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30Q: How Secure is Coach Joerger’s Job?

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A strong argument can be made for or against the young coach.

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Memphis Grizzlies v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

With two full years in the books, Dave Joerger has a large enough body of work to be judged on his abilities as Head Coach of the Sacramento Kings. Fans, bloggers, and analysts have mixed evaluations of him, but there is a consensus among the decision makers within the organization. That consensus: Good enough. For now.

Joerger signed a 4-year deal worth $16 million in May of 2016, with the fourth year as a team option. The Kings picked up that option last September, which means this upcoming season will not be his last with a guaranteed pay day from the Kings. However, being under contract does not necessarily mean he will retain the position for the full two years.

While some perceive the extension as a sign that the Kings do in fact see Joerger as the long term solution at Head Coach, others see it as simply a defense against bad optics. Unlike NBA players, it’s rare for a head coach to enter a season in the last year of their contract. Teams prefer to project confidence in their staff, even if they don’t truly possess it internally.

A coach on a one-year deal can turn into the focal point for the season, and overshadow what is happening on the court. Players can lose confidence in their leadership, and even turn on the coaching staff altogether. This means that a $4 million vote of confidence could be the right move, even if the team were to part ways with Joerger before his contract is up.

So the question remains: How safe is Joerger’s position, really? The tight lipped nature of NBA front offices leaves us with some tea leaf reading to do, but we can get a pretty good temperature check on his coaching seat by looking at his results so far and comparing his situation to others around the league.

Tangibles

Let’s start off with measuring what’s easiest to quantify – wins and losses. In Joerger’s first year the Kings went 32-50. In his second they dropped to 27-55. These are not impressive numbers, and it’s never a good sign when win totals decline from year to year under the same coach.

You may be thinking that judgement is unfair, however. After all, the Kings parted ways with superstar Demarcus Cousins at the trade deadline in Joerger’s first year. Surely they were bound to get worse.

It makes sense that they would struggle mightily for the rest of the season. That they would probably hit a low point near the end of the year. But as long as they have improved since then, Joerger could still doing alright. Right?

Well, I have bad news for you. The Kings did not improve in Joerger’s second season even when compared exclusively to the post-Boogie Kings of 2016-17. Their net rating actually got worse last year.

Life After Cousins

Season Wins Losses Win% Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Net Rating
Season Wins Losses Win% Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Net Rating
2016-17 Before Cousins Trade 24 33 0.421 107.1 111.4 -4.3
2016-17 After Cousins Trade 8 17 0.32 106.2 113.2 -7
2017-18 27 55 0.329 103.5 111.2 -7.7

That’s pretty stunning to think about. A star-centric team trades away its star. They scramble to find a new identity. The pieces they get back are future forward, but can’t contribute at a high level yet. The game plan must change entirely, and there’s no obvious backup plan with their roster. In fact, there’s no real reason to even try to win right away. Things get ugly.

But over the offseason the team refocuses and restarts. They draft in the top-5. And again in the top-15. They bring another first round draft pick in from overseas. They spend $40 million in 2017-18 salary on free agents, including a veteran that Coach Joerger has extensive experience with.

…And somehow things get worse.

Yes, there are some rationalizations for Joerger’s failure to improve the team. And yes, they do appear to be enough to keep him at the helm for now. But the simple fact is, at least as far as wins and losses, the Kings are every bit as hapless now as they were when Boogie was traded away in February of 2017. When making the case to keep Dave Joerger, the numbers are not in his favor.

Intangibles

While the metrics for Joerger do not inspire confidence, several less quantifiable factors do. And luckily for Joerger, franchises that have been struggling for as long as the Kings have are likely to consider more than just numbers.

Firstly, Dave Joerger appears to be well respected in the locker room by all accounts. His players have had nothing but good things to say about him since his arrival in Sacramento. The weight of this cannot be overstated. Most players in the league have no problem stating their issues with a coach when they have them. So this team either doesn’t have any problems with Joerger, or they’ve done a good job keeping them to theirselves.

Much of the media covering the Kings seems to be with the players on this matter. While he’s not regarded as an elite coach by any means, Joerger is rarely – if ever – pointed to as the primary problem. When complaints are leveled against him, they often come with the caveat that he may just not have the players to do any better.

In that way, the middling quality of the Kings roster may actually be helping Joerger’s job security. Having a better team could make the coach’s strengths or weaknesses more obvious, but for now it just seems to be obscuring them. It’s hard to know who he is when we don’t really know what he’s working with. And while this cloak of mediocrity may not last long, it could be enough to put off a more extensive evaluation of his potential shortcomings.

Additionally, while many coaches face a ‘playoffs or bust’ ultimatum, that’s currently a non-issue in Sacramento. When talking job security, expectations have to be a major factor. And expectations in Sacramento this year are about as low as they come.

We don’t have to look far for examples of high hopes ousting a good coach. Dwane Casey led the Toronto Raptors to the top of the Eastern Conference last year and into the second round of the playoffs. But even a Coach of the Year award couldn’t save him from the expectations of team ownership. He was fired from the Raptors last May after three consecutive 50-win seasons.

Dave Joerger also has some contextual protection against being fired. The fact that he was in his first year when the Kings started (or restarted) their rebuild (or re-rebuild) plays into his favor. Giving up on Joerger now would appear to push a return to relevance even further down the road for Sacramento.

On a team that is projecting to have multiple young starters, keeping Joerger around could make things easier for the development of those players. With so many recent draft picks, much of the Kings core roster has spent 100% of their time in the NBA under his tutelage, including hopeful franchise cornerstone De’Aaron Fox.

And finally, the best pro-Joerger argument might simply be that the Kings have already experienced too much turnover recently. Sacramento has seen six head coaches in the last seven seasons, and a total of ten since 2006. It’s possible that a steady hand on the wheel is exactly what this franchise has been missing.

Heat Meter

So what’s the verdict? Before I give my personal opinion, let’s check in with Vegas. Several betting sites carry odds for the next NBA coach to be fired, though they often aren’t released until the start of the NBA season. However, The Action Network covered an early release of odds from MyBookie a couple months back that placed Joerger as fifth most likely to lose their job.

Next Coach to Go

Coach Team Odds
Coach Team Odds
Scott Brooks Washington Wizards Plus 300
Terry Stotts Portland Trail Blazers Plus 400
Fred Hoiberg Chicago Bulls Plus 500
Kenny Atkinson Brooklyn Nets Plus 500
Dave Joerger Sacramento Kings Plus 600
Doc Rivers Los Angeles Clippers Plus 700
Tyronn Lue Cleveland Cavaliers Plus 1000
Michael Malone Denver Nuggets Plus 1500
Nate McMillan Indiana Pacers Plus 1500
Alvin Gentry New Orleans Pelicans Plus 1500
Billy Donovan Oklahoma City Thunder Plus 1500

The Action Network stressed the importance of expectations, and identified some strong bets, including Michael Malone and Billy Donovan. You can read more from them here.

While a case can be made for firing Dave Joerger, I think these odds overstate it. Pressure to win now is what causes nine out of ten mid-season firings. I would put a majority of the names on that list ahead of Joerger for that reason, as well as a few that aren’t on the board at all. Luke Walton and Tom Thibodeau in particular seem to have high bars to clear.

Ultimately, the complete lack of smoke around Joerger suggests to me that there is no fire. So I believe he is safe this year. The Kings don’t expect to win a ton of games, and continuity for their first and second year players is of utmost importance.

If a move is made, I think it happens next offseason. The possibility of getting fired should not be Joerger’s concern right now. It should be earning a second contract. And that is going to require some serious progress.