By Steve Lichtenstein
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Will the Nets find their coach when the music stops?
When interim coach P.J.Carlesimo was terminated the day after the Nets’ Game 7 loss at home to Chicago over a month ago, Brooklyn seemed to be the primary landing spot for free-agent coaches. Combine a talented roster, the spotlight of New York City and an owner who has spared no expense in his quest for a championship, and you’d expect candidates would be lining up at the door of Nets headquarters.
However, ever since that loss it seems a new high-profile NBA gig has been opening up every few days, the latest coming Thursday when Denver axed longtime coach George Karl. The Nuggets now join the Grizzlies and the Clippers as coach-less clubs that are in as good or better shape than the Nets.
You’d think general manager Billy King would have all his ducks in a row by now because, you know, he stated that Carlesimo’s fate was sealed prior to the Nets’ playoff ouster.
Well, Plan A seemed to be, “Let’s get Phil Jackson!”
That pipe dream was extinguished after one courtesy phone call.
We’re still waiting on Plan B.
King better not dally too long, for the competition will be tough for the Nets’ top two targets–Memphis coach Lionel Hollins and Indiana assistant Brian Shaw. All the other candidates mentioned in the media—Karl, Jeff Van Gundy, Larry Brown (ugh), or some “surprise”—would mean that the Nets were left without their preferred chair on the sidelines.
While Shaw is the hot name right now, getting a ton of credit for his work in developing all that young talent in Indiana, I’m hoping for Hollins.
The Grizzlies improved every season after Hollins took over in the middle of 2008-09. This season, the miserly Grizzlies pawned off leading scorer Rudy Gay for pennies on the dollar prior to the trade deadline, yet still hung around until San Antonio swept them in the Western Conference Finals.
Hollins had Memphis playing a similar style as the Nets, with an emphasis on inside-out offense spearheaded by a dynamic point guard. They just do it a whole lot better, especially on defense.
In five years, Marc Gasol went from being an afterthought in the trade that sent his brother Pau to the Lakers to one of the best centers in the League. Last month he was honored as the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year. Nets center Brook Lopez would have to pay attention to Hollins.
Hollins also figured out how to corral one-time knucklehead Zach Randolph, turning him into a two-time All Star. Randolph was once known for being moody and out-of-shape. Not too much unlike Andray Blatche, who, should he return to Brooklyn as a free agent, showed in the postseason that he deserves increased responsibility, even if he lacks Randolph’s ferocity on the boards.
Hollins even had to deal with arranging an offense weighed down by a small forward who struggled to shoot straight from the perimeter. This may be hard to believe, but Memphis’ Tayshaun Prince made 38.7 percent of his jump shots in the regular season, per 82games.com. The Nets’ maligned Gerald Wallace? 38.8 percent. (Wallace’s bigger problem was converting from inside the paint, where he shot only 52.2 compared to 67.1 percent for Prince.)
Of course, it’s been reported that there are reasons beyond financial that the Memphis brass isn’t exactly crying over this potential breakup, which becomes official on June 30. Hollins, a feisty point guard in his playing days, has been portrayed as “old-school,” with a disdain for modern analytics. He can rub some high-powered folks the wrong way.
Which makes me wonder whether King needs to get his star point guard, Deron Williams, on board should he go through with this hire. Though he denied having anything to do with it, Williams’ outburst in December following subpar performances surely played a role in King’s decision to dismiss coach Avery Johnson. Jerry Sloan said his deteriorating relationship with Williams was a factor in his decision to resign as Jazz coach in 2011.
However, I’ve never heard of any rifts between Hollins and Memphis point guard Mike Conley, who has shown steady improvement in his five years under Hollins’ tutelage. Williams likes to make some noise when his team isn’t winning and would probably prefer someone with a more up-tempo program. (Like Karl, who would also receive Wallace’s endorsement. Lopez and Joe Johnson? Not so much.) But I believe he would fit well with Hollins’ pick-and-roll system.
Still, there are conflicting reports about whether or not King has been granted, or has even asked, permission to interview this top candidate.
What’s with the delay?
Hollins won’t be on the market for long. He said Thursday he has not given up hope that he can reach a new deal in Memphis, even though there hasn’t been much negotiating going on as the Grizzlies have set their sights on others.
Meanwhile, the Clippers are also in the hunt to land either Hollins or Shaw, whose stock keeps rising despite a lack of head coaching experience. Fortunately, the Nuggets, who may have the brightest future out of all the teams with coach openings (if Chris Paul bails on the Clippers), will be playing from the rear until they first settle on a GM.
The latest winds out of Brooklyn seem to place Shaw closest to King’s heart, despite the unknown whether he is the next Tom Thibodeau or the next Lawrence Frank.
If that’s the case, I suggest that King put on the full-court press as soon as possible. The Nets don’t want to be stuck looking around when the music stops and the other teams already have their guy in place.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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