HOUSTON -- Friday morning started pretty calmly with a trade between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Houston Rockets. It was a good deal for everybody, sending Josh Smith, considered a lout on the West Coast, back to a place where he’s a beloved figure.
Then Friday afternoon struck and the Cleveland Cavaliers shook up the NBA, firing David Blatt with a 30-11 record, the best in the Eastern Conference.
Rick Carlisle, the Dallas Mavericks' coach, was pretty direct when discussing the firing: “I’m embarrassed for our league that something like this could happen. It’s just bizarre.”
It's days like these that make you wonder if Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff thinks he made the right choice to become a coach. As he played college ball at Minnesota, he told his parents he wanted to get into coaching after two right leg operations ended any hopes of a career on the floor as a player.
“My mom told me to be a doctor,” Bickerstaff said. “My dad told me to stick with college and here I am. I’m a good listener.”
J.B. Bickerstaff’s dad is Bernie Bickerstaff, a man who has been fired a few times in the coaching business.
The son has seen up close just how treacherous this coaching profession can be. If the players don’t vibe with the coach, he’s gone. Ask Kevin McHale, the man who led the Rockets to the Western Conference finals last season. He was fired after 11 games, replaced by Bickerstaff, because the players tuned him out. It was these same players who loved playing for him during a playoff run to the conference finals.
GM Daryl Morey had seen enough after those 11 games, and he along with owner Leslie Alexander made the painful decision to fire McHale.
With Bickerstaff, the Rockets have played better (18-15) overall, yet their place in the standings remains among the bottom of the West’s playoff teams.
Bickerstaff understands the business: If he doesn’t get the Rockets into a more favorable position in the standings and possibly a playoff appearance into the second round, he might need to sharpen up his résumé, too.
“For me, it’s my whole life this is what I’ve seen,” he said. “I’ve lived this life for a long time and rightly, wrongly, fairly, unjustly people are fired and it happens. Very few people get to live the Jerry Sloan or [Gregg] Popovich lifestyle. You have a time and your time as soon as you get there. It’s like the hourglass -- your time is ticking, so you understand that going into it. Your responsibility is to do the best job that you possibly can, and if that decision has to happen, make it a very difficult decision for someone. That’s all you can hope for.”
It doesn’t make life easy for a coach. Between just trying to win games, and dealing with players, media, fans and front offices, the job is a grind.
Just take the final four of the NBA playoffs last season: Two of the coaches involved, Blatt and McHale, are no longer coaching their teams.
Houston’s run to the conference finals increased expectations, and when things weren’t headed in that direction, the Rockets made a change.
“It is a tough business, there is no doubt about that,” said Bucks interim coach Joe Prunty, running the show until Jason Kidd returns next week from hip surgery. “I was very surprised when I saw that. I don’t know the inner workings or what happened on a day-to-day basis with other organizations -- it’s part of what happens in this industry.”
Bickerstaff wouldn’t change his given profession despite how loyalty wanes with every losing streak. Mom wanted him to be Dr. Bickerstaff the orthopedic surgeon. Dad just wanted him to get through school.
Instead he’s here, mixing and matching lineups. He started Corey Brewer Friday night against the bigger Milwaukee Bucks because he had just one healthy big man, Montrezl Harrell, and he’s nursing a shoulder contusion.
As he talked with reporters at pregame, Bickerstaff wasn’t sure if Smith would play because he didn't know if he had taken his physical yet.
Adjustments needed to occur, and for him as the youngest coach in the league at age 36, two years younger than Tyronn Lue, who took over for Blatt, this is a job in which job security isn't as secure as it used to be.
Just ask Blatt.
“It’s tough, you don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors,” Bickerstaff said. “I don’t like to talk about things I don’t know. In general, anytime you see someone you have some sort of relationship with or you know or worked with, it's tough to see a guy lose their job, no matter what it is. So it’s tough, but I think he’s done enough to prove he can work in this league and I’m sure somebody else will give him an opportunity to do so.”