The Rotation: Short NBA Coach Carousel
The Rotation is a weekly study on the NBA by one of our All-Star voices. In rotation this week is Tom Ziller.
An annual tradition regular as daybreak, as the season ends a pack of coaches are mercilessly hacked to pieces by fans, media and often their own bosses. A parade of potential replacements jumps aboard the carousel. They dance, they preen ... one of them wins. A year or two or (fingers crossed) three later, said doll gets torn apart. The cycle continues.
There was a switch this season, though: the bloodletting happened during the season, as a record eight coaches met the iron maiden between opening night and Valentine's Day. Is there anyone left to execute at season's end?
Well ... yes. Of course there is. After the jump, we tell you whom and guess their replacements.
It actually appears that four of the eight midseason replacements will keep their jobs for 2009-10, which seems somewhere between bizarre and depressing. All but one interim came from within the firing organization; the exception is actually no interim at all, as Memphis hired Lionel Hollins away from Milwaukee, inking a deal that includes the 2009-10 season. Hollins, of course, coached Memphis previously as an interim.
Three interims came from their franchises' front office; Philadelphia's Tony DiLeo is expected to stick, while Washington's Ed Tapscott will return to the boardroom and Minnesota's Kevin McHale will either choose to return or choose to travel the Gobi with a backpack, a flask of Jameson's and some Springsteen MP3s.
Others served as assistant coaches before being promoted. Of these, Phoenix's Alvin Gentry is apparently safe (despite the meltdown), Toronto's Jay Triano could either survive or return as an assistant, Oklahoma City's Scott Brooks has earned his job, and Sacramento's Kenny Natt ... well, let's just say Kenny Natt is on a month-to-month lease.
That's only two sure openings from the eight teams that ceremoniously vanquished their bosses during the course of the season. That's crazy! Instead of finding the best coach on the market, most of these teams have decided they had the best candidate in-house all along. What are the odds they are all right? On a case-by-case basis, coaches like DiLeo, Brooks and Gentry can earn nods, depending on the position of the sun. But in total, taken as a population of decisions, it seems mad.
But even more surprising, very few other teams look to have coaching vacancies this summer. Everyone who deserved to be fired has already been fired!
Beyond Sacramento and Washington, Toronto and Minnesota stand the best chance to have openings of the interim-headed teams. Expanding the field to the full 30, the next plausible addition would have to be ... the Clippers, a franchise which owes its combo general manager/coach $5 million a year for two more seasons. All accounts have L.A. instead looking to relieve Mike Dunleavy of his front office duties and (inexplicably) keeping him as coach.
Who else could possibly get fired? Vinny Del Negro has the Bulls on the way to the No. 7 seed; credit him or not, that's improvement, and improvement doesn't get canned. (Ask Reggie Theus, May 2008.) Lawrence Frank seems to have a good relationship with New Jersey's bosses; further, Frank really doesn't deserve a pink slip, as the Nets have been better on offense than assumed possible. Jim O'Brien might be on a hot seat if his franchise wasn't already hemorhagging money. Every other team has either a high-price, big-name coach (Don Nelson, George Karl) or has a team overperforming expectations (the Knicks, the Hawks). Surprises could happen, and maybe a bad postseason flame-out puts a safe coach on slippery footing. But as this point, there looks to be little action on the coaching carousel.
But as we'll have at least two job openings, and potentially five or more, let's look at the candidates.
The Winner: Flip Saunders
Saunders will be the leader in every clubhouse until he's hired. A career winning percentage near 60% will help with that. Of all the "big name" options, Saunders has the best balance on his resume, with a reputation for innovative defensive schemes and player-friendly offensive sets. His demerits will stem from a rough fall-out in Detroit in which Rasheed Wallace insinuated Flip had no control over the locker room and allowed players to walk all over him. But results hardly lie; Michael Curry had an awfully rough season, and Saunders missed the playoffs once in 11 full seasons as a head coach. The record doesn't lie.
Washington would be a phenomenal fit, in my humble opinion.
The Philosophers: Avery Johnson and Eddie Jordan
The Little General watched the Summer of 2008 pass without so much as an offer; there's a rumor that the Grizzlies told Johnson to name his price in January, but something leaves me doubting the veracity there. Any team after a drill sergeant who will demand defensive accountability, sit any player (star or scrub) who gives less than 100% effort and generally draw troops into rank and keep them there ... that's Avery Johnson in a paragraph. He will turn asses red, and some teams desperately need that. (See: Milwaukee, last season. Enter the Skiles, which is like Enter the Dragon, but with more spittle.)
Jordan is different. He's a so-called "player's coach." He likes velvet sweatsuits. He enjoys the color teal. He enjoys fine French pastry, and offense. High-fricking octane offense. A disciple of Pete Carril's Princeton offense, Jordan promises to get any set of scrubs burning out scoreboard lights in no time. This is a league of offense. Points win championships, and MVP awards, and dates on national TV. Eddie Jordan is a scion of Naismith, you'd better believe that.
Where should Johnson land? The Clippers would be hilarious, but the Timberwolves righteous. For Jordan, Sacramento is Mecca. Don't listen to anyone that yelps about the financial woes of the Maloofs when it comes to Jordan: Washington owes Eddie $4 million in 2009-10. If E.J. takes a starting salary of $2 million, the Wizards must make up the difference. The Kings could likely have Jordan as cheap as any other coach. The more pressing question is whether the Maloofs would instead prefer to (again!) insert their own friend into the role.
The Big Leaps: Tom Thibodeau and Ettore Messina
Thibodeau may have reached critical mass two summers ago, when he missed out on two jobs ... two assistant jobs. Steve Kerr tried to insert Thibodeau, a renowned defensive mastermind, onto Mike D'Antoni's bench. Coach D rejected the idea, instead promoting his brother. The next stop for the Thibodeau Experience was Washington, to provide some yang for Jordan's yin. Another 'no,' this one on Thibodeau's end ... though the circumstances there remain murky. Finally, Boston grabbed T.T. and has never looked back. Thibodeau is known as abrasive, in a state of constant apoplexy on the sidelines. He's not what you'd call a "people person." But dang, dude can coach defense. His name has been involved in enough previous openings that he's ripe for a breakthrough. Whether that works out or follows the path of Marc Iavaroni remains to be seen.
The shoe everyone is really waiting for is the league's first European coach. Messina figures to be that coach, especially if Toronto decides to replace Triano in the first chair. So many of the struggles NBA coaches face has to do with getting players to buy into a system and trust the coach and each other. Is the NBA color-blind yet? We won't know until a few Messinas get a shot. If any team can handle it, it's Toronto, with Italian Andrea Bargnani, Spaniard Jose Calderon and benign superstar Chris Bosh in tow. Besides, you don't see Flip Saunders getting carried around by his players!
The Next Wave
Who could jump up into the headlines this summer, or (more likely) grab attention when the next carousel starts up?
Mike Budenholzer, San Antonio: Bud has been Gregg Popovich's top assistant since P.J. Carlesimo left for Seattle, and Pop's right-hand man for even longer. He's a young buck who was a finalist for the Phoenix job last summer, said to have a mind like a steel trap and strong charisma. The Spurs pipeline has been mostly drained around the league (Danny Ferry, Mike Brown, Sam Presti, Johnson), and Bud sure seems like the next domino here.
Kurt Rambis and Brian Shaw, Los Angeles: These two Lakers assistants were finalists for the Kings job that Reggie Theus won. Of course, that the Lakers tend to last so long into June these days hurts the prospects of the assistants, though we're seeing more patience from teams who want a specific guy. Within the next few years, unless Phil Jackson finalizes a succession plan, these guys will get the call.
John Kuester, Cleveland: The Cavaliers' so-called offensive coordinator has been around the league, and served as a college head coach in the '80s. Getting Cleveland's offense away from the LeBron isolation play even a little has turned everyone's head, and Kuester figures to get some attention going forward. The limited market obviously hurts his chances in the immediate term, but getting some top job interviews at this point would help build the foundation for a future run at a head gig.