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LeBron’s Cavs Are The Best Team Ever To Fire Its Coach Midseason

The Cleveland Cavaliers fired head coach David Blatt on Friday, even though he guided the team to the NBA Finals last season and a 30-11 record so far this year.

The NBA is a tough league. But as far as we can tell, no coach has been fired under similar circumstances before.

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Below, you’ll find a table of NBA coaches since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976-77 who were fired or resigned in the middle of the regular season when their teams had an Elo rating of 1550 or higher.1 The league-average Elo rating is about 1500, so a rating of 1550 reflects a pretty good team; about as good as the Atlanta Hawks right now.

The most abrupt NBA coaching departures
COACH SEASON TEAM ELO COACH RECORD NOTES
David Blatt 2015-16 Cavaliers 1669 30-11 Fired
Del Harris 1998-99 Lakers 1611 6-6 Fired
Larry Brown 1982-83 Nets 1599 47-26 Resigned under pressure
Don Nelson 2004-05 Mavericks 1597 42-22 Resigned
Larry Brown 1991-92 Spurs 1586 21-17 Fired
Frank Layden 1988-89 Jazz 1584 11-6 Resigned
Stan Van Gundy 2005-06 Heat 1580 11-10 Resigned under pressure
Paul Westhead 1981-82 Lakers 1572 7-4 Fired
Danny Ainge 1999-2000 Suns 1563 13-7 Resigned
Gene Shue 1977-78 76ers 1559 2-4 Fired
Jack McKinney 1979-80 Lakers 1552 10-4 Injured

Source: Basketball-reference.com

Coaches don’t usually get fired when their teams are playing well. But Blatt’s Cavs haven’t just been good; they’ve been on the verge of great. The team’s current Elo rating is 1669, far higher than that of any other team when it fired a coach mid-season.

When a coach does get fired despite a solid record, it’s usually because his team is underperforming lofty expectations. But that can’t really be said of the Cavs. Their preseason team win total at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook was 56.5 wins; they’re actually a little ahead of that pace, currently projecting to finish the season 61-21 instead.

Yes, the Cavs were embarrassed on Monday by the Warriors, 132-98. But one bad regular-season loss isn’t usually enough to doom a coach. It’s reasonable to ask whether the overt tension between Blatt and superstar LeBron James played a role because there’s not really a good precedent for something like this happening. (James was reportedly not consulted about Blatt’s firing.)

Larry Brown resigned under pressure as head coach of the New Jersey Nets late in the 1982-83 season despite a 47-26 record, but that was because he’d agreed to take a job the next season at the University of Kansas. Del Harris was canned as Lakers’ head coach early in the 1998-99 season when the team had a strong 1611 Elo rating, but its record was just 6-6 at that point, below the perennially high expectations in Lakerland.

Footnotes

  1. The table excludes interim head coaches who were dismissed after a permanent replacement was found. ^

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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