How Tenure Can Save NBA Head Coaches

 by Jon Nichols

This article is not about advanced statistics. The recent trends involving advanced stats are all about thinking outside the box, and that’s what I’m doing here today.

For many teams, the head coaching position is a revolving door.  Seemingly every year for some teams a new coach is hired, and this man tries the same old tactics with the same old roster.  Inevitably the team struggles and the easy scapegoat -- the head coach -- is fired.  Coaches are not given a chance and as a result the team suffers from a lack of continuity.

Why does a newly hired coach on a struggling team resort to conventional tactics?  From his perspective, it makes some sense.  Even though it serves the underdog well to try unconventional methods (as recently discussed by Malcolm Gladwell), this also comes with a lot of risk.  If the team loses because of some crazy new strategy, the head coach looks like an idiot.  However, if he uses the traditional formula, the losses can be blamed on poor personnel, injuries, or bad luck.  Unfortunately, the end result is often the same: the team stinks and the coach is fired. 

If fresh new head coaches are unwilling to try new things in order to win games, my suggestion is that teams give them the freedom to do so.  To do this, coaches could be granted tenure (in the sense that university professors receive tenure) for a specific period of time in which they cannot be fired simply based on wins and losses, as long as they give an honest effort.  Tenured coaches will be more willing to try innovative strategies without the concern of being fired for taking a risk. 

This may sound like a crazy idea to many people.  If you don’t fire coaches when their team is terrible, that hardly sounds like you’re encouraging winning.  However, even though my method would allow creativity, it would safeguard against such issues. 

First, coaches would not be granted lifetime tenure as many university professors are.  Tenured contracts could be limited to three- or five-year periods.  This gives coaches an adequate amount of time to experiment but not a lifetime pass.  If a coach turns out to be more crazy than innovative (although hopefully the team has done a good enough job interviewing to avoid the crazies), he’ll probably never get another head coaching job in the NBA again.  The incentive is there for him to be successful.

If indirect incentives aren’t enough, direct incentives could do the trick.   Written in these tenured contracts could be team-based incentives.  If the team wins five more games than last year, he gets a bonus.  If it wins ten more games, he gets an even bigger bonus.  To ensure that contracts for coaches don’t get too high, the base salary could be lowered to account for the increased incentives.  Remember, though, that these contracts only include positive reinforcement.  A coach cannot be docked pay if the team struggles.

Finally, it is possible that coaches can still be fired.  As I said earlier, there must be an “honest effort.”  Innovative strategies must be designed with the end goal of winning basketball games.  If a coach is abusing his privileges, he can be fired on the spot.  Of course, coaches can dispute their dismissal.  In this case, an arbitrator could be used to settle the dispute.

If NBA coaches were given more freedom, would we see another Mike D’Antoni, George Karl, or Don Nelson?  At the very least, I think the odds would be increased.  By giving coaches tenure, we encourage inventiveness while pointing them in the direction of winning. 





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