How quickly things change for NBA coaches
NEW ORLEANS – Byron Scott walked the corridor clutching a crotchety, old enemy in his right hand, the Red Auerbach trophy for the NBA’s coach of the year. It was a just reward for a Showtime Laker who hated the old man’s stogies in Boston Garden. Still, he lugged that thing until finding the waiting lips of his wife, Anita, for a congratulatory kiss.
Scott had every right to be gloating on Tuesday night, but the coach of the New Orleans Hornets had gone to back-to-back NBA Finals with the New Jersey Nets, been backstabbed out of his job, and no one had to tell him how humbling a moment this had been for him. The Dallas Mavericks’ Jason Kidd undermined Scott all the way out the door in Jersey, so it was sweet justice that Kidd had to witness the ceremony at New Orleans Arena on the night a 99-94 loss in Game 5 ended the Mavericks’ season.
Yes, Scott is the coach of the NBA’s rising power, these go-go Hornets, yet there was no celebrating himself, his trophy, his trip to the Western Conference semifinals.
“It’s all so fickle, just such a fickle league,” Scott said outside the family lounge, after advancing to meet the defending champion San Antonio Spurs.
“People can change on you in a second.”
He had set his coach of the year award down beside him now, and it wasn’t lost on Scott that the coach soon trudging out of the Mavericks’ locker room, who was the NBA’s coach of the year two years ago, could be done in Dallas. With his job on the line, Avery Johnson was willing to trade the Mavs’ future for a declining 35 year-old point guard, a trade that promises to haunt the Mavericks long beyond Johnson’s Dallas coaching career.
Kidd and Johnson never found a rhythm together, never found a common ground to make this work. And Mark Cuban did nothing in the losing locker room to end speculation that an NBA Finals collapse and two straight first-round playoff blowouts would end Johnson’s run as Mavericks coach.
“Nothing to say,” the Mavericks owner said, throwing a fistful of popcorn into his mouth.
He didn’t pass on the season but made a daring move for Kidd, and there’s nothing but an uncertain future to show for it. Dallas and Phoenix, desperate franchises tired of title-less existences, made February trades that they hoped would turn into championship chases. Each won one game in the playoffs and goes home now. This is a high-risk, high-reward business. No one walks out of these jobs without a lot of money, and a lot of options.
Nevertheless, it is clear these Mavericks are on a slide that a coaching change won’t stop. Kidd talked about getting a full training camp to integrate with the Mavs, but time isn’t on his side. Chris Paul humiliated Kidd in this five-game series, closing him out with a 24-point, 15-assist, 11-rebound performance Tuesday. To think that the United States is considering an Olympic roster with Kidd and without Paul – whatever the call for big guards in international play – is preposterous.
Johnson went out of his way to praise Paul, calling him a “young Nate Archibald,” and then interestingly added, “He and his coach have a great chemistry. He seems like he is very coachable. He pretty much dominated us this series.”
He left you wondering if that was as much a commentary on his own disappointing point guard, Kidd, as it was a tribute to Paul.
“Did I let them down?” Kidd said. “I gave them everything I had.”
Johnson had been the taskmaster who tightened Dallas’ defense in the wake of Don Nelson. He was the anti-Nellie, and Cuban loved him for it. Now the Mavs have lost 12 of 15 playoff games across the past three seasons, and that’s tough to survive.
Cuban could look around and decide there really isn’t an upgrade for Johnson available, but clearly if he had decided he was bringing Johnson back next season, he would’ve said so Tuesday.
“There are a lot of people who are in bad shape, and I’m not one of them,” Johnson said.
He wouldn’t be without an NBA coaching job long. There is an intriguing chessboard of coaching moves that could play out this spring. The wild card could be the ever-deteriorating relationship between Toronto Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo and his coach, Sam Mitchell. Multiple sources describe a season of constant confrontations, with Colangelo relentlessly challenging Mitchell’s strategies and preparation and harsh handling of 2007 No. 1 overall draft pick Andrea Bargnani.
After the Raptors went down 3-1 to Orlando on Saturday, sources said Colangelo flipped out over learning that Mitchell played a round of golf the following day. Mitchell was left to wonder who snitched, and on and on it goes. They are such different people, with different backgrounds and Mitchell’s belief system, rooted in old-school American basketball, never has meshed with the GM’s Euro philosophy.
Colangelo told reporters in Toronto on Tuesday that he didn’t plan on making a coaching change “at this time,” an endorsement. For now, the two years and guaranteed $9 million left on Mitchell’s deal make him tough to fire.
Colangelo tried to lowball Mitchell on a contract extension a year ago, but the threat of the NBA coach of the year leaving Toronto for Charlotte or Indiana eventually earned Mitchell his extension. Yet New York Knicks GM Donnie Walsh loves Mitchell, an old Pacer, and is closely monitoring circumstances in Toronto. Walsh has been leaning toward Mark Jackson throughout his search process, but suddenly a five-game loss to Orlando in the Eastern Conference playoffs and the crumbling relationship with Colangelo could make Mitchell a candidate for a Raiders-Buccaneers Gruden-esque trade with the Knicks.
“Sam is the perfect guy to kick (Eddy) Curry and (Zach) Randolph in the ass and get something out of them,” a rival Eastern Conference executive said. “Donnie loves tough guys, and that’s why he loves Sam.”
A year ago, Colangelo had his eye on Marc Iavaroni, the Suns assistant, but who would’ve thought that Mike D’Antoni could become available? Colangelo hired D’Antoni with the Suns and constructed that roster, and they see the game through the international basketball prism. If Toronto is available as a soft landing spot for D’Antoni, perhaps he beats the posse out of the desert this year instead of next.
Whatever the fallout of the carousel, the coach bringing Red Auerbach home with him wouldn’t gloat Tuesday. Byron Scott has a good thing going in New Orleans, a fabulous young star, a spirited supporting cast. Even so, he stopped in the hallway, exhaled and said, “It can all change fast in this business. You’d better feel blessed and enjoy it when it’s going well.”