2017 was a historic year for job security. All 30 NBA teams started and ended the 2016-17 season with the same name listed under the “Head Coach” position, despite some coaches making healthy arguments for dismissal.
The 2017-18 season was less fortuitous. Earl Watson, who was hanging on to his job by the finest silk thread last year became the first coach outed since the Memphis Grizzlies parted ways with David Joerger in 2016.
A few months later, just 101 games into his tenure, the Grizzlies parted ways with David Fizdale after a rash decision to bench star Marc Gasol during the fourth quarter of an eventual loss to the Brooklyn Nets.
In both cases, Watson and Fizdale only lasted just over a year leading their respective teams. Still, Watson signed to a three-year, $8 million deal, while Fizdale earned a four-year $10.2 million pick up. Though these contracts are a drop in the salary cap bucket in a league able to shell out over $200 million for its best players, Watson and Fizdale’s early exits beg the question: should coaches get shorter deals?
As the NBA continues to grow without bound, its players are lapping up higher and higher contracts each year. A Gallop poll published last October highlighted that NFL fandom has been steadily declining to the tune of 10% from 2012 to 2017. During that same time frame, individuals identifying as professional basketball fans increased by 3 percentage points, rivaling the growth of auto racing, ice hockey and soccer.
The disparity in growth across the NFL and NBA can in part be summarized by the television deals. The NFL secured a three-network, roughly $3 Billion per year deal in 2011 (active after 2013) that would take the league through the 2022 season, for a grand total of $27 Billion in revenue. For comparison, the NBA’s latest deal, penned in 2014 is set to bring in $24 Billion over 10 seasons from 3 networks.
Though the NFL has existed for over 25 more years than the NBA, the NBA’s boom in revenue has been met with an equivalent explosion of the salary cap. Over the last 7 seasons, the NBA cap has grown by $30 million (calculated in 2015 dollars), allowing for enormous deals for its top tier players.
Even with the increase in player payouts however, the league has seen more of its stars opting for the ever-popular one-and-one deals. Compensating both for the regular increases to the salary cap and the opportunity to switch teams at will, stars like LeBron James, Paul George and Kevin Durant are making the best of an incredible situation: they can chase down healthy deals without the fear of committing to a team that might not pan out.
Despite the increase in player fluidity, teams still swear by three-plus year contracts for their head coaches. While plenty of teams, like the Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks or Boston Celtics choose to keep the details of their coaching deals under lock and key, no team, according to a report by Other League, signed its sideline leader to a deal under three years in length.
For the record, a lot can change in 3 years. After firing Marc Jackson, the Steve Kerr and the Golden State Warriors ran to three straight finals appearances with effectively the same core. Three years ago, with Mike Budenholzer running the show, the Hawks won 60 games. This season Bud and the boys will be lucky to win 20. And to satisfy the rule of three, the Knicks were running a deformed interpretation of the triangle offense three years ago, and now, President (puppet master) Phil Jackson is nowhere to be found.
To say coaching positions in the NBA are volatile would be an understatement. Potential shifts in management make the job even harder. Former Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak was responsible for snagging Luke Walton away from the Warriors in 2016, but when Lakers owner Jeanie Buss terminated his employment in 2017, the management duo of Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson inherited the remaining four years of Walton’s five-year deal.
Should Walton and the Lakers fail to materialize a respectable record in the coming seasons, you can imagine Walton might not last the contract’s entirety. And with the potential for Paul George or another big name to flee to LA, Walton could be deemed incompatible with the additions, and find himself in the unemployment line.
That’s not to say that Walton, or any of the other 29 NBA coaches should fear for their jobs right this minute. Attributing a failed season to a coach is often a drastic move for a team searching for quick fixes. But given the driver’s seat could open up at a moment’s notice, and player’s loyalty is to their wallets and not their jerseys, the NBA might be better suited to signing its coaches to shorter deals.
Thoughts on coaching contracts? Let me know @bjtripleot on Twitter or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org