When the Phoenix Suns fired Earl Watson after three humbling losses to start the season, it brought an end to a remarkable stretch of stability in a famously volatile profession.
The N.B.A. went a full 532 days without one of its head coaches being dismissed, stretching from Dave Joerger’s ouster by the Memphis Grizzlies on May 7, 2016, to Watson’s demise on Sunday.
It’s a number as shocking, in its own way, as the sight of six participants from last February’s All-Star Game — as well as a perennial All-Star in Chris Paul who missed that game through injury — changing teams in the zaniest of N.B.A. off-seasons.
The 2016-17 season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, was the league’s first without an in-season coaching change since 1970-71, when the N.B.A. fielded only 17 teams, compared with its current 30.
The summer after last season also featured zero firings, making the 2017-18 campaign this league’s first since 1975-76 in which every coach who began the new season finished the previous season, according to Elias.
There are some reasonable explanations to account for such an unusually favorable coaching climate. A whopping 14 teams introduced new coaches to start the 2013-14 season. Nine teams began the 2014-15 season with new coaches, followed by six new hires entering 2015-16 and 10 more to open last season. A period of relative calm after that amount of turnover was perhaps inevitable.
Throw in the presence of a few long-tenured coaches who have copious amounts of job security — namely San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, Miami’s Erik Spoelstra and Dallas’ Rick Carlisle — and it gets easier to understand why openings have been scarce lately.
Carlisle, who also serves as president of the N.B.A. Coaches Association, has his own theory, insisting that the recent tranquillity on league benches isn’t as fluky as it might seem.
“The caliber of coaching in the league right now is excellent from top to bottom,” Carlisle said in a phone interview. “And owners have clearly come to the accurate conclusion that it’s important to commit to a coach, because there’s going to be more player movement under the rules in the new C.B.A. It’s important for teams to have as much continuity as they can.”
Of course, after Phoenix moved so swiftly in dumping Watson in the wake of its humiliating start, there will understandably be fears that a regression to the mean looms and more firings are on the way. The N.B.A. is certainly due for some upheaval in this area, especially after an off-season that failed to deliver its usual surprise coaching change (or three).
Who’s next? With Chicago having fully entered rebuilding mode and presumably taking some heat off the embattled Fred Hoiberg, uncertainty shrouds the future of the Knicks’ Jeff Hornacek, largely because the executive who hired Hornacek in June 2016 — Phil Jackson — is already gone.
Another coach to watch is Philadelphia’s Brett Brown, who is burdened with playoff expectations for the first time in his five seasons with the 76ers and faced his own 0-3 start before Monday night’s win at Detroit.
The Pelicans have missed the playoffs in Alvin Gentry’s first two seasons, which naturally invites pressure, but remember that Gentry is tasked with the challenge of trying to win with a team built around two big men — Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins — at a time when small ball and 3-point shooting reign.
The circumstances of Watson’s situation in Phoenix make it something of an outlier regardless. The Suns have left the distinct impression that they aren’t really trying to win games, but rather are focused instead on asset collection and player development with a roster that features six players aged 21 or younger. It hasn’t helped that the progress of its recent top draft packs, apart from Devin Booker, has been painfully slow.
The closest thing to a sense of anticipation Phoenix could thus boast coming into the season was the widespread belief that it will try to trade guard Eric Bledsoe and veteran center Tyson Chandler before the league’s Feb. 8 trade deadline.
Watson, 38, earned the full-time job despite posting an underwhelming 9-24 record as interim coach after Phoenix fired Hornacek just past the midpoint of the 2015-16 season — in what was Watson’s first season on an N.B.A. bench as an assistant. Amid a seven-season playoff drought and mounting local frustrations with the tenure of Suns owner Robert Sarver, it often seemed as though Watson had the job merely as a placeholder.
What ended Watson’s tenure as head coach — beyond reports of discord between him and general manager Ryan McDonough — was the Suns’ alarming lack of competitiveness so early in the season. They were beaten by 48 points at home by a Portland team playing without the suspended C.J. McCollum in the season opener, then absorbed a 42-point pounding in Los Angeles against the Clippers one night after allowing 132 points in a loss to the Lakers.
The Suns now turn to the experienced Jay Triano, who served as the head coach of the Toronto Raptors for two-plus seasons in addition to multiple stints in charge of the Canadian national team. Triano takes over the league’s youngest collection of players, with an average age of just 24.5 as of opening night, looking to extract more effort and discipline from this group while management actively tries to find a new home for Bledsoe.
As for Watson’s removal, it will not go down as the fastest in N.B.A. history. In 1971-72, following that 1970-71 campaign devoid of firings, Dolph Schayes was let go by the Buffalo Braves after just one game.
It’s the smallest of consolations for Watson, who departs with an unsightly record of 33-85 — and the knowledge that even the most friendly environment in his craft for decades couldn’t save him.
Published at Tue, 24 Oct 2017 09:00:27 +0000