Good Leaders, Bad Company Men: NBA Teams Axing Winning Coaches over Poor Front Office Relations

Good Leaders, Bad Company Men: NBA Teams Axing Winning Coaches over Poor Front Office Relations

Are relationships more important than wins and profit in the upper levels of the NBA?

More than their knack for bolstering their teams in the standings, NBA coaches and executives are being fired for their relationship skills–or lack thereof.

After a successful 2013 campaign in which he took the Memphis Grizzlies to the Western Conference Finals, coach Lionel Hollins lost his job. The Grizzlies had never been to a conference finals.

Following the Grizzlies 2014 campaign in which new coach Dave Joerger took a hobbled squad to the playoffs, giving the Thunder hell for seven games before falling in the first round, the team strangely allowed Joerger to interview with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Then, unexpectedly, CEO Jason Levien, the man who ousted Hollins and was willing to let Joerger walk away, received his pink slip.

In a response to a question on Twitter, Grizzlies owner Robert Pera said, “I will open up the checkbook and do whatever it takes to bring us closer to a championship organization.” But after twice shaking up his organization in only one calendar year after his team stood on the brink on a NBA Finals appearance, fans question whether throwing money at the problem will necessarily solve it.

This season, after three years on the job, the Golden State Warriors replaced Coach Mark Jackson with commentator Steve Kerr, a former guard with the Bulls and five other NBA teams, who boasts no NBA coaching experience. In 2014, Jackson led the Warriors to their most successful season in two decades and their second trip to the playoffs under him. At Kerr’s introductory press conference, Warriors general manager Bob Myers said, “When you strip it all away, what matters most is winning.” He claimed “the coach is the highest importance.”

One avenue for a GM to avoid personality conflicts with the coach is to hire himself as the coach. Most recently, Minnesota Timberwolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders opted to name himself coach. After the retirement of Rick Adelman in April, Saunders was unable to lure Dave Joerger or a high profile college coach to Minnesota. Alas, Saunders hired himself as coach–he had previously coached the franchise to its greatest successes–while maintaining his front office responsibilities.

Stan Van Gundy assumed both roles for the Detroit Pistons this offseason after the team offered him $35 million over five years. It has been reported that the Cleveland Cavaliers pursued Kentucky Coach John Calipari for a similar role in a 10-year deal worth $80 million. Calipari instead signed a lucrative contract extension to remain in Lexington.

The coveted set-up gives Saunders and Van Gundy the authority to make basketball and personnel decisions. Each answers to ownership. Ultimately, it removes the shackles of having to implement a coaching philosophy with players chosen by someone else. It puts leader of the bench and the front office in complete charge of the franchise’s, and his own, destiny.

Surely Hollins and Jackson wouldn’t have been in the bad graces of upper management had each enjoyed a similar arrangement, which probably explains why coaches seek to wear the GM hat and GMs look to call the shots from the bench, too. The relationships of Hollins and Jackson with upper management caused them to become expendable even as their number of wins trended upward. 

Both the Grizzlies and Warriors declined to comment when asked if relationship consistency between the coach, on the one hand, and management and ownership, on the other, is more important than winning percentage.

“Owners and GMs have a vision of what they want their team to be,” says Dr. Tim Ryan, coordinator of Sports and Leisure Management at the University of Memphis, “Even if their team is winning, they will make a change because they believe that their vision is what’s right for their team.”

From 2012 to 2013, the Lionel Hollins-led Grizzlies improved from 41-25 to 56-26 (2012 was a lockout-shortened season). As the wins increased, so too did attendance and ticket prices. The same is true for Jackson. In 2012, Mark Jackson’s first season as the Golden State Warriors coach, the franchise asked an average of $34.13 for a ticket. At the time of his firing, the average Warriors ticket cost $44.27. And winning made both teams a hot ticket.

The rise and fall of attendance and ticket revenue can’t be entirely attributed to a coach coming or going. Yet, the coach plays as a large piece of a team’s overall success, which directly correlates to ticket sales and fan participation. If wins equal money and the NBA is a business, it stands that NBA GMs and owners should not be willing to allow personal differences to impede the business of basketball and the economics of winning. 

“They say that ticket sales are important,” Dr. Ryan explains. “But their actions don’t always back it up.”