It’s a stage the Toronto Raptors and the other teams who made a coaching change this offseason are looking to get back to, which is why it’s worthwhile to look for lessons the Raptors can take away from Miami and Denver to apply to their own ongoing coaching search.
You don’t have to dive too deep to realize Erik Spoelstra and Mike Malone are compelling arguments for thinking long-term and being patient with coaches. The common denominator between these two teams is consistency and continuity.
Spoelstra and Malone are the second- and fourth-longest tenured NBA coaches, with Gregg Popovich (first) and Steve Kerr (third) filling out the top four. San Antonio’s Popovich has coached the Spurs since 1996, Spoelstra took over the Heat in 2008, Kerr was named coach in Golden State in 2014 and Malone became coach in Denver in 2015.
In the modern game, it’s much easier to change the equation for a failing franchise by swapping coaches than overhauling the roster. But Denver and Miami both show that faith and patience can pay off.
There were periods in recent years in which both Malone and Spoelstra could have been handed walking papers — in which they arguably would have if they’d worked for many other teams.
Spoelstra missed the playoffs three times in a five-year span from 2015-2019 and barely made it this year, sneaking in as an eighth seed. The Heat are the first team since the 1959 Los Angeles Lakers to reach the Finals with a negative point differential and are just the second eighth seed to reach the NBA Finals. Well before that latest skid, there was Spoelstra’s infamous hiccup with LeBron James when the “not 4, not 5, not 6” Heat struggled out the gate in Year 1. There was real pressure on the organization to remove Spoelstra then, before he had lifted the Larry O’Brien trophy. Pat Riley even later divulged that James wanted a new coach after just 17 games in South Florida.
Mike Malone also didn’t have the most inspiring start in Denver, after being fired in Sacramento. Malone missed the playoffs in his first three seasons; this is only the second time he’s been past the second round in eight seasons. Every other Western Conference contender has made a coaching change in that span other than the Warriors, the most dominant team in the sport. Denver remained loyal, however, and has now reached the Finals for the first time in franchise history.
The approach for these two franchises isn’t unique to coaching. It starts with ownership, the Arison family in Miami and the Kroenkes in Denver.
The famous Heat Culture wasn’t created overnight, it’s been years in the making. Managing general partner Micky Arison, CEO Nick Arison, team president Pat Riley and GM Andy Elisburg have been with the Heat for multiple decades. Elisberg is a Day 1 Heat employee. Spoelstra has been with the organization since he was 24, when he started as an assistant in the video room, and now he’s leading them in the Finals at the age of 52.
The Kroenkes have had success across multiple sports. Kroenke Sports Entertainment is a two-time Super Bowl champion with the Los Angeles Rams, two-time Stanley Cup champion as owner of the Colorado Avalanche, 2010 MLS Cup champion as owner of the Colorado Rapids, two-time National Lacrosse League champion as owner of the Colorado Mammoth and have had great success at the helm of Arsenal FC of the Premier League, who just finished second in the table after leading for most of the season. They hire coaches and managers and let them work, maintaining trust in the reasons they hired those leaders in the first place.
Not surprisingly, the two coaches credit the culture that springs from that job security as a prime reason for their teams’ success.
“The most important part of these eight years was their ability to be patient,” Malone said, “and have a big-picture approach and let this thing grow into what it is today.”
“I also think you do have to credit and acknowledge Denver’s culture,” Spoelstra said. “They have a very strong culture. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the two teams have been able to have sustained success and they’ve done a great job of building their culture.”
That patience isn’t commonplace.
This offseason alone, 2019 NBA champion and 2020 Coach of the Year Nick Nurse, 2021 champion and 2019 Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer, 2021 Western Conference champion and 2022 Coach of the Year Monty Williams, and 2008 NBA champion and 2000 Coach of the Year Doc Rivers were all fired. Rivers and Williams were both let go after just three seasons.
The point is, despite the trend of firing coaches who have won Coach of the Year awards as soon as they have a bad season or ugly playoff round, continuity is key. Thus, the Raptors, and everyone else making a hire this summer, should be focused on who makes sense for the job in the long term not who fits the current roster right now.
That doesn’t mean moving on from a coach is inherently a bad choice. We have seen exceptions in recent years. Nurse, Kerr, Frank Vogel, and Ty Lue all won championships in the last decade in their first year as coach. Plus, the two losing coaches in this year’s Conference Finals, Lakers coach Darvin Ham, and the Boston Celtics’ Joe Mazzulla, were first year head coaches. Making a coaching move can, of course, lead to immediate success, but context is important: Nurse and Lue were assistants on staff, so they provided some semblance of continuity. Still, it’s worth noting that of the coaches who won a championship in Year 1 in the past decade, only Kerr is still in the role. Early success doesn’t guarantee you the benefit of the doubt.
At least six teams will have new coaches next season, with Phoenix and Toronto still shopping after Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Houston already made hires. This is on top of the two in-season moves, as Brooklyn’s Jacque Vaughn was hired in November, and Atlanta’s Quin Snyder took the reins in February.
“It’s disturbing,” Spoelstra said of the turnover rate “There’s only so many teams that can advance.”
“This is the nature of this league and I think sometimes it’s the chemistry,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told ESPN during the draft lottery. “They don’t go from being great coaches to bad coaches from one year to the next.”
So how should all of this inform the Raptors’ search?
Well first, don’t hire a coach for the team you have now. Far too many organizations overreact to their current roster or the issues that arose with their previous coaches.
Instead, hire a coach for the franchise you want to be over time. This really is a marriage. The benefits of having someone in the role for an extended period are profound. One of the reasons the Heat dress seven undrafted players is because their front office and scouts know what to look for. They know what their coaching staff needs because they have so much shared experience.
The Raptors seem to be taking their time making the choice, which could be a positive sign they resisting the urge to make a knee-jerk decision. There is still a long list of intriguing candidates. Toronto’s next head coach could come from among the inspired names already linked to the job, like Kenny Atkinson, David Adelman, Sergio Scariolo or Jordi Fernandez. It could be one of the more media friendly choices like JJ Redick or Steve Nash. Or, given his history with Masai Ujiri and in the game, it could be Doc Rivers.
But when they make the call, the Raptors shouldn’t be thinking of the next few months but the next few years. Because chances are, if their new coach is going to be successful, it’ll take a while.
Can the Raptors parlay patience into prosperity the way the Nuggets and Heat have?
We’ll have to wait and see.