Of the astounding 17 coaching changes since last season ended,
none was more shocking than Jim O'Brien's Jan. 26 departure from
the Celtics. "We were going to talk for a couple of hours, hash
things out and then move on," says Celtics director of basketball
operations Danny Ainge. Instead their meeting ended with O'Brien
essentially telling Ainge to take his job--including the last two
years and $6 million of his contract--and shove it.
With apologies to Vince Lombardi, winning isn't the only thing
that matters in the NBA anymore. Since last season four of the
league's top coaches--Byron Scott, Rick Carlisle, Paul Silas and
Rudy Tomjanovich--have been replaced. The bloodletting may not be
over yet: The Nuggets have yet to pick up their option on Jeff
Bzdelik, a Coach of the Year candidate, and Eric Musselman, the
Coach of the Year runner-up in 2002-03, will be at risk if his
Warriors fail to make the playoffs.
O'Brien quit because he couldn't embrace Ainge's controversial
moves. He protested Ainge's Dec. 15 decision to package Eric
Williams and Tony Battie to the Cavaliers in a six-player deal
that netted Ricky Davis, an explosive player who may never learn
to put a team's needs ahead of his own. That trade summarily
ended a five-game Boston winning streak; at week's end the
Celtics had gone 10-15 since and sunk to 22-27.
"There is not enough solidarity between the front office and the
coaching staff," says Jerry Sloan, a coaching anomaly in his 16th
year with the Jazz. What has brought on this era of the
disposable coach? The primary factor is the luxury tax; avoiding
it drives personnel decisions and puts the power in the hands of
whomever manages the cap. As a result, lavishly paid G.M.'s--from
Ainge in Boston to Isiah Thomas in New York to Kiki Vandeweghe in
Denver--are fast becoming the faces of their franchises.
"When I came in, the roster was maybe the 18th best in talent and
one of the worst in cap management," says Ainge. "I know the
players we have now aren't as professional as the players we
traded. You take gambles, and time will tell if they pay off."
Ainge's three-year plan is to model Boston after last year's
Kings, who led the NBA in defense while playing an attractive,
high-scoring style. He has the makings of decent rotation up
front with Raef LaFrentz, Chris Mihm and 19-year-old rookie
center Kendrick Perkins. Vin Baker's $30.4 million salary may
come off the books this summer if his problems with alcohol
enable the Celtics to void his contract, and Ainge is dangling
Chris Mills's expiring $6 million contract to acquire veteran
help before the Feb. 19 deadline.
The odds of Davis's turning into a reliable pro are longer now
that O'Brien is gone, and All-Star Paul Pierce has been
struggling since the Williams trade. Next summer Ainge hopes to
hire a coach who shares his vision--John Carroll has taken over
in the interim--and he's likely to consider someone who was on
the Suns' bench when he played in Phoenix: Lionel Hollins or Paul
Westphal. "I was hoping because of Jim O'Brien's character and
work ethic that he'd become comfortable with me," Ainge says,
"but mainly I'm just looking for a coach to help me win."