Winning’s not enough to keep an NBA coaching job

The NBA concluded the 2017-18 regular season with six of the 30 head coaches Black, and four of them guided teams to post-season berths. But a Black minus-plus hiring effect has recently taken place.

J.B. Bickerstaff (Memphis), David Fizdale (New York) and Lloyd Pierce (Atlanta) all were hired. Then last week, a day after he was voted coach of the year by his peers, Dwane Casey was canned by Toronto, who was the Eastern Conference’s top seed and reached the second round before being swept by Cleveland.

Casey got fired because his two stars lack heart, and you can’t teach heart. His players punked out against the Cavs’ LeBron James, who virtually singlehandedly took the Raptors out in four straight games. The team axed the franchise’s winningest coach after seven seasons, but his boss, the one who signed the players who can’t get it done, takes no blame at all.

“He was instrumental in creating the identity and culture of who we are as a team, and we are proud of that,” Toronto GM Masai Ujiri said of Casey in a statement. “We wish him nothing but the best in the future.”

Dwane Casey
Dwane Casey Charles Hallman/MSR News

Ujiri’s blame deflection move sent shock waves throughout the league’s coaching fraternity. Boston’s Brad Stevens called Casey “a role model for a lot of coaches.” Ty Lue of Cleveland said, “His accolades speak for themselves… He gets Coach of the Year and then you get fired the next day. That’s crazy.”

Casey and Sam Mitchell, unfortunately, share more than the same skin color: Both are Toronto’s two winningest coaches and both got fired after winning best coaching honors. They got canned by the Timberwolves as well. Both men deserved better treatment and should be still coaching somewhere in the NBA.

Bickerstaff last month was promoted from interim coach to head coach at Memphis. “You hate to see someone I consider a great friend lose his job,” he told me about taking over for Fizdale, who was unceremoniously fired barely a month into the season. “You got to get past that emotion first, and that’s very difficult. Then you have to make adjustments on the fly without practice time.”

J.B. Bickerstaff Charles Hallman/MSR News

He came to Memphis a season ago after five seasons (2011-16) with Houston, first as assistant coach, then named interim coach early in the 2015-16 season and guiding the Rockets to a 37-34 record and a playoff berth. Bickerstaff previously was an assistant coach for four seasons in Minnesota (2007-11) and three seasons in Charlotte (2004-07), where in 2004-05 he was the NBA’s youngest assistant coach at age 25.

Despite the Grizzlies finishing with one of the NBA’s worst records, and no assurance that Bickerstaff would be promoted, the players nonetheless played hard for him. We talked with him after a big road win over the playoff-contending Wolves.

“We need to develop an identity we want for the future,” Bickerstaff explained. “I hope to set a standard of the culture we want to have, the style of play we want to play, the type of people we want to have in our program. You want to finish as strong as you possibly can and lay some foundation for the coming season.”

Let’s hope Bickerstaff gets the time and tools to do his job, which is winning, getting to the playoffs, and going as far as you can once there. But as we have seen in what happened to Casey, winning isn’t enough.