Coach of the Year Fired: George Karl and History

Back in May, Denver coach George Karl won the NBA’s Red Auerbach Trophy, the award given to the association’s best coach, as selected by a panel of sportswriters. Within a month, the Nuggets fired Karl.

It wasn’t a case of things going south for the Nuggets; if anything, they surpassed expectations this year. Despite lacking a superstar player, the Nuggets had a 57-win season. Karl’s team rotations were heavy on young talent like Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried and the mercurial/previously profiled JaVale McGee. The Nuggets finished with the third-best record in their conference, ripped off a 15-game win streak and were arguably the league’s most exciting team to watch.

But surely, a first-round series exit isn’t enough to fire a coach over, is it? After all: Karl just won the NBA’s Coach of the Year award. Doesn’t that count for something? Maybe not. If anything, the award’s come to signify one of those old lines sportswriters love to trot out: coaches are hired to be fired.

A list of recent winners of the award is a little like reading a list of recently fired coaches. Among the several bona fide great coaches – Gregg Popovich, Tom Thibodeau and Karl – are several people who lost their gigs shortly after. Sometimes more than once.

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Who can forget Mike Brown’s win in 2009, when the Cleveland Cavaliers went 66-16? A little over a year later, Brown was canned when the Cavaliers slipped to 61 wins and one LeBron James fled to Miami. A little while later, Brown went to Los Angeles and lasted a little less than 82 games, getting fired five games into this past season.

Or what about Avery Johnson, winner of the 2006 award? That season, his Mavericks team went all the way to the NBA Finals, losing a close series to Miami. The next year, they ripped off 67 wins, best in the NBA by a mile. Barely two years after winning the award, Dallas fired Johnson. More recently, he went to the Nets, where he was let go just after being named Coach of the Month in November.

The list goes on and on. Byron Scott won the award in 2008 with a New Orleans team that won 56 games. He was fired in November of 2009, not even 10 games into the season. And according to that 2009 Marc Stein story, he nearly lost his job the previous spring. Later, Scott moved to Cleveland, taking over for another former Coach of the Year. He was fired this past spring.

One puzzling moment came with Toronto’s Sam Mitchell won the award in 2007, when the Raptors won 47 games and the Atlantic Division title. It wasn’t meant to be: Toronto flamed out in the first round against old nemesis Vince Carter and the New Jersey Nets. Mitchell lasted a little over a year longer with the team, getting fired early in the 2008-09 season. He hasn’t worked since, an interesting accomplishment for a Coach of the Year.

Perhaps most infamous is the time Rick Carlisle won. In 2002, his first season as a coach, his Pistons went 50-32, winning their division. This was a good team: Ben Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse were in their primes and Jon Berry had his best season by a country mile. The next year, they were even better: they finished with an identical record, but went on a deep postseason run, losing in the conference finals. They lost Stackhouse, but had huge seasons from Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton. Clearly, this was a team on the rise.

And what happened? The Pistons fired Carlisle, replacing him with Larry Brown and went to back-to-back NBA Finals, winning in 2004 and losing in seven games the next June. Carlisle went on to coach Dallas, replacing another Coach of the Year winner, and won a title in 2010. Unlike Scott, Brown, Karl, Johnson or Mitchell, he still has a job.

So, something has to be at work here, right? Well, maybe not. If you think winning the CotY award is a kiss of death in the NBA, you best slow your roll.

Like all awards handed out by a panel of sportswriters, and especially like said awards, the Red Auerbach trophy is not indicative of actually being the best coach in the league at any point. If it were, Phil Jackson would’ve won more than once, Popovich more than twice and Mike D’Antoni not even once.

If the award represents anything, it represents that thing sportswriters love most of all: narrative. It means the coach has a great story behind them and winning it would make for a great column. It often means the winner is the coach who defied expectations, who had a memorable regular season or was able to take credit for a transcendent player having an otherworldly season. That’s how D’Antoni, Mitchell and Brown respectively won their awards. And why they were out of work shortly afterwards, too.

It’s like the line you see on investment banking ads: past performance is not an indicator of future success. Just because the Raptors came out of nowhere to win their division in 2007 doesn’t mean Mitchell is a great coach or that the team is going places. Indeed, Toronto fell apart the next season and hasn’t even sniffed the playoffs since.

With Karl, things are a little different. The Nuggets had a very good season, but they’re a team changing direction. Their GM, Masai Ujiri left for a job in Toronto and team vice president Pete D’Alessandro has gone to Sacramento. It’s a similar situation to what is happening with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers: a new GM is coming to Denver and when he gets there, he’s going to bring in the coach he wants.

In other words: it’s nothing personal, Karl. It’s strictly business.

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