Marty Burns
Wednesday March 23rd, 2005

Paul Silas. Don Nelson. Flip Saunders. Rudy Tomjanovich. Hubie Brown.

Who would have guessed before the season that these big-name coaches wouldn't be with their respective clubs at playoff time? But as we've seen in the NBA in recent years, no coach is safe anymore. Not even winning ones.

Whether victims of high expectations (Silas, Saunders), personal reasons (Rudy. T., Nelson) or a combination (Brown), the coaching carousel just keeps turning. Already this season there have been nine changes, bringing the total to 16 over the past 16 months. It's almost as if every team outside Utah has made a coaching change sometime in the last two seasons.

Like gas prices, the pressure to win just keeps going up and up. Meanwhile, management's patience seems to be thinner than ever. It makes for a difficult environment for coaches, which might be why so many demand those $5 million annual salaries.

The coaching changes in Cleveland and Dallas were a hot topic among readers in this week's mailbag. Many wanted to know if LeBron James had anything to do with Silas' ouster from the Cavs. Almost certainly. Despite his statements to the contrary, it's unfathomable new Cavs owner Dan Gilbert would risk making a major move like this without at least consulting the King, who can become a free agent in three years. Gilbert, having just paid $375 million for his new toy, might have been the driving force behind the decision to fire Silas. But LeBron must have gone along with it, or Gilbert wouldn't have done it.

Some readers wanted to discuss my take on Nelson's legacy in Dallas. While Nellie might have done a good job helping build the Mavs, reader Diego Sanchez of San Francisco notes the veteran coach left Golden State (Chris Webber feud) and New York (Patrick Ewing) under less-than-ideal circumstances. "He picked up the Warriors and made them a contender, but his final moves cut the legs of the franchise for the first handful of years (the geniuses in management handled the rest)," Sanchez wrote. "He did the same in New York." I can't argue that Nelson had his failures, Diego, but I still say that overall he was a successful coach and that he brought a fun style to the game.

Several readers also agreed that the NBA could use more free-thinkers like Nelson. John Protevi of Baton Rouge, La., noted that being a "control freak" used to be considered a personality disorder. "Didn't John Wooden say you should coach in practice so that the players could play the game themselves?," Protevi wrote. Yes, I believe he did, John. I don't know why more coaches don't follow that Wooden philosophy. Maybe they all feel the pressure to win now. Or maybe they feel they have to justify those big salaries.

Finally, Nelson Manigo of the Philippines wrote in to ask if Nelson's failure to win "the holy grail" of an NBA title might diminish his legacy. In some ways, it does. Nelson's status as the league's second winningest coach -- and his three Coach of the Year awards -- will be enough to keep his name mentioned among the greats. But championships ultimately are what cement a coach's legacy -- which is why he won't be joining Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach and Pat Riley at the top of the pantheon.

Speaking of coaches, Rockets boss Jeff Van Gundy was the target of some readers in regards to my column about Yao Ming's slower-than-expected development. Michael Sutherland of East Greenwich, R.I., criticized Van Gundy's statement that Yao's biggest strength is his scoring ability. He says Yao's greatest asset is his passing, something Van Gundy has not exploited enough in the high post. "The Rockets should run their offense around him," Sutherland writes. "If Yao were on the Kings ... oh my!"

Matt Simpson of Kansas City, Mo., adds that Van Gundy hasn't done enough to help Yao stay on the court. "If Van Gundy can't come up with a better way to stop opposing perimeter players from getting in the paint, then Yao will forever be in foul trouble," Simpson wrote. "On offense, watch how much Yao has to run around setting picks for other players and then ask why he is tired and can only play short minutes?"

In defense of Van Gundy, he's had nearly his entire roster turned over in the past year. He's also had to work in Tracy McGrady, a volume shooter. It's reasonable to expect it might take time for Van Gundy to mesh Yao's talents into such a scheme -- and indeed the Rockets have been playing better of late.

Apart from the Xs and Os, it is remarkable how much interest Yao generates among NBA fans. Many readers wrote in to say they agreed that the young Rockets phenom was being criticized too harshly. Phil from New Orleans notes Yao spent his first two years playing with shoot-first guards Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley. Now he's playing with McGrady. "I'd give him another three years before we see the real Yao (that is if McGrady will allow that to happen)," Phil writes.

Others pointed out that Yao's lack of meanness could stem, at least in part, from cultural differences. Michael Byrd, an expat living in Xuzhou, China, notes that Yao is representing an entire nation. "I find his attitude and on-court persona to be a refreshing alternative," Byrd writes.

While Yao's low-key demeanor might be understandable, I believe he could stand to be more aggressive and a little nastier. The NBA is a physical game down low. Yao can be tough and nasty without being dirty. But I think he will learn this in due time, once he gets more comfortable with the NBA game and his place in it.

My take on Steve Nash's unlikely quest for the NBA MVP also generated a slew of responses, with about half supporting his bid and the other half favoring Shaquille O'Neal, LeBron or one of the other top candidates. Even those in favor of Nash, however, admitted that a big guy was probably going to get the award. As reader Gelaco from Cebu, Philippines, points out: "A few years ago everybody was raving about Jason Kidd's MVP season as he turned the Nets from doormat to Eastern Conference champions ... yet Tim Duncan eventually took the award."

I agree, Gelaco, that Nash's bid remains a longshot. It doesn't help that he has been bothered of late by a sore hamstring while Shaq and the Heat are on a serious roll. With Miami having caught the Suns for the NBA's best record, Shaq probably has moved into the MVP lead. However, there is still a month left in the season. In fact, Phoenix visits Miami on Friday. That's why I will be waiting at least another couple of weeks before casting my MVP ballot.

Finally, returning to the subject of the NBA coaching merry-go-round, reader Brian Ellison of Salt Lake City wants to know if Jazz coach Jerry Sloan could soon find himself in jeopardy. "[The Jazz] have had some injury problems, and maybe some problems with the new rules, but there is obviously more going on," Ellison writes. "I wonder if Jerry's old-school style and half court offense isn't a good match for his players."

You raise an interesting point, Brian. A coach's job is to adjust his schemes to his personnel, not the other way around. It's also true that sometimes a coach can lose his edge. But I don't think this is the case with Sloan and the Jazz this season. He seems to still burn with the same intensity as ever, and he has made adjustments to his half-court offense. And it's not like Utah is still trying to run the pick-and-roll every play.

This year, though, for various reasons, the Jazz have not responded as well to Sloan. But it looks from the outside like it has more to do with the players (and injuries) in Utah than the coaches. After all, just last year Sloan was being hailed as a genius for keeping the Jazz above .500 when some experts predicted they'd finish with the worst record of all time. Utah is an organization that prides itself on loyalty and continuity. It would surprise me if owner Larry Miller fired Sloan over one bad season, but then again these are the days of quick fixes in the NBA.

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