Being an NBA coach isn’t fair. It never is. Frank Vogel and Dave Joerger were fired for reasons that don’t have as much to do with Xs and Os but whether or not they’re the right fit for their former teams.
Indiana Pacers president Larry Bird decided that Vogel, despite being 250-181 in five-plus seasons (58%) and getting the franchise to the conference finals in 2013 and ‘14, didn’t run the type of offense he wanted. Bird also believed that despite Paul George being the only true star on the roster that 45 wins and pushing the No. 2 seed Toronto Raptors to seven games in a first-round series was not enough to warrant renewing Vogel’s contract.
Joerger endured a season in which he had 28 different players on the roster because of injuries and still led the Memphis Grizzlies to a 42-win season and a No. 7 seed. But Joerger and the front office clearly didn’t get along. He was hired on a four-year deal by the Sacramento Kings on Monday.
Hirings and firings aren’t solely about wins and losses. It’s about relationships, including with players, and expectations by the coach’s bosses in the front office.
Clearly, Bird thought the product he witnessed on the floor didn’t deliver in terms of style of play. The Pacers won but they didn't look good in doing so. Believe it or not, when Phil Jackson reached a stalemate on a contract with the L.A. Lakers in 2011, a similar twisted logic was given. Nevermind that the triple-post offense, or Triangle, had led to five championships under Jackson but the Lakers' front office wanted to return to a more exciting brand of basketball from the Showtime days of Magic Johnson. In Jackson's last season, the Lakers won 57 games. They haven't won more than 45 since then and are on their fifth coach.
The Wizards gave Randy Wittman a one-year deal after he’d taken over for Flip Saunders during 2011-12. In his first full season in 2012-13, Wittman led the Wizards to just 29 wins but they were a top 10 scoring defense which was a significant accomplishment for a losing team that proved they were moving in the right direction. By comparison, this year’s 30-win New Orleans Pelicans were 26th in scoring allowed, the 29-win Minnesota Timberwolves were 23rd and the 21-win Brooklyn Nets were 24th.
The Wizards were a franchise that was dysfunctional and required a locker-room house cleaning to right the ship. That defense-first philosophy led to 44- and 46-win seasons that resulted in playoff berths and advancing to the East semifinals in consecutive seasons.
This is why Wittman was granted a three-year deal (only the first two fully guaranteed) to determine if he could take them to the next level. This past season, 41-41 and no playoffs, proved he wasn’t able to transition into a revamped offense while maintaining the same defensive identity. He was bought out at $500,000 and Scott Brooks was given a five-year fully guaranteed deal worth $35 million.
The expectations for Brooks are much different. Whereas getting the Wizards into the playoffs and out of the first round was good enough to allow Wittman to hang on, Brooks is tasked with getting them to the conference finals at the very least.
With Joerger, he’s taking over the NBA’s most troubled franchise in Sacramento (at half the salary of Brooks) that hasn’t had a winning record since 2005-06. With All-Star DeMarcus Cousins they’ve never won more than 33 games in his six years. Just getting the Kings back to respectability with Wittman-like success will be more than good enough to get him a statue outside of their new arena.
With whomever Bird hires for the Pacers, that won’t be acceptable. Nor will it be enough to satisfy Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey as he searches to fill their vacancy.
The head coach has the most difficult job. He has to manage the wants and needs of his players and front office. At least in Joerger's case, he was fired upward. He earned $2 million per year in Memphis and now has doubled his money at $4 million per.
The downside, of course, is joining the circus that is Sacramento.