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The Shortest Leash in Sports


         Since the NBA regular season has ended, there have been some major shakeups to the league’s head coaching positions, with three big names being let go by their prior teams: Monty Williams (Phoenix Suns), Mike Budenholzer (Milwaukee Bucks), and Nick Nurse (Toronto Raptors). The one thing in common between these three? All of these coaches either went to or won the NBA Finals in the last four years. The NBA Coach's Guide to Getting Fired

Nick Nurse formerly of the Toronto Raptors won an NBA Finals in 2019 while most of the league doubted him and Toronto that year. Mike Budenholzer and Milwaukee won the 2021-2022 NBA Finals due to some elite coaching and adjustments throughout the playoffs. Monty Williams took the Suns to the NBA Finals in the 2021-2022 season while also winning coach of the year. After much success in less than half a decade, all three of these men are now out of jobs.

         So what went wrong? Let’s start with Nick Nurse and how he went from being on the top of the world in 2019 to being kicked to the curb just four short years later. Before the 2018-2019 season began, Toronto made a franchise-altering move, trading franchise great Demar Derozan to San Antonio in exchange for the elite defensive talent of Kawhi Leonard. Leonard would lead the Raptors to their first-ever NBA Finals victory which would be celebrated all over Canada and the NBA. Adding Leonard paired with an already stacked roster made Nick Nurse’s job easier but he still did, however, have some superb game plans to beat the leagues’ best. Kawhi Leonard would leave that summer after winning the championship, throwing a wrench in Toronto’s plans. Ever since Leonard’s departure, Toronto has failed to pick up the pieces and has missed the playoffs two of the last four years.

        The roster is in an odd spot with some young talent finally blossoming (Scottie Barnes, Gary Trent, O.G. Anunoby) combined with older vets producing (Fred Van Vleet, Pascal Siakam) but their ceiling as a team is extremely limited. The Raptors have been mediocre at best and they must decide to either, commit to a rebuild and trade away those vets and strictly go younger or buy-in all the way in, by adding a superstar; however, they failed to make either of those decisions so the next best option was to try someone else out at head coach. Nick Nurse is a good coach and will land on his feet with another team shortly.

            Monty Williams is a unique case as I believe he’s been dealt an unfair hand especially as of late. The Phoenix Suns were right on the doorstep of greatness in 2021 until Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks crushed their hopes and dreams in six games in the NBA Finals. The following year, Phoenix would lose in the second round of the playoffs after winning 64 games and being the 1 seed in the Western Conference. The Suns would look to make some changes going into last summer by letting former 1st overall pick Deandre Ayton test free agency, Ayton would be offered a 4-year 133 million dollar contract sheet by the Indiana Pacers which the Suns surprisingly matched. Heading into this 2023 season, Phoenix’s roster seemed jumbled and Monty Williams was the one force steadying the ship with his calm and cool presence; however, the Suns would catch the injury bug with star players such as Devin Booker and Chris Paul missing 20+ games this season.

       While Booker and Paul missed games, two players stepped up and kept Phoenix’s playoff hopes alive: Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson. These two were rock solid and kept the Suns top five in the Western Conference. Nonetheless, the Phoenix front office saw this opportunity and decided they wanted to cash out on Bridges and Johnson.

      On February 9th, Phoenix wound up trading Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, Jae Crowder, four first-round picks, and a 2028 draft swap for former league MVP and superstar Kevin Durant. Phoenix was right there in 2021 almost winning a championship with homegrown talent and true veteran leaders and here they are two years later trying to take the shortcut by trading for a superstar player, who is now 34 years old. The Suns would end the regular season on a heater going 8-0 with Kevin Durant in the lineup and rolled into the playoffs as the four seed. Phoenix would rely heavily on Kevin Durant and Devin Booker throughout their short playoff stint which would end up leading to their ultimate demise.

       Phoenix got by an injury-riddled LA Clippers team in five games but was brought back to reality when they faced the Denver Nuggets in the second round. This is where the Sun’s biggest weakness was exposed: depth. The Nuggets would win this series in six games due to their extreme depth and ability to play as a team, unlike Phoenix and their now razor-thin roster. On paper, adding Kevin Durant was seen as putting the Suns over the top but in reality, it only made their team heavily reliant on two players and shortened their championship window. After Phoenix’s season was cut short, the front office needed a scapegoat and here was Monty Williams, just two years removed from coach of the year and a finals appearance, Williams seemed to fit the bill for who to point the finger at. Williams and Phoenix parted ways early last week and the only reasoning I can come up with for this firing is that the Suns front office believes it is easier to let their coach go compared to trying to overhaul a flawed roster in one off-season. Williams will be a hot coaching candidate for the other 29 NBA teams this summer. Phoenix Suns fire Monty Williams, last season's NBA Coach of the Year | CNN


That brings us to probably the most surprising fire of the big three in Mike Budenholzer. Budenholzer is just two years removed from winning a championship combined with being the one seed in an extremely competitive Eastern Conference this season and then getting fired is insane. Milwaukee went to the Eastern Conference Finals last year before losing to a better-built team in the Boston Celtics in seven games. Expectations however remained high for the Bucks just two years removed from winning the NBA Finals and they wanted to write some wrongs heading into the 2022-2023 season and that they did. Milwaukee won 58 games with an unorthodox style of play and roster of misfits, they proved doubters wrong all regular season. Many fans had them pegged as the team to beat heading into the playoffs.

Nothing of course goes to plan and the Bucks as the 1 seed in the East would lose in the first round of playoffs to the Miami Heat in just five games. No one besides Heat fans saw this upset brewing but with Milwaukee’s best player Giannis Antetokounmpo getting injured in game one of the series, he missed both games two and three and was limited in game four. This aspect is not talked about enough as the two-time MVP and arguably the best basketball player in the world only playing ninety minutes this series and people still blaming Budenholzer is absurd to me.

        As a coach when you are without your best player you can make all the adjustments you want but nothing can truly replace a guy like Antetokounmpo. Another glaring issue with Milwaukee is their age as a team. The average age of a player on the Bucks is 30.7 years old, which is a massive red flag from a numbers standpoint. Milwaukee was built somewhat faulty in that they had some star pieces initially but similarly to Phoenix they got greedy and made a massive trade. However, this trade helped the Bucks win a championship so some will argue that one championship makes any trade worth it which is fair. In 2020, Milwaukee traded two unprotected first-round draft picks in 2025 and 2027 to the Pelicans, plus the rights to swap first-round picks in 2024 and 2026. The Bucks also gave up guards Eric Bledsoe and George Hill in the trade. Jrue Holiday Trade, Contract Saved Bucks Season, Turned the NBA Finals.

         This trade limited Milwaukee’s future by taking away multiple years of high draft capital combined with shipping out veteran players which in turn puts more stress and pressure on the head coach and star players. Milwaukee is in between a rock and a hard place with difficult roster decisions to be made in the coming months and many wonder if they should look to get younger and re-tool around Giannis which in turn would waste his prime years or should they look to run it back with the same aging core? Once again, Mike Budenholzer was primarily not at fault in this scenario, just a series of unfortunate events that most times ends up with head coaches getting canned.

So why do NBA head coaches have such short leashes? I believe it is a mix of immense expectations paired with front offices not taking the blame themselves. Today’s NBA has become a league of the “what have you done for me recently” dialogue which is completely unfair to coaches but that’s what it has developed into, unfortunately. The second piece to that is that NBA front offices never want to admit they are wrong and they’d rather save their job rather than do what is best for the actual team and franchise itself. It is much more common to see head coaches fired in the NBA compared to general managers and front-office members.

 I believe this is a slippery slope because if these head coaches are not winning championships every year, they expect to be fired which in turn makes them very selective when picking where to coach their next team. If they think the pressure is too high, they won’t even consider taking coaching positions for certain teams.


Editor: Joan Andrew Ramadan

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