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The Numbers Game: Changing Coaches Brings Mixed Results

By John Schuhmann,
Posted Dec 31 2008 11:14AM

So, how are all those coaching changes working out? Have the six teams that made switches on the bench turned their seasons around?

Not quite.

Through Tuesday, the six interim coaches in Oklahoma City, Washington, Toronto, Minnesota, Philadelphia and Sacramento are a combined 18-61 (.228). Their predecessors were better: 29-78 (.271). These teams were underachieving or just plain bad before their coaches were fired. Now, they're still underachieving or just plain bad. None of the replacements has a winning record.

Looking at recent history, it's evident that mid-season coaching changes usually don't do much to help a team in the season they're made. From 2003-04 to last season, there were 22 mid-season coaching changes made in the NBA. Overall, the coaches that were fired had a higher winning percentage (.454) than the guys that replaced them (.437).

2008-09 Coaching Changes
Philadelphia Maurice Cheeks x-Tony DiLeo
Minnesota Randy Wittman x-Kevin McHale
Oklahoma City PJ Carlesimo x-Scott Brooks
Sacramento Reggie Theus x-Kenny Natt
Toronto Sam Mitchell x-Jay Triano
Washington Eddie Jordan x-Ed Tapscott

It's difficult to make significant improvements in the middle of a season. There just isn't enough time between games to get in the practice, to work on team deficiencies or to change a style. Mike D'Antoni took over in Phoenix for Frank Johnson in December of 2003, and it wasn't until the following season that the Suns really increased the pace (and the quality) at which they played.

There have been some success stories, though. Of the 22 replacements, 11 of them had a better winning percentage than their predecessors.

When it comes to an increase in winning percentage, the best coaching change in recent history took place in Denver, where George Karl led the Nuggets (17-25 before he took over) to a 32-8 finish in 2004-05. Avery Johnson went 16-2 after taking over for Don Nelson in Dallas that same season. A year earlier, Lawrence Frank won his first 13 games after replacing Byron Scott with the Nets. There's also the case of Pat Riley, who replaced Stan Van Gundy after 21 games in 2005-06 and led the Heat to a title that season.

Those examples are rare, though. Of the 11 replacements that were better than their predecessor, four of them still had losing records. And only five of the 11 improved their team's efficiency on both sides of the ball.

Apparently, it's easier to get your team to play better offensively than defensively when taking over in the middle of the season. Of the 28 coaching changes (including those this season) since 2003-04, 21 have resulted in an increase in offensive efficiency. Only nine improved defensively.

This year's Thunder, under Scott Brooks, have shown the greatest increase in offensive efficiency (12.2 points scored per 100 possessions) after a recent coaching change . But Oklahoma City also has fallen off defensively (6.8 points allowed per 100 possessions) since firing P.J. Carlesimo. Still, it's a net increase. So even though the Thunder are just 2-17 under Brooks, they're technically a better team.

The team since 2003-04 that improved the most defensively after a mid-season coaching change was the '03-04 Bulls. Scott Skiles took over in November and began the transformation from a post-Jordan doormat to a pre-Rose playoff squad. Not coincidentally, the Bucks, who hired Skiles this summer, are the team that has improved the most defensively from last season to this one.

Still, positive transformation on the defensive end is rare. The 28 teams that have made a mid-season change since 2003-04 average an increase of 2.6 points scored per 100 possessions and an increase of 2.5 points allowed per 100 possessions.

So, how do these teams do the season after they make a change?

Of the 21 teams that made in-season coaching changes from 2003-04 to '06-07 (we eliminated last season's Bulls because this season isn't complete yet), only nine saw an increase in wins the next season. Two finished with the same win total and 10 lost more games than they had in the season that they made the change.

The greatest success stories in that regard are the previously mentioned D'Antoni in Phoenix and Skiles in Chicago. D'Antoni's Suns went from 29 wins in 2003-04 to 62 in 2004-05. Of course, the coach had help from point guard Steve Nash, whom the Suns acquired that summer . Skiles' Bulls went from 23 wins in 2003-04 to 47 in 2004-05, aided by the addition of rookies Ben Gordon and Luol Deng.

Maybe changing your players is more important than changing your coach.

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