With the possible exception of Congressional seats, the annual comings and goings in the NBA's head coaching ranks is arguably our biggest game of musical chairs. It's played with far greater frequency than the politicians' version, certainly, and to the best of our knowledge, none of the vacancies ever has been blatantly put up for sale. Not even in Chicago.
The chairs are in position again, 30 of them. Currently, they are filled by 30 butts. But it's an equilibrium that never lasts, a temporary condition in between the music. Eight of the men who sat in those chairs back in November are parked elsewhere now, replaced one by one by wannabes, retreads and other surrogates. Now they and the other 22 get to play again (to varying degrees, based on their contracts) in a high-stakes game that keeps contestants aspiring or coming back like it's a green-felt spot at a World Series of Poker table.
Those who have been in want to get back. Those who are in want to stay. Those who haven't yet played long for a chance.
"You hope it's not [a permanent condition]," said former Toronto coach Sam Mitchell, fired Dec. 3 after a 39-point home loss to Denver dropped the Raptors to 8-9. "I've got control to a certain degree, but somebody's got to want you first. Somebody's got to want you."
Mitchell, with a 156-189 record over four-plus seasons, had led Toronto to the playoffs (and first-round exits) in each of the past two seasons and was the NBA's Coach of the Year for 2006-07. He was done in by the team's sluggish start, some injuries, player-development disputes and the reality that he wasn't hired by general manager Bryan Colangelo. The Raptors' 22-39 mark since Mitchell has been gone might be vindication, were he seeking it, and the guaranteed $10 million or so due him from the point of his termination into the 2010-11 season would seem a pretty soothing balm.
Yet Mitchell sounds uninterested in the former and willing to work for the latter. He has been living the life of a "paid bum" -- that's his mother's term for him these days in Atlanta, attending his girls' volleyball games and getting by without organized basketball in late winter and spring for the first time in more than 30 years, 12 as a blue-collar NBA forward.
"I honestly have no regrets," Mitchell said. "Like I told Bryan when I got fired, no coach agrees with being fired. I feel like today, I'll feel like tomorrow and next week and next month, that I was doing a good job. But that's not my decision. Once the decision was made, my whole thing is, whatever you say to me or do to me, that's on you. I still control what I do with it. And how I feel about it. And how I choose to deal with it.
"You just roll with it. Obviously, you'd much rather be working."
Natch. Mitchell and several dozen other guys who covet the challenge, the competition, the status and the salaries of an NBA head coaching job. Eight firings and hirings during this season might limit the number of vacancies this summer. So might the tough economic times that have hit even the moguls and magnates who own sports franchises; paying one or two former coaches not to work, while signing someone else to a fresh contract, hits harder now, less subject to whim or pique. Still, history tells us that somebody who has one of these jobs soon won't and somebody who doesn't soon will.
The others? When the music stops, there will no chairs for them. Unless it's courtside or in a studio, with a headset and microphone wired and ready.
Here are the five teams most likely to be hiring a coach this offseason and five candidates especially eager to help lower this nation's unemployment rate:
1. Washington Wizards
Ed Tapscott's work in place of Eddie Jordan has been an improvement -- after the 1-10 start that got Jordan fired, even Roy Rubin/Kevin Loughery circa 1972-73 would have been. But Tapscott prefers and is at his best in the front office, so it will be left to a replacement to shepherd Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison and a top lottery pick through a healthier and presumably happier 2009-10.
2. Sacramento Kings
The Kings gave serious consideration to hiring Scott Brooks two years ago before opting instead for Reggie Theus, who overachieved at 38-44 last season but got fired at 6-18 this time around. Sacramento's losses have come at brisker pace since then, and the Maloof brothers, who own the Kings, aren't the types to stick with a bad hand of cards. They are the team most in need of a big-name coach with more sizzle than Kenny Natt offers.
3. Minnesota Timberwolves
Kevin McHale always took a couple of weeks after the season to decide whether he would return as Minnesota's vice president of basketball operations. Now owner Glen Taylor -- for the same inexplicable reason -- is allowing McHale to make up his mind whether to come back as the Wolves' coach. His record since taking over for Randy Wittman is 18-40, but that can be broken out according to pre- and post-Al Jefferson marks (11-18, then 7-22 after their All-Star worthy focal point went down in early February). McHale hates the coaching lifestyle and workload but still is enthused about his roster -- oh, so he's the one -- and did get a nice pay bump from his exec's paycheck.
4. Phoenix Suns
Other than Natt and McHale, Alvin Gentry might be the interim coach installed during this season who is on shakiest ground. Brooks needs only a bit of leverage from some other opening, if he needs anything at all, to land a full-time deal in Oklahoma City. Jay Triano is popular, bright and a Canadian, strong selling points to be back in Toronto. Philadelphia's Tony DiLeo steered the Sixers into the postseason without Elton Brand's help. We've already mentioned Tapscott, and Memphis' Lionel Hollins got a deal through next season, whether he works it to conclusion or not. That leaves Gentry, who is 15-12 since replacing Terry Porter despite injuries (Amar'e Stoudemire), disarray and dobbers that are down over the team's unexpected fall from playoff status. Gentry deserves a fresh start -- coaching wasn't the Suns' primary problem under Porter, either -- but a lot of capricious moves in Phoenix suggests another could come at coach.
5. Los Angeles Clippers
Talk about injuries. It isn't so much that Mike Dunleavy has done a poor job this season, it's just that he already was on borrowed time; no other coach in the franchise's 39 seasons lasted more than four seasons (Bill Fitch, 1994-98) and Dunleavy is wrapping up his sixth with just one postseason appearance. Owner Donald Sterling used to change coaches more often than he changed shoelaces, so you'd think the Clippers' dip back into the muck of 60 losses would fire up this Donald. With the emphasis on "fire."
1. Flip Saunders
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and it works wonders on market value, too. Detroit's struggles this season after three straight trips to the Eastern Conference finals, and Minnesota's 130-226 record since Saunders got fired there in February 2005, make him a must-consider candidate this summer. He can afford to be picky -- there's always his alma mater, the University of Minnesota, as an option whenever Tubby Smith gets lured away -- and he likely won't be held back by things his past teams failed to accomplish. Washington could be the best fit, given the Wizards' potent offense and Arenas' need for a boss with loose reins.
2. Eddie Jordan
A return to Sacramento, where he preceded Rick Adelman? Players swear by Jordan, even if they didn't win much for him in November, and he seems to have gotten a raw deal both times he has been fired. The standard offset in his contract holds appeal for a team happy to let the Wizards pick up much of his first-year cost.
3. Avery Johnson
When exactly was Johnson exposed to a radioactive strain of ebola? You would think that this guy -- admired and praised as a point guard, head-spinningly successful as Dallas' coach -- would be working elsewhere by now. He won 143 games with the Mavericks in two-plus seasons, while losing only 39, before earning a pink slip with a 51-31 mark in 2007-08 while apparently irritating Dirk Nowitzki and others. Johnson's decision-making on matchups and rotations drew criticism, as did his style at times, but if we all learn something in our first jobs, you've got to think he'd be a top candidate for a second.
4. Tom Thibodeau
Enough already with the bridesmaid dress. Thibodeau has been the next big thing in the coaching ranks for almost too long, and Jeff Van Gundy -- himself a candidate to return, but maybe not for another season or two -- and Doc Rivers continue to beat the Thibodeau drum. Like most sports leagues, NBA folks like to steal other guys' winning formulas, so a return to the Finals by Thibodeau's employers in Boston would freshen up his résumé. Another assistant due for a shot: Dallas' Dwane Casey, whose 20-20 record when he got fired in Minnesota in January 2007 seems Auerbach-esque next to what's occurred there since.
5. Sam Mitchell
Of the 19 men who have won the past 20 Coach of the Year awards (Pat Riley won two), seven seem to be off the coaching carousel entirely (Riley, Hubie Brown, Lenny Wilkens, Don Chaney, Larry Bird, Del Harris and the late Cotton Fitzsimmons). Nine are still employed -- but only two, Gregg Popovich and Byron Scott, are still running the teams with which they won the award (Don Nelson has changed jobs three times to end up back in Golden State, where he won it in 1992). That leaves Johnson and Mitchell. Mitchell might have an "in" with the Wizards, since GM Ernie Grunfeld gave him his first assistant's job in Milwaukee. Another possibility is Minnesota if McHale vacates. For now, since the job if filled, Mitchell considers the question "rude."