Jim Brighters - NBA Editor Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
You've heard a lot and read a lot about the University of Kentucky this season. The Wildcats could go obliterate the field and win a national championship with an undefeated season.
They have more pros on the roster than the New York Knicks. Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Caulie-Stein, Trey Lyles and Devin Booker are expected to go in the first round of this summer's draft. Dakari Johnson and pick your Harrison twin could go in the second.
But, what about head coach John Calipari?
There have been murmurs that Calipari wants back in the NBA. Steve Popper of NorthJersey.com cited a front office official saying, "He desperately wants it. He won't say it out loud. The NBA is the only place he's ever failed and it drives him nuts. He's not the same guy he was then. He came to the NBA and he wasn't ready. He's ready now."
If we believe that premise, is there a place for Calipari in the NBA?
Looking at this in a variety of lights, the answer may be no. The reasons vary from practical to specific and timing is everything, but it doesn't appear to be a good fit at the moment.
First, there may not be many openings in the offseason. The Denver Nuggets and Orlando Magic both fired coaches during the campaign and labeled the next men up as interim. Melvin Hunt and James Borrego have done admirably, but not admirably enough to be automatic shoo-ins as permanent replacements. They could be in the mix, but aren't gigantic names, so those positions will probably be filled by others.
Calipari could be a candidate for both, but one would assume Calipari might want personnel control if he's going back to the big show. Each of those franchises has front-office pieces firmly in place.
Aside from those two teams, will there be any openings? The bottom teams in the standings most likely stay put. If Phil Jackson were to fire Derek Fisher after one season, it would add gallons of gasoline to his stormy tenure. Plus, things went so badly in the coaching search last year, Fisher is probably safe just so Jackson doesn't have to look bad again.
Brett Brown's grandchildren deserve the Sixers' coaching job after pop-pop is gone due to what Sam Hinkie has put Brown through. Flip Saunders owns part of the Minnesota Timberwolves, so he should be safe. Byron Scott has had one season with the Lakers and half of that was without Kobe Bryant and all of it was without Julius Randle and Steve Nash.
The Brooklyn Nets, Calipari's old team in the NBA back when they played games in a mystical world called New Jersey, might can Lionel Hollins after one season. If there was a group that needed stability, it's the Nets, so Hollins might be safe.
Steve Clifford could be on thin ice in Charlotte, but he took the Hornets to the playoffs last season and may squeak in again.
Truthfully, the coaching carousel revolves (pun intended) around Tom Thibodeau and the Chicago Bulls. If Gar Forman and John Paxson deem the relationship unfixable, then Thibs becomes the biggest free agent of the offseason. Every coach except for Gregg Popovich and Doc Rivers should look over his shoulder. Thibodeau could trigger a few moves, thus making a competent coach available.
Calipari would seem like an interesting fit in Chicago. He coached Derrick Rose at Memphis. The team is littered with pros who could handle Calipari's aggressive style, but the reported front-runner if Thibs is let go is Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg.
It makes complete sense to me to bring in a coach with no NBA experience in favor of a top-three coach in the league. However, if Hoiberg is the man, why him over Calipari? I don't have a good answer, feel free to e-mail me any theories.
Hoiberg's candidacy brings up another problem with Calipari and that is the lack of success college coaches have had in the NBA. It's not as rampant as seasons past, mostly because fewer college coaches are getting hired in the NBA.
Calipari at least has NBA experience. He owns a 72-112 record in two-plus seasons. Coach Cal studied under Larry Brown as an assistant with the Philadelphia 76ers, so he knows the pressures of the gig.
Plus, Calipari has been a fixture at many NBA events. Perhaps he's networking, but he's at All-Star games, drafts, you name it. He has a lot of former players involved in those activities, but Cal also likes the spotlight. That's a fact,
Ian O'Connor of ESPN.com wrote a sensational piece on Calipari's tenure with the Nets. Cal does not come off as fun uncle to be around. He annoyed players and staff. Has he mellowed enough to avoid that in the NBA? I believe so, but again, few spots are open.
O'Connor paints the picture of a rude tyrant. Cal is older, almost 20 years older to be exact. He's had more experience with NBA players and can manage egos. The knock on Calipari is Xs and Os, but professional basketball is as much managing the inflated self-worth than it is back screens and defensive rotation.
Calipari has been able to convince young players to put aside personal glory and stats for the good of the team. Seems like promoting teamwork and unity would be a solid trait for a head coach at the highest level.
He's also earned NBA players' respect. Cal won a national title and became the best coach in the college rankings, no matter who the U.S. Basketball Writers Association chose. (Tony Bennett of Virginia, by the way, is who that body elected. Strange.)
A comeback in the NBA will be different for Calipari. He had to show them who was boss and that was a guy who guided UMass to some success.
It's not that way any longer.
Why would Calipari want to return? He makes $7 million per season at Kentucky and could pick up his second national championship in a little over a week. There's no bigger program in the country than Kentucky. It's the pinnacle of college coaching. That NBA Jones better be very large to sacrifice obscene wealth and the job security of a Supreme Court judge to get fired 20 games into his third season in the NBA.
Calipari is just one of those guys who elicits hatred. He's the poster boy for one-and-done players. Old-timers will tell you decisions like that destroy college basketball. Those fuddy-duddies are correct, but remember two things. First, the NBA employed an age restriction, not Calipari, Kentucky or the NCAA. He's working legitimately (as far as we know) within a system made imperfect by a completely different organization.
Second, Calipari isn't the only one. Jabari Parker went second in the NBA Draft last year. Jahlil Okafor is going to be one of the first three picks in June. They both attended Duke University for one year, yet Mike Krzyzewski is just one miracle shy of canonization.
Calipari has other flaws that won't scare NBA teams. Everywhere he's gone has been hit by NCAA sanctions. At UMass, Marcus Camby took money and other things. Calipari was shocked. At Memphis, someone not named Derrick Rose took the SATs for Derrick Rose. Calipari was stunned. It compounds the case for those who hate, but technically, the school has been hammered with sanctions and vacated wins. Cal has been just fine.
It's part of the dance, but does an NBA team want a superstar as its head coach? Some might. Some team could feel like his presence would enhance season-ticket sales. A superstar head coach is not a bad thing. Other teams would see it as a distraction. Can't argue that point if it's your persuasion.
Public opinion wouldn't be strong enough to generate protest if an NBA team hired Calipari.
Truthfully, he possesses a lot of skills NBA teams should covet. He's got relationships with All-NBA players, experience and management experience with studs.
The timing just doesn't seem right. Calipari probably isn't looking at an NBA job this summer, but the time will come. It's more of a statement that teams have decent pieces in place, rather than a black-balling of Calipari, but some would love that.
- Steve Nash's retirement is a big deal. He's going to the Hall of Fame, but I'll say I was not as big a Steve Nash guy as others. I felt like Shaq deserved Nash's first MVP award (no argument on Nash's second). I felt like Nash turned the ball over in big spots down the stretch and was a very good point guard who benefited from his team's system. Again, he's a Hall of Famer, but not an all-time great in my eyes.
- Since the tournament is ongoing, there hasn't been much NBA news in the headlines. That's fine with me.
- I'm sticking with Charlotte and Miami to make the Eastern Conference playoffs.
- Kevin Love naming someone other than LeBron James as MVP is traitorous. Or, it's a guy giving his opinion, which, is probably correct. Russell Westbrook has a better MVP case than LBJ, so what's the problem? I'll say, Love and James don't appear to be on the same page entirely, but this story is more manufactured than a Subaru.
- Movie moment - Just about two months until I don't see the "Entourage" movie.
- TV moment - When I awoke Friday morning, I was greeted by the news that "Coach" is coming back to television. It's a sequel and I'm all for it. Other TV shows coming back like "Twin Peaks" or "X-Files" or "Heroes" mean nothing to me. I spit at them. But "Coach," that's something.