In 2013 and 2014, the NBA went through an unprecedented upheaval in the coaching ranks as 21 head coaches were fired.
It has long been a league truth that the coach is always the first to get blamed. The owner can't be fired; the general manager doesn't want to fire himself; and top players generally hold more sway in some organizations than the coach. None of these circumstances is likely to change anytime soon, so the coaching carousel will keep spinning.
The question for now, though, is whether the bloodletting in those two seasons will cause any behavioral changes. Because the data is in and the coaching changes from that wild spate don't look as if they were the panacea.
At the moment, this seems like something a team such as the Phoenix Suns is wrestling with. Facing a terrible slump, there have already been serious internal discussions about whether to fire coach Jeff Hornacek. After the team lost a ninth straight game Sunday to the Los Angeles Lakers and trailed by as much as 38 points in the process, the buzzards are circling again.
But will making a change help? Recent results say not likely.
Of those 21 coaching changes made in the course of those two bloody years, only nine teams improved the next season; 10 got worse, and two stayed flat. It might satisfy fans and some media members when a coach is let go, but the wide-scale fallout doesn't often seem fully considered. Looking back, many have gone off script.
Now there are circumstances involved in a number like that. The Philadelphia 76ers, for example, started a massive rebuild after Doug Collins' departure -- so, naturally, they sagged. The Cleveland Cavaliers, who were one of the teams that made coaching changes in 2013 and 2014, landed LeBron James -- so, naturally, they improved. Every case has its unique factors.
On the whole, however, the picture this paints should be informative to teams considering joining the turnover ranks. The NBA has long been a copycat league, but so often the chasing of the outlier -- Steve Kerr turning the Golden State Warriors into champions after the semi-controversial firing of Mark Jackson -- instead turns into a regression to the mean. This happened with coaching moves in places such as Denver, New York, the Lakers, Memphis and Brooklyn, to name a few from the guillotine class of 2013-14.
A theme of this season has been the Eastern Conference's collective rise compared with the Western Conference's decline. A group of experts could be empaneled to review these developments at length, or it could simply be explained with a "well, everything is cyclical" comment. Both have taken place in various forms already.
But what if it's pointed out that, since 2013, 13 of the 15 West teams have made a coaching change. The 2013 playoffs saw a West team with 43 wins, Utah, not making the postseason and an East team with 38 wins, Milwaukee, making it in.
There's little doubt the intense competition in the West has led to some impatience and more changes. But a case could be made that the turnover has contributed to the backslide in the West. It might not be fair to judge this until the end of the regular season, but, as of now, nine of the 13 teams that made coaching changes in the West are winning at a lower rate than in 2013.
This was the abyss the Houston Rockets had to look into earlier this season when they had a coaching decision to make. Previously the Rockets had been one of the few teams that adhered to continuity, but they made the move anyway, firing Kevin McHale, the coach who led them to the conference finals last season. Right now, the Rockets are part of the downside of that overall statistic. If it makes them feel any better, they're in the majority.
"If Sarver is right and the millennials are the picture of instant gratification, then what does that make the owners who keep firing their coaches?"
The two teams in the West that didn't change coaches, Dallas and San Antonio -- although the Spurs sort of set the curve for everything -- actually are winning at a better rate at the moment than they did in the 2012-13 season. It is remarkable that, with everything in the Spurs' sphere that their competitors attempt to mimic or steal, their continuity seems to be least imitated.
Which brings us back to the Suns. Owner Robert Sarver made waves over the weekend when, in an interview with The Arizona Republic, he blamed players' issues on dealing with setbacks as a flaw of the millennial generation. If Sarver is right and the millennials are the picture of instant gratification, what does that make the owners who keep firing their coaches?
Which also brings it back to the Suns. People familiar with their thinking say they truly like Hornacek and don't want to make a move on him. The Suns, oddly, attempted to try to quell the lust for blood by firing two of Hornacek's assistants after an embarrassing loss to the Philadelphia 76ers last week. But things have gotten worse, as the Suns were just humbled by two of the three teams in the league that have worse records than they do and Eric Bledsoe has been lost for the season with a knee injury. Hornacek is trying everything, rolling out new starting lineups and even trying to play two centers at the same time in the sort of death rattle many coaches before him have fallen into.
Players appear to be challenging Hornacek, as Markieff Morris did by throwing a towel at him out of frustration.. It's not surprising. Phoenix players can see, just like everyone else in the current era, that almost every coach is on his way out shortly after he comes in.
And if there is any end to that trend, it's not currently in sight.