By Chris Sheridan
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Nets emptied their offices this morning and invited everyone downstairs to the practice court for Kiki Vandeweghe's introductory news conference as head coach -- a move that won't take effect until Thursday, leaving assistant coach Tom Barrise in the hot seat as New Jersey tries to avoid an NBA record-worst 0-18 start when they play host to the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday night.
When team president Rod Thorn introduced Vandeweghe, the team employees applauded.
"You're clapping now, but ..." Vandeweghe said with a sheepish smile.
Like those front office folk, Vandeweghe was attending the news conference because he had to. His ambition is to run his own NBA team from the front office -- not from the bench. Thorn, who noted that all three of the coaches he has hired in New Jersey -- the recently departed Lawrence Frank, Byron Scott and Vandeweghe -- had no prior NBA head-coaching experience, said he spoke to six people regarding the position.
Note that he didn't say he interviewed six people, only that he spoke to six people, before informing Vandeweghe that the job was his.
"Rod is a very persuasive guy, and much smarter than I am," Vandeweghe said. "I want to thank Rod for not necessarily making it my choice."
Vandeweghe was asked: Did you ever want to be a coach?
"Not until Rod called me yesterday," Vandeweghe said. "But it's a challenge, and you embrace the challenge. I'm sure all the coaches I've had are laughing at me right now."
Vandeweghe will lean heavily on new lead assistant coach Del Harris, whose contract was still being worked on Tuesday and who will not join the team until later this week. Harris and Vandeweghe were assistant coaches together years ago in Dallas when Harris was Don Nelson's lead assistant and Vandeweghe focused on player development, spending long nights in the gym working on shooting drills with Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki.
Harris also worked with current Nets Devin Harris and Eduardo Najera in Dallas, and he was Yi Jianlian's head coach at the 2004 Olympics in Athens when China had its best showing ever in that competition, defeating defending world champion Serbia-Montenegro in the final game of the opening round to qualify for the quarterfinals. At the time, Yi was only 16 years old (supposedly, as Yi's true age has been a matter of debate ever since he popped up on the international basketball radar) but Harris shocked Chinese basketball federation officials by inserting him as the starting small forward, figuring a trial by fire would produce the best long-term benefits for Yi, whose future in the NBA was already a virtual certainty five and a half years ago.
"Del was with him during his formative years, developed a relationship with him, and Del thinks very strongly that he is going to be a very good NBA player," Thorn said. "Yi's confidence is up, and players play better under those circumstances, so I think it'll be a real benefit for him to play with Del."
Vandeweghe said he will not make radical changes but will simplify things, encouraging the team to play a more wide-open style on offense to take better advantage of Devin Harris' speed and the athleticism of some of the younger players, and push them to be more aggressive and more of a pressure-oriented defensive team -- all in an effort to make the game faster. "Open the court a little more," was the way Vandeweghe described it.
Thorn and Vandeweghe also stressed that the Nets would focus on the development of their young players, an admission that could speed up the trade/buyout timetable for some of the older players on the roster with expiring contracts, including Rafer Alston, Tony Battie, Trenton Hassell, Jarvis Hayes and Bobby Simmons.
It has been apparent for more than a year that the Nets are in destruction/rebuilding mode, and an agreement for majority owner Bruce Ratner to sell controlling interest in the team to Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov has been agreed to in principle but is contingent on groundbreaking on the Nets' new arena in Brooklyn moving forward by Dec. 31.
Thorn and Vandeweghe are both on the final year of their contracts (as was Frank), and the Nets' long-term salary cap planning has been devoted to clearing cap space for the summer of 2010. But both team honchos dropped hints that the Nets might not be as free-spending as some are expecting next July. Thorn said New Jersey is focused on "2010 and 2011 free agency," and Vandeweghe -- who will keep his title of GM -- said the Nets "on some level are going to be players in the 2010 free agent market."
Thorn also conceded that the sale to Prokhorov might remain in limbo until after the end of the regular season. Previously, team officials said they expected the NBA's Board of Governors to vote on the sale sometime during the first quarter of 2010.