Economy could limit coaching options

The bidding wars are done, the economy has pushed an inevitable truth onto NBA owners and executives: Why have we been so swift to overpay our coaches?

Too long contracts for too much money. As cost cutting sweeps NBA teams, the league is finally listening to the private pleas of commissioner David Stern. If you’re looking to save money, start with the suits on the sidelines. They won’t just be paying less for coaches, but also surrounding them with fewer assistants and support staff.

This spring, there are three unemployed coaches who’ll command the most money – Flip Saunders, Eddie Jordan and Avery Johnson. Playoff success will pay, but assistants who move up into top jobs, one Eastern Conference executive said, “can expect strong lockout language in their contracts.”

New York Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni was the most expensive hire of the past offseason, and it isn’t lost on league owners and GMs how little of an impact D’Antoni has made with the team. What’s more, D’Antoni is hurting himself internally as his representative relentlessly pushes GM Donnie Walsh to hire an assistant GM with close ties to the coach.

Through interviews with NBA front-office executives, agents and coaches, here’s a look at the possibilities for franchises with interim and vulnerable head coaches.

Sacramento Kings: Kings owners Joe and Gavin Maloof drove the firing of Rick Adelman and the ill-fated hirings of Eric Mussleman and Reggie Theus. This time, the basketball executives are trying to wrest control back. Multiple sources say the Kings have all but eliminated the possibility of retaining interim coach Kenny Natt and have targeted Eddie Jordan to replace him.

Jordan was the Kings coach for one season in 1997-98 under GM Geoff Petrie, but, ironically, former owner Jim Thomas pushed to fire him once Petrie made the franchise-changing moves for Chris Webber and Vlade Divac.

European coaches – Ettore Messina and David Blatt – also have been mentioned as possibilities, but multiple league sources say the Kings are locked on Jordan.

Washington Wizards: Saunders is the runaway favorite for the Wizards, who are determined to hire a winning, veteran coach for a win-now team. Johnson could be considered, but several sources say that Saunders is all but assured of a swift hiring once the regular season is done.

Toronto Raptors: After the inevitable firing of Sam Mitchell early in the season, the Raptors didn’t start to play consistently under interim Jay Triano until the past couple weeks. GM Bryan Colangelo is planning to keep Triano, with former Memphis Grizzlies coach Marc Iavaroni as his top assistant. After Iavaroni’s firing in Memphis this season, Colangelo invited him to spend time with the Raptors as a consultant.

New Jersey Nets: There’s significant belief inside and outside the organization that Lawrence Frank will be fired, but some reliable sources think Frank’s fate is still unresolved. If a change is made, GM Kiki Vandeweghe is expected to have the autonomy to make his mark on the organization. Several sources suggest that he will push for Messina, who has won two Euroleague titles with CSKA Moscow.

Messina has surfaced in several recent searches, and it seems just a matter of time until he gets an NBA job. Messina replaced D’Antoni as the coach of Benetton Treviso.

“Kiki will try to do something unorthodox,” one peer insisted.

Philadelphia 76ers: All indications are that the Sixers plan to stay with interim coach Tony DiLeo. The bigger issue for them is Elton Brand, who was lost for the season with a shoulder injury. Brand is just one season into an $84 million contract and the Sixers never figured out how to integrate him into a fast, young lineup.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Kevin McHale has enjoyed coaching these young Timberwolves, who remind him of a college team. He hasn’t made up his mind for sure, but most expect that he’ll return for a full season with the future All-Star frontcourt of Al Jefferson and Kevin Love.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Scott Brooks, the interim coach, likely will be brought back with a contract extension. As much as anything, Brooks oversaw the vigorous development of Kevin Durant.

Atlanta Hawks: Some suggest that expectations surrounding the Hawks could make Mike Woodson vulnerable should the team fail to advance a round in the playoffs.

Adrian Wojnarowski is the NBA columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Adrian a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Apr 9, 2009