<
>

Who would want to coach in the NBA?

2/16/2004

With the unprecedented number of NBA coaching changes since last season, one can't help but wonder if there are any competent coaches interested in taking a job in pro basketball.

Since the end of last season, 18 coaching changes have taken place among the 29 teams and eight since the beginning of the 2003-04 season. Every team in the Eastern Conference except Atlanta has a different coach than the one who finished last season, while the Philadelphia 76ers have had two.

Granted that coaching at any level has never been a very secure position, but I can remember when coaches in the NBA had far greater stability than what one sees today.

Red Auerbach coached the Boston Celtics for 16 years, Red Holzman headed up the New York Knicks for 14 seasons, Dick Motta coached the Chicago Bulls for eight years, then the Dallas Mavericks for 10 more, Al Attles coached San Francisco/Golden State for 14 years, and I coached Philadelphia and Buffalo for four years each, before coaching the Portland Trail Blazers for 10 seasons.

Of course, winning championships helps sustain coaching longevity. Auerbach was eminently successful in Boston -- winning eight out of nine titles from 1957 to 1966 -- and the Knicks won two championships under Holzman, in 1970 and 1973. Motta's team in Washington (then known as the Bullets) won the title in 1978, but Motta didn't win any in either Chicago or Dallas; Attles' Warriors won it all in 1975; and my Blazers won in 1977. But we all survived seasons of less success without being ridden out of town.

But on the flip side there have been many coaches who've been retained over the years without winning a championship.

Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan has led the Jazz for 16 years without winning a championship ring. Mike Fratello coached eight years in Atlanta and six in Cleveland. John MacLeod ran the show in Phoenix for 14 years, and Doug Moe for 10 years in Denver. All of those coaches had success mixed with failure and didn't face the firing squad even though they didn't have the ultimate success.

But in the NBA's current state of affairs, even high-level success brings no guarantees.

Rick Carlisle coached the Detroit Pistons to consecutive 50-win seasons, was named Coach of the Year in 2002, and then was dismissed at the end of last season. Byron Scott took the New Jersey Nets to the NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003, but was sacked when his team struggled out of the gate this year. Jim O'Brien (my son-in-law) walked away from Boston with an overall winning record when differences with management became too severe.

The major factor behind this epidemic of coaching fatalities is most coaches have lost control of their rosters. Players are often acquired and traded by management with greater concern for keeping the team payroll under or near salary cap level than for acquiring talent.

League rules require the aggregate salaries of players included in trades to be within 10% of each other. The result is that players with marginal ability are included in deals that have little to offer the coach who's charged with the responsibility of winning. The "luxury tax", whereby teams are penalized dollar-for-dollar for payroll amounts above the salary cap, add greater urgency for owners to pare player salaries.

Coaches are told in effect, "Here are your players, coach them," while management presents those deals to their fans as positive steps toward future success. When the team fails to win, the coach is held responsible and is left holding the bag.

But despite the insecure situations these capable men face, there will be no dearth of applicants for every NBA coaching position that opens. Every assistant coach in the league is itching for the chance to prove he can win at the most competitive level of basketball in the world. Meanwhile, veteran coaches who have been recently fired or who have resigned are anxiously waiting for the "right job" to open up.

In the end it's pretty simple: they all love the game of basketball. They thrive on the competition that goes with coaching the best players in the universe against other great players and coaches 82 times in the regular season. They are entranced with the challenges presented by matching their theories of the game with other tacticians in the playoffs and having the chance to coach a world championship team. When those things are combined with the prestige, pay and lifestyle that go with the job, it becomes a no-brainer ... take the job.

From my experience, there was nothing in my professional life that quite equaled the euphoria that came with coaching a championship team. There's also very little to compare with the misery of coaching a losing team through a long NBA season. I felt both emotions ... and still came back for more just like these coaches will do today.

Dr. Jack Ramsay coached the Trail Blazers to the 1977 NBA championship. A member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, he is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Click here to send a question for Dr. Jack for possible use on ESPNEWS.