Yesterday, longtime Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan announced his resignation. Of course, the phrase “longtime coach” is an understatement: Sloan was in his 23rd year as Jazz coach and was the longest tenured coach in any professional sport. Indeed, it was not even close: second place belonged to longtime NFL Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher until he was fired earlier in January. While Fisher's firing was widely expected (and probably somewhat overdue), Sloan's resignation was quite shocking: he had just signed a one year extension last year, was in the midst of another winning season with a 31-23 record, and was regarded as one of the best basketball coaches of all time.
So, why did Sloan retire? He does not seem to have been overtly forced out. He was certainly not fired. That said, my gut feeling while watching his press conference was that Sloan knew it was time. After clashing repeatedly with star point guard Deron Williams-the future of the franchise-over practices, strategy, lineups, and more-Sloan decided it was time to go. Sloan has never, ever changed how he coached in the last 23 years and it was unfathomable that he would base his decisions on the whims of a player. From Sloan's point of view, it didn't matter if Williams was the franchise cornerstone or the last man on the bench: he would have no role in overtly influencing coaching decisions. When management-concerned that Williams might leave in 2012-began to side with Williams and suggest that Sloan moderate and change his coaching approach, Sloan knew that he had lost the battle. Like he said in his simple, quick press conference:, ‘it was time, we're moving forward.”
In fact, Sloan's retirement was one of the simplest, most painless coaching exits in recent years. Despite reported clashes with Williams and a recent disagreement with management, nothing left the locker room and Sloan resigned of his own volition and with his head held high. So, if it was such a simple, relatively painless, and completely un-dramatic event, then why write about it? Put simply, I wrote about it because, combined with the 2010 free agency zoo, I think that Sloan's resignation represents the completion of a sea change in professional basketball.
Jerry Sloan was one of the last bastions of coaching power and autonomy. Like Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, Red Auerbach, and K.C. Jones, he was so accomplished that he remained a law unto himself. Up until recently, Sloan's word was law and his way was the only way in Utah. Sloan was known as one of the toughest, hardest coaches out there but, like some of his colleagues from decades past, he was credited with teaching his players to embrace excellence. The idea of Sloan allowing one of his players to make coaching decisions was absolutely unfathomable.
NBA Basketball coaches today are really player's creatures. Technically, coaches still create strategy but top players seem to play an increasingly crucial role in coaching decisions and even determining franchise direction. Coaches that buck this trend and battle their great players tend to lose; even Phil Jackson-owner of eight NBA Championships at the time-lost his battle with Kobe Bryant back in 2005. Last year, Mike Brown lost his battle with LeBron James and was sacked before the superstar even decided to leave. The list goes on and on but, until yesterday, Jerry Sloan remained a bastion of old school coaching. But, after his latest battle with Williams and his debate with GM Kevin O'Connor, Sloan knew that he was losing the coaching battle with one of his players. Unwilling to wait for the inevitable result of that battle, Sloan just left. And, when he did, he took with him some of the last vestiges of a tough coaching style that is now gone from the league.
Sloan's quick, almost silent exit from the coaching perch he has held since the Reagan presidency confirmed the paradigm shift that has become clear in recent years: players now control NBA franchises. A situation that would have been unfathomable in the 1980s, barely gained traction in the 1990s (Michael Jordan's requests for changes were famously rebuffed by then Bulls GM Jerry Krause), has now become the norm. While the players may like it, I think that this development cannot be good for professional basketball. Many pundits may shrug off the importance of strong, great coaches but that is a tragic mistake: the greatest NBA basketball dynasties all originated with great coaching. Red Auerbach's Celtics? Check. Pat Riley's Lakers? Check. Chuck Daley's Pistons? Check. Phil Jackson's Bulls and Lakers? Check. Greg Popovich's Spurs? Check. The list goes on and on.
Indeed, you cannot name a single NBA dynasty whose personality and game style did not come from a great, all time coach. But now, those coaches seem to be a dying breed, the new NBA coach is a disempowered pawn of his most powerful players. Some might think that this new breed of basketball coaching will work but the historic, empirical evidence is clear: it's bad for basketball.
Article written by Dan Mintz, Chicago, Ill.
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