Setting coaches up to fail: Lionel Hollins never had a chance

The Brooklyn Nets decided to fire head coach Lionel Hollins on Sunday, part of a massive reorganization which raises questions more than it addresses them.

Brooklyn will muddle through this season and become a lottery team — this can be said with great confidence, given the number of Eastern Conference teams that are well ahead of the Nets in the standings. Entering play on Sunday, nine teams were at least nine games ahead of Brooklyn in the East standings (every team above .500), and 11 teams were at least eight games ahead in the loss column. This move isn’t wrong in the sense that the Nets had a real chance to turn around this season.

It’s wrong on a much larger level, with the fundamental point being simply this: Lionel Hollins never had a real chance to turn this team into something special.

When the Nets brought aboard Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett for the 2013-2014 season, the move didn’t necessarily make sense (those guys were old), but if the organization was going to pursue a specific vision, it was to have the Boston Celtic legends play two seasons together, not one. This was realistically a two-year window for the Nets, the first one meant to establish a core with a discernible rapport, the second one to make the final run at the brass ring with a more cohesive identity on and off the floor.

There was just one problem: Paul Pierce went to the Washington Wizards.

There was just one other problem: Jason Kidd was so invested in the Nets’ success that he tried to make a power play in Brooklyn. When that bid for more control over the whole organization was rebuffed, he snatched away the Milwaukee job from Larry Drew. Kidd went 1-for-2 on the power play, but he landed in Milwaukee and left the Nets in tatters.

Yes, one can — and should — question Lionel Hollins’s judgment for taking this job after Kidd went to Wisconsin to coach the Bucks. Yet, the Nets agreed to hire him, which is supposed to mean that Mikhail Prokhorov and Billy King felt he was the right choice to lead the team forward. Head coaching hires are supposed to mean something in an industry as cutthroat (and lucrative, and expensive) as professional basketball. Yet, as we saw with the Sacramento Kings and Michael Malone — or with the Houston Rockets and Kevin McHale, just months after making the Western Conference Finals — organizations sometimes lose patience with coaches very quickly. It makes one question what they thought they — and their coaches — were getting into.

We’re mature enough as students of basketball and observers of sports to know when an NBA roster is built to win now, and when a coach should accordingly be expected to win at a much higher rate. Anyone and everyone who follows the NBA could certainly claim with good reason that the Nets should be a 15-22 team instead of a 10-27 team, but that still wouldn’t be likely to make the playoffs in this season’s Eastern Conference. The 2014-2015 East, quite possibly, but not the 2015-2016 version.

You don’t fire a coach if his team is 37-win material, and the ballclub finishes in the vicinity of 25 wins. If 37 is your ceiling within a given season, you’re not supposed to make the playoffs as a central aspiration. Building for the future is what a 37- or 38-win ceiling is supposed to mean.

This is what’s impossible to understand about the Nets’ treatment of Hollins, much as it’s impossible to understand the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ treatment of Lovie Smith, who went 6-10 with a team that also wasn’t supposed to make the playoffs this season. Just exactly what is expected of certain coaches, such that they get terminated in the midst of retooling processes?

Firing a coach is generally supposed to mean that performance — sustained, over a long period of time — is unacceptable. Exceptions to this principle emerge when a coach inherits what is supposed to be a title-contending roster and spectacularly fails in the first 25 percent of the season. The quickest of quick hooks under such circumstances might be harsh, but in rare instances — see Pat Riley in 2006 with the Heat — it can work.

Emphasize the word RARE. This is not — and cannot be — a commonplace situation. If coaches are being tossed aside every 1.5 to two seasons, organizations can’t maintain the continuity they need.

Why, then, do some — such as the Nets — blow through their coaches the way they do?

When Jason Kidd left, everyone could see that Brooklyn was in trouble for the long haul. There was no real answer, no clear and unifying solution, to the dynamics which had been unleashed by Mikhail Prokhorov and Billy King.

Clearly, Prokhorov — who registered multiple sacks on this NFL Sunday — had expected his coach to do a lot more. He won’t be the first owner to — in all his hubris — demand a quick fix to a not-so-soluble problem. Getting rid of Billy King might seem more sensible on the surface, but one must quickly acknowledge that King was merely trying to implement the vision Prokhorov had in mind.

We’re left with the simple truth: Prokhorov (and King) set up Lionel Hollins to fail. Why organizations waste time and money with incompatible coaching hires — ones they’re not willing to see through for at least three seasons, if not four — is one of the great and enduring mysteries of professional sports.

Impatience is warranted when rosters are supposed to achieve richly. No one was saying that about the Brooklyn Nets when this season began. This is a firing which shows — in retrospect — that Prokhorov never trusted Lionel Hollins on a deeper level.

Maybe next time, the Nets’ owner will own his decisions a little more fully — and allow his head coach to truly sink or swim on the merits.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.