Not even two weeks in, the 2018-19 NBA season has seen its first coaching casualty. The Cleveland Cavaliers fired Tyronn Lue on Sunday following an 0-6 start to the year, naming Larry Drew the interim head coach. Lue had spent two-plus years as the Cavs’ head coach, taking over in January 2016 following the mid-season dismissal of David Blatt. He coached the Cavs that year to the first NBA title in franchise history. Following LeBron James’ departure this summer in free agency, Cavs general manager Koby Altman made it clear that the franchise was committed to Lue long-term. But a disappointing start to the season led to a change of plans.
Cleveland will have the chance to pick up its first win of the season on Tuesday night against the Atlanta Hawks, and historically speaking, their odds are good. It’s a phenomenon known as the “Fired Coach Game.” For whatever reason — be it internal dysfunction or just the need for change — teams in the NBA more often than not win their first game after an in-season coaching change.
Prior to Lue’s weekend firing, there had been 34 in-season coaching changes over the past 10 years, starting with the 2008-09 season. In those games, teams went 21-13, good for a .617 winning percentage.
Some of the more notable ones:
Everyone gets fired: The 2008-09 season was an especially turbulent one, with eight teams making in-season changes on the bench: the Thunder, Wizards, Raptors, Timberwolves, 76ers, Kings, Grizzlies and Suns. Those teams went 4-4 in their Fired Coach Games — the Wizards blew out the Warriors under interim coach Ed Tapscott after firing Eddie Jordan; the Sixers beat the Wizards after firing Maurice Cheeks, with assistant general manager Tony DiLeo taking over coaching duties; the Kings beat the Timberwolves after firing Reggie Theus, with Kenny Natt as the interim; and the Suns destroyed the Clippers by a whopping 40 points after firing Terry Porter and elevating Alvin Gentry to the head job full-time, where he stayed until 2013.
The New Nets: On Nov. 29, 2009, the New Jersey Nets fired Lawrence Frank following an 0-16 start to the season. They lost their next game to the Dallas Mavericks under interim coach Tom Barrise, who was immediately replaced by general manager Kiki VanDeWeghe. In their first game under VanDeWeghe, on Dec. 4, the Nets picked up their first win of the season against the Charlotte Bobcats. VanDeWeghe kept head coaching duties for the rest of the season, and the Nets finished with a 12-72 record. That offseason saw wholesale changes in the Nets organization — Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov bought the team from Bruce Ratner, longtime team president Rod Thorn stepped down, VanDeWeghe was replaced by Billy King in the front office, and Avery Johnson took over as head coach.
Vogel takes over: The Pacers fired Jim O’Brien on Jan. 30, 2011, after getting off to a disappointing 17-27 start to the year. Team president Larry Bird promoted assistant Frank Vogel to the head of the bench, and the Pacers beat the Raptors 104-93 the following night. That win sparked a turnaround in Indiana — the Pacers finished the year 20-18 under Vogel and made the playoffs for the first time since 2006. Vogel stayed in charge and coached the Pacers during one of the most successful periods in franchise history. They made the playoffs in four of the next five years, with their only trip to the lottery coming in a 2014-15 campaign played largely without Paul George, who was recovering from the gruesome leg injury he suffered during a USA Basketball scrimmage. Vogel’s tenure in Indiana, anchored by the core of George, David West, Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson, peaked with two straight trips to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2013 and 2014, culminating in two epic battles with the Big Three-era Heat. Vogel was let go after the 2015-16 season, with most of that core long gone.
Trouble in Sacramento: On Jan. 5, 2012, just two weeks into the lockout-shortened season, the Kings fired Paul Westphal amid long-running tensions with DeMarcus Cousins. The team suspended Cousins for a Jan. 1 win over the New Orleans Hornets, claiming he had requested a trade, which he denied. Cousins returned after that, but came off the bench in the next two games, both losses, scoring just four points in 22 minutes against the Memphis Grizzlies. Kings president Geoff Petrie put an end to the standoff between Cousins and Westphal after that by firing the coach. The Kings won their first game under interim head coach Keith Smart, beating the Bucks 103-100. Cousins had 19 points and 15 rebounds.
D’Antoni leaves New York: Mike D’Antoni resigned as head coach of the Knicks on March 14, 2012, after it became clear that he was unable to coexist in New York with Carmelo Anthony. Years later, D’Antoni told ESPN The Magazine that Anthony essentially forced management to choose between the two, which led to the coach’s decision to walk away from the job in the middle of the season. Assistant coach Mike Woodson took over, and the Knicks blew out the Blazers 121-79 the following night. It was par for the course in one of the strangest Knicks seasons ever, which got off to a disappointing start before Jeremy Lin’s out-of-nowhere “Linsanity” run vaulted New York back into playoff contention. When D’Antoni resigned, the Knicks were 18-24 on the season. Under Woodson, they finished the year 18-6 and lost to the Heat in the first round of the playoffs. In a strange epitaph to the whole saga, D’Antoni and Anthony have put aside their differences this season to reunite in Houston, proving time can heal all wounds.
D’Antoni reemerges in Los Angeles: D’Antoni returned to the head coaching ranks the following year, this time with even more drama. The Steve Nash-Dwight Howard Lakers, they of the famed “Now This is Going to be Fun!” Sports Illustrated cover, fired Mike Brown five games into the season after starting the year 1-4. Bernie Bickerstaff took over temporarily as the interim coach, with the Lakers blowing out the Warriors 101-77 to kick off a 4-1 stretch. Rumors swirled that Jeanie Buss would be able to coax her longtime boyfriend, Phil Jackson, out of retirement, which would have been Kobe Bryant’s preferred outcome. Instead, Jeanie’s brother, Jim, and general manager Mitch Kupchak, pushed for D’Antoni, who took over with a 95-90 win over the Nets on Nov. 20. D’Antoni never saw eye-to-eye with Bryant or Howard, and what was supposed to be the NBA’s next superpower continued to be a dysfunctional mess for the rest of the year, leading to Howard’s departure in free agency the following summer. D’Antoni stuck around for one more season, one of the most forgettable in Lakers history.
Coach of the Month, but not for long: Avery Johnson was named Eastern Conference Coach of the Month for November of 2012; less than a month later, on Dec. 27, with the Nets at 14-14, Johnson was fired. P.J. Carlesimo took over for the rest of the season, kicking off his tenure with a 97-81 win over the Bobcats.
Sacramento, again!: During the 2014-15 season, the Kings had two coach firings. In a somewhat surprising move, the team let go of Michael Malone on Dec. 15 following an 11-13 start to the year that coincided largely with Cousins’ bout with viral meningitis. At least part of the rationale for Malone’s dismissal was his refusal to go along with owner Vivek Ranadive’s wish to play 4-on-5 on defense with a cherry-picker. Assistant Ty Corbin was named interim head coach, and his first game in charge was a 104-92 loss to the Thunder. But the Kings’ coaching drama didn’t end there. Two weeks after Malone’s firing, the team officially removed Corbin’s interim tag, publicly committing to him for at least the rest of the season. However, it didn’t take long before rumors started to circulate that the team wanted to hire George Karl to replace Corbin.
By the All-Star break, it was the worst-kept secret in the league that Karl joining the Kings was a done deal, despite public protestations from Cousins, who called the entire situation “a distraction” and told Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski that it was “not fair to Coach Corbin.” Karl officially took over on Feb. 12. He won his first game, 109-101 over the Celtics, but his tenure in Sacramento was an unmitigated disaster. They finished out the year 11-19 and went 33-49 the following year, and Karl and Cousins never got on the same page. Karl lobbied management to trade Cousins, who took exception to the coach’s refusal to fully back him, leading to a toxic environment even by the Kings’ standards.
Rapping his way out: Later that season, on March 3, 2015, the Denver Nuggets fired Brian Shaw and replaced him with assistant coach Melvin Hunt. Shaw, who was a highly regarded Lakers assistant under Phil Jackson, was perennially discussed as a future head coaching candidate in the years before he took over for Karl in Denver in 2013. But by the dog days of the 2014-15 season, he had completely lost the locker room. The low point came near the end of Shaw’s tenure, when video surfaced of the team breaking a timeout huddle by chanting “1-2-3-Six weeks!” After the season ended, Nuggets guard Ty Lawson added insult to injury for Shaw’s time in Denver, posting an embarrassing video to Instagram featuring the coach attempting to relate to his younger players by rapping the scouting report. After Shaw’s firing, the Nuggets beat the Bucks 106-95. They finished the year 10-13 under Hunt, but the team played noticeably harder for him than they did for Shaw, and Hunt was a serious candidate that offseason to take over the head coaching job permanently. The Nuggets ultimately hired Malone, who remains in place as head coach today.
A first change for the Bucks: In the most recent Fired Coach Game, the Bucks defeated the Suns 109-105 in January of last season with Joe Prunty taking over for Jason Kidd. That Suns team had experienced its own Fired Coach Game earlier in the season — after starting the year off with losses of 48, 32 and 42 points, Phoenix fired Earl Watson and picked up their first win of the season on Oct. 23 over the Sacramento Kings, with Jay Triano finishing out the season as interim head coach.
It is with all this history on their side that the Cavs will enter the post-Lue era on Tuesday night. They sit in a strange position in the current NBA landscape: following James’ departure for the Lakers, Altman and owner Dan Gilbert doubled down on the desire to stay competitive, bringing back popular veteran big man Channing Frye and signing Kevin Love to a four-year extension. Shortly into the season, however, The Athletic’s Joe Vardon reported that Altman was leaning on Lue to give more playing time to their younger players, a desire that went against the coach’s wishes. After a winless first six games, Altman and Gilbert decided to make a change, and Drew will coach the Cavs Tuesday against the Hawks.
How much longer Drew stays in charge, however, remains to be seen. Drew hasn’t officially accepted the interim head coach position, reportedly holding out for a longer-term commitment before agreeing to stay on for the rest of the season. Regardless of whether the Cavs keep the Fired Coach Game tradition alive — and against the tanking Hawks, their odds are good — the direction of the franchise is as much in flux as it’s ever been.