On the firing of coaches

As I write this, the New York Knicks are whipping the Blazers at Madison Square Garden. I'm not watching the debacle, but I do check Twitter and ESPN from time to time. The big news items today are rumors of a Jamal Crawford trade, and the resignation of Knicks coach Mike d'Antoni. Which, of course, brings us to the Blazers' coach.

Before discussing Nate in particular, there are several reasons that coaches get canned.

  1. Owner's discretion: This is a catch-all for those reasons not listed below--sometimes the boss and the underling don't get along, or don't have chemistry, or whatever. Rich Cho was fired for essentially this reason last year, and Paul Allen caught heck for it.
  2. Inability to perform: This refers to health issues, and other things which prevent the coach from doing his duties.
  3. Misconduct: Insubordination, cheating, and other types of rulebreaking, whether of the team, the league, or society.
  4. Bad coach: The coach's performance is deficient in some fashion.
  5. Star player wants him gone: Many of the most productive coach-firings in league history have occurred when a star player throws a coach under the bus. Magic Johnson got Paul Westhead fired and replaced with Pat Riley. Here in Portland, Clyde Drexler undermined Mike Schuler, and he was replaced by Rick Adelman. Jordan did the same to Doug Collins (himself a fine coach), resulting in the promotion of Phil Jackson.
  6. Lost the locker room: This is a commonplace occurrence in the upper levels of team sports, especially the pros, where a team (or a plurality of its players) no longer respect the coach, and no longer put forth the effort to play for him. (Or her). Sometimes the mutiny can be more or less explicit, other times it is more subdued.

Now, on to Nate.

Items 1-3 clearly don't apply to Nate McMillan; so we'll focus on 4-6. Item number 4 is the subject of some dispute, naturally. McMillan is highly rated by his coaching peers, and regarded as highly knowledgeable on defense. He's a Team USA assistant (as is the now-departed d'Antoni), and I don't doubt that if Nate gets fired from Portland, he'll have quite a few attractive offers in the future. (I think, personally, he'd make a fine collegiate coach if he decides he's tired of the pros). That said, many fans have pointed out quite a few deficiencies in how the Blazers play, and of McMillan's team management. Some of this may well be player simply ignoring coaching/not trying (more on that in a bit), but avoiding situation #6 is an important skill in a head coach. (Quite a few coaches--Scott Skiles comes to mind--are well-known for having a short shelf-life, burning out locker rooms in a matter of years).

My thoughts? He's no Phil Jackson, certainly; by the same token, he's no PJ Carlesimo.

At this point, there is no evidence of #5. There are probably two players, max, on the Blazers that ought to have veto power on the coach: LaMarcus Aldridge, certainly, and possibly Nic Batum. Aldridge has yet to say anything publicly against Nate, and he's also one of the few players on the team who is giving his best every night. Batum's a more interesting case--he's an attractive young talent, albeit inconsistent. He's also a restricted free agent this summer. He's had a few run-ins with Nate over playing style; and many Nate critics are outraged Nic doesn't get more touches. OTOH, he's not a visible mutineer, either.

Which gives us to #6: It is probably a foregone conclusion that there is a significant faction on the team who wants Nate gone. Four names are frequently mentioned: Raymond Felton and Jamal Crawford are the main suspects, and Marcus Camby and Gerald Wallace also have had this finger pointed in their direction. Of course, two of these players have expiring contracts, and the other two have player options; zero of them is a key member of the Blazers' future.

Lost in this are the constant rumors that Paul Allen will sell the team--for many detractors, the fact that Nate is still the coach is evidence that something is in the works, and that the coaching decision will be left to the new owner.

So, given all of that, what to do?

Tomorrow is the trading deadline. A Jamal Crawford trade, as noted above, is rumored to be in the works. Nothing else appears to be imminent. The Crawford trade is rumored to be for some combination of Steve Blake and a future draft pick. Neither of these will be useful to the team's playoff hopes this years. At this point, Allen (or a new owner) has a decision to make before considering the coach:

  1. Tank the season, or try to make the playoffs? At this point, a coaching change is probably necessary if the playoffs remain a goal. If a mutiny is indeed occurring, and it probably is, the only short-term fix is to give the mutineers what they want. It's far easier to replace a coach than players; Bernie Bickerstaff won't screw up in an interim role (though I'm not sure he's the guy I'd want going forward), and a sacking might motivate the Blazers like they motivated the Knicks tonight. If, on the other hand, the Blazers decide to abandon the season, and get rid of the mutineers in the off-season, then they have more options.
  2. Fire Nate, or take become the Jazz/Steelers? If the Blazers decide to fire Nate, even if they abandon playoff hopes, obviously it should occur. If, on the other hand, the Blazers decide to KEEP Nate, then simply letting him twist in the wind will not suffice. Nor will a weasly-worded vote of confidence, which is usually a sign of a coach's impending doom.
    Instead, if the Blazers are to keep Nate, they need to do the following: a) Paul Allen or Larry Miller needs to wander into the locker room, make it clear who the coach is, and that anyone who doesn't like it can asks for a trade. b) Make it publicly known that this has occurred, and that Nate remains the coach, and that player mutinies will not be tolerated. A few pro teams--the Steelers with Bill Cowher, and the Jazz with Jerry Sloan come to mind--have made a point of bucking the coaching carousel, keeping the same coach on the bench for decades. Cowher won a Super Bowl with the Steelers, after which he retired; Sloan led the Jazz to two Finals appearances, but no rings. I'm not saying that McMillan is deserving of this level of support, but this is an option the team can take:

Regardless, however, something needs to be done.

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