David Blatt had a 30-11 record as coach of the Cavaliers this season before they fired him.
Great players help coaches produce great records, making it difficult for outsiders to assess coaches. Poor players create the same problem, but they also shorten coaching tenures. When in doubt, teams dump losers and stick with winners.
That’s part of what makes Blatt’s firing so shocking. How bad could he be while winning 73% of his games? He might not have been up to the standard, but that type of record usually gives a coach cover.
That historically wasn’t the case here.
Cleveland had the best record of any team changing, let alone firing, a coach mid-season.
Just six non-interim coaches had ever won more than 60% of their games in a season without finishing it:
1979-80 Los Angeles Lakers: Jack McKinney, 10-4 (71%)
McKinney suffered a serious head injury in a bicycle crash. Assistant coach Paul Westhead took over, went 50-18 and guided the Lakers to the title.
2004-05 Dallas Mavericks: Don Nelson, 42-22 (66%)
The Mavericks had made assistant Avery Johnson the coach-in-waiting. Nelson just accelerated the process, resigning in March to hand Johnson the reigns. Dallas finished a blistering 16-2 under Johnson but lost in the second round.
1999-00 Phoenix Suns: Danny Ainge, 13-7 (65%)
Ainge stunningly resigned in his fourth season season as Phoenix’s coach, citing a desire to spend more time with his family. Scott Skiles was promoted, went 40-22 and reached the second round.
1988-89 Utah Jazz: F. Layden, 11-6 (65%)
Layden said he was tired of the pressure of coaching, and he walked away. His replacement handled the burden just a little longer – 23 seasons. Jerry Sloan took over and had a fantastic coaching career, but he didn’t win a playoff game that first season.
1981-82 Los Angeles: Paul Westhead, 7-4 (64%)
Westhead got fired for a simple reason: He feuded with Magic Johnson. That got Johnson labeled a coach killer, but fans came around when Johnson helped Pat Riley win a title that season (and in 1985, 1987 and 1988).
1982-83 New Jersey Nets: Larry Brown, 47-29 (62%)
Brown was coaching the Nets to their best record since joining the NBA from the ABA when he took the job at Kansas. Brown wanted to finish the season, but owner Joe Taub told Brown “it would be best if you go now.” Assistant Bill Blair coached the final six games of the season, going 2-4 and then getting swept in a best-of-three playoff series.
So, there is precedent for a team winning it all after changing coaches during the season. The Lakers did it after changing coaches due to both choice (Westhead to Riley) and circumstance (McKinney to Westhead).
Cleveland very much did this by choice.
The question now: Can Tyronn Lue be the next Pat Riley?