What Should NBA Bettors Know About In-Season Coaching Changes?

What Should NBA Bettors Know About In-Season Coaching Changes?

We’re more than halfway through the 2016-17 NBA season and there haven’t been any firings yet, but several head coaches are definitely on the hot seat. After going 30-52 last season, Alvin Gentry and the New Orleans Pelicans have gone just 20-32 this year. The Chicago Bulls (26-26) have underachieved this season, but it’s the off-court behavior of their star players that could have Fred Hoiberg looking for a new job. The Nets have gone 9-42 this season and, although most coaches aren’t fired in their first season, some are already calling for the dismissal of Kenny Atkinson.

While mid-season coaching changes are usually reserved for struggling teams, that’s not always the case, as we saw last season with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Despite going 83-40 straight up (SU) and boasting the best record in the Eastern Conference, David Blatt was unceremoniously fired. Interestingly, Blatt had gone just 68-74 against the spread (ATS) during his tenure as the Cavs head coach. The team replaced him with assistant Tyronn Lue, who would go on to guide Cleveland to the NBA championship.

Although it was widely criticized at the time, in hindsight, it was clearly the right move for Cleveland to fire Blatt. However, that’s not always the case, as exemplified by the Brooklyn Nets. In less than one and a half seasons, Lionel Hollins went 50-75 SU (40%) and 63-60-2 ATS (51.2%). Since his firing, the Nets have gone just 20-76 SU (20.8%) and 38-55 ATS (40.9%).

Changing a coach mid-season is an important managerial decision and, like most decisions, there are both costs and benefits. The expected benefit of a mid-season coaching change is improved team performance; however, there are many factors which can impact the success of a replacement coach. Are players disheartened by the departure of their previous coach? Does the new coach have the requisite experience needed to be successful? Do the problems affecting performance go beyond head coaching and into the front office or player personnel?

I wanted to learn whether bettors could find value from these mid-season coaching changes, so I reached out to Scott Cooley, a spokesman for the market-setting Bookmaker.eu. “A coaching change in the NBA has very little impact on the oddsmaking,” stated Cooley. “We may shade just a hint for the first few games if it’s a green coach simply because of public perception. But honestly, the teams that are firing coaches aren’t really on the public radar most of the time anyway.”

It was interesting to learn that sportsbooks don’t do much to account for coaching changes, except when an inexperienced coach is making his NBA debut. Personally, I believe that head coaches are often used as scapegoats for larger organizational issues, and are forced to take the blame for issues outside of their control. For that reason, I speculated that teams making a coaching change would suffer from the lack of cohesion and experience.

To learn more about how teams have fared following in-season coaching changes, I examined the 42 instances over the past twelve seasons.


TeamCoachATS RecordReplacementATS Record
Brooklyn NetsLionel Hollins20-17Tony Brown17-27
Cleveland CavaliersDavid Blatt19-21Tyronn Lue32-29
Houston RocketsKevin McHale3-9JB Bickerstaff34-40
New York KnicksDerek Fisher29-25Kurt Rambis15-13
Phoenix SunsJeff Hornacek18-31Earl Watson18-15


TeamCoachATS RecordReplacementATS Record
Denver NuggetsBrian Shaw22-35Melvin Hunt14-8
Orlando MagicJacque Vaughn27-25James Borrengo14-15
Sacramento KingsMichael Malone13-11Tyrone Corbin8-19
Sacramento KingsTyrone CorbinN/AGeorge Karl12-17


TeamCoachATS RecordReplacementATS Record
Detroit PistonsMaurice Cheeks22-27John Loyer13-19


TeamCoachATS RecordReplacementATS Record
Brooklyn NetsAvery Johnson12-15P.J. Carlesimo31-29
Los Angeles LakersMike Brown1-4Bernie Bickerstaff4-1
Los Angeles LakersBernie BickerstaffN/AMike D'Antoni29-46
Milwaukee BucksScott Skiles16-16Jim Boylan22-32
Phoenix SunsAlvin Gentry16-24Lindsey Hunter16-24


TeamCoachATS RecordReplacementATS Record
New York KnicksMike D'Antoni18-24Mike Woodson19-10
Portland Trail BlazersNate McMillan20-23Kaleb Canales12-11
Sacramento KingsPaul Westphal3-5Keith Smart26-32
Washington WizardsFlip Saunders5-12Randy Wittman24-24


TeamCoachATS RecordReplacementATS Record
Charlotte BobcatsLarry Brown11-15Paul Silas29-25
Indiana PacersJim O'Brien20-22Frank Vogel21-22
Utah JazzJerry Sloan24-29Tyrone Corbin10-17


TeamCoachATS RecordReplacementATS Record
Los Angeles ClippersMike Dunleavy24-24Kim Hughes11-22
New Jersey NetsLawrence Frank5-11Tom Barrise0-2
New Jersey NetsTom BarriseN/AKiki Vandeweghe28-25
New Orleans HornetsByron Scott3-6Jeff Bower34-38


TeamCoachATS RecordReplacementATS Record
Memphis GrizzliesMarc Iavaroni15-25Johnny Davis0-2
Memphis GrizzliesJohnny DavisN/ALionel Hollins23-15
Minnesota TimberwolvesRandy Wittman6-13Kevin McHale31-30
Oklahoma City ThunderP.J. Carlesimo5-8Scott Brooks39-27
Philadelphia 76ersMaurice Cheeks9-15Tony DiLeo31-31
Phoenix SunsTerry Porter18-32Alvin Gentry18-13
Sacramento KingsReggie Theus11-13Kenny Natt27-31
Toronto RaptorsSam Mitchell6-11Jay Triano27-36
Washington WizardsEddie Jordan3-8Ed Tapscott28-40


TeamCoachATS RecordReplacementATS Record
Chicago BullsScott Skiles8-17Pete Myers0-1
Chicago BullsPete MyersN/AJim Boylan28-28


TeamCoachATS RecordReplacementATS Record
Memphis GrizzliesMike Fratello13-17Tony Barone26-25
Milwaukee BucksTerry Stotts32-31Larry Krystkowiak5-12
Minnesota TimberwolvesDwane Casey22-18Randy Wittman11-29


TeamCoachATS RecordReplacementATS Record
Miami HeatStan Van Gundy8-13Pat Riley40-42
Seattle SuperSonicsBob Weiss12-17Bob Hill24-27

My research found that at the time they were fired, these coaches have combined to go 519-669 ATS (43.69%). Although their replacements have performed better against the spread, they have still struggled with an 851-951 ATS (47.22%) record. Considering that oddsmakers adjust their power rankings throughout the season, the fact that teams have still posted a losing ATS record after making a coaching change is quite telling.

Typically, a coach has to perform poorly to get fired mid-season, but their past struggles have already been built into the spread. By fading teams that have made a coaching change, bettors would have gone 951-851 ATS (52.78%) since 2005. That’s just above the breakeven point for spread bettors. Over the past three seasons, this strategy has been particularly profitable, going 334-279 ATS (54.49%). Bettors shouldn’t blindly take teams who have replaced their head coach, but it does appear that these teams have historically struggled to cover the spread.

I should also point out there have been several instances where a team went though more than two coaches during one season including the 2014-15 Sacramento Kings, 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers, 2009-10 New Jersey Nets, 2008-09 Memphis Grizzlies and 2007-08 Chicago Bulls. To be fair, some of those instances include interim head coaches, who were quickly replaced by the next full-time head coach.

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David Solar

David was the Content Manager at Sports Insights. He has since moved on to greener pastures.

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