The NBA head coaching profession is among the least stable in all of sports. Some franchises cycle through a new head coach seemingly every year. The names who hold jobs for a decade or more are essentially legends, and even then, respected status and success is no guarantee of stability. The axiom goes that when things go south for an NBA team, it’s much easier to fire the coach than fire the players. And so teams fire coaches.
Against that backdrop, though, it does appear that stability is improving for NBA head coaches in recent years.
We looked at coaching data for all 30 teams over the past decade to determine whether coaches now enjoy more stability. This season, the median NBA head coach has been in his job for three full seasons, a longer median tenure than at any point in the past decade. The average NBA head coach tenure this season is 3.7 years, also the highest mark in at least a decade. (We did not go back beyond the 2010-11 season.)
While Gregg Popovich’s exceptionally long Spurs tenure does skew the average upward, it does so in previous seasons as well. Plus, Jerry Sloan’s 21-year tenure was captured in the 2010-11 data, and the average tenure despite that was 2.7 years. There are other indicators that stability has increased, as well.
There are currently nine NBA head coaches with at least five years of tenure in their current jobs: Popovich, Erik Spoelstra, Rick Carlisle, Terry Stotts, Brad Stevens, Doc Rivers, Brett Brown, Quin Snyder, and Steve Kerr. Last year, there were seven such coaches. In the prior eight seasons, there were as few as three in multiple seasons and never more than five coaches with five years on the job. So we are more frequently seeing coaches get to a second contract, given that initial head coach contracts are usually for three to five years.
As would be expected in a more stable environment, the number of coaches with little tenure is lower than at any time in the past decade. This season there are 14 head coaches with less than three years of tenure with their current teams. There hadn’t been a year with fewer than 16 coaches with that low level of tenure in the past decade, and there had been as many a shocking 24 head coaches with less than three years of tenure at the start of one season (2013-14).
The churn has slowed. It hasn’t been eliminated: 14 head coaches with less than three years on the job (meaning they got hired no earlier than 2017) is still almost half the league. But in the last decade it’s more often been two-thirds or more of the league with that low tenure. Improvement is improvement.
The continued churn is evident in looking at the data around the number of first-year head coaches. (Note: this isn’t rookie head coaches in their first jobs. Frank Vogel counts as a first-year head coach since this is his debut season with the Lakers, despite his job history with Indiana and Orlando.) There are seven first-year head coaches in the NBA this season, which means seven teams hired new head coaches in the middle of last season or over the summer.
The NBA famously had zero first-year head coaches in the 2017-18 season as the coaching carousel stopped cold for one bizarre summer. The year-to-year data on first-year head coaches — a proxy for head coach firings and retirements, but usually firings — is quite erratic, reaching from the zero in 2017-18 to a stunning 14 in that infamous 2013-14 season. (That’s right: in 2013-14 the NBA had as many first-year head coaches as the NBA has coaches with less than three years of tenure in 2019-20. Suit salesmen in NBA cities were living large in the summer of 2013.)
It’s important to note that this stability isn’t universal. Three teams — the Timberwolves, Kings, and Cavaliers — have had five new coaches each in the past decade. (For the Kings and Cavaliers, this is due to firings. The Timberwolves had a retirement and Flip Saunders’ tragic death in addition to two firings.) For those three teams, no coach has gone into the season with at least three years in the job in the past decade. That’s pretty incredible. Eight more teams — the Magic, Lakers, Nets, Knicks, Grizzlies, Suns, Pistons, and Hornets — have had four new coaches each in the past decade. Only the Spurs, Heat, and Mavericks haven’t replaced their head coach in the past decade. (Those four franchises won the first four titles of the past decade, by the way. The only championship coach of the past decade who has been fired was Tyronn Lue.)
What’s the cause of the new stability? Are franchisees and front offices getting more patient? Is this just a particularly good batch of coaches with good fit? It’s likely a conflation of factors with lots of other impacts on who gets hired for these jobs and how front offices set expectations and goals for their teams. That’s a wordy way of saying that pre-determined institutional tanking builds in some de facto stability. For instance, the Sixers hired Brett Brown with a license to lose while assets were assembled and grown. Kenny Atkinson, Lloyd Pierce, and Taylor Jenkins were hired by teams who knew they’d be bad for a couple of seasons and as such afforded their coaches more time. (That’s been true of Atkinson; we’ll see about Pierce and Jenkins.)
Coaches also seem more specialized these days: of the nine coaches with at least five years in their current positions, only two played in the NBA (Rivers and Carlisle). We’re seeing fewer former players hired to coach: only two of the seven first-year coaches hired this summer (Luke Walton and Monty Williams) were NBA players before getting into coaching. That shift has its own impact on diversity in the coaching profession, of course. (That Walton was hired by the Kings without an apparent coaching search of any kind after three disastrous seasons with the Lakers is truly ponderous.)
There are quite likely many other factors feeding into shifts in coaching stability in the NBA. There will arise new factors that change the equation for certain teams and the broader trends. But at least for now, the new stability seems like a win for the coaching profession … and a loss for suit salesmen in NBA cities.