Coaching carousel set to whirl again
There was never an offseason like last offseason for coaches. There was a housecleaning the likes of which the NBA has never seen. New coaches, old ones, 50-game winners --- it didn't matter. More than half of the league's coaches were out of work. And as this season comes to an end, I don't see much end in sight. But I'm not so worried about guys like Phil Jackson or (maybe) Rick Adelman. If they were fired or left their teams, they'd find work again in a second. The guys I always wonder about are the first-timers, the young guns, the guys who've waited their whole professional lives for one shot.
And it's with a 21-61 mutt of a team.
So you take the gig. You know the team stinks, but what are you going to do? There are only 30 jobs like this in the world, and you have one of them. Your team is probably very young or very old, but not very good. You are told that the record doesn't matter, that the goal is to lay a foundation for the future. It would be nice to win, you are told, but it is more important to develop some of the young kids.
So you start to play the kids. And you lose nine in a row. That's when the grumbling starts about the lack of intensity and focus. That's when the coaches who don't have work start dropping hints to anyone who'll listen about how poorly prepared your team looks. That's when the scouts drop hints that you don't have much imagination in the fourth quarter. That's when the players start saying you have "communication issues." That's when the local columnist -- you know, the guy that's come to one game this season -- suddenly blasts you for losing. That's when the talk radio yahoos question your intelligence, your guts, your substitution pattern and your patriotism.
You go back and look at more tape 'till four in the morning. You turn to the vets that are left on your squad, and you start winning -- not a lot, but a game here, a game there. And that's when you start getting the hints from your boss about not worrying about the record, that you really should be playing the kids, because it's about development.
And you know that's a crock. Because you know that if you don't post a number at the end of the season, it's your butt.
You know that teams can stay in games if they limit possessions, so you milk the shot clock every possession. You know that the star can walk into the GM's office and nuke your career with one meeting, so you ... well, you don't kiss his butt, but you run the offense through him as much as possible. Is that a mistake? Well, probably, because it loses you some guys in the locker room, but where were they going to take you, anyway?
You see the endless speculation about your job in the papers, and on TV, where the know-it-alls constantly mention names in connection with your gig. You try to explain it to your wife and your kids, but you don't want them to worry, and you don't want to bring it home. You send out feelers to your friends on other teams, just in case things don't work out, which is a mistake, because if a reporter finds out, it's your butt.
When the season gets near its end, you're almost happy. You're going to get put out of your misery pretty soon, and you start to relax. To hell with everybody; if you're going to be fired, you're going to coach your way. Maybe you let up a little. That's when the players ask, "Why couldn't he have been like this all season?"
You wish you had an answer.
When the season ends on Wednesday, and the axes start falling among the lottery teams -- the playoff coaches will have their day of reckoning soon enough -- you don't have to feel sorry for anyone who loses his job. NBA coaches are big boys and they knew what they were getting into. And they're getting paid some pretty good dough. But it still hurts.
Eric Musselman, Warriors. It's civil war in Golden State. Musselman all but refused to play Mike Dunleavy and rookie Mickael Pietrus until way too late, and when he put them on the floor, the Warriors promptly went on a win streak. Plus, there have been rumors for months that Muss was looking for a way to get to Atlanta or Orlando after this season. But firing Musselman won't solve all of the problems in Golden State. If Chris Mullin is the de facto GM, then stop the nonsense and give him the gig already.
Terry Stotts, Atlanta. It would be unfortunate if Stotts lost his gig. Despite all of the Hawks' trades and utter lack of interest in the ATL, Stotts' guys have been remarkably competitive most of the season. They've beaten the Spurs, Lakers, Miami and New Orleans (twice) at Philips Arena and swept the Mavericks. But the Hawks didn't hit 30 wins, and the team's sale is official, and new owners tend to want new coaches. (By the way, I hope Stotts condemns Bobby Sura's ridiculous attempt at a triple-double on Monday. I ripped Ricky Davis for an incredibly selfish act when he tried to get a bogus TD last season, and I'm ripping Sura now.)
Chris Ford, 76ers. Even if Philly trades Allen Iverson this summer -- and I still find that a highly dubious proposition, given his salary and ticket-selling ability -- it will be hard for Ford to keep the job. It's not like the Sixers caught fire once Iverson's injuries kept him on the bench for most of the final 20 games of the season, and Billy King needs to hit a homer this offseason. Can't imagine Jim O'Brien doesn't at least get an interview.
Maurice Cheeks, Blazers. I'm told that Portland will eventually allow Mo to interview in Philly if that's what he wants to do. But Cheeks keeps telling everybody who'll listen that he wants to stay with the Blazers, and who can blame him? This new group of Blazers will almost certainly be a playoff team next season and has a chance to get even better in a year when some big contracts come off the books.
Nate McMillan, Sonics. Everyone in Seattle loves Nate, but the facts are the facts -- the Sonics aren't any closer to the postseason now than they were four years ago, when he came aboard. And they don't have Gary Payton to blame anymore. If Ray Allen hadn't missed a huge chunk of the season and rookie Nick Collison hadn't missed the whole deal, Seattle would have had a better record, to be sure. But keep an eye on what happens with Mac 10.
Mike D'Antoni, Suns. In full rebuilding mode, the Suns have full confidence in D'Antoni's teaching ability, and they should. He's got an outstanding basketball mind. But when the sale of the team goes through, you wonder if the new bosses will be as understanding. At the least, D'Antoni will get a chance to recruit Kobe Bryant this summer.
Paul Silas, Cavaliers. The Hornets fired Silas after going 47-35 last season, because they thought they had a Finals team and poor old dumb Paul got outcoached in the playoffs. Twelve months later, the Hornets are a .500 team, staggering into the postseason, and the Cavs are grateful to have Silas's knowledge and professionalism around as they build a squad around LeBron. Thank goodness the Hornets don't have to carry Silas anymore.
Jerry Sloan, Jazz. Are you kidding? Sloan has the gig as long as he wants. As he should.
Johnny Davis, Magic. New GM John Weisbrod was as clear as he could be last month -- Davis is coming back next season, even though he has a very small, six-figure buyout. Weisbrod thinks Davis has greatness and toughness in him, quite a daily double for a guy whose team has the worst record in the league. Makes me think that Orlando has already decided what it's going to do with Tracy McGrady.
Mike Dunleavy, Clippers. Yes, the Clips lost 13 straight at the end of the season. But Dunleavy has respect from most of the locker room and the Clippers gave professional effort most nights. If Dunleavy can get the point guard he desperately wanted, and can get a full campaign out of Elton Brand next season, L.A. could make a big move next season. Notice I didn't mention Kobe, either.
Eddie Jordan, Wizards. EJ should get a second full season to implement the Princeton offense -- though he scuttled some of it during the season. But the Wizards were awfully listless in far too many games this season. And you wonder about noise heard toward the end of the season about Jordan not being as enamored with Gilbert Arenas's point guard skills as GM Ernie Grunfeld. You run with J-Kidd, you get a little spoiled.
I'm so far in the tank for Bzdelik you can call me Rommel. But that doesn't mean I'm not right. This is the question I have for whomever is allowing Bzdelik to twist in the brisk Denver winds: How much better would George Karl's record be with this group? Not in two years, when you add Quentin Richardson and/or another marquee player, and Carmelo Anthony is two years older, wiser and stronger. Now. This season. With this team. Last season, with no talent, Bzdelik won 17 games. This season, with talent, Bzdelik won 43, and the Nuggets made the playoffs. Doesn't that count for anything?
I know that he has obsessed about his contract, and that's gotten some folks' noses out of joint. I know he's said some things after losses that weren't cool. Maybe he hasn't been as publicly humble as he should be. Maybe he's not running as much as some would like. But is it possible -- possible -- that in his second season as an NBA head coach, Jeff Bzdelik isn't fully formed just yet? Is he not allowed to learn from his mistakes? Is it possible that he'd be a better coach next season for the experience he's had this season? And why is it, seemingly, so wrong to give him a chance to show you what he's learned?