How attractive is each coaching vacancy?
Who are the most envied coaches in the NBA? The first two names that jump out are Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra, and while it’s easy to look no further than “Duncan” and “LeBron” in explaining their situations, the Spurs and Heat are constructed in such a way that they meet every coach’s possible desire.
Yes, there’s plentiful talent on hand, but there’s also a stable, winning culture behind the scenes; a proven, steady and responsive management team providing support; a track record of respect for their signal-callers; and ownership groups that are committed to putting together a quality product year after year and decade after decade. The Spurs have had this stuff down pat for years; the Heat learned their lessons more recently, putting Spoelstra in a position where he was able to survive — and thrive — through the fire of 2011 to take the organization to new heights.
Few franchises can match those standards, and it’s no guarantee that perennial destinations will remain so. Just ask former Lakers coach Mike Brown, whose championship-aspiring season ended after just five games. The NBA has six open coaching jobs — one-fifth of the league — with additional spots that could open in the near future and a Cavaliers job that was just filled by Brown.
Let’s pinpoint the shortcomings of the open jobs by using the standards set by the Spurs and Heat as a guide. The following is a full breakdown of the six vacancies ranked by five characteristics on a scale of one (worst) to five (best).
1. Talent: How many roster pieces are already in place?
2. Turnover: How long have previous coaches held the job?
3. Track record: How has the organization fared in recent years?
4. Leash: Is management in a position to be patient?
5. Upside: Considering any/all other factors, what’s the immediate winning potential?
1. Brooklyn Nets: The best available job. Total: 19 out of 25 points.
Talent: 5. The only team on this list to win at least one playoff game, the Nets are really in a totally different roster position than the other open jobs. Unlike the rest, Brooklyn is a veteran-dominated team with plenty of talent: Brook Lopez is one of the best centers in the game, Deron Williams is a top-level point guard (at least sometimes) and Joe Johnson, as frustrating as his disappearing acts can be, remains one of the best shooting guards. Other key rotation pieces — Gerald Wallace, Reggie Evans — are also veterans.
Turnover: 5. Excluding interim gigs (like the 2009-10 disaster), the Nets have had three coaches (Byron Scott, Lawrence Frank and Avery Johnson) over the last 13 seasons. That’s not bad at all, especially considering that five of those seasons ended in the lottery.
Track record: 3. Under Scott and Frank, the Nets advanced in the postseason in five out of six seasons from 2002 to 2007. Unfortunately, that string of success, which included two Finals appearances, was followed by a half-decade of missing the playoffs. This season marked the franchise’s first playoff trip since 2007 and should be the start of a new streak, as the William/Johnson/Lopez core should be good for 45-plus wins in each of the next two to three seasons.
Leash: 2. This is where it gets tricky. The coaching stability of recent years mentioned above doesn’t really accurately reflect the Mikhail Prokhorov factor. Prokhorov took over as owner in 2010 and immediately promised big things, including talk of a title. His fairly quick firing of Avery Johnson and his immediate announcement after losing to the Bulls that interim coach P.J. Carlesimo wouldn’t be back didn’t exactly exude thoughtful patience. If there’s a major drawback to this position, it’s that the insanely rich Russian could give you the pink slip at any moment.
Direction: 4. The Nets would seem to be a second-tier team in the Eastern Conference next season, alongside the Knicks and Pacers, but a clear level below the Heat and Bulls. Compared with the rest of the dregs on this list, that’s a pretty good place to be.
2. Milwaukee Bucks: A solid consolation prize. Total: 16 out of 25 points.
Talent: 2. Larry Sanders is found money, the Bucks are in a position to bring back both Brandon Jennings and J.J. Redick and John Henson could be a diamond in the rough. The team’s abundance of free agents makes a true assessment difficult, while the multiyear commitments to Drew Gooden and Ersan Ilyasova are pretty unsightly. Just don’t keep Monta Ellis (who can opt out of his contract) and cross your fingers that Jennings stops squawking about bigger markets, and it’s all (pretty) good.
Turnover: 4. There’s been a fair bit of patience in Milwaukee considering that the franchise has advanced in the playoffs just once since 1990. Scott Skiles lasted four-plus years before departing this season — even though he finished above .500 just once — and George Karl lasted for five seasons (1998-2003) not all that long ago.
Track record: 2. You have to go back a long way to find truly meaningful postseason success: Milwaukee hasn’t reached the NBA Finals in nearly 40 years and hasn’t made it to the Eastern Conference finals since 2001. This year, the Bucks were clearly the least-qualified team in the playoffs, Lakers included, and they were beaten by double digits in all four games against Miami.
Leash: 5. A new contract extension for GM John Hammond should make this a solid job, regardless of how many of their key free agents return. A new deal for a GM within weeks of a coaching change is a sure sign that ownership trusts management to pick the next leader. Hammond’s been in place since 2008, so his presence also represents a fair bit of stability.
Direction: 3. Expectations and excitement aren’t exactly words that are synonymous with Bucks basketball right now. Milwaukee represents an opportunity for a coach to put his stamp on an organization, if only because the team has gone more than a decade without a truly inspiring push.
3. Philadelphia 76ers: Nice upside. Total: 15 out of 25 points.
Talent: 3. All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young are fine building blocks. Andrew Bynum remains, all these months later, a giant question mark. If Bynum isn’t back or is back but isn’t healthy, prepare for purgatory.
Turnover: 1. Pretty much a revolving door. Eight men — Larry Brown, Chris Ford, Randy Ayers, Jim O’Brien, Maurice Cheeks, Tony DiLeo, Eddie Jordan and Doug Collins — have served as coach or interim coach in the last 10 years. Brown was the last Sixers coach to survive longer than three seasons.
Track record: 3. Philadelphia has qualified for the playoffs in 10 of the past 15 seasons and advanced out of the first round in five of those seasons. The Sixers have mostly been mediocre, slightly better than mediocre or slightly worse than mediocre, finishing in the division basement just once in the last 15 seasons and riding Allen Iverson to the 2001 Finals.
Leash: 5. The relatively new ownership group just hired Sam Hinkie as general manager and cleaned house around him. One would think that Hinkie’s guy — whoever it turns out to be — should have plenty of room and latitude to operate.
Direction: 3. As disappointing as the 2012-13 season was — and it was a major disappointment — ownership moved swiftly to create the opportunity for a fresh start this summer and it made a smart hire in Hinkie. Bynum’s future hangs over everything and adds a major uncertainty, but Holiday’s upside shouldn’t be undersold.
4. Phoenix Suns: Flip this house. Total: 14 out of 25 points.
Talent: 1. The Suns were the worst team in the West this season and that was no accident. This roster is in the discussion for the worst collection of talent in the NBA. Goran Dragic: nice player. Marcin Gortat: nice player, but he sure sounds like he wants the first flight out. Michael Beasley: a signing so bad last summer that former GM Lance Blanks should have been gone as soon as the ink dried (he was fired last month). Everybody else? Nothing to write home about.
Turnover: 4. Aside from the Terry Porter hiccup in 2008, this has been a fairly stable job, with Mike D’Antoni and Alvin Gentry holding down the post for the vast majority of the past decade. Lindsey Hunter, installed as interim coach after the Suns parted ways with Gentry this season, doesn’t seem long for the job.
Track record: 4. This is a proud franchise with a long, long history of winning that has fallen on truly hard times over the last three seasons. The Suns made the playoffs 13 straight seasons from 1988 to 2001 and advanced in the postseason three straight years under D’Antoni (2005, 2006, 2007) and then once again under Gentry in 2010. That identity is missing and desperately in need of restoration.
Leash: 4. A fairly stable organization — from a coach’s perspective — now has a new GM, former Celtics assistant GM Ryan McDonough, who will likely seek a smart, energetic and young voice to lead a youth movement. That usually means depressed expectations and lots of patience. The threat of losses piling up is certainly an issue to be considered.
Direction: 1. This is essentially rock bottom for the Suns, who just completed their second-worst season in franchise history and have seen Beasley’s name pop up in crime-related headlines multiple times this season. McDonough’s arrival should help begin the process of wiping the slate clean and starting from scratch, but this is going to take awhile.
5. Detroit Pistons: It could be worse (Barely). Total: 9 out of 25 points.
Talent: 2. Andre Drummond looks like a potential franchise player, but there’s plenty of work to be done everywhere else. Does Greg Monroe fit alongside Drummond? Will Brandon Knight evolve past a punchline? How long will it take for these questions to be answered? One more: Can Jose Calderon be retained at a reasonable price?
Turnover: 1. Five men have served as coach since the Pistons won the 2004 title. The last three — Michael Curry, John Kuester and Lawrence Frank — all suffered through grim tenures.
Track record: 3. Detroit has made the playoffs in 12 of the last 18 seasons, including seven trips out of the first round, but that tradition of success feels oh so long ago. Four straight lottery appearances with 30 or fewer wins will do that to you.
Leash: 1. President Joe Dumars seems to survive no matter how many bad contracts get signed and how many overpaid, underperforming veterans are plugged in to muck up what should have been a slash-and-burn rebuilding effort. Kuester endured a player mutiny and Frank desperately chased wins this season to the point that the Internet was collectively begging for him to play Drummond more minutes. How could the next coach reasonably expect more favorable treatment and additional job security?
Direction: 2. One franchise piece is better than no franchise pieces, but the Pistons’ work in free agency this summer — now that many of their cap-clogging deals have expired or been moved — will go a long way to determining this core’s growth curve.
6. Charlotte Bobcats: The worst available job. Total: 5 out of 25 points.
Talent: 1. I’ll take Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. You can have everybody else. Well, I might think twice about Kemba Walker and Bismack Biyombo, too, and Ramon Sessions isn’t totally worthless.
Turnover: 1. Charlotte’s franchise history only dates to 2004, so the body of work to examine isn’t huge. It doesn’t really need to be. All you need to know: There have been three coaches since December 2010, with Mike Dunlap, last year’s coach, getting through only one season before getting canned.
Track record: 1. Zero playoff-series victories in a nine-year franchise history. Again, not much to work with here.
Leash: 1. Dunlap’s hire was unexpected and his firing would appear to be a “My bad” from management/ownership. One problem: GM Rich Cho, himself fired abruptly, by the Trail Blazers, was hired to lead a full-scale rebuild and has delivered exactly that. Are ownership and management now on different pages? What’s the top priority in a new coach? What’s the plan here? Why should anyone trust this job?
Direction: 1. Really, really, really bad in 2013 after being all-time bad in 2012. No major reason to expect anything will be different over the next two seasons. Gulp.