Impatient Lakers and Patient Spurs

Mike Brown was relieved of his coaching duties by the Los Angeles Lakers because the team was playing poorly and underperforming during the first 6% of the 2012-2013 season.  Brown had coached the Lakers for one season prior to winning just one of the team’s first five games this year.  Brown’s boss General Manager Mitch Kupchak said:

The bottom line is that the team was not winning at the pace that we expected this team to win and we didn’t see improvement.  After five games, we just felt that we weren’t winning.  We made a decision. Maybe it would have changed a month or three months down the road, but with this team we didn’t want to wait three months and then find out it wasn’t going to change.

The Lakers have high expectations after acquiring veterans Dwight Howard and Steve Nash and want to win immediately with aging superstar Kobe Bryant.  The Lakers also have an unmatched history of achievement in professional sports having appeared in 47% (31 of 66) of all the NBA Finals ever held.  In addition Los Angeles is a city without an NFL franchise so the Lakers are the hottest ticket in town.  If this year’s team doesn’t win millions of fans will blame the failure on poor management and coaching.  It is not surprising that the Buss family, which owns the Lakers, is impatient.

As it turns out almost all NBA teams are impatient with their coaches even when compared to other sports.  The median and mean years of tenure of head coaches in the NBA, the NFL and Division I college basketball coaches heading in to the seasons this fall are:

  • NBA: median tenure is 2 years and mean tenure is 2.61 years
  • NFL: median tenure is 3 years and mean tenure is 4.09 years
  • NCAA Division I Basketball: median tenure is 3 years and mean tenure is 5.03 years

 The tenure distribution is highly skewed because of San Antonio coach Greg Popovich who has coached the Spurs for over 15 seasons.  Without Popovich, whose coaching tenure is 6.7 standard deviations above the average for the rest of the NBA, mean coaching tenure would be only 2.14 years.   Put somewhat differently, Popovich alone is responsible for 20% of all of the head coaching experience (with their current team) among NBA coaches.  The comparison between the Spurs and Lakers is important because each team has brought in different groups of veteran players to fit in with a core of superstars who remain from one season to the next.  In some seasons it takes longer for the new veteran players to fit in with the team.  It is hard to imagine that Spurs owner Peter Holt or the team’s fans would panic if the team started a season with only one win in its first five games.

Most professional sports team owners are impatient.  Head coaches tend to have less time to achieve success than management in less visible organizations.  The median tenure in management occupations in the U.S. is 6.3 years, but few professional team owners would give a coaching staff six seasons to achieve success.  It is not clear, however, that changing coaches is the most effective way to maintain excellence.  The Lakers have made 11 coaching changes in the 22 years since Pat Riley left as head coach, once every two years (about the NBA average).  The small market Spurs have not changed coaches since 1996 after making twelve changes over the previous two decades.  In the NFL the small market Pittsburgh Steelers have won consistently with three coaches in the past 43 years.

Coaches are on the hot seat more in larger markets where owners have paid millions of dollars for high-priced athletes whose careers are relatively short.  The owners of franchises in San Antonio and Pittsburgh make fewer coaching changes than owners in New York and Los Angeles.  Nonetheless, Mike Brown’s firing after coaching five games with many newly acquired players sets a new standard for impatience in the NBA.

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