Believe it or not, in the NBA, the league’s Coach of the Year
Award has become more like a kiss of death than a badge of
On Tuesday night, by virtue of their 121-109 victory over the
San Antonio Spurs, the New York Knicks managed to climb back to the
.500 mark at 12-12.
There are worse things than being a .500 team in the NBA, but
coming off of their 41-31 campaign last season, with the additions
of Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier and the return of Mitchell
Robinson, Tom Thibodeau and the Knicks hoped to be better.
Over the past 20 years in the NBA, we’ve witnessed the
increasing disposability of the head coach. When things go wrong,
the finger is usually pointed at the bench boss. Over in Los
Angeles, the exact example is happening to head coach Frank Vogel,
whose Lakers are having a tough time in the early going of the
And while preexisting relationships with the front office in New
York are expected to provide Thibodeau with at least some semblance
of security, the Knicks' struggles highlight an interesting trend:
COY winners' teams struggling almost immediately after winning the
The league began naming a Coach of the Year in 1963 and last
season, Thibodeau became just the ninth coach in league history to
win the award multiple times. He previously won the award as head
coach of the Chicago Bulls following the 2010-11 season, and it was
shortly before then that a rather interesting trend became
Since the 1999-2000 season, the award has been given out 22
times to 17 different coaches. The exhaustive list, beginning with
that campaign, is as follows: Doc Rivers, Larry Brown, Rick
Carlisle, Gregg Popovich, Hubie Brown, Mike D’Antoni, Avery
Johnson, Sam Mitchell, Byron Scott, Mike Brown, Scott Brooks, Tom
Thibodeau, George Karl, Mike Budenholzer, Steve Kerr, Dwane Casey
and Nick Nurse.
Popovich, Kerr, Casey and Nurse are still employed by the
franchises with which they won the award; Popovich and Kerr are
each notable for being the longest and third-longest tenured head
coaches in the league. Now in his 26th season, Pop has patrolled
the sidelines for the Spurs since 1996. Kerr assumed the helm for
the Warriors just prior to the 2014-15 season, making this season
his eighth. But they are the exceptions.
On average, since the 1999-00 season, the other winners coached
their teams for an average of just 2.36 more years after winning
the award. For the Oklahoma City Thunder, Scott Brooks had the
longest post-award tenure of five years.
The shortest tenures following their COY award-wins belong to
Hubie Brown of the Memphis Grizzlies and George Karl of the Denver
Nuggets. Brown won the award in 2004, but resigned from the
Grizzlies about six months later. He cited health concerns
regarding his resignation, though there was speculation that some
of the team’s players soured on him.
Karl was a part of a very interesting offseason in Denver. The
Nuggets traded Carmelo Anthony away in 2011, but overachieved.
Together with Masai Ujiri, Karl led the Nuggets to a 57-25 record
in the first full season (post-lockout in '11-12) following
Anthony’s departure. As a result, Ujiri was named the 2013 NBA
Executive of the Year while Karl was named Coach of the Year.
Within months, though, neither would be employed by the
Ujiri received a lucrative offer to take over the Toronto
Raptors' front office — he obviously accepted. Karl, who had one
year left on his then-current deal was unhappy with Nuggets
management for not rewarding him with an extension, and the
franchise decided to relieve him of his duties.
Karl, unbelievably, was a reigning Coach of the Year who didn’t
even make it through the offseason.
Although the tales of Brown and Karl are interesting in the
modern history of the award, neither’s brief tenure — six months
for Brown and 29 days for Karl — were factored into the earlier
reported average of 2.36 years.
Of the aforementioned winners, four coaches lasted one season or
less with their club after being named COY: Rick Carlisle (Detroit
Pistons, 2002), Sam Mitchell (Toronto Raptors, 2007), Byron Scott
(New Orleans Hornets, 2008) and Mike Brown (Cleveland Cavaliers,
Larry Brown and Avery Johnson each got two seasons (or parts
thereof), while Doc Rivers, Mike D’Antoni and Mike Budenholzer
(with the Atlanta Hawks) each got three seasons. With the Chicago
Bulls, Thibodeau got four more years, while Brooks, as previously
mentioned, got five from Oklahoma City.
It’s ironic: Coaches usually win the Coach of the Year Award for
defying expectations and leading their teams to
better-than-expected results. But one can only wonder whether the
endeavor is self-defeating.
Both the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns are considered, by some,
to have overachieved last season, but in the NBA, what goes up...
must stay up. As a community, we would be quicker to consider the
Hawks and Suns as failures if they weren’t able to replicate last
season’s results. The bar has been raised for them, and front
offices have shown a propensity to judge their head coaches based
on the highest watermark.
In New York, specifically, it is the front office that should
carry the cross; neither Walker nor Fournier have translated well
for the team, with point guard continuing to be one of the team’s
biggest areas of need. At this point, one can only wonder what the
Knicks could have looked like had they instead managed to sign
DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball instead of the duo ending up as
teammates in Chicago.
It’s too early for the Knicks to panic, and way too early to
consider that Thibodeau may not be the man for the job.
But all things considered, it’s at least interesting to take
note of the fact that the NBA’s Coach of the Year Award may be the
ultimate embodiment of a tangible irony.
Badge of honor? Or kiss of death?
There’s a clear trend that simply can’t be ignored.