Friday March 5th, 2010

That job is to serve as head coach of an NBA team. Good luck is needed to get one of those 30 positions, better luck is needed to keep it, and never mind trying to win a title. Only four active coaches have coached an NBA team to the championship: Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Larry Brown and Doc Rivers.

The lion tamer. Coaching an NBA team is very much like entering a cage at a circus surrounded by 18,000 paying customers and a live television audience. The cage is filled with five lions, all hungry and bigger and more powerful than the coach. The coach is given a whip and a stool with the instructions to not only tame the lions but also to make them perform on his behalf. This is why most NBA head coaches don't survive very long.

"No question, no question," Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan said. "If a team decides to shut it down on you, there's really nothing you can do. When they don't have that passion to play for you anymore, then it's over. And then it comes down to the organization making a decision of whether we believe in that coach and we're going to change this attitude and this approach. Or do the players outweigh the coach? And most of the time the organization decides [to stick with] the players."

Coaching in the NBA is so challenging because the player contracts are guaranteed. Most of the players in any rotation know they're going to be paid for multiple years regardless of how well they or the team performs.

"So you're managing egos, and that's very difficult when everything is guaranteed," McMillan said. "These guys signed their contracts, and it's not based on winning or numbers. Your salary is guaranteed regardless of what you do the next day. There's not another job in the world like that."

There's not another job that pays an average salary of $5.9 million. Baseball players make an awful lot of guaranteed money as well, but here's the big difference: No matter how difficult Barry Bonds grew to become for his manager, the rules dictated when he would come to bat and for how many times each game. In the NBA, there is no batting order. On the worst teams, you can see teammates battling each other for control of the ball and the right to shoot. The coach can call plays from the sideline, but once respect has been lost, he'll find he is unable to control the behavior or his players. At the same time, he cannot afford to bench the best players because then he'll have no chance of winning, which will only hasten his own dismissal.

A mutual friend told me that one of the NFL's top head coaches has admitted he could never work in the NBA. The best NFL coaches can behave like bosses with the right to bench star employees or even fire them, in no small part because player contracts are at best partially guaranteed. The structure of the NBA -- as detailed in the collective bargaining agreement as well as the basketball rulebook -- provides little such authority to NBA coaches.

The challenge. So why should anyone want to be an NBA head coach?

"We get rewarded for it," McMillan said.

There has to be more to the job than the money it pays.

"It's the challenge: Are you able to do it?" he said. "It is a great job."

"All of the people in this business, we all need competition," Pacers coach Jim O'Brien said. "It's addictive. That's the best way of looking at it. The two years I spent out of the league after I got fired from Philadelphia, if it wasn't for my chance to get my [golf] handicap down, I don't know what I would have done. I would have gone crazy. I know if I was going to spend any time away from basketball, I would have gone insane without that competition."

That addiction -- which is viewed as a healthy addiction in American society -- is the one quality all coaches share.

"I went to a 12.7 from 19.5 in two years," O'Brien said of his handicap. "And that's after the guy who was hired to coach me said to me the first time, after he'd played golf with me: 'Can I be perfectly honest with you?'

"I said, 'Sure, you're going to be my swing coach.'

"He said, 'Well, the first year we're go to work on getting it up. And the second year we're going to work on getting it down.' Meaning that he's going to try to get [the backswing] up in the right spot. I'm still going to have to play golf while he's doing that, because it's going to take a while to get it up and get it down the right way. But it really was a lot of fun to compete against yourself."

So, you were like the coaches' version of Charles Barkley.

"Well," O'Brien said, "it wasn't that bad."

Exposure. One reason Rivers has put assistant Tom Thibodeau in charge of the Celtics' defense -- apart from the obvious fact that Thibodeau is excellent at that end of the floor -- is because he hasn't wanted to be the only voice his players hear. "Otherwise," he said, "they begin to tune you out."

The Lakers' Jackson shares that concern. "In pro football, you have 10 to 12 coaches, maybe 15 coaches -- I really don't know the number -- and every [position coach] has his group of guys he's dealing with, so, as a consequence, the personal one-on-one connection [between head coach and player] is pretty limited," Jackson said. "But in basketball, it's a constant. I think one of our coaches, [Mike] Fratello, one time said there's something like 5,000 to 7,000 meetings with these players."

Think about that: Seven thousand meetings each season between the lions and the tamer.

"Timeouts -- there are seven a game for each team," Jackson said. "And shootarounds and film sessions ..."

And practices, and pregame, halftime and postgame meetings, and charter plane rides.

"You're constantly displaying who you are in front of them," Jackson said. "And your personal ability to deal with them as a group and as individuals is always being called into action. The preparedness that you have to go through to be representing what your team has to go through for the next game can leave you without a lot of answers at times, because you're playing one team that plays a three-point shooting, run-and-gun game, and then the next team comes in and it's a grind-'em-out type team.

"So there's a lot of manipulation of personnel. You have to have a strong staff that can represent what the special scouting assignment is for each game, and you have to have an ability for leadership. Teams that don't have leadership in this game are really left juggling a lot of times for answers."

Younger coaches spend much of their careers trying to fathom how Jackson has survived and thrived at the highest level of basketball while dealing with the strongest of all lions, whether Michael Jordan or Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.

"He has been able to get to his stars and get them to believe in whatever it is -- I don't know if it's his religion or something else," said McMillan, who was not at all sarcastic in that statement. "Whatever it is he has been able to do, those guys respect who he is as a man and how he approaches the game.

"From the outside looking in, that's what I see. I don't know inside what's really going on there, but it's got to be that -- you cant be successful in this job without that."

Boiled down, how Jackson addresses the team can be just as important as what he tells them. "Yeah, I think so," he said. "You can't fool these guys. In basketball, they've been pursued since they were 12, 11, 13 years of age usually. They've seen all kinds of 'yes' people, back-slappers. ... I think they are savvy to character, and I think that's what wins the day with them."

X's and O's. Years ago, while seeking his first head-coaching assignment, Rick Carlisle told me he had come to realize that 90 percent of the job had to do with relationships and persuading players to play hard. He said this knowing that he was respected as a tactician, and in fairness to Carlisle, that 10 percent of the job involving strategy is indispensable.

A coach cannot develop meaningful relationships with his players unless they believe in his plan. This is why college coaches have so much trouble adapting to the NBA, because the pro game is so much more complex.

"I remember the first year when Grg and I came to the NBA," said Nuggets VP Mark Warkentien, who, in 1991, joined the Seattle SuperSonics along with assistant coach Tim Grgurich after both had worked for Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV. "My exact opening remark to him was, 'Timmy, what the hell kind of basketball is this?' There's a decision every time, based on who's in the game, how much time on the clock, what the foul situation is. When we were at UNLV, we'd either press man-to-man full court or we'd fall back in our amoeba [team defense] -- and now we're up here where they have seven or eight ways to defend the pick-and-roll.

"Remember what Bobby Jones said about Jack Nicklaus, that he plays a game I'm not familiar with? That's how we felt. Out of four things that were going on, I could catch onto three of them. But the fourth one I was missing."

The preparation for each game has never been better, noted Clippers assistant John Lucas. But the technical nature of those sophisticated breakdowns carries a downside. "Because of the computer and the ways the X's and O's are evaluated, it takes the coaches away from working with the players a little," he said. "The guys have got to know you're invested in them, and I don't think they know that unless they see you working with them. They don't know how hard you're really working because they don't see you."

Players are not the only danger. Utah's Jerry Sloan is widely regarded as the most stable coach in a highly insecure world, but he doesn't know what the fuss is about. "I don't look at it like I'm that important," he said. "Good players really give you a chance to win. I don't think my coaching has made that much difference. I just think I've been fortunate to be in one place for a long time."

So, the job isn't as difficult as it's made to sound?

"It's a mind-boggling job at times," he said. "Because you don't want to screw anybody up, and you hope everybody gets better as you go forward."

But his peers aren't so dismissive of how Sloan has spent 22 years and counting with the Jazz. In that time, the other 29 franchises have made 236 coaching changes.

"What I realize is that a Phil Jackson type of a career, a Popovich type of career, a Jerry Sloan type of career -- it doesn't very often happen," McMillan said. "Coach Sloan has been successful, but most organizations don't continue to be patient and allow winning to keep you there. Most organizations would have said, 'Look, if you don't have a title by now ...'

"You really have to believe in yourself and believe in what you do every day -- that's what it's about. You've also got to understand that one day it's going to come to an end."

Isn't that what the boxers say? That they all know they're going to be knocked out eventually.

"It's going to come to an end," McMillan said, laughing. "You're judged every single day, every single game on what you do. So you can never get comfortable, and you know it. So you don't put a lot of pictures up in your office.

"All that stuff I have, you can sweep in a box. Two minutes, I'm out. Not a lot of stuff in there, and no holes in my walls."

They'll never know he was there.

"They won't," he said with a big smile. "Two minutes, I'm gone."

On to the rest of the Countdown ...

Let's start with two responses to my complaint last week that Tiger Woods has no business being called the most famous athlete around the world.

Just read what you said about Michael Jordan being the most famous athlete in the world. I agree Tiger Woods is far from the most famous -- I have done extensive work in Asia, Africa and Europe, as well as lived and worked in both Canada and the United States. The reality that North Americans find easy to forget is that there is a global sport much bigger then anything the U.S. has to offer and that is soccer. I have been around the world and a large majority of people over there would know names like Ronaldo or Beckham over Michael Jordan. -- Chris, Oliver, British Columbia, Canada

Most of the time, I would agree that a soccer star will be more popular globally than anyone in basketball. But Jordan was a special case based on the timing and importance of the Dream Team following the global end to the Cold War. His clothing line and the iconic silhouette of him dunking made him a brand name around the world and far more popular than any basketball star has been, before or since.

I saw your point about Tiger Woods and his relative popularity at a global level, and it got me thinking about an irritating habit in the NBA: referring to the winners of the NBA Finals as the "world champions." Last time I checked, there is an actual world basketball championship tournament, at which countries send their national teams to battle for the title of "world champions." What do you make of this propensity of American athletes to claim a world championship for winning what is simply a club championship? And why do sportswriters and commentators (who should know better) perpetuate this fantasy in their articles and on-air comments? -- Greg F., Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

It's important to note that the NBA championship recognizes the best club, as opposed to the national teams that compete in the FIBA worlds.

I understand what you're saying. There is no way of officially deciding a world club champion because the top leagues around the planet don't play each other in a serious way. When Americans refer to the NBA titlist as "world champion," it's an assumption based on the NBA's prominence and the likelihood that no club team could be superior. I have a difficult time arguing with that assumption.

The same goes in soccer with the winner of the European Champions League: Because most of the top footballers around the world are drawn to Europe, you'll have a hard time claiming a superior club in South America or elsewhere. (And yes, I know there is a world club championship for soccer, but that event is of secondary importance compared to the Champions League.)

The counter to the argument of the letter you featured in last week's column: Players do assume a risk. Only they do not risk money; they risk their health. This is actually a greater risk than the owners assume since money is just money. They'll find another way of making it. If a player loses his health, he loses his livelihood. Take a look at Shaun Livingston. People said he entered the NBA too early, but in retrospect, if he blows both his knees out while playing at Duke, he isn't going to get drafted, period. And the last I checked, owners are protected because they take insurance out on these monster contracts. So even if the player gets injured, they still are protected. -- Bradley, Toronto

I agree they risk their health whenever they play, Bradley, but a guaranteed contract of five or six years mitigates that risk. After Livingston's knee was blown out, he was still paid for the final one-and-a-half seasons of his original four-year, $14 million rookie contract.

Teams are finding it more difficult to insure players with a history of injury, which adds to the risk teams accept when signing one of those players to a guaranteed long-term deal.

The owners now want players to take on more risk by accepting shorter contracts; the players will raise your argument in an attempt to maintain things as they are.

Has anyone noticed the vastly improved Bucks flying under the radar of the NBA elite teams? Scott Skiles actually has them playing defense, and with the addition of John Salmons, they are over .500 and look like a legitimate playoff team for the first time in this century. The have a bona fide center (Andrew Bogut), a budding star at the point (Brandon Jennings) and a healthy, top-notch shooting guard (Salmons) surrounded by some quality role players. They may not be championship material at this point, but they are definitely on the way up. -- Harry, Milwaukee

Let's be honest: They're a fringe playoff team in the inferior conference. But I get your larger point: This was supposed to be a contender for last place in the East, but Skiles has used this transitional year to develop a promising style around Jennings and Bogut, who is having a strong year. They rank in the top 11 defensively while leading the league in field-goal attempts, which means they're aggressive at both ends instead of cynically trying to waste time in hope of keeping the scores low and close. The midseason trades have improved them without hurting their cap space in 2011, when they'll be one of the teams best prepared to exploit the more austere rules of the new collective bargaining agreement. The Bucks have created hope where there was little before.

Interesting point on why teams keep hiring young GMs. In Australian sports, this has become more and more common but more so regarding head-coaching positions in Australian football. In Australia, the idea behind it is that fresh faces bring a fresh perspective. You already know what you're getting with a coach or GM who has experience, but a rookie coach or GM brings the element of the unknown. It almost buys a failing franchise a bit more time with fans because they almost expect things to go a bit wrong. But therein lies the excitement of the unknown. It probably would be wise for teams to look for guys with more experience, but in saying that, Golden State thought it was wise to bring in an experienced coach when it hired Don Nelson for the second time. And look how well that has worked out. -- Cliff, Geelong, Australia

Actually, the early results from Nelson weren't at all bad: He coached the Warriors to a first-round upset of the top-seeded Mavericks. NBA teams often seek the opposite of whatever they had before. If the last coach was older with experience, the team might look to hire someone with a fresher outlook, as you mentioned is happening in Australia. Just the same, if a team lost with a slow-tempo coach, then the replacement is likely to be someone who likes to run. I would imagine Nelson's replacement, whenever that might be, will be someone promising to emphasize defense.

As provided by Wesley Matthews, the undrafted free agent who has started 27 games as a 6-foot-5 rookie shooting guard for the Utah Jazz.

Expect to be drafted. "I really didn't see why I wouldn't be," he said. "But at the same time, you never know. I remember talking on draft day with my agent, Lance Young. He said, 'I think there's a good chance you'll get drafted, and I think there's a good chance you might not get drafted.' "

At least he was an honest agent.

"That's why I picked him," Matthews said. "The word on me was, 'He does a lot of things good, but he's not an expert on one thing.' It's what people have told me."

Rely on four years of college experience. "I was battle-tested. There are a lot of things you see in college in four years --- especially at Marquette, going through coach [Tom] Crean and all of the assistant coaches that I had, and then Buzz Williams [who took over for Crean in 2008-09] and another group of assistant coaches and different players rolling in and out, because Marquette's not for everybody. We never had the same team every year. We won in a lot of different ways, we lost in a lot of different ways. Being a four-year guy I thought would help me out in the NBA."

Take advantage of unexpected opportunities. "I got invited to summer league with Utah in Orlando. I didn't really play that well and I'm sure they weren't high on me after that.

"But then I went to Sacramento and played summer league with them and played a lot better. The Jazz called me for veteran's camp [in October]. It was a slim chance, but I was like, 'I'm going to take it. If the door is half open, I'm going to try to knock it down.'

"Then C.J. [Miles, the Jazz's shooting guard] got hurt, which you wouldn't wish on anybody. But it opened that door a little bit wider for me."

Sloan grew to appreciate his versatility. "It turned out my doing a lot of things well worked out for me," Matthews said. "So what worked out for me was what people thought was a negative. I'd played with a bunch of different coaches, a bunch of different players, a bunch of different teams [in college]. I had to adapt to whatever style of play was presented in front of me, and I think that's one of my characteristics that really helps me out now."

The New York craziness. This is what happens when the games are meaningless. The Knicks don't have the rights to their own draft pick -- it will go to Utah regardless of its landing place in the lottery -- and they can't reach the playoffs. So this week, team president Donnie Walsh was compelled to take pressure off coach Mike D'Antoni by taking blame for the Knicks' roster, even though Walsh has, in fact, done a remarkable job of creating cap space to rebuild the team through free agency this summer.

"I knew it was going to be harder on Mike than it would be on me in certain ways," Walsh said of the losing. "It's more my responsibility than his for where we are right now. I've said that about three different times now, but people forget."

As the Knicks approach free agency, they will be greeted with gossip of all kinds. At the moment there is one rumor that teams will recruit LeBron James by inviting him to decide who will coach him next season. (Which is a matter of common sense, given the financial impact James would create for any franchise lucky enough to sign him.) Another rumor -- which I've heard from two rival team executives -- is that the Knicks have already hired someone close to James, though I've yet to be told the name of said employee or his capacity. Walsh categorically shoots down that rumor.

"With all of the free agents, I'm being absolutely cautious," said Walsh, who vows to not tamper until the recruiting window opens officially in July. "I'm being very cautious about everything we do, and free agency for us will start July 1."

Michael Jordan loses a shooting contest. Not long after Jordan agreed to buy the Bobcats, he lost two games of H-O-R-S-E to rookie Gerald Henderson. The truth is that he's often playing games against his employees, whether they're players or lesser members of the staff. "He acts like a regular guy, he knows all of their names,'' an insider said. "He'll tell the equipment manager, 'I'll give you 15 bucks if you make that free throw right here.' They love that stuff."

Hoops for St. Jude Week. Pau Gasol, Rudy Gay, Danny Granger, Shane Battier, Steve Blake and Kevin Love have pledged to donate a minimum $20,000 each this season to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, which promises that no child is ever turned away because the family cannot pay for medical treatment. "One of the greatest things I can do as I battle this terrible disease is to help children who are facing the same struggles," said Nuggets coach George Karl, who has promised $20,000 as he undergoes treatment for throat and neck cancer. Fans can make donations or bid online for autographed items donated by LeBron, Kobe, Shaq and other stars through Sunday at http://www.hoopsforstjude.org/.

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