Lonnie Cooper has not lost a single NBA game this season. He has not feuded with a superstar, nor failed to develop a rookie. He has not called for zone when he should have gone man-to-man. And yet by the middle of this month, Cooper had lost six NBA head-coaching jobs, which is surely some sort of record.
You could also call it the price of success. For two decades, Cooper has been the pre-eminent agent for NBA coaches. His client list is deep and decorated, ranging from Lenny Wilkens to Chuck Daly to Doc Rivers.
But today’s coaches have all the staying power of a 1980s hair band, which is why Cooper just endured one of the most agonizing months of his career.
In a dizzying 24-day stretch beginning late last month, six NBA coaches were fired. All were represented by Career Sports and Entertainment, Cooper’s Atlanta-based agency.
The statistical anomaly is mostly a reflection of Cooper’s broad reach — as of opening night, he represented nine of the league’s 30 head coaches, a staggering percentage in a niche business with a limited client pool.
Over 23 years, Cooper has seen dozens of clients fired, dismissed, replaced, terminated or, in the sanitized parlance of news releases, “relieved of his duties.” Still, it hurts every time.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s one or it’s 12, it’s personal with me, because these are my dear friends and I’ve been with them so long,” Cooper said in a rare phone interview last week. “If you talk to them, they’ll tell you — I’m there not just to do their contracts. I’m there for the highs and lows.”
Sometimes those highs and lows come in rapid succession. Rivers coached the Boston Celtics to the championship last June. Nate McMillan, another Cooper client, is leading a fantastic revival in Portland, where the Blazers are 18-12.
The vicarious thrills are offset by vicarious anguish.
The firings began on Nov. 22, when P.J. Carlesimo was dismissed by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Two days later, Eddie Jordan was fired by the Washington Wizards. Sam Mitchell (Toronto) was the next to go, then Randy Wittman (Minnesota) and Maurice Cheeks (Philadelphia). The purge continued on Dec. 15, with the Sacramento Kings firing Reggie Theus.
Cooper found some degree of solace when the Kings named Kenny Natt, another client, as the interim coach. But mostly, he wondered how any of these teams could claim to have improved their prospects.
“If you’re firing six guys at the beginning of the season, but you’re replacing them with an interim coach, what’s the message you’re sending right there?” Cooper said. “Did you make a change because the interim coach is a better coach? I haven’t figured that one out, that logic.”
Philadelphia, Washington and Minnesota replaced their coaches with front-office executives — none of whom are expected to return next season.
None of the six teams have shown improvement. The storm of pink slips set one official record — for the most NBA coaches fired before Christmas — and reminded Cooper how much the league has changed.
“The owners are different; it’s not the Gordon Gunds of the past, it’s not the Davidsons of the past,” Cooper said, referring to Gund, the former Cleveland Cavaliers owner, and Bill Davidson, the aging Detroit Pistons owner.
In the last decade, the NBA has seen an influx of young, hyperenergetic owners, from the Maloof brothers in Sacramento to Mark Cuban in Dallas to Robert Sarver in Phoenix and Dan Gilbert in Cleveland.