Long Gone Are the Days When NBA Coaches Had Any Real Power

Player influence, analytics, and the thirst for success are all undermining job security.

AP/Damian Dovarganes
JJ Redick speaks after being introduced as the new head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers NBA basketball team June 24, 2024, at El Segundo, Calif. AP/Damian Dovarganes

There was a time when the head coach served as the face of an NBA organization, the cornerstone of a team’s identity, and the architect of its long-term vision.

Think Pat Riley with the “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers, Phil Jackson during the Chicago Bulls dynasty, Chuck Daly with the “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons, and Gregg Popovich, the genius behind the San Antonio Spurs championships. Today, NBA coaches are more like a coat of fresh paint, lacking the influence and importance of their predecessors.

The Lakers introduced former NBA player turned broadcaster JJ Redick as their new head coach on Monday. General manager Rob Pelinka described his new hire as “someone who can be innovative, not just on the sidelines, but in shaping the entire organization.”

Those are lofty expectations for someone who has never been a head coach on any level, much less the highest in basketball. Perhaps that’s why the headline in Los Angeles Times suggested: “Lakers hiring JJ Redick shows how far they’ve fallen.”

While being a head coach in the NBA usually offers financial security, the job no longer comes with the authority to manage the players, games, and their coaching careers without potential repercussions. Too many NBA coaches are replaceable parts and convenient scapegoats when things go wrong. It’s easier to fire coaches than get rid of players.

Increased player influence, the analytics revolution, the expectations to win championships, and constant player movement handcuff NBA coaches from implementing a long-term program that develops players and a winning system. Even success doesn’t guarantee stability.

Mr. Redick succeeds Darvin Ham, who was fired on May 3 with two years remaining on his contract after going 99-86, winning the inaugural NBA In-Season Tournament last December, and leading the Lakers to the Western Conference Finals a year earlier.

Kenny Atkinson reportedly is the new head coach at Cleveland, replacing J.B. Bickerstaff, who was fired despite two straight playoff appearances and a 170-159 record in the regular season.

Monty Williams was fired by the Detroit Pistons earlier this month with five years and $65 million remaining on his contract. The Pistons had the worst record in the NBA last season, going 14-68, but Mr. Williams had the worst talent in the league and faced a long rebuilding job.

Detroit also named Trajan Langdon the new President of Basketball Operations, but has yet to announce their new head coach even though the NBA Draft begins on Wednesday. James Borrego, who spent four years as the Charlotte Hornets head coach, is considered the front-runner along with Sam Cassell.

Mr. Redick’s most relevant job qualification is his friendship with Lakers superstar LeBron James. They co-hosted the podcast “Mind the Game,” which debuted in March but reportedly will be discontinued. Mr. James, 39, can become an unrestricted free agent this summer, but it’s logical to suggest he’ll re-sign with the Lakers now that his “friend” is the head coach.

Mr. Redick insisted Mr. James was not involved in his hiring process. “LeBron and I did not talk about the Lakers job until Thursday afternoon about 30 minutes after I was offered the job,” Mr. Redick said at the introductory press conference. “And that was very intentional on both our parts.”

Believe that if you will, but increased player influence is undermining coaches’ authority. Mr. James, who was instrumental in the removal of David Blatt when he was at Cleveland, came under scrutiny for influencing the firing of Mr. Ham. True or not, the perception is there. Meanwhile, a star forward with the Lakers, Anthony Davis, was said to have actively supported the hiring of Mr. Redick.

Superstar players influencing coaching decisions isn’t new. Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Kobe Bryant had a say in who coached their teams. That’s not going to change as salaries skyrocket and players leverage their talent for a voice in organizational matters.

A few coaches have earned the highest measure of respect: Mr. Popovich, Erik Spoelstra, Doc Rivers, Michael Malone, Jason Kidd, Rick Carlisle, and Tom Thibodeau will coach somewhere until they choose not to.  For everyone else, it’s difficult to rule with an iron fist. Mike Budenholzer coached the 2021 Milwaukee Bucks to their first NBA Championship in 50 years and was fired in May 2023.

Perhaps that’s why the Lakers’ first choice, Dan Hurley, turned down a four-year $70 million offer to stay at UConn and attempt to win a third-straight NCAA Championship. In the majority of cases, a head coach in college is the undisputed leader of his or her program.

NBA coaches, meanwhile, find themselves navigating franchises where their influence is under constant threat from players, others in the organization, and the press. Mr. Redick’s goal is to change that trend or become another casualty of the current NBA landscape.

The New York Sun

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