sunsfn 11/18/2004 report


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Oct 3, 2002
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Thursday, November 18, 2004

Job security concerns in N.Y., Denver, elsewhere

By Chad Ford
ESPN Insider

Chat with Chad Ford at 1 p.m. ET on Thursday

The NBA season has already given us a nice series of surprises to start off the season.

Here's another one.

We're now into the third week of the season, and we've yet to see a head coach fired.

Last year's unprecedented purge saw 13 head coaches lose or quit their jobs between the start of last season and the beginning of this one.

Has the madness finally stopped or are we just in the calm before the storm?

"There are so many new coaches," one NBA GM told Insider, "that you'd like to think we'd actually give them a chance to fix whatever they were hired to fix. But the reality is that patience isn't much of a virtue in this business. Some coaches are going to lose their jobs soon. That's just life in the NBA."

The question is who and how many?

There are already rumblings of unhappiness in New York, Denver and Sacramento. More problem spots will appear as we head further into the season, though the body count won't be nearly as high as it was last season.

Here's Insider's look at a number of coaches with the job security of Ashlee Simpson's voice coach.


Lenny Wilkens, Knicks

Isiah Thomas' decision to hire Wilkens last year got its share of raised eyebrows. Wilkens was coming off a disastrous stint in Toronto where he clearly lost control of his team. To make matters worse, he was essentially the same coach as the guy who just got fired, Don Chaney. Both Chaney and Wilkens are affable, laid-back coaches who rely – in part – on their cordial relationship with players to get results on the floor.

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[font=verdana, arial, geneva]How long will Marbury (left), remain a supporter of Wilkens?[/font]Wilkens did a good job last year, helping a team that looked destined for the lottery into the last playoff spot in the East. But there are already numerous signs of fracture this season.

After an embarrassing home opener blowout loss to the Celtics, Thomas stepped in and suggested that Wilkens let go long-time lead assistant Dick Helm. According to various reports, when Wilkens refused Thomas did more than insist. Helm left the team the next day, citing personal issues.

Thomas then replaced Helm with his right hand man, Brendan Suhr, who was serving as the Knicks director of player personnel. Wilkens has said all the right things about Thomas, Helm and Suhr, but it's obvious that there's increasing tension there.

To make matters worse, his players are starting to complain. Stephon Marbury, who was Wilken's biggest supporter when he was hired, blew his stack after Tuesday night's loss to the Spurs. He accused his teammates of breaking plays. That in and of itself isn't an indictment of Wilkens, who calls the plays but can't execute them. But it's the same type of stuff we heard in Toronto before things fell apart. If players are no longer listening to the coach and if the coach isn't disciplining players who ignore him, we're not that far from disaster.

Thomas doesn't want to get there. He's promised Knicks fans a contender and a 2-4 start isn't exactly what he had in mind. Factor in brutal road games against the Rockets and Mavs and then a home game against the surging Cavs and it's conceivable that the team is going to start 2-7 before getting some relief in the form of a four-game stretch against the Hawks and Raptors.

If the Knicks keep stumbling over that stretch … Wilkens will be gone. Who will replace him? The speculation has been intense since Thomas took the front office job that he'd ultimately also would coach the Knicks. He has publicly denied that he'll take over on the bench on several occasions this year.

Phil Jackson's name comes up as a candidate because he's available and he's said he'd always like to coach the Knicks. However, we don't think he's specifically talking about Isiah's version of the Knicks when he mentioned his interest. The truth is that Phil likes control and wouldn't get it from Isiah.

Without any other big names out there, the duties could fall on Suhr, a Thomas loyalist who would allow Thomas to have a major say on who plays and how they play without physically sitting on the bench.

Jeff Bzdelik, Nuggets

Expectations can be a killer and Jeff Bzdelik really has no one to blame but himself. Without a long-term contract extension, Bzdelik threw the rebuilding plans out the window, stuck with his veterans and guided the Nuggets to an improbable playoff berth last season.

His reward? The Nuggets stiff-armed him in contract extension talks this summer and, when the season ends, Bzdelik will be a free agent. If, that is, he lasts that long.

GM Kiki Vandeweghe was upset last season that Bzdelik didn't spend more time developing some of the team's young players like Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Rodney White. While he was happy with the Nuggets' play on the floor, Vandeweghe felt the approach was short sighted.

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[font=verdana, arial, geneva]Is Bzdelik (right) sitting next to his successor, Cooper?[/font]Kiki isn't trying to build a playoff team. He's trying to build a championship one. With expectations mile high after last season, the Nuggets' front office shifted gears and tried to add a piece or two that would give them a big boost in the West. The Nuggets ended up settling on Kenyon Martin, hoping that the combo of Martin, Nene and Marcus Camby would give them one of the strongest front lines in the league.

On paper it all looked great. So far, on the court, the results have been much less impressive. Injuries have been the Nuggets' biggest problem. Voshon Lenard, their only real perimeter threat, is done for the season. Nene's played in just one game. Camby already is having injury trouble.

The Nuggets have a great starting five, but they have a thin bench and it's showing. Bzdelik can't be blamed for any of that. However, the Nuggets who are healthy haven't played with the same passion they've shown the past two years. They've sleepwalked through several games and, at times, appeared to have tuned out their coach.

That's what's raised the red flags in Denver. While the team is both publicly and privately supporting Bzdelik, the writing's on the wall. To stick with this team, the Nuggets had to be great this year. They're falling far short and Bzdelik's hand-picked successor, Michael Cooper, is waiting in the wings.

Watch this next stretch closely. The Nuggets play eight of their next nine games at home, where they've been, historically, dominant. Many of their opponents during that stretch – Chicago, New Jersey, New Orleans, Cleveland and Orlando – are teams the Nuggets should be beat at home.

If they keep stumbling against teams like that at home, look for Kiki to kick Bzdelik to the curb before a brutal seven-game road trip starts in December.


Rick Adelman, Kings

Adelman has never gotten the credit he deserves for an impressive Kings' run the past five years. On his watch the Kings have turned themselves from an NBA joke into one of the most exciting and successful teams in the league. Arco Arena is the loudest stadium in the NBA. And the Kings have gotten a high amount of exposure despite being in such a small market.

Chris Webber, Peja Stojakovic, Vlade Divac, Mike Bibby, Doug Christie and Bobby Jackson have all played a big part in the success, but give Adelman his due. He let his guys get out there and play their style of basketball and it was fun to watch and, most nights, it worked.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to end sooner or later. Teams get old. Chemistry changes. Coaches' voices fade into the background. Has that time come in Sacramento?

It's still too early to tell for sure, but there are signs that things might not turn out as well this year. The chemistry that has been so stellar these past five years has taken a well-documented hit. The King's depth, once a trademark of the team, has dwindled. And the early results of the team are … mixed.

After an 0-3 start that appeared to doom the team, the Kings have bounced back, winning four of their last five. Stojakovic, after a very rocky start, has started to find his shooting range. Early-season player complaints have faded. Take a deep breath, Kings fans. Maybe everything is going to be OK.

However, if the discouraging signs from the start of the season start to reappear, it will be Adelman who might have to suffer the consequences. Trading the players is too hard. Webber's contract can't be moved. So far they've shown no signs of wanting to trade Bibby, Stojakovic or Miller. If the players' faces don't change, the coach's will.

Scott Skiles, Bulls

Skiles seems like a good coach and a good fit for what GM John Paxson is trying to do in Chicago. After years of terrible, lackluster play, Paxson wanted a stern, no-nonsense head coach who could get maximum effort out of his players every night.

Skiles has the pedigree. He did something similar in Phoenix before flaming out. He certainly played that way during his career.

Paxson has given him more tools to get the job done. Out are Jamal Crawford, Marcus Fizer and Eddie Robinson – guys whom the Bulls believed had become so tainted by the team's losing atmosphere that there was no turning back.

In are players like Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng, Andres Nocioni and Ben Gordon – tough, talented players from great programs with winning pedigrees.

The result? The Bulls are absolutely playing harder and with more purpose. But there's a good chance they could return from their current brutal road trip 0-11. If they do, Skiles' job is going to be questioned regardless of what kind of job he's doing.

Talking to Bulls sources the past few weeks, I expect that Paxson will try to make more personnel moves before he'd ever looking at dumping Skiles. Too many holdovers from the dark days – read Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler – are still on the squad. They might all have to be purged before the dark cloud lifts.

But at the end of the day, if that's not enough … Skiles is toast. The Bulls can't afford to keep taking steps back at this point. Something has to change. The players will go first. But the coach won't be far behind if this continues.

Nate McMillan, Sonics

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[font=verdana, arial, geneva]McMillan (right), teaching Nick Collison here, cannot afford another collapse after a great start.[/font]I know it's blasphemy to put the name of a head coach on this list whose team currently owns the best record in the league. The Sonics, whom most of us predicted would finish dead last in the West, are 8-1 and are playing the most inspired basketball of McMillan's tenure there.

But let's look at the facts before we just hand the championship over to them. There's a history here.

The Sonics began last season 6-2 before going 32-40 the rest of the way. In 2002 it was even better. The team got off to an 8-2 start before winning just 31 games the rest of the way.

They've fooled us before. They could still do it again. Rashard Lewis, too, has a history of hot starts before cooling off a month into the season. Realistically, Ray Allen isn't going to be shooting 60-plus percent from beyond the arc all year. And how long will Luke Ridnour, who's been very solid at point guard, hold up with the style of basketball he plays?

They're all legit questions on a team that has done nothing in the past few seasons to inspire a modicum of confidence.

McMillan happens to be an excellent coach who has never been given the tough, blue-collar players who really flow with his style of coaching. This year, he's inspired guys like Lewis, Allen and Ridnour to go the extra mile. History says that it won't continue.

If it doesn't, McMillan, whose contract expires at the end of the year anyway, will be gone. If it does continue, he'll be the number one candidate for Coach of the Year.

How weird is this league?


Hubie Brown, Grizzlies If it's blasphemy to include a coach who has the best record in the league, what's the offense for putting a guy on this list who's a coaching legend and the most recent recipient of the Coach of the Year honor?

Regardless of what you're reading in the national media, there is no rift between Brown and team president Jerry West. Unlike some of the other coaches here, his job is his as long as he wants it.

Hubie's brilliant and everyone, including Hubie, knows it. There's another reason that he's on this list. He's 71 years old. He's slowing down physically. The rough and tumble world of NBA coaching has worn him down considerably the last few years. While he remains as sharp as ever mentally, his body is tired.

That has led him to delegate more this year … something that hasn't always gone over well with the players. Hubie has the ultimate respect, it appears, of all of his players. His staff however, doesn't receive the same automatic deference.

When Jason Williams snapped at Hubie's son, assistant coach Brendan Brown, for his play calling in the fourth quarter of a game, the first evidence of discord bubbled to the surface.

Williams has apologized and Brown has excused the whole incident to frustration, but the truth appears to be on the court. The Grizzlies aren't off to a great start and have a tough schedule coming up.

Brown told Insider last year that he was coaching from day-to-day. The Grizzlies had signed him to a three-year deal (which expires this year) but his agreement with West was that he would take it one day at time. For their part, the Grizzlies feel that this isn't a big issue. They've seen nothing, sources inside the Grizzlies tell Insider, that suggests Hubie will retire this season.

The Grizzlies always will benefit from Brown's presence, but if he felt he wasn't able to give it his all anymore, he might just walk away and take with him … much of the hope that has been fostered in Memphis these past two seasons.

Around the League

<LI>Why was Vince Carter benched for significant time in the fourth quarter twice this week? A Raptors' source told Insider that the new head coach Sam Mitchell has become increasingly perplexed with Carter's refusal to take the ball the basket.

Eighty percent of Carter's shots this year are jump shots according to the stat gurus at Just 2-percent are dunks. And he's only drawing fouls 5.2-percent of the time. When you factor in that he's shooting 38 percent from the field and 29 percent from three-point range, you can understand why Mitchell is frustrated. Carter's -20.1 plus/minus stat is second-lowest on the team behind only Jalen Rose.

"You've got to be unselfish, you've got to play hard, and you've got to play together," Mitchell said this week. "If I'm wrong with those three things ... then I don't want to coach anymore."

Mitchell has the full support of new GM Rob Babcock. Carter, for the most part, has deflected questions about the issue. But Rose, who has also felt his coach's wrath, has been more outspoken about his coach's brash style.

"Anytime you say it's your way or the highway you know that draws a flat line," Rose said. "(There's no room for error, there's no room for judgment, there's no room for change. He's doing this for the first time."

Asked to elaborate later, Rose said: "Nobody's way is always the only way."

The Raptors have lost four out of their last five. It looks like things could start getting ugly in Toronto.

<LI>Eddy Curry has been solid in his last two outings (not taking into account last night's stinker), prompting teams to increase their offers to Bulls GM John Paxson. The Knicks have been pursuing Curry the most aggressively. Their initial offer of Nazr Mohammed was laughed at by the Bulls. Their second offer of Michael Sweetney will be taken more seriously. Sweetney has shown some real promise this season and adding him to the mix would allow the Bulls to move Tyson Chandler to center.

Still, the Bulls are holding out for more right now. Paxson would like to get something done with the Nuggets. In a perfect world, a Curry and Eric Piatkowski for Nene and Voshon Lenard swap would give the Bulls exactly what they want -- another young big man with more toughness and a better work ethic.

Why would the Nuggets consider the deal? First, Curry is a much better offensive player than Nene, he's more of a true center, and the team has two big defenders, Marcus Camby and Kenyon Martin, to help them out. With Lenard out for the season, the Nuggets also need perimeter shooting -- something Piatkowski can still provide.

Other players the Bulls would consider swapping Curry for include Bucks guard Michael Redd and Clippers forward Chris Wilcox.

<LI>Insider got a number of angry phone calls from player agents after we ran a story last Friday on the ongoing CBA negotiations. While none of them were complaining about the content of the story, they are angry that the players aren't taking a harder line with the owners.

[font=Arial,Helvetica,sans-serif][/font][font=Arial,Helvetica,sans-serif]The Warriors didn't need to sign those players to $130 million worth of contracts. They had their restricted rights next year. To sign a guy of your own free will and then ask the players to protect you from yourself is nuts. Why should the players compromise?[/font][font=Arial,Helvetica,sans-serif][/font][font=Times,serif][/font][font=Times,serif]One agent on the CBA dispute[/font]

Said one agent: "The owners really got just about everything they asked for last time and when you look at revenues, BRI (Basketball-Related Income) and the like, it's working. It boggles the mind that they are coming back and claiming the system is broke. The only reason that the there are problems with the CBA is that owners themselves keep finding loopholes. No one is putting a gun to their head.

"The Warriors didn't need to sign those players to $130 million worth of contracts. They had their restricted rights next year. To sign a guy of your own free will and then ask the players to protect you from yourself is nuts. Why should the players compromise?"

Another agent was more succinct.

"I've been in this business a long time. I'm always amazed at what owners agree to even when we have little or no leverage," he said.

"Let's just put it this way. If I was an owner, many of the deals that my clients have signed over the past few years would've never happened. We'll take the money. But the way they hand it out is not the fault of the CBA. It's their own doing."

The agents have a point. Not only are owners sometimes out of control, but their spending habits rarely make much sense.

The Pistons won the championship last season with one of the lowest payrolls in the league. Ditto for the Spurs two years ago. Teams that are spending a fortune like the Knicks, Blazers and Mavericks haven't been to their own conference championship rounds for years.

Agents are urging the players to get take a harder stance and get the message out there that it's not the greed of players fueling the coming labor war -- it's the fiscal irresponsibility of certain NBA owners.

They're probably fighting a losing battle, however. There wouldn't be a salary cap, period, if owners exercised good business judgment.

The last CBA had the same goal -- protecting owners from themselves. The fact that they want more protections from their increasingly bizarre behavior is a surprise to no one.

Owners typically own teams (Donald Sterling is exempted) not to make a huge profit, but to win a championship. Left on their own, most would spend whatever it takes to win one. However, that's not in the league's best interest, which is why Stern continues to try and level the playing field for small-market teams.


ASFN Lifer
Sep 22, 2002
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The Warriors didn't need to sign those players to $130 million worth of contracts. They had their restricted rights next year. To sign a guy of your own free will and then ask the players to protect you from yourself is nuts. Why should the players compromise?"

Another agent was more succinct.

"I've been in this business a long time. I'm always amazed at what owners agree to even when we have little or no leverage," he said.

"Let's just put it this way. If I was an owner, many of the deals that my clients have signed over the past few years would've never happened. We'll take the money. But the way they hand it out is not the fault of the CBA. It's their own doing."

I completely agree. I just don't understand what the owners are talking about.


Shqiptar i Qart
Jun 20, 2004
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GM Kiki Vandeweghe was upset last season that Bzdelik didn't spend more time developing some of the team's young players like Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Rodney White. While he was happy with the Nuggets' play on the floor, Vandeweghe felt the approach was short sighted.

I can understand Kiki's point and I kind of feel like D'antoni is doing the same thing. Only 7 guys played last night on a back to back. Where were Vroman, Lampe, Outlaw and Voskhul. I dont really see a reason why the starters should be playing over 40 mins. I think MD's approach is a little short-sighted also.

I guess it isnt a good idea to talk trash about the coach after 6-2, but hey if Nate Mcmillan can be fired after 8-1 then we should be allowed to disagree with D'antoni after 6-2. :D