June 25, 1995

There is one itty-bitty word to remember when you look at the
conflict that led to Pat Riley's leaving as coach of the New
York Knicks last week. That word is no. The Knicks wanted to
reserve the right to say no to Pat. They wouldn't have said it
often, just as they didn't say it often to him in the past four
years, but they believed they needed the option to say it. And
as a former NBA coach who is now a Phoenix Sun executive with
three decades of experience in this crazy league, I agree with

I'm not privy to everything that happened in New York -- maybe
other factors contributed to his decision to leave. But when a
coach wants more control, as Pat said in his resignation
statement, what he means is that he's looking for autonomy in
personnel decisions. And autonomy doesn't work in this league
anymore. Yes, Red Auerbach used to scout a player, negotiate
with him, sign him, control his playing time, trade him or cut
him, and then make a speech about him when his number was
retired. But Red was the exception that proves the rule. On two
occasions, with the Atlanta Hawks in 1974-75 and then with the
Kansas City Kings in 1981-82, I had complete control in matters
involving player personnel while I was also the coach, and I
wouldn't do it again. (Not that anyone is breaking down my door
to ask.)

Most coaches think they are great evaluators of talent, but they
aren't. A coach is too involved with the problems he has on the
court to see the whole picture. Let's say a coach is convinced
that his small forwards are killing him. And then when he plays
the Utah Jazz in back-to-back games, David Benoit goes off on
him. So the coach becomes convinced that he has to have Benoit.
But maybe the general manager or someone else in basketball
operations has seen Benoit a couple of times when Benoit wasn't
so hot. Maybe Benoit doesn't fit into the team's salary
structure because of a quirk in his contract, or maybe the
upcoming college draft is rich in small forwards and the team
would be better served by getting one from there. See, a coach's
job is to win today, but part of a general manager's job is to
look after the care and feeding of the franchise on a long-term
basis. It takes two different people, not one person with two
hats, to make sure that both of those interests are served.

True, over the years many a team has been led down the path of
destruction because of stupid personnel decisions made by
individuals other than the coach. It amuses me when a
business-oriented guy is hired as general manager or vice
president, and a month later he's evaluating talent. But as far
as I know that wasn't happening with the Knicks. Right below
Dave Checketts on the Knick masthead is vice president and
general manager Ernie Grunfeld, who is a good evaluator of
talent, a respected ex-player who knows the league. If there
weren't a person in the front office like Ernie, as well as a
good scouting staff, then Pat's desire to expand his role
would've made more sense.

Eight years ago our Phoenix franchise was in horrible shape. We
had a bad team and a terrible drug scandal. The temptation
would've been for ownership to bring in one guy as a dictator
type to make every decision and say, "This is the way it's going
to be." That didn't happen. Jerry Colangelo was the general
manager, and I came in as director of player personnel, and we
did it together. We argued, we fought, we leaned on each other,
we made the decisions together. No way we would've pulled out of
that mess if one guy had been making all the calls.

Every team in the NBA is set up differently, and there's no one
system that's correct. For example, I'm listed as senior
executive vice president of the Suns, which sort of translates
to general manager, but they wouldn't let me within a hundred
yards of a balance sheet or a season-ticket plan because I don't
come from a business background. What's critical is that
business guys do the business and basketball guys do the
basketball. And it's also critical that your head coach be
involved in all personnel decisions, including the draft. I
would go so far as to say there is no one on the Suns' roster
whom coach Paul Westphal did not want on this team. But to give
him total say-so? Dangerous, very dangerous.

The Detroit Pistons made a move in that direction recently when
they hired Doug Collins effectively as general manager and
coach. They must have believed they needed a "strong" person at
the helm, maybe because they hadn't had a formidable enough
basketball presence in the front office in the last few years.
Remember, however, that Detroit was at its championship best
when it had two strong-minded men in the key positions. Coach
Chuck Daly could say no to general manager Jack McCloskey, and
McCloskey could say no to Daly.

Checks and balances are crucial in any sports organization, just
as they're crucial in any government. Riley is probably the
premier coach of his generation and a very smart guy to boot.
But he doesn't know everything. Nobody does.

COLOR PHOTO:JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Riley wanted total control of his roster. [Pat Riley]

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