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There's no reason to fire Flip Saunders in the middle of the season

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After another road loss, it's tempting to start to point some fingers.  Last night, a lot of fingers were pointed at Flip Saunders after he coached what I thought was a pretty subpar game.  I saw all the calls to fire him this second, and I get the frustration.

But that's just not the right answer right now.  A lot of people seem to assume that getting rid of a head coach in-season will magically cause the players to play differently, but that's not usually how it works.  Instead, what usually happens is that an assistant with the same system and prejudices towards certain guys is promoted, and little really changes.  In the end, all you're really doing is eating more money needlessly.  

When Eddie Jordan was about to fired in midseason of 2008/09, I ran an analysis of just how well interim coaches actually did compared to the man they replaced.  At the time, only five of the 13 coaches replaced since 2004/05 actually had a better winning percentage than the guy he replaced, and the only one to make a significant difference was George Karl in 2004/05.  Of course, that case is a bit of an outlier, because it involved actually finding a coach willing to come aboard from outside the organization in the middle of the season, which rarely happens.  Since then, here's a list of teams who have fired their coach in midseason:

  • 2008/09 Wizards: Replaced Eddie Jordan (1-10) with Ed Tapscott (18-53)
  • 2008/09 76ers: Replaced Maurice Cheeks (9-14) with Tony DiLeo (32-27)
  • 2008/09 Raptors: Replaced Sam Mitchell (8-9) with Jay Triano (25-40)
  • 2008/09 Timberwolves: Replaced Randy Wittman (4-15) with Kevin McHale (20-43)
  • 2008/09 Thunder: Replaced P.J. Carlisemo (1-12) with Scott Brooks (22-47)
  • 2008/09 Suns: Replaced Terry Porter (28-23) with Alvin Gentry (18-13)
  • 2008/09 Kings: Replaced Reggie Theus (6-18) with Kenny Natt (11-47)
  • 2008/09 Grizzlies: Replaced Marc Ivaroni (11-30) with Lionel Hollins (13-26)
  • 2009/10 Nets: Replaced Lawrence Frank (0-16) with Kiki Vandeweghe (12-52)
  • 2009/10 Clippers: Replaced Mike Dunleavy (21-28) with Kim Hughes (8-25)
  • 2009/10 Hornets: Replaced Byron Scott (4-9) with Jeff Bower (34-39)
  • 2010/11 Bobcats: Replaced Larry Brown (9-19) with Paul Silas (7-5 so far)
So there's been a slightly higher success rate recently. Still, most of these coaches haven't lifted their teams to new heights in season. The only coach to carry his team from out of the playoffs to in the playoffs is Tony DiLeo (though Paul Silas could join him).  Several others have been good for development teams (Brooks, Hollins, Bower), which certainly helps the "Fire Flip now" argument, but for all those guys, there's a Calvin Natt, Kiki Vandeweghe, Kim Hughes or even an Ed Tapscott on the other side of the coin.

Now, compare that to those coaches who came aboard in the offseason and had time to implement their new systems this year:
  • Philadelphia: Doug Collins (17-24, 42% winning percentage) replaces Eddie Jordan (27-55, 33% winning percentage)
  • New Jersey: Avery Johnson (11-31, 26% winning percentage) replaces Kiki (12-52, 19% winning percentage)
  • Chicago: Tom Thibodeau (28-14, 67% winning percentages) replaces Vinny Del Negro (41-41, 50% winning percentage)
  • Cleveland: Byron Scott (8-33, 20% winning percentage) replaces Mike Brown 61-21, 74% winning percentage)
  • Atlanta: Larry Drew (28-15, 65% winning percentage) replaces Mike Woodson (53-29, 65% winning percentage)
  • Golden State: Keith Smart (18-23, 46% winning percentage) replaces Don Nelson (26-56, 32% winning percentage)
  • LA Clippers: Del Negro (16-41, 39% winning percentage) replaces Hughes (8-33, 24% winning percentage)
  • New Orleans: Monty Williams (27-16, 63% winning percentage) replaces Bower (34-39, 47% winning percentage)
The only coach not to have a positive impact on his team from year-to-year is Scott, and there's obviously major mitigating circumstances there.  Sure, the coaches never did it alone, because they have improved rosters, but that's also part of the point.  When you bring aboard a coach in the offseason, you have the luxury of picking players who may suit him better, assistant coaches who reflect his philosophy and a training camp to implement his system.  

Considering the Wizards have little need to make the playoffs this season, that would be the correct play if they indeed decide to let Flip go.