With 2008-09 Coach of the Year Mike Brown getting fired Monday, the COY Curse thing has become a hot topic of conversation. The last four Coach of the Year winners were fired within two seasons of winning the award. Avery Johnson won the award for 2005-06 and was fired in 2008. Sam Mitchell won in 2006-07 and was fired in 2008. Byron Scott won in 2007-08 and then fired in 2009. Mike Brown won the 2008-09 award and was axed this week. So who’s the dead man walking that won the 2009-10 Coach of the Year? OH CRAP.
Obviously, nobody sees any potential for Scott Brooks to get into hot water. Honestly, it’s pretty much inconceivable. I’m sitting here trying to conceive it, and I can’t. Brooks is darn near as popular as the highest profile players. He’s excellent with the media, he’s kind and he’s a pretty darn good coach. He fits the culture and philosophy of the franchise perfectly. But fanbases and front offices sour on coaches faster than a gallon of two percent left on the front porch. When things start to go bad, the coach is always the one that gets fingered for being the guy that screwed it all up.
But it is a little weird to see it happen so quickly. Heck, Mike Brown won Coach of the Year just one year ago. He was named the NBA’s best coach. As in, considering all other options in the league, Mike Brown outcoached every single one of them. And yet, he got canned.
So why does the axe come down on these Coaches of the Year? Here’s my theory: They’ve raised the bar for themselves to a level where expectations get slightly ridiculous. Consider Brown who captained the Cavs to two straight 60-win seasons and is the most successful coach in franchise history. He was fired because “he” didn’t get the job done in the postseason. The team performed outstandingly in the regular season but fell flat when the games really mattered. So he got the boot. Bring in the next guy that can win the big games, management thought. And when you win in the regular season, it’s expected that you win in the postseason. If you can win in one environment, you should be able to win in the other. And when you don’t, something obviously has to be wrong. It’s immediately assumed they can’t win the big one so somebody has to be brought in that can.
That’s why Brown was fired. It’s why Mike Woodson was fired. It’s why countless head men get roasted. The reality is, Coach of the Year really means very little. It’s a nice award and a nice honor. It’s supposed to symbolize the highest individual achievement for a coach. You did an amazing job of coaching, the team won a lot, so therefore you must be rewarded. Typically, coaches that champion “turnaround” seasons have the best success. But our culture – and especially sports culture – is a what-have-you-done-for-me-NOW group. We don’t care about lately. We want success NOW. How Utah has gotten away with hanging in there with Jerry Sloan year after year is beyond me. I assume it’s because he was sort of grandfathered in as a coaching legend and most of the young fanbase would revolt if Sloan were fired. Sloan hasn’t won anything. He’s famously come up short multiple times. But he’s an excellent coach and Jazz management understands that. They aren’t going to find someone better, so why change? Bill Cowher is another example and imagine the satisfaction when he won the Super Bowl finally.
So obviously, now Scott Brooks is the only Coach of the Year left standing. And next season, expectations will be lifted for him and his team. Not just in the regular season. But the postseason. Win 50 games again and get to the playoffs? Good job. But now it’s time to get out of the first round. If you don’t, we’ll put you on the hot seat. It sounds a little unreasonable today, but let’s say the Thunder wins 53 games next year. They draw the four-seed in the West and lose in the first round to a quality team. Then in 2012 when the Thunder’s supposed to REALLY compete, they start slowly. Something like 15-15 around Christmas time. Couldn’t you see Brooks getting fired for that? I could. I definitely don’t agree with it, but I could see it.
Now of course in Mike Brown’s case, when you’ve got great players you’re naturally going to win. And while the players were largely responsible for the 61 regular season wins, the coach is almost always most responsible for the playoff losses. It’s the way sports work and everyone knows it. Coaches don’t gripe about it because it’s just the way it is. And that will be the circumstance for Brooks. He’s got one of the most gifted rosters in the league. They should mature into big time winners. And Brooks is supposed to be the man that oversees that and makes sure it happens.
I’m a fan of franchise continuity. I think if a guy is winning and things are going well, there’s no reason to change. Most moves are done to satisfy and overzealous, hungry fanbase that demands answers NOW for recent failures. But knee-jerking is never good for anyone.
So if Oklahoma City crosses a similar path in two years with Scott Brooks, I hope the Thunder defer to good faith in Coach Scotty. I hope we go the Utah Jazz, Pittsburgh Steelers route. The Thunder’s already built a pretty model franchise that prides itself on doing everything perfectly perfect and I don’t see any reason why knee-jerking would come into the equation. Sam Presti hasn’t done that with cap money or draft picks, so I don’t see why he’d start with his Coach of the Year.
Now of course, Coach Scotty could just go ahead and lead the Thunder to an NBA Finals or maybe even a championship and take care of this problem before it even happens too…