David Blatt had the best-ever record ever by a coach fired mid-season, but his success wasn’t a flash in the pan. He also guided the Cavaliers to last season’s NBA Finals.
In that sense, Blatt’s firing is even more surprising.
Blatt obviously had to win more than his peers. That’s the burden of coaching LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and an expensive supporting cast. But Blatt isn’t the first coach to have major talent at his disposal. That’s often enough to win, and winning usually allows a coach to keep his job for a while – especially after reaching the Finals.
Now, Blatt has become just the eighth coach to be forced out within a season of reaching the Finals. The other seven:
2005 Detroit Pistons – Larry Brown
Brown took the Pistons to back-to-back Finals, beating the Lakers in 2004 and losing to the Spurs in 2005. But Detroit became tired of Brown’s job-hunting ways and fired him in the offseason. If the Pistons had waited, they might have avoided this list. It seemed quite possible Brown would resign to coach the Knicks, who did end up hiring him.
Detroit hired Flip Saunders, who reached three conference finals in three seasons but never got further. It was only downhill from there.
2003 New Jersey Nets – Byron Scott
Scott coached the Nets to back-to-back Finals losses when the Eastern Conference was at its weakest. A 22-20 start allowed New Jersey to appease star Jason Kidd, who reportedly wanted Scott gone. (Their relationship hasn’t gotten much better over the years.)
The Nets promoted Lawrence Frank, who never reached the conference finals as the rest of the conference caught up.
1977 Philadelphia 76ers – Gene Shue
In the midst of a season that would end in the 76ers’ first Finals in a decade, owner Fitz Dixon said to Shue after a loss, “What’s your excuse tonight?” Safe to say, Dixon disliked Shue. But it’s tough to fire a coach who just guided a turnaround. So, Dixon waited until three straight losses dropped Philadelphia to 2-4 the next season.
At least Dixon chose well when replacing Shue. Billy Cunningham won nearly 70% of his games in eight seasons coaching the 76ers, and he guided them to the 1983 title.
1969 Los Angeles Lakers – Butch Van Breda Kolff
In Game 7 of the Finals, Wilt Chamberlain benched himself with an injury Van Breda Kolff deemed to be minor. When Chamberlain said he was ready to return, the coach kept his star on the bench. The Lakers lost by two points to the Celtics.
Van Breda Kolff technically resigned to take over the lesser Pistons, but he was forced out according to Steven Travers and Sam Smith. “I didn’t see any foreseeable future there,” Van Breda Kolff said of Los Angeles.
1961 St. Louis Hawks – Paul Seymour
Get ready for several St. Louis Hawks coaches from the era of owner Ben Kerner.
Seymour guided the Hawks to the Finals in his lone full season as their head coach, but a 5-9 start and his reliance on rookie Cleo Hill did him in the next season. Seymour accused veterans Bob Pettit, Cliff Hagan and Clyde Lovellette of opposing Hill starting. There are mixed accounts whether that was due racism – Hill was black – or established players just not wanting to share the ball with a rookie.
Either way, Andrew Levane and then Pettit finished coaching the Hawks to their only non-playoff season in an 18-year span.
1960 St. Louis Hawks – Ed Macauley
As Macauley told it, Kerner hired Seymour as a replacement coach for the following season when the Hawks lost two straight to fall behind 3-2 in the division finals. But St. Louis rallied to win Games 6 and 7 and even pushed the Celtics to seven games in the NBA Finals.
Macauley accepted his fate and fulfilled his contract as general manager.
1958 St. Louis Hawks – Alex Hannum
Hannum is the only coach on this list fired after winning a championship. Kerner struck again.
Kerner gave Hannum a two-year contract. A year later, he asked for a raise. If he didn’t get one, he said, he’d go to work full time in his sideline, as a carpenter. Kerner fired him.
“He did a great job, but he wasn’t my type of guy, ” Kerner said. “He was hammer and nails. He wasn’t loyal.”