Every Tuesday in Touchdown Jesus, staff writers Cray Allred and Valerie Dunham engage with the popular and polarizing world of sports from a Christian perspective.

“No one wants to hear the truth, because the truth is ugly.”

ABC announcer and former NBA head coach Jeff Van Gundy gave full vent to his frustrations during the network’s broadcast of the Cavaliers/Bulls game on January 23rd, a day after Cleveland had fired its head coach, David Blatt. Coaches are fired frequently in all of sports, but this particular axing had the sports world abuzz and the coaching fraternity enraged. Blatt was fired despite helming a team on the very top of the Eastern Conference, winning 73% of its games a season after reaching in the Finals without two of its three superstars.

The simple explanation for the revolving doors around the league is that coaches are now being treated more like players, viewed as assets that can be moved around on a whim.

Arguments about merit (Did Blatt deserve to get fired?) and blame (Is LeBron responsible, despite the organization’s insistence he wasn’t?) are common before and after coaches are let go, but the tenor of the discussion in this case has an element of surprise and incredulity. Is the league really this cutthroat? Or has that ugly truth Van Gundy referenced just been exposed a little more clearly this time around? The totalizing view of Ecclesiastes makes me suspect the latter.

The NBA coaching fraternity reacted as if we’ve seen something new, and disturbing, under the sun. Stan Van Gundy, Jeff’s brother, called the firing an embarrassment to the league. He called it proof that the league has become the “theater of the absurd”, where coaches get fired even when they win. SVG knows a little about the depths of NBA absurdity, having been through the bizarre experience of talking to the press about his star player’s wish for him to be fired, with said star player’s giant arm draped over his shoulder.

Brian Windhorst wrote about the increasing pressure on successful coaches to get better or get the boot. Windhorst tallied 21 NBA coach firings over the last two years, noting that the successors to vacant coaches haven’t tended to provide any improvement for the same teams. Meanwhile, the league’s model franchise, the San Antonio Spurs, employs the longest tenured coach of all. At the end of this season, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will have reached the playoffs in 19 straight years with a sterling winning percentage over 70% for his career. It seems, as Windhorst argues, that longevity could be more prized for those teams seeking greatness.

One of the ways humans are contrasted sharply with their maker is the realm of consistency. God’s counsel, beginning to end, stands. He doesn’t break covenants. Instead, he sacrificially absorbs the burden when His people don’t hold up their end of the bargain. Certainly, remaining true to your commitments in the darkest days of marriage, friendship, and other facets of the believer’s life is a path to behaving with strikingly Christ-like love and resolve when the counsel of the flesh insists you bail. The patience and continuity of an organization like the Spurs is rightfully lauded.

But the Spurs model doesn’t hold up as a bastion of biblical virtue unless you look at loyalty selectively. Popovich and company have cut or traded plenty of players over their long run of success. Many players, desperate to keep their careers alive have worked modest 10-day contracts for the most loyal and consistent franchises, only to have opportunities for playing time withheld as they fade from view. Popovich himself took the reins on the Spurs bench by firing the coach before him and hiring himself as the replacement (he was the team’s General Manager at the time). Stan Van Gundy didn’t feel absurd and disloyal for waiving Josh Smith just last year without notice, sending him packing and in search of a small role on another team while the NBA media cycle honed in on how far the player had fallen.

The simple explanation for the revolving doors around the league is that coaches are now being treated more like players, viewed as assets that can be moved around on a whim. Some are asserting that Cleveland should have fired their coach even earlier, a line of thinking I’ve put out for a different coach before.

Basketball, like all high stakes business, can be cruel. We speculate endlessly about the fate of strangers, demanding their dismissal or throwing them into a trade machine like they’re cards to be dealt. We root for various upheavals, rejoicing when commitments are severed if we think it will help our team’s chances. At least most NBA player contracts, and all head coaching contracts, are guaranteed–so the humiliation of losing one’s job is limited to the disgrace itself, rather than a loss of one’s livelihood as happens routinely with the NFL.

Whether we think, relative to the league’s code of ethics, that a coach deserves to be fired or a player ought to be shipped away, perhaps we could add just a pinch of grace to our sports imagination. The game could use some.

Image: Brad Penner, USA Today Sports