In December 1996 Gregg Popovich pulled off the ultimate NBA inside job as general manager of the San Antonio Spurs, he fired unaccomplished head coach Bob Hill and hired himself. A decision which influenced the trajectory of the NBA for the next 20 years and began a continually simmering dynasty.
Since Popovich's decision in the 1996 - 1997 season 84 NBA head coaches have been swapped during an NBA season. It's a hell of a list: Kevin McHale, Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Flip Saunders, Jeff Van Gundy, Doc Rivers, John Lucas and Dave Cowens, just to name a few.
The Dream Shake compiled a list of all 84 midstream firings, resignations or replacements. And we arrived at the following determination: JB Bickerstaff is historically average as a replacement head coach and will have to make a deep playoff run to keep his job.
Before getting into Bickerstaff's numbers, here's some fun numbers:
- Every NBA team has replaced a head coach during the season at least once in the last 20 years.
- Most changes: Memphis, six in-season coaching changes. Phoenix, six in-season coaching changes. Brooklyn, five in-season coaching changes. New York, five in-season coaching changes. Washington, five in season coaching changes.
- Least changes: Atlanta, one coaching change, Lon Kruger. Houston, one coaching change, Kevin McHale. Indiana, one coaching change, Jim O'Brien. Miami, one coaching change, Stan Van Gundy. New Orleans, one coaching change, Byron Scott. San Antonio, one coaching change, Bob Hill. Utah, one coaching change, Jerry Sloan.
- Good news for Phoenix Suns current interim head coach Earl Watson. Five of Phoenix's last six replacement coaches kept the job the following season. Sorry, Lindsey Hunter you're the odd man out.
- The most replaced coaches. Alvin Gentry, Mo Cheeks and Scott Skiles have all been replaced three times during an NBA season.
Since taking over, Bickerstaff has posted a 23 - 19 record for a win percentage of 55%. That's a fair improvement from McHale's 4 - 7 record, which produced a 36% win percentage. Fans can expect McHale to admit his record stunk on TNT tonight. The slow start to the season was a significant depreciation from his 59.8% record in five seasons as head coach of the Rockets. Granted, this is a record that would have likely righted itself if given enough time.
So where's Bickerstaff rank out of the 84 head coaches to provide in-season relief? We've crunched the numbers for you.
Win Percentage: Top 20
All of the following data is drawn from Basketball Reference. You can view and sort it in this spreadsheet.
The data includes: Team, Year, New Coach, Old Coach, Respective Records, Respective Win Percentages, Their Win Percentage Difference, Did The New Coach Keep Their Job, Did The New Coach Make The Playoffs and Did The New Coach Make The Playoffs In Their First Full Season.
Over the last 20 years JB Bickerstaff has posted the 19th best win percentage for a replacement head coach (out of 84). Here's the top 20:
Ironically number 11 on the list is Bernie Bickerstaff, JB's father, and number 13 is Kevin McHale.
Strap in for this accolade, it's a long one: Despite the Rockets struggles, JB Bickerstaff is in the top of 20 replacement head coaches ranked by win percentage in the last 20 years.
The statement isn't a strong one. The vast majority of teams fire their head coach because of irreparable struggles both on the court and in the locker room. There's not a coach in the world who can turn the Sacramento Kings of the last half-decade into a playoff team overnight... five have already tried.
A major concern looking at this list is how Bickerstaff ranks below teams with equal or inferior talent to the current Rockets team led by James Harden and Dwight Howard. Examples of replacement coaches/teams with better win percentages than Bickerstaff: Kevin McHale and a Kevin Garnett - Sam Cassell - Wally Szcezerbiak Timberwolves teams. Mike Fratello delivered a Pau Gasol - Mike Miller - Shane Battier Grizzlies team to the first round of the playoffs. Look at Scott Skiles' 1999 - 2000 Suns starting lineup: Jason Kidd - Penny Hardaway - Shawn Marion - Clifford Robinson - Luc Longley.
To restate the point: The overwhelming majority of teams making a coach change never have the tools or players to reach the NBA Finals. Those that did have that level of talent outperformed JB Bickerstaff and this season's Houston Rockets.
Win Difference: Top 20
This statistic is intended to measure the difference between a replacement coach like JB Bickerstaff and his predecessor. The 'win difference' is simply the difference between win percentage of replacement and replaced head coach.
This statistic is admittedly flawed due to the sample size. Here's why: The top of the list is Danny Ainge who posted a 40 - 34 record with a busted Suns teams after Cotton Fitzsimmons started the season with an 0 - 8 record. While Ainge deserves applause for his performance, there was literally no place to go but up.
Hubie Brown is a better example of the flaw, he places second on this list despite compiling a piddling 28 - 46 record after taking over a franchise. Like Ainge, he places high because the team he took over had zero wins. In these cases you can clearly see the win difference is the same as the win percentage because there was nowhere to go but up, a reality most coaching changes don't have. The following spreadsheet lists both to show this discrepancy and has italicized those coaches to indicate as much:
In this statistic JB Bickerstaff placed 14th of 84 with a win difference of 18.4%. Meaning Bickerstaff's win percentage has out performed McHale's.
Will Bickerstaff Keep His Job?
We looked at 84 replacement coaches, 5 of whom are from the 2015 - 2016 season. This means we have 79 examples to predict if JB Bickerstaff will keep his job and be on the bench at the start of the following season.
It's a coin flip.
52% percent of replacement head coaches over the last 20 years have kept their job. That's a small thumb on the scale for JB Bickerstaff, but also means half of the replacement coaches never shed the 'interim' tag and instead picked up the "ex" tag.
View the full list in this spreadsheet. There's a column for "Kept Job." A 'Y' means yes and a 'N' means no.
Can Bickerstaff Have Playoff Success?
Does being a replacement head coach tamper playoff success? Short answer: YUP!
Only one replacement coach has won an NBA Title in 20 years, Pat Riley. So, that barely counts. Riley already has rings, was already controlling the franchise, fired the head coach for refusing his orders and wielded a historically superb Dwyane Wade and barely past-prime Shaquille O'Neal. And the refs. He had the refs on his side too.
Including Riley, 18 of 79 replacement coaches (or 23%) have made the playoffs the season they took over. 13 of those 18 unlucky replacement coaches lost in the first round. The remaining 4 lost in the second round. Again, unless you've fired your head coach for Pat Riley (or unless you've fired your head coach for yourself, a la Riley) don't expect an NBA Title this season.
Time doesn't help too much. A full look at all 84 replacement coaches includes the team's success the seasonafter the firing. View the spreadsheet here.
The key to understanding the playoff system of the spreadsheet:
Win = Title, 4 = Lost Finals, 3 = Lost Conference Finals, 2 = Lost Second Round, 1 = Lost First Round.
The Lakers won an NBA Title the year after firing Del Harris midstream. However, they won the title with Phil Jackson leading the team, not Kurt Rambis, who replaced Harris and did not keep the job.
Avery Johnson took the Mavericks to the NBA Finals the season after becoming head coach, but lost to Pat Riley despite a stellar Mavericks team. Phoenix was a fertilized proving ground as Steve Nash helped both Mike D'Antoni and Alvin Gentry reach the Western Conference Finals the year after they won the job during the season. The last replacement coach to reach such heights was Jim O'Brien with the 2002 Boston Celtics. O'Brien took control during the previous season from Rick Pitino and helped Paul Pierce, Antonie Walker and a 20-year-old Joe Johnson shimmy to the Eastern Conference Finals.
All of these facts are an unfortunate reality for JB Bickerstaff. The interim Rockets head coach is likely dependent on a deep playoff run to keep his job next season and being a replacement head coach isn't a natural stepping stone.