Kiki Vandeweghe: The Accidental Coach
The guy who currently sits in New Jersey's lead seat recently was greeted as "Coach Vandeweghe.''
"It does sound funny,'' Kiki Vandeweghe said.
Yes, it does.
Not long ago, Vandeweghe rebuilt the woeful Denver Nuggets as general manager and looked primed to become one of the NBA's top executives. But Vandeweghe ticked off Denver owner Stan Kroenke by flirting with the Cleveland Cavaliers' general manager opening in 2005, and was ousted in 2006.
Vandweghe resurfaced with the Nets two years ago and eventually was named general manager. Vandeweghe, along with New Jersey president Rod Thorn, then began another NBA rebuilding project.
But something strange has happened on the way to the Nets' next summer having some $25 million of salary-cap room. They started losing so badly that coach Lawrence Frank had to go, and the team is the process of being sold to Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov.
By NBA rules, the Nets must have a coach. And the line of able candidates was about as long as those wanting to take over the wheel of a faltering Titanic in 1912.
"It was kind of a surprise,'' Vandeweghe said of when Thorn asked him to become interim coach after Frank was fired Nov. 29. "But it was an ask. It was a surprise because I hadn't really thought about (being a coach). But then it sort of made sense, and I said, 'Sure. OK. I'll do it. But I'd like to bring in Del.'''
That would be Del Harris, 72, who took his first coaching job around the time the Titanic left port. He was coaxed out of retirement, and he's serving as Vandeweghe's X's and O's man.
To look at the bright side, the Nets at least have won a game (three, in fact) since Vandeweghe took the job. Frank was fired after an 0-16 start that left him one loss shy of the worst start in NBA history.
Assistant Tom Barrise drew the short straw, and coached the Nets for two more losses as they broke the league mark with an 0-18 start. Then it was Vandeweghe's turn. He's 3-18 for 3-36 New Jersey.
"I was a little surprised,'' said Doug Moe, who was Vandeweghe's coach in Denver from 1980-84, when he heard his former star player had become a coach. "I talked to him after he took the job. Somebody had asked me what advice would I give Kiki, and I said, 'It's too late. He's already taken that job. I would have told him not to take it.'''
It's that bad these days in New Jersey. Vandeweghe, 51, did steer the Nets to a win in his first game and in two of his first three. Since then, though, he's 1-17.
The Nets are on pace to break Philadelphia's 1972-73 NBA futility record of 9-73 as they begin a four-game trip out West on Monday against the Los Angeles Clippers. If they drop all of them, they will tie Dallas' 1992-93 mark for a 3-40 start being the worst in league history.
Still, the Nets try to remain optimistic.
"I think he's doing fine,'' Thorn said of Vandeweghe. "We haven't won as many games as we'd have liked to, but some of our players are gaining valuable experience.''
While New Jersey's season already being a lost cause obviously was a major factor, Vandeweghe's experience in player development also made him a candidate to land on the bench.
Before becoming a Denver executive in 2001, Vandeweghe got good marks for working with young Dallas players, including Dirk Nowitzki. Even when Nuggets general manager, Vandeweghe sometimes took to the court to offer pointers to players.
"Obviously we got off to a rugged start, and this is a season of transition for us,'' Thorn said of why Vandeweghe was handed the keys. "We've got a lot of young players. We want to make evaluations and figure out who we'd like to keep and who we wouldn't. He's going to work with the guys and hopefully improve our players... And we felt that in this interim period and with our ownership changing, it wasn't a time to bring in a (regular) coach.''
If anything, Vandeweghe is dressing well on the bench. He donned a natty blue suit for New Jersey's 121-105 wipeout Friday at the hands of Indiana.
When he starred in the NBA from 1980-93, Vandeweghe wasn't exactly regarded as a dedicated follower of fashion. He sometimes attended Denver games as general manager wearing one of his retro jerseys.
"When he played for me, he was the only one who couldn't live up to my dress code. That code was you had to dress as well as me,'' said Moe, well known for his unkempt look. "He'd wear his UCLA (Vandeweghe's alma mater) jacket all the time and jeans.
"I never thought of him as coaching. But I don't know why. He was a very, very smart player and had great instincts.''
One reason many haven't thought of Vandeweghe as a coach is, as an executive, he has liked to take his time to analyze situations and not rush into anything. Coaches must make decisions on the fly.
Still, Vandeweghe, with Harris doing a good bit of the typical coach's stuff, is still wearing his general manager's hat. Literally, Vandeweghe has donned glasses, giving him a professorial look on the bench.
"It's been great in many, many ways," Vandeweghe, never a pessimist, said of his stint. "It's afforded me an opportunity to really get to know our players, to get to know the league in a different way, and look at potential free agents. We'll be a player in the free-agent market in some form or fashion next year."
It won't be so great if New Jersey continues to make a run at Philadelphia's futility mark. The Nets are on pace to go 6-76, and a look at the remaining schedule doesn't reveal too many opportunities for wins.
"It's tough for him to come into that situation for any coach, especially a coach that has never coached before,'' said point guard Devin Harris, who joins center Brook Lopez to comprise perhaps the only players the Nets are determined to keep. "But I think Kiki was the right man for it, and obviously he's got the right attitude."
Vandeweghe is a perpetual optimist. While serving as Denver's general manager during a 17-65 season in 2002-03, he remained patient and rarely said a discouraging word.
"Nobody likes to lose games,'' Vandeweghe said when asked if it will be difficult if the Nets threaten the 76ers' mark. "It's hard to lose on a consistent basis, but we understood this year was a development year. We didn't count on all the injuries early ... You just go out and play each game as best as you possibly can.''
The Nets were devastated by injuries early in the season, often having just eight players available for games. They're pretty much at full strength now. But this month, in an effort to continue to go young, they've bought out the contract of guard Rafer Alston, 33, and traded forward Eduardo Najera, 33, to Dallas.
But what happens if the Nets are closing in on Philadelphia's record? Will Thorn bring in a veteran or two to try to save the team from embarrassment?
"Certainly nobody wants to be part of that, and hopefully we won't,'' Thorn said. "I think we'll stay the course. I'm not saying that something can't change before the (Feb. 18) trade deadline. But will we bring in somebody to take up minutes from people we're evaluating that may or may not help you win? I don't think so.''
Meanwhile, new ownership will be evaluate Thorn and Vandeweghe to see if they will be back next season. Vandeweghe, who is in the last year of his contract, said his desire is to return as general manager.
"That's what I'd like to do,'' he said.
But Thorn said there are no guarantees. Thorn said he wants to return himself, but can't be sure that will transpire.
"We don't know what is going to happen when we change ownership,'' Thorn said. "We'll have to see.''
In the meantime, the Nets must finish out this season. With nobody wanting to lose to New Jersey, opponents often take the floor as if it's a playoff game.
It hasn't been must-see TV. The Nets are being outscored by an average of 11.8 points per game.
"I have not watched him,'' Nuggets coach George Karl said of Vandeweghe, the general manager for Karl's first 1 ½ seasons in Denver. "I know it's an awful situation. I actually have trouble watching painful situations.''
Karl was trying to be compassionate. He brought up how he had trouble watching Chicago last month blow a 35-point lead in falling to Sacramento, a loss that put Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro's job in further jeopardy. Del Negro once played for Karl.
Shortly after that game, Karl gave Del Negro a call to boost his spirits. Karl isn't sure, though, whether he will put in a call of support to Vandeweghe.
"I'm not sure Kiki wants to be a coach,'' Karl said.
With what's going on in New Jersey, don't expect Vandeweghe to stock up on business cards that read, "Coach.''
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @christomasson