This will always and forever be a yearly thing, so as long as Kentucky Wildcat head coach John Calipari decides to stay at the University atop his perch as coach of the best team in college basketball, while thought by some to be the best coach in college basketball. Of course John Calipari wants a chance to prove himself in the NBA, so says Unnamed and Anonymous NBA Guy, because it’s the supposed logical next step and because he failed badly in his lone NBA attempt as head coach. Because who could possibly be happy making millions as the head coach of college basketball’s great destination team?
You’ll recall this happened last spring, as former Wildcat and NBA journeyman Rex Chapman had Calipari on the fast track to taking over the Los Angeles Lakers’ gig as head coach. The Lakers had games left in their season and a head coach at the time – classy move there, Rex – and the self-sprung rumors did little for Chapman. Or the Lakers, while we’re at it, nor did it do much to stop Kentucky’s momentum heading into 2014-15 despite losing in the championship game.
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Calipari coached the then-New Jersey Nets from 1996 until early 1999 before being sacked, and outside of a short stint as an assistant under Larry Brown’s Philadelphia 76ers, he’s clung successfully to the college ranks in the years since. It’s that Net affiliation that has Steve Popper of the Bergen Record wondering if Calipari is best suited to help create a winner with the lacking pro team, now working in Brooklyn:
The one name that could return the Nets to all of those things they thought they could be, that they seemed primed to be, is currently guiding the best college basketball team in the nation, a coach who crashed and burned with the Nets once already. The Nets can be saved by John Calipari.
"He desperately wants it," the front office official said. "He won’t say it out loud. The NBA is the only place he’s ever failed and it drives him nuts. He’s not the same guy he was then. He came to the NBA and he wasn’t ready. He’s ready now."
"All these kids, if you look at a free agent list and check off the ones who he’s got a relationship with you could build an All-Star team," a person close to Calipari said. "Start with LeBron James."
Popper goes on to say that John Calipari “would have little left to accomplish at Kentucky if the team finishes off the greatest season in NCAA history,” which is a very-NBA’ish thing to say. Even dumb NBA guys like me aren’t misguided enough to assume that a coach hasn’t fully performed to the best of abilities unless he helps create a successful NBA team as head coach.
And to say that Calipari would have nothing left to accomplish in leading the Wildcats to a perfect season in 2014-15 is ridiculous: John Calipari has an entirely new roster of entirely new teenagers to work with year-in and year-out, as well as an unending stream of new teenagers on opposing teams to scout for every season. Working on the fly to create a new championship contender with new faces every year is quite the unending accomplishment, one made different every year by the disparate makeups in personalities and playing style.
NBA coaches? They have their work cut out for them, but they also have a pretty good working knowledge about how NBA vets like Gerald Henderson or Zach Randolph are going to look from year to year. To say John Calipari would have “done it all” in the NCAAs after finishing with a perfect season (or another in 2016, or another after that, even) would be a bit much – even coaches that aren’t as lousy with one-and-done studs still have to re-format rotations from year to year, while preparing for an entirely new batch of scouting reports for opposing underclassmen, or upperclassmen finally coming into their own.
Calipari’s affiliation with the Nets is a weak one at best. The owners that hired him to run the team in 1996 are long gone, having sold the Nets to another group in 1998 that then sold the franchise to a group led by Bruce Ratner in 2004. It was Ratner that encouraged the move to Brooklyn, and before selling the team to current (if barely) owner Mikhail Prokhorov. The Nets have changed locations twice since Calipari was fired in his third season, and they went through eight coaches (counting interims) in the years between firing Calipari in 1999 and hiring Lionel Hollins in the summer of 2014.
Hollins’ Nets boast the NBA’s most-bloated payroll, one that works well past the $150 million mark after luxury taxes are counted. The team is a game and a half out of the playoff bracket even in the miserable Eastern Conference, and on track to win just 35 games despite Prokhorov’s largesse. One can argue that general manager Billy King is just working at Prokhorov’s behest in trading for or signing players to massive contracts while dealing away draft picks, but there is nothing in King’s executive past that paints him as someone to trust in running an NBA franchise.
Here’s where we briefly agree with Popper, and partially with the unnamed NBA exec.
Calipari may want to come back to the NBA at some point to avenge his earlier tenure, and it’s very possible that he could turn a team around if he shows a semblance of patience.
As was the case with Rick Pitino in 1997 with the Boston Celtics, Calipari was handed full personnel control of the Nets in 1996, with the respected John Nash working as his ostensible GM. Calipari respected the checks and balances system a bit more than Pitino, and actually wasn’t all that bad as a personnel chief – outside of being pressured to avoid Kobe Bryant in the famed 1996 draft. His team swindled both the Mavericks and 76ers in two very large deals, bringing the Nets Sam Cassell and Keith Van Horn, and it was only untimely injuries to Cassell and then Stephon Marbury and Jayson Williams that acted as Calipari’s undoing during his last, 3-17 season.
Could he have been a great NBA coach? It’s hard to tell. In comparison to other NCAA-to-NBA flameouts, and especially in comparison to flameouts like Pitino that also had executive power, Calipari was quite good – leading his Nets to the playoffs in his second season.
Here’s the issue with the Nets connection, however. The team is looking to trim payroll in anticipation of a sell, so eating the final last two years of Lionel Hollins’ $5 million yearly contract (the final season, in 2017-18, is a team option) seems like a bit much, to say nothing of Calipari walking away from his yearly $7 million at Kentucky. Popper cites 2016 – the 20th anniversary of Calipari’s initial Nets hire – as a good starting off point because the Nets will finally have cap space by then, which on the surface seems appropriate.
However, every NBA team will have major cap space that summer, and relationships between star coaches (or executives) and star players won’t matter as much as the stars won’t need any extended influence in order to create their own superteams as free agents. This is the same John Calipari that turned down millions from the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team that had a direct shot (it later cashed in on) at LeBron James last June. Now John Calipari is going to join the Nets because they’ll be one two-dozen teams with a shot at a 32-year old James in 2016?
On top of that? The Nets have royally salted the earth in dealing away future draft picks.
This season, the East-leading Atlanta Hawks have the right to swap first-round picks with the Nets, which means that all of this Nets losing will only result in Brooklyn grabbing the 29th pick in this year’s draft. The Nets could vault up from the ninth slot to the top overall slot in this year’s NBA draft lottery, as Chicago did in 2008 and Cleveland did in 2011, and they’d still have to send their pick to a championship contender from Atlanta.
Boston owns Brooklyn’s first-round pick in 2016 outright, and the Celtics (already better than Brooklyn, and improving daily under coach Brad Stevens) have the right to swap picks with Brooklyn in 2017. In 2018? The Nets have to go back to outright giving their pick to Boston.
That is to say, if Calipari has designs on making up for an NBA run gone wrong, he’d be better off giving the Nets franchise a miss for the second time in his career.
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