Star power in the NBA is more valuable than any other sport, as every NBA Championship team has at least one future Hall of Fame caliber talent on their roster. NFL teams rely on dozens of players to make an impact on a top tier squad. MLB teams can get by with great pitching on a hot streak at the right time. Any basketball fan knows you need a great team but they're usually dependent on the superstar leading the way and creating opportunities for his teammates.
The value and power of the superstar in the NBA means the players have all the power. The stars are also marketed more in the NBA than they are in other sports. Because of that, and the money they bring to the team, teams will do whatever it takes to keep them happy. Coaches are more expendable because of the power dynamic. While head coaches do control the team’s vision and direction, a superstar failing to get along with their team leader will create issues. There’s almost no way the team is going to choose one of many good coaches over a rare star that the fans love and pay to see.
Coaches tend to have shorter shelf lives in the NBA. Aside from Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs, just about every other NBA team has seen their fair share of coaching changes over the last ten years. Stability is important but the numbers seem to just sway against coaches. There are many intelligent minds in basketball, meaning it's easier to find a new coach than it is to find a new superstar. Due to this culture in the sport, players have often played a role in getting coaches fired for many years. We’re going to look through NBA history for the top fifteen biggest coach killers of all-time.
15 James Harden
The Houston Rockets struck gold when they traded role players and draft picks for James Harden. They acquired a budding superstar and helped him develop into the face of the franchise. Harden finished second in the MVP voting last season and led Houston to the Western Conference Finals. Things looked promising for the Rockets entering the season but it changed quickly. Houston got off to a terrible start and head coach Kevin McHale shouldered the blame by getting fired. Harden’s lack of effort on defense, selfish style of play and poor leadership allegedly caused friction in the Rockets locker room and his inability to change in time cost McHale his job.
14 Richard Hamilton
Rip Hamilton is most known for his role in helping the Detroit Pistons win the 2004 NBA Championship over the Los Angeles Lakers. Hamilton worked well with most of his coaches but he definitely killed the coaching career of John Kuester in Detroit. Kuester benched Hamilton and felt it would help improve the struggling team. Hamilton responded by not showing up to practice and it caused a tear in the locker room. Many of the Pistons stood up for their trusted teammate by skipping practice as well in protest of Kuester. Respected names like Tayshaun Prince, Tracy McGrady, Rodney Stuckey and a few others chose to support Hamilton’s message and helped end Kuester’s chances as a head coach.
13 Kobe Bryant
As one of the greatest NBA stars of all time, Kobe Bryant has had his fair share of power and influence in the Los Angeles Lakers organization. Bryant played a large role in the Lakers trading Shaquille O’Neal away and that factored into legendary head coach Phil Jackson leaving the team. The franchise wanted to appease Bryant in hopes of locking him into a long term contract and that meant splitting from Jackson. After the team struggled without him, Jackson was brought back and Kobe approved but Jackson confirmed in his book that Bryant’s play caused a rift and his first exit from the team. The two repaired their relationship and won another two titles together.
12 Steve Nash
The style of play in the NBA is currently fast paced with a large emphasis on ball movement and three-point shooting. This originated with the Phoenix Suns and Steve Nash. The team embraced a new style under Mike D’Antoni’s system and Nash was the perfect point guard to run the offense. Nash won two MVP awards and was one of the best at his position for years. A coaching change saw Terry Porter try to help Phoenix get over the hump and into title contention. Nash’s play suffered and the team struggled to succeed. Porter was fired and many blame Nash for not trying his hardest to work within a new system.
11 DeMarcus Cousins
DeMarcus Cousins has one of the most volatile personalities in sports and it has caused problems with multiple head coaches in Sacramento. At times, Cousins' short temper leads to undisciplined play and childish antics. A coach’s job is to keep that in check and most have failed to do so. A handful of coaches have been fired by the Kings over the last five years and their inability to get the best out of Cousins is seen as the main reason. George Karl is the current coach in Sacramento and has already entered an alleged locker room war with Cousins. There were stories of Karl trying to get Cousins traded last offseason and Cousins publicly referring to Karl as a snake because of it. This season saw Cousins curse at Karl in the locker room according to reports, though it now appears as though they seem to be on the page, but it's fair to wonder how long that might last...
10 Elvin Hayes
One of the most unbelievable examples of an NBA player killing a coach’s career came from Elvin Hayes. The 60s star was drafted to lead the San Diego Rockets but failed to get along with head coach Jack McMahon. Hayes did not work his hardest in practice and McMahon resented him for the lack of effort. The story comes in a regular season game where Hayes dropped three passes in a row and McMahon called a timeout to yell at him. Hayes replied saying McMahon wouldn’t be there tomorrow. Hayes was correct and McMahon was fired the next day. Teammate Jim Barnett shared the story and it lives on as a legendary example of a true coach killer.
9 Penny Hardaway
Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway was one of the most promising talents of the 90s and was expected to blossom into a future Hall of Famer. Injuries would ruin Hardaway’s long term career but he was spectacular when at his best. The Orlando Magic hoped to build around him and that also applied to their coaching decisions. Following Shaquille O’Neal’s departure to join the Los Angeles Lakers, the Magic struggled and head coach Brian Hill was blamed. Penny apparently complained to management about his coaching style, which led the players to rebel against Hill. It was a wrap for his chances at keeping the job in Orlando and he was fired shortly after.
8 Stephon Marbury
Stephon Marbury's trials and tribulations in the NBA forced him out of the league, but he's since moved to China and become a massive basketball star there. Marbury is currently adored by the Chinese sports fans and even has a live play about him. The people love him but his rough times in the NBA are well documented, with his most infamous stretch coming with his hometown New York Knicks. Marbury entered feuds with two legends that occupied the coaching position. Larry Brown had an abysmal run with the Knicks and Marbury’s frustrations with him led to the end of the relationship. Isiah Thomas tried his luck to relate to the fellow point guard, but it once again fell short and the franchise fell apart.
7 Gary Payton
Gary Payton was an elite point guard in the 90s and put the Seattle SuperSonics franchise on his back. His tremendous defense and unparalleled confidence made Payton a star in the NBA, but it also made it hard for him to get along with Paul Westphal and “The Glove” played a pivotal role in the firing of Westphal. As we mentioned before, a franchise will always look to make things work with the superstar rather than the coach. Payton’s value and lack of respect for Westphal was the main reason for the coaching change.
6 Shaquille O’Neal
For the most part, Shaquille O’Neal has formed positive relationships with his coaches. O’Neal has often referred to Phil Jackson as the basketball version of a father figure. Following a great run with the Los Angeles Lakers, O’Neal was traded to the Miami Heat and spent the final years of his prime there. The team saw an instant improvement with Shaq, but failed to win the ultimate prize with Stan Van Gundy as the head coach. Miami made a change by having team president Pat Riley become the new coach and they won a title together. O’Neal reportedly did not get along with Van Gundy and hoped for the coaching change. Shaq still disses Stan in interviews and on television shows whenever his time in Miami is referenced.
5 Carmelo Anthony
Carmelo Anthony has been one of the most popular players in the NBA for the last decade and that has caused his influence to grow within the franchises he's played for. Between forcing his way into a trade from the Denver Nuggets to the New York Knicks and his clash with former teammate Jeremy Lin, Anthony is no stranger to controversy. The instance of ‘Melo killing a coach’s career was Mike D’Antoni in New York. The Knicks looked to be on the upward swing with the rise of Linsanity during Anthony’s injury absence. When Anthony returned, the team struggled to play together and D’Antoni was blamed. However, it was also no secret Anthony didn’t get along with D’Antoni or appreciate his coaching methods.
4 Magic Johnson
As one of the all-time great basketball players and a masterful businessman, Magic Johnson is basically NBA royalty. The Los Angeles Lakers legend is beloved but he did have his moment as a coach killer. Head coach Paul Westhead was fired thanks to the desires of Johnson. Westhead was credited with having one of the most boring offenses in the NBA and players didn’t particularly enjoy playing for him because of it. You can credit Westhead’s inability to adapt to the times as the main reason for his firing but a star player like Magic not being happy with the coach will always be the true cause for a change at the end of the day.
3 Jason Kidd
Despite being a head coach currently in the NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks, Jason Kidd was a very impressive coach killer in his playing career. Kidd led the New Jersey Nets to back-to-back NBA Finals with tremendous point guard play but was the reason Byron Scott was fired as head coach. Scott was the coach for both playoff runs but Kidd did not have respect for him. Kidd got into a heated argument with Scott in the locker room following a loss and Scott was fired shortly after the incident. The Nets put their faith in Kidd by appeasing him but he would later force a trade out of New Jersey. Years later, he made his head coaching debut with the now Brooklyn Nets and once again had an ugly falling out there.
2 Deron Williams
The resume of Deron Williams’ work as a coach killer is quite impressive. Williams had a great gig with the Utah Jazz and was respected as one of the best point guards in the NBA. Despite head coach Jerry Sloan being a legend in the game, and in Utah, Williams showed a lack of respect for him. The point guard allegedly gave an ultimatum to the franchise that resulted in Sloan leaving the team. Despite that, Williams still left Utah in a trade to the then-New Jersey Nets. The Nets looked to make Williams the face of the franchise in their move to Brooklyn but it was a disaster. Williams reportedly had issues with coach Avery Johnson and it caused Johnson to get fired very early into the team’s first season in Brooklyn.
1 Dwight Howard
No one deserves the title of coach killer more than Dwight Howard for one specific incident. Howard was the top star in Orlando and the team desperately wanted to keep him as he approached free agency. The big man used his leverage to get the Magic to fire head coach Stan Van Gundy. Rumors broke out that Howard was trying to cause the firing but he adamantly denied it. During one of Van Gundy’s media sessions, Howard confidently went up to the coach and joked about how silly the rumors were in front of the cameras to clear his reputation. The thing that makes this funny is that Van Gundy admitted the rumors of Howard trying to get him fired were true just minutes before. Stan was ultimately fired afterwards and Howard still decided he wanted out of town by forcing a trade a few months later. What a guy.
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