Outlining the challenges, prospects of the league's eight new coaches
Eight teams hired new coaches this offseason. What are the unique challenges facing each man and his prospects for achieving them? Let's take a look:
• Patience. Famous for falling out of love with players as quickly as he falls in love with them, Brown needs to resist the urge that prompted him to push for the acquisition of Steve Francis while coaching the Knicks (Brown and Francis butted heads during their short stint together in 2006). The Bobcats have a promising young core, with Gerald Wallace, Jason Richardson and Emeka Okafor, and though it may not be perfectly matched, it has shown it can hang with the league's best teams on a given night. There's no reason to drastically alter this team until its potential is known, especially when a mere playoff appearance would mark a successful season. With a motivated Brown on the bench, the Bobcats finally have a coach who can find that potential.
• Forge a meeting of the egos. The last time Brown matched wits with a Hall of Fame player in the front office, he ended up uninvited to his own team's predraft workouts and out of a job after one season in New York. While history tells us that Brown has a better eye for talent than front-office leader Michael Jordan, this is MJ's team, and MJ isn't likely to be cast out of a job in the state of North Carolina. Working with Jordan, though, could offer Brown more influence than he's had since he left Philadelphia the first time. Jordan has never been a hands-on leader, and being as hungry to rejuvenate his reputation as Brown is his, he'll likely be willing to listen to Brown's suggestions.
• Preach defense. The 'Cats allowed opponents to shoot 46.6 percent from the field last season. Only eight teams ranked worse, and, like Charlotte, none of them reached the playoffs, either. Conventional wisdom holds that defense is merely a matter of effort, but for a team that hasn't played it, well, ever, it's going to take some time -- and some thick skin -- to accept Brown's hard lessons.
Charlotte needs to at least get a whiff of the playoff race. The current core hasn't progressed in two seasons, and owner Bob Johnson is probably getting a little antsy to see some sort of positive return after finally opening up his wallet for Richardson, Okafor and Matt Carroll. Given all of that, turning the keys over to Brown this season isn't the worst idea, especially considering the fact that working for Isiah Thomas is no way for anyone to end a career.
• Find a happy medium with the boss. Mark Cuban may be the most innovative owner in sports. There are few tools or ideas Cuban isn't willing to incorporate to keep the Mavs winning. But his dominant personality can make things difficult for his coach. How can a coach get his players' attention when he has to direct their focus away from the braying owner? How can a coach maintain his authority when the owner is protesting a call more vociferously than he is? The Mavs eventually tuned out Avery Johnson; can Carlisle avoid a similar fate?
• Coax the last few miles out of Jason Kidd. Anyone who watched Kidd in last season's playoffs or in this summer's Olympics witnessed why the Mavs may regret dealing the 25-year-old Devin Harris for a future Hall of Famer who is closer to induction than to helping a team win a title. Harris won't craft the career Kidd has, but his quickness and shooting accuracy (46.7 percent in four seasons) would be of much greater use in the Western Conference now. Worse, a player of Kidd's caliber often is the last to admit his decline. Carlisle will have to be creative in stealing Kidd enough rest each night to squeeze all he can out of those 35-year-old legs.
• Get past the first round. Only two years ago, Dallas was one of the league's brightest stars, with young talent, veteran scoring off the bench and a willingness to play gritty defense. The Mavs still have talent in perennial MVP candidate Dirk Nowitzki, the versatile Josh Howard and relatively reliable backcourt scorer Jason Terry, but now they're just one of many contending hopefuls in the deep West. With the older players they've acquired, and a psyche still scarred by losing the 2006 Finals and a 2007 first-round series to the eighth-seeded Warriors, the Mavs need Carlisle to help shake this team out of its playoff funk.
This isn't a franchise in the middle of rebuilding or one that needs seasoning. The Mavs want a taste of the Finals again. That doesn't provide Carlisle much room for interpreting his results. The good news is that he has the weapons to at least improve on back-to-back playoff flameouts.
• Need for Sheed. Amid all the on-court histrionics and technical fouls, it's easy to forget just how gifted a player Rasheed Wallace is. Problem is, Wallace is just as likely to disappear from a game as take it over. When he believes in his coach (i.e. Larry Brown), Wallace is more likely to respond; when he doesn't (i.e. Flip Saunders), the Pistons suffer. Curry seems to be off to a good start with Wallace, who attended the new coach's introductory news conference. If Curry can extend the honeymoon, Detroit's regular date in the conference finals may not be over. If not, president Joe Dumars will probably be playing divorce attorney by the trade deadline.
• Reach the Finals. Though Dumars suggested big changes after last season, Curry is the only major addition. Given the standard set in Detroit -- six consecutive conference finals, the last three ending in defeat -- that leaves only one mark by which Curry can prove his hiring was the right move: Win the East. That's a tall order: The Pistons' core is aging, and the conference includes the title-winning Celtics, the revamped 76ers and that guy in Cleveland.
• Coach 'em up. Curry, who played 11 NBA seasons, has undoubtedly been exposed to plenty of coaching styles and philosophies. Is one year as an assistant coach under Saunders enough to understand how best to employ his strategies? Curry, a former union president, will have the respect of players who believe he understands what they endure over the course of a season. But will this experienced group cut Curry the slack any rookie coach needs?
It's refreshing to see any team eschew the usual lineup of retreads to hire a new man, and Dumars has an eye for talent and chemistry. But the Pistons, loaded with experience, will be quick to notice if Curry doesn't have the X's-and-O's chops to get them to the place they feel they deserve to be each June. And even if you assume Curry does hold this team together, the moves made throughout the East won't allow Detroit to separate itself as it has in years past.
• Win over the team. On paper, the Knicks have a fantasy team's worth of talent; they should for the $95 million they paid in salaries last season. In reality, under Thomas they gave the effort of a beached whale. Part of that was a result of filling the locker room with the type of me-first players of which lottery teams are built. And part of that was the result of a coach who had lost his players' attention. If D'Antoni can squeeze a consistent effort out of this group, he will have done more than any coach since Jeff Van Gundy left town in 2001.
• Win over the fans. Rare was the night last season when Knicks fans didn't chant "Fire Isiah" repeatedly during games. Beyond deflating the team's motivation, that just wasn't good for business. Who wants to buy a jersey celebrating a team that is a media punch line? Gaining the loyalty of the crowd with a team that clearly plays hard will buy D'Antoni and president Donnie Walsh the patience they need to carefully extract the team from salary-cap hell.
• Win over the media. With a big assist from the team's Kremlin-style media policy, Thomas all but handed a shovel to the New York press, which responded to Isiah's evasiveness and coaching incompetence with an almost daily dose of vitriol. When the media are actively fostering discontent, a coach and his team spend too much time defending themselves. D'Antoni and Walsh need the local press on their side if they hope to sell some of the uneven trades that the Knicks have to make if they hope to slash salary and gain flexibility.
D'Antoni should enjoy a lengthy honeymoon period simply because he's not Isiah. Having won an average of 58 games the previous four seasons in Phoenix, D'Antoni will get the respect that Thomas didn't have. That doesn't mean there isn't a difficult year in store, with plenty of losses, an unpredictable Stephon Marbury (assuming he's around fulfilling the final year of his contract) and a fluid roster all to be negotiated.
• Establish himself. The learning curve is going to be steep for someone with no experience as a head coach or assistant. Beyond the strategic demands, which new assistants Del Harris and Bernie Bickerstaff can facilitate, Del Negro will have to endure a crash course in all of the practices, scheduling, interviews, promotions, game dissections and front-office meetings that come with the job. Oh, and he also has to find a way to boost the Bulls back into the playoff race. Looks like Del Negro better invest in an office cot.
• Set a clear agenda. The Bulls were focused on everything but basketball last season. Luol Deng and Ben Gordon faced off with the team over new contracts, followed by the Kobe Bryant trade rumors, coach Scott Skiles' firing and a locker-room dustup between Ben Wallace and Joakim Noah. Every month this team seemed to inadvertently find a new issue to distract it. If Del Negro does nothing this season but redirect the club's energies into simply playing ball, he will have made more progress than two coaches in Chicago did last season.
• Clear up the backcourt. While No. 1 pick Derrick Rose is the Bulls' future leader, Del Negro has to sort out the team's present. Should Kirk Hinrich remain the starter at point guard, and if so, should he be showcased for a trade or lead the effort to return to the playoffs? If the unsigned Ben Gordon returns, where does that leave Thabo Sefolosha on the depth chart? Can Larry Hughes be counted on as a reliable second scoring option and would he even accept being the third option?
The Bulls are retooling with a new, inexperienced coach and a new, inexperienced lead guard. For Del Negro, who was hired in part for the "positive vibe" general manager John Paxson felt his team desperately needed, refreshing the locker-room relations would be a good first step toward recapturing the promise this team once had and may again -- in time.
• Prove he is worthy of the job. "He's very tough-minded, confident, yet humble in a way that I think players will respect. He's a really good communicator," general manager Steve Kerr said when he hired Porter to succeed D'Antoni in early June. He's also 71-93 as an NBA coach. In Porter's two seasons with the Bucks, from 2003-05, Milwaukee ranked in the upper half of the league in offense but languished in the bottom 10 defensively. If, as the Suns want us to believe, they traded for Shaquille O'Neal and let D'Antoni go so they could truly dedicate themselves to defense, Porter seems an odd next step.
• Go easier on Steve Nash. The Suns have long talked about the importance of buying the two-time MVP enough rest in the regular season so that he can be fresh for the playoffs. In four years in Phoenix, Nash has averaged 34.3, 35.5, 35.3 and 34.3 minutes. In each of those years, Nash has shot 52 percent, 50 percent, 46.3 percent and 45.7 percent, respectively, in the playoffs. If Porter hopes to get the Suns past the first round, he has to limit the 34-year-old Nash's minutes. It will cost some games and perhaps affect playoff seeding, too, but Nash at close to 100 percent on the road to open the postseason is a lot more promising than a hobbling Nash at home.
• Integrate Shaq. The idea behind adding Shaq for the playoffs wasn't a bad one -- for another era. The league, in large part as a reaction to the Suns, has become quicker and more fluid on offense. Size is important, but versatile size is crucial. Shaq, 35, may be big, but he certainly isn't versatile anymore. And he certainly didn't fit in with the breakneck style D'Antoni advocated. Porter will have to figure out some way to maximize the big man's contributions.
The personnel doesn't scream fast break as completely as it once did, nor does it mandate a half-court style. Porter doesn't help clarify things much, given his spotty record in his previous coaching stint. And he faces high expectations in taking over an experienced team that averaged 58 victories the last four seasons.
• Watch his back. Spoelstra may have Riley to thank for his first head-coaching opportunity, but, if history is any guide, he had better adjust the mirrors in his office. It was only two years ago that Stan Van Gundy left the Heat in the middle of the season to "spend more time with his family," with Riley stepping in and eventually leading Miami to a championship. Two seasons later, Van Gundy suddenly rediscovered his love of the NBA and became the Magic's coach. Far be it for us to say Riley pushed a longtime coaching ally to the curb so he could grab a fifth ring on the cheap, but where there is smoke ...
Given that Riley said he is "sure I don't want to do this anymore," combined with the fact that the Heat don't have championship aspirations coming off a 15-win season, Spoelstra should have at least 82 games to show what he can do. He'd better use the time efficiently.
• Play the bad guy. Part of an assistant coach's job is to play middle man between the head coach and the players, to offer a comforting voice when a player is chewed out. After assuming that role for seven years in Miami, Spoelstra now will have to be the bad cop to many of the same players he played buddy-buddy with as an assistant. That new dynamic will test the relationships Spoelstra may be counting on to ease his transition.
• Embrace Shawn Marion. With an expiring $17.8 million contract, Marion has been dogged by trade rumors all offseason. As long as the four-time All-Star remains in Miami, Spoelstra has a chance to utilize one the league's unique talents, someone who can score inside and out, hit the boards and defend almost any position. Teamed with a healthy Dwyane Wade and an eager Michael Beasley, Marion could help the Heat regain respectability quickly.
There isn't much room for the Heat to go but up. And with Wade back on the floor, fresh off a great Olympics and highly motivated, Spoelstra is in position for a decent start as the Heat try to rebound from last season's disaster.
• Adapt. Skiles figures to be at his fire-breathing best (worst?) right away, and with good reason: The Bucks allowed opponents to average 103.9 points and shoot 48 percent from the field last season. Milwaukee could benefit immediately from Skiles' no-nonsense, dictatorial approach, which works wonders in toughening up teams that need a bit more tenacity. It has its limits, though; few players work well if the demands never cease, if the barking becomes a constant din. Skiles needs to accept the idea that once you cajole a team into your way of thinking, it's important to ease off a bit on occasion.
• Changing the team's focus. The Bucks have spent a lot of time in recent seasons talking defense and playing offense. After averaging 33 wins over the past five seasons, they finally decided to pay more than lip service to defense and hired Skiles to actually instill the approach. Importing Richard Jefferson and his Nets-honed defensive instincts will help, but Skiles will have a lot of work to do with this group.
• Altering the point of attack. As gifted a scorer as Michael Redd is, former No. 1 pick Andrew Bogut is that rarest of species: a center who can play both ends of the floor effectively. After Bogut spent his first three seasons playing second or third option, the Bucks need to exploit one of their personnel advantages and run the offense through the Australian giant. With shoot-first point guard Mo Williams having been dealt to Cleveland, Bogut should have more luck demanding the ball from new point guard Luke Ridnour. Doing the same with Redd and Jefferson may be too much to ask for in Year 1 of the Skiles administration. Introducing the concept, though, would be an important first step in getting the Bucks to utilize their strengths better.
Given his track record, there's little question that Skiles can make the Bucks better, but will the team let him? Reports ran rampant last season that Bulls players had grown tired of Skiles' demanding style, a theory that seemed to explain their lethargic start -- until they struggled just as much under interim coach Jim Boylan after Skiles was fired. No matter, Skiles' reputation precedes him -- after all, players talk. While a fast start would quiet some of that chatter, there are sure to be some strained relationships as Skiles looks to make Milwaukee a harder-working team. Considering new general manager John Hammond's willingness to shake up the roster this summer, Skiles will get the benefit of the doubt during this rebuilding effort.