:25 PM

      Wasn’t that the 9th time Karl got bounced in the 1st round as a Head Coach.
      It might be football, but when coaches like Schotenhiemer and Turner who have talented teams that can’t take their team to the next level in the play offs consistently, they will lose their jobs.

      • redbaronx - Jun 16, 2013 at 9:48 AM

        @anhdazman – This is also the same guy that took Seattle to the Finals with an alcoholic Shawn Kemp in 1996. Just because Karl didn’t advance recently, doesn’t mean squat. He’s a great coach who has also a lot to deal with personally with cancer and other family issues. This is a historically dumb firing. I can’t remember anything remotely resembling this in NBA history.

  3. charlutes - Jun 15, 2013 at 10:28 AM

    As usual Pop nails it. Spo takes the opportunity to suck up to his bosses a half dozen times.

    • redbaronx - Jun 16, 2013 at 9:51 AM

      @charlutes – You’re young (evidently). How you took Spo’s comments as a suck up is beyond me. If anything he was trying to support coaches around the league from stupid firings. Spo doesn’t need to suck up to Riley. Riley is already his biggest supporter. You don’t become one of the youngest, most successful coaches in NBA history managing superstars if management doesn’t believe in you. Spo is an excellent X and O’s coach, and he was lucky to have someone that believed in him.

      All employees should be so lucky in their jobs with employers!

  4. addictedzone - Jun 15, 2013 at 10:36 AM

    The NBA coaching lifespan is most obvious when looking at the most tenured coaches with the same team right now:

    1. Popovich
    2. Rivers
    3. Spoelstra

    At 42 years old, Spoelstra has been at the same job longer than 90% of the current (or soon to be hired) NBA head coaches.

  5. 00maltliquor - Jun 15, 2013 at 1:33 PM

    That’s what I’ve been saying the whole time! Glad this article was written up. Same goes for teams with a core that been together for at least 3+ years. That’s part of why teams like the Bulls, Grizzlies and Pacers are so successful. They didn’t have to have the big, splashy names, they just needed time together. This somehow flys over most GM’s heads though.

    • davidly - Jun 15, 2013 at 4:12 PM

      Good point. It’s a shame, too, because it adversely affects a lot of players’ careers when they’re shipped around before having a chance to build chemistry. Conversely, it hurts a team when they assume that a guy who’s put up numbers for a couple of seasons is going to step right up and do it with a new team, and then when they don’t right away, everyone says their a bust.

      This is the one part that Pop got wrong: other businesses do not succeed with that formula either. It’s just that what defines success in sports is a whole different ball of fruit.

      • redbaronx - Jun 16, 2013 at 10:07 AM

        @davidly – The part that you think Pop got wrong, I’m not sure you understood his comment. I think what he was trying to say was that regular businesses don’t have immediately tangible ‘win/losses’ and that ‘owners’ of business don’t judge things in such short time frames.

      • davidly - Jun 16, 2013 at 10:20 AM

        @ You’re right. I stand corrected.

  6. jadaruler - Jun 15, 2013 at 2:14 PM

    The relationship between management and coaches have to be one of synergy. We can disagree, but we have to still go along with the decisions being made.

    Hollins never got over the Gay trade, some of the management in Denver didn’t like Karl’s reluctance to play the younger guys, and so on.

    • redbaronx - Jun 16, 2013 at 9:56 AM

      @jadaruler – WRONG! Karl’s reluctance was towards playing JaVale McGee due to his incompetence. Not because he’s young! Karl plays younger players all the time.

      Most fans just see the highlights of JaVale, but Wizards fans like myself know JaVale very well. He’s boneheaded, refuses to learn, and can’t understand basic plays and where he needs to be on the court from possession to possession. And then tells his coaches off when they try to get him to learn.

      If Karl didn’t want to play him, it was for good reason!

  7. jeff6381 - Jun 15, 2013 at 4:15 PM

    The owners always put the blame on the coach instead of the players its easier to fire a coach then get rid of certain players. Now you have players getting coaches fired which is ridiculous owners and GM’s over value these players to much.

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