Maurice Cheeks – the Pistons’ presumptive next coach – is incredibly likable, a class act, a true gentleman. He was an NBA champion as a player, a four-time All-Star. He has more head-coaching experience than 75 percent of current coaches.
He’s also proven himself as a mediocre coach.
On the surface, this is painfully obvious. He hasn’t had a winning season in his last six years as a coach. He’s never won a playoff series. His last team, the 76ers, was better both the season before his arrival and the rest of the year after his mid-season firing than it was in any season with him.
A deeper examination is even more troubling.
Evaluating coaches based on record alone usually proves foolish. Too much that goes into a record – especially talent of players – that a coach just can’t control, and we’re also often using small samples anyway.
But Cheeks has had a rare opportunity to build his case. He’s completed two jobs, coached a total of eight seasons and has a losing record through those two jobs. Just nine coaches in NBA history have met those conditions – two jobs, eight total seasons, losing record – including Cheeks. Two, Phil Johnson and Lawrence Frank, haven’t gotten a third job – likely for good reason.
The other six who met the conditions – two jobs, eight total seasons, losing record – provide a reasonable model for what the Pistons can expect from Cheeks.
Del Harris led the Houston Rockets to the 1981 NBA FInals, and in his second job with the Milwaukee Bucks, his only losing season came when he resigned with an 8-9 mark in 1992. Harris makes the list mostly because a 14-68 season in his final year with the Rockets torpedoed his record. He got a third shot with the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1990s, going 224-125, but never taking the Lakers to the Finals. He was cast aside just in time for Phil Jackson to step in and win three straight titles.
Hubie Brown coached the Atlanta Hawks in the 1970s and New York Knicks in the 1980s, compiling a 341-410 record. A generation later, he came back to coach the Memphis Grizzlies in 2002. Not only did he lead them to the first winning season and first playoff berth in franchise history in his first full season, they won 50 games. But Brown resigned after a 5-7 start the following season due to health reasons, and his final record with Memphis was just 83-85. Brown isn’t the typical losing NBA coach, though, because his two non-counted ABA seasons yielded 58-26 and 48-36 records and a championship.
Bernie Bickerstaff went 261-276 in five seasons with the Seattle SuperSonics (1985-90) and three seasons with the Denver Nuggets (1995-96). He resigned as Denver’s coach early in that third season and then quit as the Nuggets general manager a short time later to become the Washington Bullets’ head coach. Besides making himself the answer to a trivia question – joining Larry Brown and Harry Gallatin in coaching two teams during a single season – Bickerstaff didn’t accomplish much in Washington. In his first season, the Bullets went 22-13 under his watch, but they were swept in the first round of the playoffs. In year two, they became the Wizards, went 42-40 and missed the playoffs. He was fired after Washington started 13-19 in his third season. Bickerstaff got yet another head-coaching jobs with the Charlotte Bobcats in 2004, and in three years with Charlotte, he went 18-64, 26-56 and 33-49 before being fired.
Eddie Jordan went 33-64 with the Sacramento Kings in the mid-1990s and 197-224 with the Wizards in the mid-2000s. Somehow, the 76ers saw fit to hire Jordan in 2009. After one regrettable season and a 27-55 record, they fired him.
Paul Silas went 286-323 while coaching the San Diego Clippers (1980-83) for three seasons and the Charlotte/New Orleans Hornets for five (1999-03). He didn’t fare much better as LeBron James’ first coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers (35-47 and 34-30 in two seasons). More recently, he was historically bad with the Bobcats (25-29 and 7-59).
Byron Scott took the Nets to back-to-back NBA Finals when the Eastern Conference was at its weakest, but by the time the Hornets fired him in 2009, his stock had sunk considerably and he had a losing career record. The Cavaliers gave him another chance, but they fired him this offseason after his best record in his three years with Cleveland – 24-58.
Of the six coaches who met the conditions – two jobs, eight total seasons, losing record – only two, Del Harris and Hubie Brown, had a better record after his first two jobs than in his first two jobs. But Harris coached Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in his third job, so a better record alone isn’t exactly a success. And Brown won an ABA title before accepting his first NBA job, and his improved record didn’t even surpass .500 – though it’s not like Cheeks makes a credible comparison to a championship coach, anyway.
The best counterargument to my numbers is that coaches who meet the conditions typically don’t get quality third jobs, and that unfairly taints their record regardless of their coaching ability. They’re stuck with either a team that has poor management, management that doesn’t know any better than to hire a coach with such an uninspiring track record, or they’re stuck with a bad roster – sometimes both.
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