Nuggets' Karl leads list of coaches who could land on the hot seat
Given our nation's current economic plight, the NBA -- which likes to set trends and provide stellar examples -- ought to consider a departure from business as usual this season. As in, cool it with the pink slips.
The unemployment pushed to 6.1 percent in September, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and while the NBA isn't guilty of the downsizing and hiring freezes rampant across corporate America -- it still has 30 teams and still needs 30 head coaches -- the league does get defined, at its bench level, as much by the fellows it sends packing as the fellows it embraces.
The 2008-09 season begins with eight changes: three first-timers (Chicago's Vinny Del Negro, Detroit's Michael Curry, Miami's Erik Spoelstra) and five relocated veterans (Charlotte's Larry Brown, New York's Mike D'Antoni, Phoenix's Terry Porter, Dallas' Rick Carlisle and Milwaukee's Scott Skiles). That's 26.7 percent of the league's highly specialized workforce. Go back just 18 months and you'll see that 14 of the 30 jobs have come open because, well, it's not as if guys have ridden Red Auerbach-style into the sunset; nearly half of the NBA's teams have fired coaches in the past year and a half.
Yeah, yeah, it comes with the territory, we know, for reasons good, bad and trivial. Getting fired is very nearly a validation, the way a real coach gets his ticket punched for a career at it; as this season commences, only a dozen of the 30 coaches never have been fired. As noted above, three are brand new to this and seven more -- Atlanta's Mike Woodson, Cleveland's Mike Brown, Memphis' Marc Iavaroni, New Jersey's Lawrence Frank, Sacramento's Reggie Theus, San Antonio's Gregg Popovich and Toronto's Sam Mitchell -- never have held the top job anywhere else. The Lakers' Phil Jackson and Portland's Nate McMillan are the only ones who have left a previous team on their own terms.
The pattern undoubtedly will continue, despite this silly admonition, and a certain number of terminated coaches invariably will seek out the NBA's safety net -- not unemployment insurance like the rest of us, per se, but sideline and studio credentials to work as TV analysts. Faced with that grim reality, we're identifying the five coaches more likely to find themselves on hot seats, although several others -- Woodson, Iavaroni, P.J. Carlesimo in Oklahoma City and Reggie Theus in Sacramento -- might want to avoid stocking their produce crispers.
1. George Karl, Denver Nuggets. If you flip Karl upside down and turn him around, you will see it: his expiration date. Karl's 20 seasons as an NBA head coach have been divvied up among five franchises so far, an average of four seasons per. That puts him right at his "best if used by ..." calendar number with Denver, where things could get a little overripe in this, Karl's fifth season there.
Management has handed Karl a lesser team and, by dumping Marcus Camby's salary to the Clippers, deprived him of his most accomplished and committed defensive player, a must-have on a squad dominated by scorers Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson and J.R. Smith. Giving up too many points, regardless of how many your team scores, is high on the list of reasons NBA coaches get fired, ranking up there with playoff failures and player mutinies. Come to think of it, Denver already is heavy on the former and could face the latter if the Nuggets -- and their coach -- let management's cost-cutting undercut their own motivation.
2. Sam Mitchell, Toronto Raptors. Mitchell is a survivor, a third-round pick as a player back in the days when the NBA draft had three rounds and an alumnus of the CBA, the USBL, a stint in France and the inaugural Timberwolves fire drill. He isn't stupid, either, and knows that his next-best career alternative would slice at least one zero off the back of his salary. But he doesn't suffer fools gladly, which makes him more combative than some NBA players can tolerate these days. And deep down, he has the confidence that comes with the 2007 Coach of the Year award that he'd be employable again as a head coach, at least one more time.
Then there is the dynamic within management of the Raptors: General manager Bryan Colangelo has yet to hire his own coach, a move that -- along with maneuvers on draft night -- defines a team executive. Colangelo is committed to 2006 No. 1 pick Andrea Bargnani well beyond the minutes Bargnani has earned or Mitchell has given him. And now oft-injured Jermaine O'Neal is in the house for what we all presume is a "second round or bust'' season. But then, in the NBA, things can go bust way before May."
3. Mike Brown, Cleveland Cavaliers. Cut the Whatever Lola Wants ... music. Now substitute "LeBron'' for "Lola'' and you've got the soundtrack to the next two seasons in Cleveland. It might not be James' doing -- it easily could be management guessing what the superstar wants and otherwise pitching woo to keep him around beyond 2009-10 (look, there's the steam coming from owner Dan Gilbert's ears again) -- but it figures to be the next-best alternative, should winning not do the trick. Brown already has his critics, mostly for the 1-on-5 offense over which he presides, and his defensive leanings produce games too often in need of highlight moments, not an easy thing to do when you've got the league's most physically gifted player around. Technically, the Cavs have backslid from the Finals to the Eastern Conference semis, and another misstep is all it would take for Brown to be blamed or, if only by a bigger "name,'' upgraded.
4. Mike Dunleavy, Los Angeles Clippers. There's a quote that I have tacked to my bulletin board and the source (playwright Clifford Odets) is less important here than its relentlessly cynical message: "That miserable patch of events, that mélange of nothing, while you were looking ahead of something to happen, that was it! That was life! You lived it!'' Kind of sums up Clippers Nation, doesn't it? Every so often, building toward . . . nothing.
Dunleavy has ridden this freight elevator from the ground floor to its top stop to the basement, from 28 victories in 2003-04 to 37 to 47 to 40 and down last season to 23. He began coaching the way you or I would, yanking players in and out, ignoring some guys and venting his displeasure with his crew and his bosses. That generally leads, in this league, to a real estate sign in your front yard. Baron Davis and Camby, with Ricky Davis along for grins, might not make up for Elton Brand and Corey Maggette. Mélange, indeed.
5. Randy Wittman, Minnesota Timberwolves. When Wittman returned from the 2006-07 season -- the final squandered year of Kevin Garnett's stay in Minnesota -- and strapped in for an extreme makeover, the first word uttered was "patience.'' It was management advising Wittman, rather than the other way around, because the coach already had one frustrating stint (62-102) with the Cavaliers and wasn't eager to ugly-up his record any more. But after one full season (22-60) with a revolving-door roster of kids and castoffs, Timberwolves boss Kevin McHale is talking about a .500 finish. Wittman, respectfully, has guessed more in the range of 32-35 victories. If that's not progress enough for McHale, and he stays committed to the players on hand, Wittman could take the fall. Changing the coach could buy the Wolves an extra marketing year, too, with the fans, who thought seven consecutive first-round exits were bad until they stopped reaching the playoffs altogether.
Steve Aschburner covered the Minnesota Timberwolves and the NBA for 13 seasons for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has served as president or vice president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association since 2005.