Coaching carousel could spin slowly
Impending labor standoff could make some teams reluctant to change coaches
Eddie Jordan's Princeton offense not a good match for traditional roster of talent
Mavs assistant Dwane Casey is likely to be a top choice for many vacancies
There is a prevailing theory in NBA circles that owners are currently paralyzed in their decision-making by the prospect of a lockout in 2011.
What that means, the thinking goes, is that there will be very little coaching turnover because at this stage owners don't want to get stuck paying two coaches at the same time when they already are losing money, or be forced to sign a coach to a long-term extension that includes paying him during the lockout season.
However, there are enough teams in trouble record-wise, and enough rumors starting to surface, that it seems inevitable that there will be some turnover.
After all, it's not as if organizations can afford to go through another 82-game season with the type of dysfunction that is occurring on some teams right now. Forthwith, we will take a look at the coaches on the hot seat, as well as the top candidates to replace them.
Eddie Jordan, Philadelphia 76ers
Rumors abound that Jordan is going to be let go, either in the immediate future or directly after the season. A Philadelphia radio station reported it would happen right away, and the Philadelphia Inquirer said it is inevitable after the season. The problem is that Jordan has tried to implement a Princeton offense that is not conducive to his players' skill sets. He has a more traditional roster, with post-ups by Elton Brand and fast breaks by Andre Iguodala. Jordan never should have tried to put Samuel Dalembert in a position where he has to be a part of that offense. Consequently, the Sixers have woefully underachieved, and they spent the better part of January and early February calling around to try to move one or all three of those highly paid aforementioned players. When it became apparent that they were not movable, that's when Jordan's job -- as well as that of general manager Ed Stefanski -- became endangered.
Kiki Vandeweghe, New Jersey Nets
Vandeweghe was always considered an interim coach once the Nets fired Lawrence Frank, which is even more evident because they have not improved one iota since he took over. To be fair, he inherited an already scarred team, but you'd think the Nets would have gotten at least a little lift from a fresh voice. Instead, they are still challenging the NBA's all-time worst mark of nine wins, set by the 1972-73 Sixers. More important, though, is the impending sale of the franchise to Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who surely will clean house and put his own people in place. That probably means the end of president Rod Thorn, as well. And why not? Who wants to start off his ownership tenure with the men who constructed potentially the worst roster in NBA history?
Jim O'Brien, Indiana Pacers
Yes, O'Brien signed a contract extension before the season. Yes, he has the endorsement of team president Larry Bird. But O'Brien has lost this team, according to multiple sources, in part because he has not taken an interest in developing or establishing relationships with the younger players. Nothing is worse than when a team collectively decides to tune out a coach. There are several indications that the Pacers have done just that, including an Indianapolis Star report that the players have quit on O'Brien. One source said that when assistant Lester Conner filled in briefly for O'Brien earlier this season, the players responded well to him. Many around the league wondered why Bird extended O'Brien's deal when he did not have to. It remains to be seen how that decision will affect the next one.
Kim Hughes, Los Angeles Clippers
He took over for Mike Dunleavy when Dunleavy removed himself as coach, then watched as owner Donald Sterling unceremoniously fired Dunleavy as GM last week. It is clear that Sterling wants a fresh start now that the Clippers have positioned themselves for a nice run in free agency, which will supplement the young nucleus of Chris Kaman, Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon, as well as a plum No. 1 pick this year and perhaps a top-notch free agent. This job will be pursued by many, but there always is the unquantifiable Sterling factor -- what Phil Jackson calls karma. Hughes said he wanted a challenge when he took over for Dunleavy. Instead, the Clippers seem to have gotten worse as they wonder what exactly is happening.
Don Nelson, Golden State Warriors
You'd be hard-pressed to find a more dysfunctional team. At least the other teams already mentioned in this column can simply fire a coach and move on. But because of the Nelson situation, the Warriors don't know if they are coming, going or staging a sit-in. Here's the scenario: Nelson is on the verge of becoming the NBA's all-time winningest coach. However, after getting control of the organization through a power play, he has eviscerated the roster, alienated the players still on the team and created an atmosphere where free agents don't want to come. And he is unlikely to earn the record before the end of the year. He aligned himself with president Robert Rowell and hired GM Larry Riley, so either of those men is loathe to fire him. And yet everybody outside the organization can see that it is time for Nelson to go. However, he still has one year and $6 million left on his contract, and owner Chris Cohan is experiencing financial difficulties, so the Warriors don't want to have to pay two coaches as a lockout approaches. Nelson steadfastly refuses to retire, but the ever-loyal fan base is getting impatient with the losing and the attitude. The decision would seem like a no-brainer. But with Golden State, that is never the case.
Vinny Del Negro, Chicago Bulls
He was as good as gone in the middle of the season, when several reports surfaced that Del Negro was on the verge of being dismissed while the Bulls were barely competitive in the midst of a road trip. Then the Bulls started winning some games and Del Negro was given a reprieve. Now that John Salmons has been traded to Milwaukee and injuries have hit, the Bulls are in a swoon again and could miss the playoffs, and Del Negro, who was hired despite zero head coaching experience, is most likely gone, particularly since the Bulls are trying to attract a major free agent and don't want to pitch mediocrity.
Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat
The decision on Spoelstra's job could come down to one thing: Does Dwyane Wade want him back? If the impending free agent likes playing for Spoelstra -- he criticized his offensive play-calling earlier this year -- than the second-year coach (78-71 overall) will return. If he doesn't, he's gone. There is a long history of star players getting coaches fired in this league; remember, that is how Pat Riley, the man who hired Spoelstra, got his gig with the Lakers -- Magic Johnson didn't like Paul Westhead. The biggest question mark is what the Heat decide to do if Wade leaves.
Stan Van Gundy, Orlando Magic
This is a longshot, but it appears that Van Gundy's negativity is beginning to wear on his players. Rashard Lewis recently all but dismissed his coach's criticisms after one particular victory, saying Van Gundy is never pleased. They have the second-best record in the East and the third-best in the league, so firing him would be met with certain consternation. But if the players want a change, the players usually get what they want.
Jeff Bower, New Orleans Hornets
Bower fired Byron Scott just nine games into the season and stepped into the job himself, leading the Hornets to a 29-29 record since. According to league sources, Bower is fighting hard to persuade owner George Shinn to bring him back as coach. Given the Hornets' financial woes, they are the most likely team to go the frugal route; it would make sense for Shinn to let Bower guide this team for one more year at a reasonable price, see what happens with a lockout and go from there.
Dwane Casey, Dallas Mavericks assistant
How is this guy not a head coach in this league already? When he coached the Timberwolves, he improved from an initial 33-49 mark in 2005-06 to a 20-20 start the following season. Then, inexplicably, he was fired by Kevin McHale, and Randy Wittman went 12-30 the rest of the way, starting the malaise that the Wolves currently enjoy. Casey was a finalist for both the Bulls' job that went to Del Negro and the 76ers' job that went to Jordan, and has given Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle both experience and knowledge. Casey is likely to be the top choice for any of the vacancies. "He has a presence about him," one general manager said. "And there's something to be said for that."
Elston Turner, Houston Rockets assistant
Turner is probably one notch behind Casey, if only because he does not have head coaching experience. But he does very well in interviews, and has good knowledge of the game. Coaching with Rick Adelman has helped him learn Adelman's offensive playbook, which helped Turner emerge as a finalist for the Suns' opening in 2008 and the Timberwolves' vacancy last year that Kurt Rambis filled.
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