For coaches like Woodson, waiting is hard part
Two seasons ago, Mike Woodson guided the Atlanta Hawks to the playoffs for the first time in nine years and came within a win of knocking off the NBA’s eventual champions. Last season, he took the Hawks to the Eastern Conference semifinals, the first such visit for the franchise since 1997.
So what did Woodson and his coaching staff acquire as a reward from the Hawks?
Woodson will likely enter this season in the final year of his contract, and, for now at least, the Hawks haven’t expressed any interest in negotiating an extension for him.
“Every year, people have me fired,” Woodson told Yahoo! Sports by phone. “I can’t worry about that. I really can’t. Am I a little disappointed that none of my staff and I were extended contracts this year? You’re damn right I am because we deserve it. We deserve it with what we’ve done this past year. Any other coach probably would have been extended without a doubt.
“For us not to be extended is not right. But it is what it is. … I still have a job to do.”
Though Woodson’s lame-duck status is complicated by the Hawks’ dysfunctional ownership group, it also serves as an example of how a growing number of NBA teams are determined to rein in costs for their coaching and scouting staffs. With ticket and sponsorship revenue limited by the slow economy and the league facing a possible lockout in two years, some teams have decided to cut costs on the sidelines.
• The Detroit Pistons’ decision to hire Cleveland assistant John Kuester over Avery Johnson was at least partially impacted by finances. Kuester received a three-year, $6 million contract. Johnson was seeking a four-year, $20 million deal.
• The Sacramento Kings passed on hiring Los Angeles Lakers assistant Kurt Rambis in favor of veteran coach Paul Westphal. Westphal received a two-year, $3 million guaranteed contract with a team option for a third season from the Kings. The Minnesota Timberwolves recently gave Rambis a four-year, $9 million contract to become their new head coach.
• An NBA source said the Denver Nuggets are discussing an extension for George Karl, who is entering the final year of his contract after guiding the franchise to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 1985. But with training camp opening in a month, a deal has yet to be completed.
• Oklahoma City’s Scott Brooks and Toronto’s Jay Triano, who were both given their respective team’s head jobs after serving as interim coaches last season, each received contracts paying less than $2 million a year.
“Everyone is being more conservative,” one Eastern Conference general manager said. “That’s the clear answer. It’s not a negative thing. Through these tough economic times, everyone is going to be more conservative.”
The days of $5 million-plus coaching salaries, expected extensions and hefty raises are increasingly being reserved for only the most successful coaches like the Lakers’ Phil Jackson and the San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich, who also heads his franchise’s basketball operations department. NBA commissioner David Stern chastised the league’s owners this summer for spending too much money on their coaching and scouting staffs. With the NBA about to begin negotiations for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, one league source said Stern told team owners that the Players Association will likely protest a reduction in the players’ salary structure unless the salaries of coaches and team executives also are decreased.
“Stern has been hammering the owners about that,” one Western Conference executive said. “The owners have been taking it to heart. … There is some significant downward pressure with coach and front-office salaries. I’m in that boat, too. I’m in the front office. I’m feeling it just like everyone else.”
Assistant coaches also are feeling the pinch. The Kings gave Westphal a budget of $500,000 to hire three assistant coaches. The New Jersey Nets’ assistant coaches were offered one-year deals to return with about 25 percent pay cuts for next season. Two coaches left, including Brian Hill, who joined Kuester’s staff in Detroit.
The Los Angeles Clippers have expressed interest in hiring noted Nuggets assistant Tim Grgurich but currently have only two bench assistants on Mike Dunleavy’s staff. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said Rick Carlisle will have three bench assistants this season, down from four last season, but the staff will be bolstered by additional player development coaches.
“You really have to make a case now for your assistants. That’s what’s going to be affected more than the head coaches,” a league source said.
Teams may be more willing to allow coaches to coach out their contracts now, rather than dumping them at the expense of paying two head-coaching salaries at the same time. Still, that doesn’t likely count for much with Woodson, who is in the final year of his contract. Woodson has had more than a few arguments with the Hawks’ star forward, Josh Smith(notes), and he knows a coach needs the backing of his front office to maintain authority in the locker room.
Woodson also knows, extension or not, he will be judged by whether the Hawks improve this season. The Hawks didn’t lose any significant pieces this offseason and strengthened their bench with the additions of Jamal Crawford(notes) and Joe Smith(notes). Veteran center Jason Collins(notes) also could be joining them soon and Woodson is optimistic rookie point guard Jeff Teague(notes) could make an impact this season.
“The bottom line is we got to win,” Woodson said. “I’m not saying we’re the Bostons or the Clevelands, but I know we’re deep enough to compete with those teams on a night-in-and-night-out basis. I think we proved that last year. Boston and Cleveland are the top two teams with Orlando being right there as well in the East. Everyone else is fighting. I don’t mind our team being in a position to secure something.”
For Woodson and his coaching staff, that includes their jobs.