Tuesday, June 10, 2003
As Spurs close in, Van Gundy is Texas' latest score
By Marc Stein
Someday soon, someone down there is really going to ask this question. Doesn't matter that the Lone Star State is universally regarded as a football state.
Someone is going to ask out loud, with some justification: Is Texas big enough for its three NBA teams?
It's a question that grows more legitimate by the minute, because Texas is where it's all happening. Back in November, when the foundation took shape, California was still the unquestioned capital on the NBA map, with the Lakers and Kings considered the league's mightiest franchises and the transfer of power thought to be at least a year off.
Not now. Not since the playoffs started. Not with Texas quickly becoming an even bigger story than it was.
Mavericks hush skeptics by reaching conference finals. Spurs dethrone Lakers and then outlast Mavs to inch toward second championship in five years. Rockets hire Jeff Van Gundy, straining to keep up with their neighbors.
Monday's announcement that Van Gundy has agreed to succeed Rudy Tomjanovich as Yao Ming's coach continued the power shift. The Rockets can now claim three marquee names, including Steve Francis, as they move into a new arena in October.
Of course, the new standards of the state suggest that Van Gundy, at worst, better get Houston in the playoffs by next April, or else the Rockets might be ripe for exile. Just hiring a big-name coach -- the biggest name they could get after Larry Brown went to Detroit instead -- might not amount to much by next week, if the Spurs trump the Rockets by winning another title.
Especially if the Spurs then go out this summer and sign Jason Kidd or Jermaine O'Neal or any other prominent helpers when David Robinson retires ... as part of what their owner actually once called "rebuild mode."
That's how it is in Texas these days. Rebuilding is bigger and better than ever before.
Just like Paul Silas, who beat Van Gundy out for the Cleveland job, Van Gundy has landed in the perfect spot. Silas is the ideal first coach for LeBron James and Van Gundy, who might not have taken the Cleveland job even if it was offered, goes to a team with two enticing pieces at the two most important positions. The expectations Van Gundy faces in Houston will be considerable, because he's replacing a local legend and inheriting a team that has missed the playoffs for four straight seasons. But the expectations would have been more daunting had he elected to sit out one more season to do TV. In that scenario, Van Gundy would effectively be saying that he was waiting for a more attractive job than what the Rockets were offering. Which is fine, except that the only kind of job more attractive than Houston's would be with a championship contender, such as Sacramento or New Jersey, meaning that the price of failure would be a lot costlier. The Rockets are expecting a lot from their new coach, but no one is suggesting Van Gundy's new roster is anywhere close to title material. They're still a distant No. 3 in their own state, remember.
|Van Gundy's immediate goal in Houston: Playoffs or else.|
Monday's other coaching development, by contrast, doesn't compute at all. The New Orleans Hornets have replaced the fired Silas with Tim Floyd, essentially because Floyd coached at the University of New Orleans and is sellable as a local. After Floyd's three-plus turbulent seasons in Chicago, where he won 49 games, the Hornets have no shot selling him as the coach who will take George Shinn's team to the proverbial "next level," which was Shinn's flimsy justification for dismissing Silas. The Hornets have enough talent for Floyd to exceed his career win total in one season, but he's going to have to win over his new locker room first, after several Hornets players -- Baron Davis and Jamal Mashburn, most notably -- lobbied Shinn hard to keep Silas. Floyd will also have to hush the widespread notion that he's overmatched as an NBA coach, which won't be easy when the Hornets move to the Western Conference after one more season in the easier East. If neither happens, it won't be long before the fresh-faced Hornets fans in Bayou Country will be holding Shinn in the same regard they do in Charlotte.
Philadelphia has to be considered the most high-profile of the five remaining openings, which is why it wouldn't be terribly surprising to hear that Rick Carlisle -- not a 76ers candidate -- is waiting until next season's inevitable slew of openings. Carlisle talked to Toronto briefly before the Chicago pre-draft camp, and he'd be a fine fit with the Raptors to ride Vince Carter, but the Raps continue to target unheralded assistants as a cash-saving measure. Carlisle also interviewed with the Clippers last week and is still scheduled to meet with the Wizards, but he's undoubtedly looking to cash in on his good stock by landing a more prominent gig, whenever it comes. Denver looms as a down-the-road possibility, since Jeff Bzdelik is not regarded as the Nuggets' long-term coaching answer, and Carlisle will continue to be linked with Indiana so long as Isiah Thomas' job security is questioned by fans and media in Pacerland. Unless the Blazers relent and grant Philly permission to talk to Mo Cheeks -- and all indications persist that the Blazers will not -- the openings that remain are a cut below the Detroit-Houston-Cleveland (LeBron James) level. Yet it must be said that Carlisle, when he does resurface on a bench, will have to finally dispel the notion that he clashes with management and/or players ... or else the next opportunity could be a last chance.
Mike Dunleavy wanted the Rockets' job badly and didn't try to hide it. Yet it couldn't have helped his chances that Les Alexander, the Rockets' owner, reportedly grew up a Knicks fan and had to choose between Dunleavy and a former Knicks coach. The consolation: Dunleavy apparently still has two options, if he's serious about signing with the Clips. He also remains the longstanding favorite in Atlanta, assuming his pal David McDavid (a fellow resident of Fort Worth, Texas) completes the purchase of the Hawks by the end of this month. Regarding the Hawks' job, one Dunleavy associate said: "It's close, but not 100 percent."
Seattle assistant Dwane Casey is said to have a real shot at the Toronto job, over Philadelphia assistant Mike Woodson, Milwaukee assistant Sam Mitchell and Kevin O'Neill, from Carlisle's deposed staff in Detroit. ... Woodson, meanwhile, is apparently receiving legit consideration to replace his former Sixers boss, Brown, because of Cheeks' ongoing unavailability. Nets assistant Eddie Jordan is another Philly target, although Jordan won't be on the open market until after the playoffs -- and maybe not at all if the Nets can find a way to convince him to stay. Which would help them keep Kidd, since Jordan is one of Kidd's favorites. ... It'll be interesting to see how much appeal the Wizards hold for Jordan, a D.C. native. We never believed Van Gundy or Brown were ever close to going there, even if the Wiz really was offering millions and the dual role of coach/general manager. For the third time we write: There doesn't figure to be a long line of folks applying after the messy Abe Pollin-Michael Jordan divorce.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, send Stein a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.