Charlotte Bobcats fans want an experienced NBA coach, but are they right?

05/11/2013 5:21 PM

05/11/2013 10:15 PM

Based on the emails and tweets I keep getting from Bobcats fans, you want this team to stop hiring assistants as head coaches. The typical message I get starts with “when are they going to get a real coach?’’

I appreciate the sentiment; Sam Vincent’s and Mike Dunlap’s one-season tenures with the Bobcats demonstrate the danger of elevating a guy with minimal NBA experience into one of these 30 jobs.

But the numbers don’t back up the assertion that previous NBA head coaches are appreciably more likely to succeed.

The Observer studied the last 10 years of NBA coaching hires, focusing on circumstances similar to the Bobcats: Coaches who took over teams with a sub-.500 record that missed the playoffs. That narrowed a group of 88 hires down to a list of 44.

The Observer then examined those 44 cases to see whether the coach improved the situation. Which teams had winning seasons? Which reached the playoffs? Which won a round? By those measures, coaches who hadn’t already run an NBA team did better than those who had.

Of the 24 men who’d previously coached NBA teams, 10 (42 percent) succeeded appreciable. Of the 20 never-before head coaches, 11 (55 percent) succeeded.

That shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Of the eight head coaches who got their teams to the second round of this season’s playoffs, six had never coached another NBA team before getting his current job.

Four of those -- Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau, Indiana’s Frank Vogel, Oklahoma City’s Scott Brooks or Miami’s Erik Spoelstra -- were fairly obscure assistants, but they inherited talented teams on the rise. In these times when superstars are clustering in places like Miami, Los Angeles and New York, it’s harder than ever for a young coach to have a great roster.

Fans understandably equate familiarity with qualification. It’s why former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher living in the Triangle seems to haunt Carolina Panthers discussions. But think of all the NBA “name coaches’’ – guys who pushed other teams deep in the playoffs -- who have failed of late:

Mike D’Antoni (New York Knicks), Avery Johnson (New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets), Byron Scott (Cleveland Cavaliers) and Flip Saunders (Washington Wizards) all lost those jobs without winning a single playoff game. Johnson’s, Scott’s and Saunders’ teams never reached the post-season, while D’Antoni’s best Knicks team was swept by the Boston Celtics.

“Failling’’ -- falling short of a winnign record or not making a playoff run -- is actually quite common, based on Observer research: Nearly two-thirds of those hired since 2004 -- 54 of 88 -- ended in losing records for the coach. Thirty-four of the 88 hires never resulted in a playoff appearance and seven more reached the playoffs but never won a first-round game.

Much as anything that suggests NBA coaches are easily and frequently replaced. Dunlap’s successor will become the fifth Bobcats hire since 2007, all on owner Michael Jordan’s watch.

Consider the link between constantly switching coaches and chronic losing: Four teams -- the Bobcats, Sacramento Kings, Minnesota Timberwolves and Detroit Pistons -- have each made five coaching changes since 2004. Those four franchises have combined for one playoff appearance (Bobcats getting swept by the Orlando Magic in 2010) in the last four seasons.

The Bobcats have touted the last two years that they have a plan to right themselves. In some regards -- creating up to $21 million in salary cap space this summer and possibly having four first-round picks over the next two drafts -- the progress is there.

But three coaches in three seasons can’t be good for stability or the development of young players like Bismack Biyombo and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Firing Dunlap might have been justified, but until the Bobcats stop churning coaching staffs, it’s hard to imagine the plan coming to fruition.

Stars to unemployed: Four 'name’ coaches who lost their jobs.

  Name Team Record before he took over Resume Mike D’Antoni Knicks 23-59 under Isiah Thomas One playoff appearance in 3 ½ seasons. Knicks were swept by the Boston Celtics. Avery Johnson    Nets 12-70 under Lawrence Frank / Kiki Vandeweghe  Went 60-116, never reaching playoffs. Flip Saunders Wizards 19-63 under Eddie Jordan / Ed Tapscott Went 51-130, never were in playoff contention Byron Scott Cavaliers    61-20 under Mike Brown Went 64-166. Scott inherited depleted team after LeBron James’ departure for Miami.
No-names to stars: Four ex-assistants shining in their first stints as NBA head coaches
Name Team he took over Record before he took over Resume
Scott Brooks Thunder   1-12 under P.J. Carlesimo Went 50-32 in first full season as coach, reached NBA Finals in 2012.
Tom Thibodeau   Bulls 41-41 under Vinny Del Negro Went 62-20 his first season, won two division titles in first three seasons.
Erik Spoelstra Heat 15-67 under Pat Riley Went 43-29 first season. His team won 2012 championship.
Frank Vogel Pacers 17-27 under Jim O’Brien Went 28-18 as interim coach. Pacers have reached 2nd round of playoffs past 2 seasons

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