When the number of NBA coaches who’ve been canned before Christmas starts to approach the number of teams Larry Brown has helmed, then you know something freakish is going on.
Reggie Theus was the latest to get the ziggy, by the Sacramento Kings. That brought to six the number of coaches who will find coal in their stocking this holiday season. Of course, that coal comes with generous severance pay, so I don’t mean to go all Charles Dickens on you here. The deposed coaches won’t be standing in any soup kitchen lines, let’s put it that way.
But they’re out of work, and there’s no telling how many of them will resurface with other NBA teams.
The carnage so far, in no particular order:
1. Eddie Jordan, Washington Wizards
2. Maurice Cheeks, Philadelphia 76ers
3. Sam Mitchell, Toronto Raptors
4. PJ Carlesimo, Oklahoma City Thunder
5. Randy Wittman, Minnesota T-Wolves
6. Theus, Sacramento
Oh, and just for the record, Brown is now coaching his ninth NBA team — or 30% of the league. He’s now matched Scotty Bowman’s number of Stanley Cup rings. Another fun fact: amazingly, only one of the teams that canned a coach is one of Brown’s formers: the 76ers.
So what in the name of Bum Phillips is going on here?
You remember Bum, don’t you? Former head coach of the Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints? Well, it was ole Bum who once said this about his profession: “There are two kinds of coaches: those that have been fired, and those who are gonna be fired. And I’ve been both.”
Indeed, as have countless others.
It might be a cop out, but I think this is nothing more than an anomaly. Nothing like this has happened before, with coaches being dismissed at such a rapid pace, and I don’t see where it’s likely to happen again soon. It could also be the herd mentality, which might make it easier for other owners and GMs to lower the guillotine after they see so many of their brethren doing likewise. Certainly there’s some sort of “firing fever” spreading throughout the NBA, which this season stands for No Bumbling Allowed.
Digging deeper, it may be that teams look at today’s NBA as a little more wide-open than in the past. Beyond the Celtics, there are a bunch of teams that like to fancy themselves as title contenders, and then there’s a tier of teams just below that — and this would include some of those who fired their coach — who feel they can get a piece of the pie if they play their cards right, set themselves up for the mother lode of free agency in 2010, and make themselves as attractive suitors as possible. Axing the bumbling coach fits nicely into that plan.
Jordan was coach of the year in 2007. Cheeks, until recently, had Sixers fans thinking more glory days were ahead with him on the sideline. Mitchell was once trumpeted as the kind of hard-nosed, no-nonsense man that was perfect for the young Raptors. Yet all were dumped, victims of maybe too-high expectations. On the other end of the spectrum, Carlesimo didn’t have a prayer with awful Oklahoma City. Wittman was handcuffed with a wretched roster in Minnesota. Theus didn’t have much to work with in Sacramento, either. But out they go, too, because pro sports is filled with owners and executives who think, “It can’t be the talent, because I was the one who brought in the talent — so it must be the coach!”
The NHL has firing fever, too. Four of them are gone, including Denis Savard in Chicago after just four games, and Barry Melrose in Tampa after sixteen. But they still can’t beat Bill Gadsby, who was fired by Red Wings owner Bruce Norris after a 2-0 record in 1969. Norris was a notorious drinker, and Gadsby told me a couple of years ago that there was a cocktail on Norris’s desk as he delivered the sobering (ironic pun intended) news to his coach.
That was the earliest firing in Detroit, and in all of pro sports — almost. The Rams gave George Allen the ziggy after just two games — two pre-season games — in 1978. The Tigers fired Phil Garner after an 0-6 start in 2002. The Lions dumped Rick Forzano after four games in 1976. The Pistons rid themselves of Dick Vitale after 12 games in 1979.
Yes, it’s the hazard of the professional coach: that you’re hired to be fired.
“It’s funny,” former Pistons coach Earl Lloyd said when he took over for Butch van Breda Kolff after VBK committed a self-ziggy in 1971, “but when you take this job, you’re also signing your own death certificate.” Lloyd was ziggied about a year later.
So who’ll be the next NBA coach to be unemployed? It’s assumed that there’ll be a moratorium until after the holidays, giving us some time to mull it over. My guess? Mike Dunleavy of the LA Clippers. His teams have been getting progressively worse over the past few seasons. Just a hunch.