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The NBA Layoffs: Why Are Teams Firing Successful Coaches?

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While the NBA Playoffs is heating up at its near pinnacle between the Eastern and Western Conference Finals, the NBA Layoffs are very well under way. How is it that the NBA’s 2022 Coach of the Year award winner, Monty Williams, was relieved of his duties as the Phoenix Suns head coach?

Williams led the Phoenix Suns to an NBA Finals appearance for the first time in almost three decades (1993) during the 2021 season; that accomplishment came after a 2020 season where Williams initially assumed the head coaching position, while the Suns posted an under .500 record at 34-39.

Well, it may be more simpler than you think. Williams and the Suns lost in a 25-point blowout to the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Semi-Finals, and last year they fell in the very same round by way of a 33-point shellacking to the Dallas Mavericks.

The front office of the Phoenix Suns had seen enough, they don’t believe they could win an NBA Championship under Williams leadership. It certainly did not help Williams case that they just added NBA superstar, Kevin Durant, via a blockbuster trade in February and their aspirations are high on cashing in on the potential window of a championship.

Speaking of championships, the Toronto Raptors also joined the layoff party when they fired 2019 NBA Champion and 2020 NBA Coach of the Year, Nick Nurse. Nurse has seen two pivotal stars leave his Raptors teams in recent years since that 2019 championship run. The first domino was superstar Kawhi Leonard, who would sign with the Los Angeles Clippers before the 2019-2020 season. Then came a double whammy for Nurse two years after, Kyle Lowry took his defensive talents and clutch shot making to South Beach with the Miami Heat.

The Raptors seem to have never recovered from those two huge departures from the Canadian franchise. Since Leonard and Lowry left, the Raptors would produce two early exits from the playoffs. They would fall to the Philadelphia 76ers during the first round in 2022, then this year was an exit during the play-in tournament against the Chicago Bulls and the rest is history. The Raptors made it clear they have plans to go in an entirely new direction, despite Nurse’s massive success as a head coach early on in Toronto.

While some head coaches create early success, for a select few… they build on long term careers of consistency and results. Doc Rivers has coached in the NBA for 24 seasons, he won the NBA Coach of the Year award as a rookie head coach for the Orlando Magic in 2000; he has also made an appearance in two NBA Finals and became a champion in one of those two with the Boston Celtics in 2008. Rivers sports an all-time regular season coaching record of 1097-763, that’s a lot of games. Meanwhile his all-time playoff coaching record weighs in at 111-104, barely over the .500 mark.

The biggest knock against Rivers as a head coach amongst the most critical NBA analysts, he apparently cannot get his teams over the hump in the postseason, which ultimately led to his firing from his position last week. Philadelphia 76er fans have been itching to get back to the NBA Finals since 2001, that was when Allen Iverson was terrorizing the league with gaudy scoring performances on a nightly basis. The very same scenario happened with Rivers during his tenure with the Los Angeles Clippers, they had two stars in Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, and they too eventually moved on from Rivers.

Let’s face it, the 76ers have been knocking on the door almost every year to reach the NBA Finals since Doc Rivers arrival, yet they come up short in critical Game 7’s and even a Game 6 to the Miami Heat last season. You could bring up the monstrous offensive performance from Boston Celtics superstar, Jayson Tatum, when he scored 51 points to send the 76ers packing in Game 7 just a few short days ago, but wouldn’t that be another excuse?

Philadelphia wants to capitalize on the peak of this season’s NBA Most Valuable Player of the Year award winner’s career, Joel Embiid, and unfortunately Rivers struggles in the playoffs are not going to cut it for the franchise.

Another former NBA Most Valuable Player and two-time award winner, Giannis Antetokounmpo, would see the same head coach he won his first and only championship with get fired by the Milwaukee Bucks. When the Bucks relieved Mike Budenholzer of his coaching duties, that may have come with more substantial cause of any team releasing head coaches in the playoffs.

Budenholzer led the Bucks as the NBA’s best team during the regular season, where they posted a 58-24 record and clinched first-seed status in the Eastern Conference Playoffs. They would match up with the eighth-seed Miami Heat and they lost in five games, a colossal upset in that first round series, which certainly ignited the decision to release Budenholzer from the franchise. That was not the only time Budenholzer dropped a crucial playoff series to Miami, the Bucks lost to them in five games during the NBA Bubble Playoffs in 2020.

Quite a turn of events when you consider the fact that Budenholzer helped bring an NBA championship to the Milwaukee Bucks franchise in 2021, their first in over five decades. He is also a two-time Coach of the Year award winner in his NBA career, once with the Atlanta Hawks in 2015 and another time with Milwaukee in 2019.

So, if you’re wondering how does an NBA head coach like Erik Spoelstra from the Miami Heat retain his position for so long, and how is it that the four aforementioned coaches were removed from their franchises recently? Three words – consistent postseason success.

NBA franchises and their executives do not care what you did years ago, what matters to them is what is getting accomplished today and if it can be done on a consistent basis. They also don’t hold regular season success in such high regard as the common viewer would probably think. The success and stature of a head coach is weighed much more on their postseason performance.

Erik Spoelstra did just come off an up-and-down regular season while coaching the Miami Heat to a 44-38 record and narrowly escaping the play-in tournament, but the Heat have since made it to the Eastern Conference Finals as an eighth-seed; where they currently hold a one-game lead over the Boston Celtics and their third visit to the conference finals in four seasons. Spoelstra and the Heat were also one shot away from returning to the NBA Finals for the second time in three seasons during last year’s playoffs.

Spoelstra currently stands at fifth all-time in career playoff wins as a head coach with a 105-68 record, which equates to winning well over half (60.7%) of the postseason games he’s ever coached in. He also has made an appearance in five NBA Finals and has won two championships, in addition to taking the Heat to the playoffs 12 times since he became the head coach in 2008.

Did you know that Erik Spoelstra has never won the NBA Coach of the Year award? Despite the fact that he led the Miami Heat to the NBA’s best regular season record at 66-16 during the 2012-2013 season, which also included an NBA Championship. Well, it doesn’t matter, he wins when it matters, and the reality is that the award is weighted heavily as an achievement for the regular season. Leading an eighth-seed team to a Conference Final should count for something right? Should the NBA consider taking into account during their voting process for the Coach of the Year award, the postseason?

NBA teams always have the mindset of making the next move to win an NBA Championship, it doesn’t come down to just adding superstars or key role players. The head coach leads from start to finish and the NBA is becoming more cutthroat than ever if the lead man can’t produce up to the expectations of the front office. The postseason defines their job security, and it is not defined on the boat race of the regular season… it is a marathon and the key to it all is consistency, when it matters.

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