In the NBA, like in all sports, coaches are ultimately held responsible for the performance of their teams. And even in those cases when the coach is little more than a bystander to team sinking under a lack of talent, canning a coach is a lot more convenient than holding a fire sale on the roster. So when a team starts the season 0-16, has the worst offense in the league and a defense that's only a hair better, firing the man charged with orchestrating that feeble attack makes the most sense.
Standing as Exhibit A refuting that philosophy is Lawrence Frank, who on Sunday took the fall for New Jersey's winless and, after a date with the Mavericks Wednesday, possibly record-setting start. Frank is no John Wooden; some would argue he isn't even Byron Scott, the man he replaced in the middle of the 2003-04 season. But if you were to jot down a quick list of the Nets' problems, Frank would be nowhere near the top.
Sitting alone in that position is Bruce Ratner, New Jersey's cost-conscious owner who has overseen the dismantling of a franchise less than a decade removed from back-to-back Finals appearances. With the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn bleeding him for millions, Ratner's team paid the ultimate price. First to go was Kenyon Martin, allowed to sign a lucrative free-agent deal with the Nuggets. Then Jason Kidd,shipped off to Dallas. Richard Jefferson was dumped before the start of last season, and Vince Carter was traded out of town before the start of this one. Aside from the Kidd deal -- which returned All-Star point guard Devin Harris -- each one of the Ratner-approved moves were designed not to improve the team, but its bottom line.
"It has been sad to see what's happened out there," said an Eastern Conference official. "You can't be contenders forever, but that team had the kind of core that, with a few good drafts and free agent pickups, could have been a very good team for years."
Still, even as he was being ushered out the door Frank refused to deflect the blame in the direction of his former boss. "This is a results-oriented business," said Frank in a telephone interview. "And we didn't get it done. That's the coach's job, and it didn't happen."
But what exactly can a coach do when handed such underwhelming pieces to work with? Wolfgang Puck can't prepare a savory meal with stale toast and moldy cheese, an appropriate analogy when talking about a Nets' talent pool that Magic coach Stan Van Gundy called "as little as I've seen anybody put on the floor for a long time." The few viable pieces the Nets have -- namely Harris, Yi Jianlian and Courtney Lee -- have spent most of the early part of the season on the injury report, thinning what was already a paper-thin bench.
"That was probably the toughest part," said Frank. "There was a 2 ½ week stretch where we could only play about eight guys."
"They never quit on Lawrence," said a Western Conference scout. "The signs you look for -- the grumbling coming out of huddles, the quick shots -- they weren't there. They played hard."
The Nets will try to avoid setting the NBA's record for futility to open a season when they face Kidd (one of Frank's staunchest supporters) and the Mavericks Thursday in the Meadowlands. They will likely lose, and lose badly. Interim coach Tom Barrise, who will coach the team until GM Kiki Vandeweghe takes over on Friday, will face the media and shoulder the blame. A few players might do the same. But the real culprit in this Titanic-sized season is Ratner. This ignominious record will be all on him.