20-year study: Coaches in NBA have highest turnover among major leagues
Around this time of year, the NBA’s coaching carousel is in full swing.
One of the downsides of being a coach in the NBA is that there’s very little job security, as there are typically a handful of firings each offseason.
This summer, there were five teams that made a coaching change: the Sacramento Kings (who fired Dave Joerger), Phoenix Suns (who fired Igor Kokoskov), Los Angeles Lakers (who fired Luke Walton), Memphis Grizzlies (who fired JB Bickerstaff) and Cleveland Cavaliers (who fired Larry Drew).
A recent study by Kip Wright analyzed all the coaching changes over the past 20 years across North America’s four major professional sports leagues.
During that 20-year span, the NBA had the highest coaching turnover rate among the four leagues. The study found that a new head coach is hired every 2.4 seasons on average in the NBA, which is more often than in the NHL (every 2.6 seasons), MLB (every 3.1 seasons) and NFL (every 3.4 seasons).
While NFL teams are a bit more patient and give their head coaches an extra season on average to turn things around, many NBA coaches have less than two and a half seasons to get their respective franchise back on track.
The study also compared each team’s coaching hires and their average win/loss percentage over the last 20 seasons. The teams with less coaching turnover had significantly higher records (although it’s worth noting that the study says this trend is “based on correlations and not causation”).
The San Antonio Spurs have had just one head coach (Gregg Popovich) in the last 20 years and they also have the best winning percentage (.686) over that stretch. In fact, that’s the highest winning percentage of any team in the four major leagues.
Popovich, who turned 70 this year, has won five championships with the Spurs and he has the third-most wins of any coach in NBA history. The Spurs are the only organization in any of the major leagues to employ just one coach over the last 20 years (and they recently signed Popovich to a three-year extension). There are four franchises that came close, with just two head coaches over that stretch: the Baltimore Ravens, New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers and Nashville Predators.
Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Nets, Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks each had an NBA-high 12 coaching changes in the last 20 years. They all have a winning percentage below .500 during that span.
Among the major pro teams in North America, only one team has had more coaching changes than the Nets, Pistons and Knicks: the New York Islanders, with 13 different hires.
One outlier is the Los Angeles Lakers, who have a winning percentage above .500 over the last 20 years despite the fact that they’ll be on their eighth coach once they hire Luke Walton’s replacement this summer.
The study also looked at individuals who were fired by one team but then resurfaced as the head coach of another franchise.
Only one person has been the head coach for five different NBA teams in the last 20 years: Mike D’Antoni, who’s led the Denver Nuggets, Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets. He won the NBA’s Coach of the Year award twice (in 2004-05 and 2016-17), and he’s coached his team to 50 or more wins in seven different seasons.
D’Antoni and Edmonton Oilers head coach Ken Hitchcock are the only two coaches who have led five different squads in one of the major professional leagues over the last 20 years.
Alvin Gentry, Byron Scott, Larry Brown and Scott Skiles each coached four different teams over the last two decades. Gentry is the only active NBA coach out of that group; he’s currently the head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans.
There are 19 coaches in the NBA who have led three teams over the last 20 years. That means there are 24 NBA head coaches who have led three or more teams over that stretch, which is five more than the next-closest league (the NHL).
So while NBA coaches may constantly be worried about losing their job because there’s so much turnover, they have a better shot at being hired by another NBA team if they are relieved of their duties.
In the NFL, it seems head coaches don’t get nearly as many opportunities if they struggle early on. Wade Phillips is the only one NFL coach who has led four teams over the last 20 years and there are just seven coaches who have coached three or more teams over that stretch, which is by far the lowest of any major league.