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With the possible exception of Congressional seats, the annual comings and goings in the NBA's head coaching ranks is arguably our biggest game of musical chairs. It's played with far greater frequency than the politicians' version, certainly, and to the best of our knowledge, none of the vacancies ever has been blatantly put up for sale. Not even in Chicago.
The chairs are in position again, 30 of them. Currently, they are filled by 30 butts. But it's an equilibrium that never lasts, a temporary condition in between the music. Eight of the men who sat in those chairs back in November are parked elsewhere now, replaced one by one by wannabes, retreads and other surrogates. Now they and the other 22 get to play again (to varying degrees, based on their contracts) in a high-stakes game that keeps contestants aspiring or coming back like it's a green-felt spot at a World Series of Poker table.
Those who have been in want to get back. Those who are in want to stay. Those who haven't yet played long for a chance.
"You hope it's not [a permanent condition]," said former Toronto coach Sam Mitchell, fired Dec. 3 after a 39-point home loss to Denver dropped the Raptors to 8-9. "I've got control to a certain degree, but somebody's got to want you first. Somebody's got to want you."
Mitchell, with a 156-189 record over four-plus seasons, had led Toronto to the playoffs (and first-round exits) in each of the past two seasons and was the NBA's Coach of the Year for 2006-07. He was done in by the team's sluggish start, some injuries, player-development disputes and the reality that he wasn't hired by general manager Bryan Colangelo. The Raptors' 22-39 mark since Mitchell has been gone might be vindication, were he seeking it, and the guaranteed $10 million or so due him from the point of his termination into the 2010-11 season would seem a pretty soothing balm.
Yet Mitchell sounds uninterested in the former and willing to work for the latter. He has been living the life of a "paid bum" -- that's his mother's term for him these days in Atlanta, attending his girls' volleyball games and getting by without organized basketball in late winter and spring for the first time in more than 30 years, 12 as a blue-collar NBA forward.
"I honestly have no regrets," Mitchell said. "Like I told Bryan when I got fired, no coach agrees with being fired. I feel like today, I'll feel like tomorrow and next week and next month, that I was doing a good job. But that's not my decision. Once the decision was made, my whole thing is, whatever you say to me or do to me, that's on you. I still control what I do with it. And how I feel about it. And how I choose to deal with it.
"You just roll with it. Obviously, you'd much rather be working."
Natch. Mitchell and several dozen other guys who covet the challenge, the competition, the status and the salaries of an NBA head coaching job. Eight firings and hirings during this season might limit the number of vacancies this summer. So might the tough economic times that have hit even the moguls and magnates who own sports franchises; paying one or two former coaches not to work, while signing someone else to a fresh contract, hits harder now, less subject to whim or pique. Still, history tells us that somebody who has one of these jobs soon won't and somebody who doesn't soon will.
The others? When the music stops, there will no chairs for them. Unless it's courtside or in a studio, with a headset and microphone wired and ready.
Here are the five teams most likely to be hiring a coach this offseason and five candidates especially eager to help lower this nation's unemployment rate:
Where the jobs are
Ed Tapscott's work in place of Eddie Jordan has been an improvement -- after the 1-10 start that got Jordan fired, even Roy Rubin/Kevin Loughery circa 1972-73 would have been. But Tapscott prefers and is at his best in the front office, so it will be left to a replacement to shepherd Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison and a top lottery pick through a healthier and presumably happier 2009-10.
The Kings gave serious consideration to hiring Scott Brooks two years ago before opting instead for Reggie Theus, who overachieved at 38-44 last season but got fired at 6-18 this time around. Sacramento's losses have come at brisker pace since then, and the Maloof brothers, who own the Kings, aren't the types to stick with a bad hand of cards. They are the team most in need of a big-name coach with more sizzle than Kenny Natt offers.
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