The Non-Existence of Stability in the NBA

One of my favorite things about life is how often I’m able to be inside structures and not have them collapse one me.  I know, it’s crazy.  I’m just saying, usually when I’m doing things I’m not properly appreciating the fact that when I’m in a building it’s not caving in on me and that the walls continue to support it.  I don’t think I’d ever be able to write anything if I was constantly dealing with debris falling on my head from the roof of my home.  Or even if the fear of such a thing happening hovered over me.  We can probably all agree that stability is an important part of any structure.  Even if it is a little strange to think about.

But when did it become so unimportant in the NBA?

Here in the year 2000’s (I don’t like to say “aughts”) the sports world is an impatient one.  Your team made surprise playoff run and regressed some the next year?  Philly says goodbye Mo Cheeks.  Star players starting to buck under your control?  Adios from Detroit Flip Saunders.  You’re trying to tell Shaq what to do?  See ya Stan Van Gundy (and Terry Porter).  General managers screwing up?  Someone had to take all those falls and it wasn’t going to be Kevin McHale Minnesota coaches.

The longest tenured coach in the Eastern conference is thirty-eight-year-old Lawrence Frank of the New Jersey Nets … with a little over five seasons.  Five.  Is it any wonder the East has been so crappy over the past decade?  In Jerry Sloan’s fifth season Michael Jordan was retiring for the first time.  Gregg Popovich has been at the helm of the Spurs since the late nineties.  He coincidentally slid in while the injured Spurs labored to a number one pick in the Tim Duncan draft.  Phil Jackson copied Michael Jordan’s one year hiatus idea in 2004, but aside from that has been running the triangle in L.A. since 2000.  Three successful franchises, (roughly) three coaches this decade.

I know the chicken or the egg theory can come into play here.  Did these teams get lucky with the right guy or do they value stability more?  There’s really no reason to fire your coach when you’re having success every year, as the Spurs have been doing.  And Jackson took himself out of the equation in the Lakers lone non-playoff season in 2004, but there was no panic move in Utah when Sloan and the not-so-talented Jazz missed the playoffs three years in a row in the middle of the decade.  Perhaps he had earned the right to have a few bad years post-Stockton to Malone, but I get the feeling many organizations would have forced him into retirement, feeling the game had passed him by.

It’s not necessarily all the owners and GM’s fault though.  Fans are often looking for scapegoats when their teams are struggling.  Bad start?  Fire the coach to “shake things up”.  Player revolt?  Well, you can’t cut twelve guys with guaranteed contracts, so axe the one instead.  But shouldn’t teams be looking for stability to attract good character players and keep bad apples from spoiling the whole bunch?  If players know that the organization fully supports the coach and will stand behind him in matters regarding playing time or practice habits wouldn’t they be less likely to challenge authority or stir up any friction?

Think of it this way.  Let’s say you find out your boss at work is going to get transferred out of your office.  He’s getting shipped down to Miami or somewhere far away in two weeks.  Are you doing any more work for him that you might not want to do?  If you know he can’t do anything to you and all his disciplinary power is gone, then what’s the point in listening to him.  You know you’ll be around longer and he’ll be sent on his way soon enough.  Isn’t this how guys like Ricky Davis end up ruining teams?  If a couple of guys know that a coach is just a figurehead that doesn’t have the supports of the organization they’ll walk all over him.

And such has been the case in Milwaukee for the past decade or so.

In 2009-10, Scott Skiles second season, the Bucks will be on their fourth coach since George Karl walked out that door.  What sort of message does that send?  Terry Porter finished third in Coach of the Year voting in his first season in 2003-04 and was fired following the next season.  After being told he’d be back!  Porter got the rawest of raw deals and never should have been put through it a second time in Phoenix.  I was amazed when he got canned in Milwaukee and still don’t understand it.  He made the playoffs his first year and then lost T.J. Ford before year two.  He did the best he could!  He had to start Keith Van Horn at power forward, what did they want from the man!  After being turned down more than Jason Segel in Knocked Up the Bucks settled on Terry Stotts.  Yeah, the guy from Stats with Stotts.  Some guys are much better suited for the life of an assistant, as Stotts proved in his ill-fated attempt at coaching in Atlanta.  After the embarrassing  Larry Kyrstowiak run the Bucks seem to have finally found competence in Skiles.  But what’s going to happen after his third and fourth years?

Skiles is not a cuddly teddy bear.  He’s not fat and jolly.  There is nothing gregarious about him, he’s just a mean looking short dude.  And like most short people do everywhere, Skiles looks like he’s got a chip on his shoulder when he’s coaching.  He’s sworn more times already as a Bucks coach as any I’ve ever seen.  Since there were only about fifty people at each Bucks game last year I could hear a lot of what Skiles was saying, even in the upper deck and he was often cussing his guys out.  Whenever I used to see a coach screaming on television, I’d always assume they were giving it to the refs.  Skiles has made me rethink that.  I saw him tear his guys new ones for missing defensive assignments or dropping a ball out of bounds more times than I could count.  And I like that.  I like the passion.  He holds everyone accountable and expects positive things.

But everyone has their limits.  How much of this are millionaire players going to take before they tune him out?  It took three years in Phoenix and four in Chicago.  Skiles got fired twenty-five games into a Chicago season, one year after winning forty-nine games.  He was brutal on Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas and famously butted heads with high priced free agent Ben Wallace.  If he was struggling to get along with Ben Wallace, a Skiles guy if I ever saw one, how are things going to look in Milwaukee in a couple years when the younger guys are tired of getting harped on for not staying in their stances.  Will the organization have Skiles back?  Or will the young guys win out?

Now is the time for the Bucks to start planting themselves firmly in Scott Skiles camp.  They can show their support for him every day.  They don’t need to flaunt their love for him in the newspapers or on television.  It starts small.  Making sure they are telling the players the same things they are telling him.  Making sure no one is placed above the team.  It starts with the stars and it trickles on down throughout the rest of the squad.  If I were Skiles, I’d be making sure I was getting Brandon Jennings on the same page as me too.

Year two of Scott Skiles Milwaukee Bucks tenure is not going to be a make or break year.  The organization knows they had to gut things a little bit.  And as long as complete and total disasters are averted, Skiles will have nothing to worry about.  But come years three and four Skiles better make sure he’s got everyone from John Hammond to Brandon Jennings, Andrew Bogut, Jodie Meeks and even Joe Alexander, on the same page.

Or else he won’t have the luxury of taking for granted the stability of the building he’s in.

Categories: The Off Season

1 Comment

  1. Well played. Sloan hasn’t been forced to deal with that ominous, crumbling roof overhead. Real trust affords him a lot of freedom. I have to think he earned that trust early on. Just as with any relationship, it won’t succeed if there is too much pressure to do everything right away. The coach/team and coach/player dynamics certainly conform to this.

    Plus it’s easier to breathe without all of those suffocating walls and ceilings.