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A Call For Accountability

Accountability is an ethical concept that seems relatively straight forward. It is the basic acknowledgment and assumption of responsibility for actions and performance of those under your guidance or leadership.

Without answerability, means of governance are nearly impossible to control. In business, market accountability demands that organizations be honest with and responsive to their customers and competition while producing quality services. As our present economic crisis has shown us, such accountability is critical.

The Great Recession has proven that answerability from leadership is becoming a rare commodity: most use a combination of excuses, justifications, and apologies to transfer ownership of their failures.

Sadly, that same culture of stop-gap rationalizations and cop-out exists in professional sports. Team owners, presidents, and general managers seem to believe in taking responsibility for the performance their team only theoretically.

Their trusted strategy when a team struggles is to deflect full responsibility to the hapless coach who may or may not be blameworthy. This tactic is not going out of style: the NBA has seen a record number of in-season coaching changes this year and few were universally justifiable.

Most recently, Memphis replaced Marc Iavaroni, a coach who only a few years ago was thought of as a prodigy. Granted, his record in Memphis was atrocious and even his fiercest advocates would be hard-pressed to argue that the Iavaroni era was a positive one. That said, one has to ask what else leadership truly expected given the state of the roster and the franchise in general.

Something cannot come from nothing. A Kia cannot substitute for a Bugati. What I am driving at is that you cannot reasonably expect a coach to achieve success when he works for the cheapest owner in the league that refuses to invest in his product.

Memphis dumped all of its viable ‘win-now’ assets last season for cap room and project players, moves that Chris Wallace, not Iavaroni, was responsible for. Yet Wallace, the decision maker, was the one left standing last week. In fact, he was the one that handed the coach his walking papers. So much for accountability.

Simply put, a coach has to be given a chance to succeed. That is why Avery Johnson correctly turned Memphis down last week, and why any other coach would be wise to do the same. A situation where the team refuses to spend money or invest in player development is not conducive to winning.

Iavaroni is not the only coach this year to have been made scapegoat when team architect shirk responsibility. Reggie Theus likewise inherited an impossible situation when Sacramento traded Ron Artest for next to nothing on the heels of his leading the Kings to a surprising 38-44 record last year. Kevin Martin subsequently got injured and missed the start of the season, sealing Theus’ fate.

Theus and Iavaroni inherited such bad teams that is would be unreasonable for anyone to expect a proper turnaround in under two seasons. Yet that is exactly what their leadership did. I suppose the old adage that “you can’t fire the players” hold true here.

Perhaps both coaches lost the confidence of their locker rooms. Maybe the teams had tuned them out. Yet that still does not excuse the franchises’ consistent blunders in free-agency and inability to build a winning environment that allows a coach to develop his roster.

By contrast, consider the situation in Oklahoma City. The Thunder went 20-62 last season in what was openly acknowledged as a year spent developing their young talent. Ownership did not demand that head coach P.J. Carlesimo win now. It recognized that it did not have the talent in place to do so. All that it asked was that he cultivate the young talent he had, allow it to mature and show steady progress.

Carlesimo was ultimately fired this season after starting the season 1-12. But it was not his record that did him in. It was the fact that he showed no commitment to playing or nurturing Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook, and his insistence on playing Kevin Durant out of position. His replacement, Scotty Brooks, has made a significant difference in the culture around the team simply by changing those two realities.

Yes, Oklahoma continues to struggle to win games and will absolutely end up near the bottom of the standings. But Brooks’ ownership is only asking that the coach take responsibility for growing the young talent he has been given for tomorrow, not for winning today. Theus and Iavaroni had similarly young rosters that also lacked the talent to compete presently, yet they were held answerable for the consequences of misplaced expectations from leadership.

We often hear from ownership and team presidents that everyone at the organization is accountable for its success or failure: players play, coaches coach, managers manage. That is a wonderful sentiment, but when it comes to the showdown, it does not hold. Teams get desperate for a quick fix and there needs to be a fall guy.

It is a pity though that coaches, not team executives, are the only ones that ever fall on their sword.

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