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By Sam Smith | 3.30.2015 | 8:49 a.m. CT
As the University of Kentucky rolls to perhaps another championship and a perfect season, there’s speculation that John Calipari might feel he’s done enough and it’s time to take another shot at the NBA, where he failed with the Nets. Similarly, there have been rumors in Florida Billy Donovan, who once took the Magic job for a few hours before changing his mind and opening the way for Stan Van Gundy, might have the pro itch once again. There also has been ongoing speculation that onetime Bull Fred Hoiberg might be ready to make a move to the pros, though those close to him believe he prefers to continue the legacy of Johnny Orr at Iowa State. Plus, college coaching has become as lucrative as Chris Mullin may be headed back to coach at his alma mater, St. John’s.
As always with coaching, change is the constant. There have been wild rumors and erratic speculation all season regarding the Bulls and coaching. But as the NBA regular season draws to a close there are questions in many other places as well about the tenure of leadership. Already this season, three NBA coaches (four if you count two in Sacramento) have been fired with George Karl now on a long term deal with the Kings and the Magic and Nuggets expected to move beyond their interim coaches and make new hires this summer. Will they come from the college ranks with winners like Calipari? Is Tom Izzo finally ready at 60 after what many regard as one of his best ever coaching seasons going to the Final Four again and after turning down pro jobs in the past? He can’t wait much longer. After all, there is some stench on you as long as you coach in college where the NCAA rules make a mockery of the concept of fairness and concern for kids. So where else other than Orlando and Denver could the help wanted ads be? And I’m leaving out the Bulls because it’s been discussed so much this season (check about six editions of the Ask Sam mailbag) and I believe everything will depend on the playoffs, as it generally does.
Washington: They’ve faded badly and perhaps in a much noticed symbolic statement last week coach Randy Wittman was walking off the court before the game ended. Wittman, who to his credit isn’t covering for poor play, again Sunday wondered aloud what his team was doing, which really isn’t that good for him, either. The Wizards seem basically locked into the fifth spot in the East to open on the road in Chicago or Toronto. Of course as with every situation, a long or good playoff run changes everything and even can lead to extensions. Other than John Wall, they seem overwhelmed.
New Orleans: Sure, they’ve had a lot of injuries, but with Anthony Davis and Omer Asik that should have been maybe the best front line in the game. Plus, you can’t have the guy everyone agrees to be the next great star not even making the playoffs for his first three seasons. They have a chance to make the playoffs over the Oklahoma City Thunder, though they trail by two and a half games. But they have the tiebreaker. They’ve got slightly easier opponents, but six of nine on the road to close. If they make the playoffs, Monty Williams probably is safe. But that’s still a lot of talent to be outside again amidst rumors of a bigtime shakeup after the season if they are out again.
Los Angeles Lakers: Yes, Byron Scott just got the job, but they can go through coaches quickly as Mike Brown knows. There’s a desperation there for improvement with Jim Buss’ job seemingly on the line as well in the new family setup. When there is that pressure anything can happen, and if there’s a big name the Lakers like that kind of stuff. Their fan base isn’t accustomed to this sort of losing with little hope, though Scott didn’t put together the roster. Of course, that rarely matters.
Brooklyn/New York: Again, both are new coaches. Derek Fisher is guiding them to their lottery destiny and Lionel Hollins in Brooklyn seems to be getting out of them as much as anyone can, and the Nets still could/should make the playoffs. But like in Los Angeles, stuff happens because money and contracts don’t mean much. Though you’d have to guess both are safe for at least one more season.
Oklahoma City: Again, a lot, lot, lot of injuries with the biggest of all Kevin Durant lost until next season. And they should make the playoffs. It’s not an organization prone to outrageous actions with the ownership-inspired James Harden trade the exception. But this is six years for Scott Brooks and if they were to fail to make the playoffs with Russell Westbrook playing like he is, who knows. Still, you’d expect Brooks to return.
Minnesota: Flip Saunders is general manager and will fire himself at some point. Will it be next season or does he want to take one more shot with the kids? It’s a Flip. This is where many rumors point to for Hoiberg were he to leave Iowa State. Hoiberg is a former Timberwolves executive and remains close with ownership. The area is in close proximity to his family and said to be an area of comfort with him with a chance to grow with young talent more familiar to him coming out of college coaching. Still, most say Hoiberg has it so good at Iowa State they’d be surprised if he left.
Cleveland: LeBron said he could stay.
NBA News and Notes
How Wednesday's game in Milwaukee gives us a glimpse of the NBA's future
The Bulls this week have their possible first round playoff preview Wednesday with the Bucks. Milwaukee has taken a tumble since the trade for Michael Carter-Williams, though Brandon Knight has been injured in Phoenix as the Suns in losing to the Thunder Sunday—and losing the tie breaker—are most likely out of the playoffs for this season. But Carter-Williams is part of a larger plan that is sweeping the NBA and redefining defense in this era. You see it with the Warriors, who obviously have had success, though it’s not brand new. It was the less obvious reason for the success of the championship Bulls. Michael Jordan was the obvious one, but especially from 1996-1998 it was a lineup with Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Ron Harper, Toni Kukoc and Dennis Rodman that could switch on every pick and roll to negate the most popular NBA play. It’s been a big reason for the defensive success of the current Bulls the way Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson can defend smaller players. I remember a pretty good executive, Billy Knight in Atlanta, talking about it when he selected Marvin Williams in the 2005 draft ahead of Deron Williams and Chris Paul. The idea was good, if not in that draft. But with so few post big men anymore in the NBA, the emphasis is on versatile forwards and big guards and it has quietly been revolutionizing defense. You can see it in the Bucks planning with Carter-Williams, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker. And though they are not there yet, the idea makes sense. “The build is different (today). They're longer. They jump higher,” noted Bucks coach Jason Kidd recently to reporters. “Everyone has one or two (long, athletic big men) now on their team. You look at Oklahoma City; they were probably one of the first to have that makeup of having long (players). It helps you defensively and it also helps when you have guys who can (score) the ball on the perimeter and don't have to rely on the three to be successful." It’s one reason why pro scouts like Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky with the versatility to play multiple positions on defense. And why a player like the Bulls Nikola Mirotic finds the time is right for him in the NBA.
Indiana and the NBA
The NBA Saturday issued a statement regarding the hateful law signed by the Indiana governor that likely would discriminate against gays and lesbians. “The game of basketball is grounded in long established principles of inclusion and mutual respect. We will continue to ensure that all fans, players and employees feel welcome at all NBA and WNBA events in Indiana and elsewhere,” the NBA wrote and the Pacers owner followed with a similar statement. Statements of concern are good, but a progressive league like the NBA must do more. Pacers executives Larry Bird and Donnie Walsh are two of the most inclusive and fair minded people in sports. So it would be unfortunate to punish them as well. But when states go to these lengths contrary to the beliefs of the founders of our nation, the NBA should at least start with denying any future All-Star game, draft or NBA sponsored event to Indiana. The Bulls aren’t likely to meet the Pacers in the playoffs, but I couldn’t see going to that series given the attitude of bias and discrimination in the state. This reminded me of reading about Jackie Robinson, who was a boyhood hero when I grew up in Brooklyn. We didn’t know as kids about discrimination or even much about race. But I wondered if I were of age then would I have just stood by and first accepted all-white sports? Then the bias Robinson endured of not even being able to eat or sleep at the same places as teammates? All of this changed thanks to great people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. It wasn’t that people in the 1950s condoned it, but it was the way it was, right? It’s easy to accept things that don’t affect you; the great people challenge them. I’m not one of those great people. But the NBA is a great league and it must not accept one of its franchises being in a state that endorses that sort of discrimination. The league needs to take action.
Where are they now?
The 2010 NBA free agency was the big story of the season because of LeBron James. But it also tells you something about free agency and long term contracts, similar to the issues in baseball. James was the big free agent and the Heat went to four straight Finals and now he’s headed there again. Obviously, get the best one. Chris Bosh came along and shared those four. He stayed in Miami and was a questionable playoff participant even before he was lost for the season with a blood clot. But consider the other maximum salary guys from that supposedly greatest of all free agencies in the final seasons of their deals: Amar’e Stoudemire accepted a buyout from the Knicks and is a little used reserve with the Mavericks; Carlos Boozer received amnesty from the Bulls and has mostly been a reserve for the Lakers with the league’s fourth poorest record; David Lee is out of the rotation for top seeded Golden State and was DNP-CD three games recently and played mostly when regulars were given time off; Joe Johnson was traded to the Nets and could be out of the playoffs. Boozer was the only one to play in a conference finals game. Lesson: Free agency may not be so great unless you get LeBron.
Has Evan Turner finally found a home? The No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 draft (mom, don’t let your babies grow up to be No. 2 picks in the NBA draft) has a pair of triple doubles in the last month and has been close regularly, averaging 13.4 points, 6.7 assists and five rebounds the last 10 games as the Celtics make an unlikely run at a playoff spot.
It doesn’t sound like Reggie Jackson thinks Brandon Jennings is returning. "We (he and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) want to be one of the best backcourts in the league. We know we've got a long way to go. But we are young and we've got a chance to do so."
Rest your players? We’ve heard that one before. The Bulls have a potential game for second in the East Sunday in Cleveland as Cavs coach Blatt talks about making sure to get that second spot amidst some fatigue among the players—Kevin Love hurting his back again Sunday as the Cavs slipped by the 76ers at home—and talk about rest for LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, both in the top four in the league in average minutes. "We have to manage it in the right way so as to grow coming into the playoffs, to rest guys when and if we can but at the same time not allow us to lose our shape and our focus," Blatt told Cleveland media. James, by the way, said he expects some games off to rest for the playoffs. Love, meanwhile, said he hasn’t received a get well card from James yet regarding his latest back injury.
George and Pacers pace return
How could there not have been a community uproar? Paul George, working out with the team for weeks and supposedly dunking fiercely, told the Indianapolis Star last week he needs to be 100 percent before returning from his surgery. "We want to make sure I'm as close to 100 [percent] as possible," George said. "It's not coming down to you know, 'Paul's feeling good, let's get him out there.' It's about making sure everything's where I'm comfortable, where the medical staff is comfortable, where the front office is comfortable." Early last week, Larry Bird said, "I think he's cleared by the doctors to play, but obviously he's not in shape (to play despite the Star reporting doctors said the bone was healed a month ago). Just because he's cleared to play doesn't mean he's in shape to play. I don't want Paul to go out there until he feels comfortable with his conditioning and the way he's practicing.” Chicago media, however, was in paroxysms of rage ... Derrick Rose, meanwhile, is scheduled to begin his contact phase of his rehabilitation when the Bulls return to practice this week ... The Orlando Sentinel reported Dewayne Dedmon missed Friday's game because of renewed soreness in his sprained left ankle, leaving him to tell no tales. Somebody stop me!
NBA news and notes
It’s been a steady decline for Paul Pierce, failing to score in double figures despite averaging more than 20 minutes the last six games and averaging a career low this season.
The Rockets with more guys going out (lately Donatas Montiejunas) moved into second in the West with Memphis stumbling and it will be difficult to see anyone but James Harden and Stephen Curry getting first place MVP votes. Either would be a good choice.
Really, no one believes the officiating was fair to them. So why is it a story with Mark Cuban complaining for a change? This is new? Though it was a big game for Chandler Parsons Sunday as the Mavs lost to the Pacers with Monta Ellis out injured, the Mavs have privately questioned Parsons’ ability to make plays, a disappointment for the big offseason free agent. The Mavs look locked into seventh and a short stay in the playoffs.
Kevin Durant played a league leading 3,122 minutes last season, the second most of his career and the third time in five seasons he paced all players in minutes played. Durant is now done until next season with his third foot surgery.
This week is two years since Danilo Gallinari tore his ACL and still isn’t close to previous form. He’s averaging a six-year scoring low on his poorest ever shooting and second poorest season in rebounding and three-point shooting.
A golden state of coaching
The next Phil Jackson may well be Steve Kerr, and not only because he sits down all game while coaching. Imagine that. Or maybe the next John Wooden. Not only are the Warriors out in front of everyone this season from Day 1, but Kerr seems to actually be enjoying it, unlike most other NBA coaches. Earlier this month after post game questions concluded, Kerr stopped reporters and said they’d missed an historic milestone in NBA history, “You guys probably don’t know this, but it was a very special night. The rare trifecta for Alvin Gentry was reached tonight. I believe it’s never been done in NBA history. He just beat the three teams he was fired from as a head coach consecutively: Clippers, Phoenix and Detroit. It’s never happened in the history of the league. We’re just going to call it ‘The Gentry.’ It’s the ‘Gentry Trifecta.’” Gentry coached Detroit from 1998-2000, the Clippers from 2001-03 and Phoenix from 2009-13. Then last week after the Warriors dominated the Grizzlies, Kerr was asked about MVP. “For the record, I would vote for Russell Westbrook.” There was an awkward silence. Not catching on, Kerr then had to add: “Didn’t somebody else just say that?” Oh, right Kevin Love. “Just kidding,” said Kerr. “Make sure the sarcasm is noted.” C’mon Morty, how can anyone not like him?