Friday, April 30, 2004
Updated: May 3, 8:49 AM ET
Counting down Cuban's coaching options
By Marc Stein
With the Sacramento Kings on the verge of ousting the Dallas Mavericks, Chris Webber was asked if he had considered the possibility that it will be a Webber team which inflicts the final thrust that ends the storied and colorful coaching career of Don Nelson, his old foil.
"I can see him getting (fired) from here, but I can't see him not coaching," Webber said. "Nellie not coaching? I can't see him stopping."
We'll all see soon enough. Webber's Kings did slay Nelson's Mavericks in five games, meaning that Dallas has failed to reach the second round for the first time in four seasons. Which means that Mavs owner Mark Cuban is sure to strongly consider making the first coaching change of his four-year tenure.
Except that Cuban insists the Mavericks' early exit is not what would lead him to fire Nelson. Cuban has said he would "never base" such a decision on playoff performance. He'll undoubtedly be looking at other factors when he evaluates Nelson, whose status has never been shakier.
Factors such as:
A. Whether his star players still believe in Nelson as their leader.
B. Whether Nelson can put a practice-floor emphasis on defense like he did in his Milwaukee days.
C. Whether the Mavericks can find a worthy replacement.
D. Whether it's a worthwhile investment to pay Nelson the remaining $10-plus million on his contract not to coach.
E. Whether his fractured relationship with Nelson has deteriorated to the point that it's affecting the franchise.
Reconciling those issues is what will lead Cuban to either fire Nelson or re-commit to him for another season. The following is a look at five coaching options Cuban can choose before proceding to the Mavs' next roster renovation.
Donnie Nelson and Avery Johnson
These two are Cuban favorites. The younger Nelson presently serves as president of basketball operations, in addition to his duties as an assistant on his father's coaching staff. Grooming the Lil' General to be the Mavs' head coach, meanwhile, is an idea that has been in circulation since the spring of 2002, when Johnson arrived in Dallas as part of the Nick Van Exel deal with Denver. Reason being: Avery's locker-room influence was immediate.
Donnie has had multiple successful stints coaching the team as a Nellie stand-in over the years and would alleviate one of the big concerns with the Mavericks' roster -- the theory that supposes that only Nellie can coach this Nellie-esque group of players. Donnie is the only other coach out there who has already done it.
Avery, likewise, offers several strong selling points. He knows the Mavericks' personnel. He has played in Nellie's system in Golden State and Dallas. With the Mavs, he was occasionally asked to run players-only practices that his teammates responded well to. And maybe most appealing: Avery believes in defense more than anything, after all those years with the Spurs and Gregg Popovich. As a Mavericks player, Avery would routinely jump in, say, Dirk Nowitzki's face after a big victory and point out defensive flaws. The Mavs have missed that edge.
There's yet another big factor: Cuban actually likes continuity more than his reputation suggests, and Avery already knows what it's like to work with the owner in close proximity to the bench every night. Avery is also not afraid to verbally spar with the boss, which the boss respects. The idea here, if Cuban elected to go this route, would be installing Donnie as head coach until Avery completes a one-season apprenticeship as lead assistant. Or these two could be billed as co-coaches, knowing Cuban's longstanding aversion to traditional job titles.
Avery Johnson and Donnie Nelson
In this scenario, Avery would be the head coach right away, which is somewhat risky considering he has never formally coached at any level. Cuban, though, has never been afraid to take risks, and it could certainly benefit the Mavericks to leave Donnie in an assistant's role, which would afford him the unique opportunity to be a traveling team president without the extra stresses of head coaching on top of team-building. While he still has head-coaching aspirations, Donnie seems even happier with his presidential duties, which have established him as Cuban's No. 1 adviser on personnel matters. You wonder whether their relationship would deteriorate if he were the head coach, like Cuban's relationship with Nellie.
Of course, either of the first two scenarios is dependent on actually winning the Lil' General Sweepstakes, which won't necessarily be easy. Avery, for starters, hasn't officially retired and might still want to play. And even if Avery elects to enter coaching free agency instead of standard free agency, Dallas could find itself in a bidding war. Charlotte's Bernie Bickerstaff is said to have some interest in Avery in a similar grooming-for-the-future role, and Johnson's hometown New Orleans Hornets are a lock to consider him for the No. 1 job if they elect to fire Tim Floyd after the season as expected.
Team insiders insist this is no longer Cuban's first choice, pointing to the fact that the coach and owner have virtually no interaction -- Donnie is their third-party intermediary. Team insiders also say that, for the first time in Nellie's six seasons as Mavericks coach, there is some sentiment in the locker room that it is indeed time for a change. If that's the message Cuban gets from his star players, the Nellie Era is indeed over, given the dissatisfaction Cuban already feels with Nelson's commitment to teaching defense and the (lack of) practice time devoted to it -- concerns Cuban even voiced publicly during the season.
Nellie's biggest ally, at this point, is the $10-plus million left on his contract. Facing an expensive summer on the player front, with Steve Nash and Marquis Daniels bound for free agency and a hefty luxury-tax bill coming no matter what roster moves are made, Cuban won't be thrilled with the idea of paying Nellie so much to go away. That much was made clear in January, when Cuban emerged from a rare closed-door meeting with his coach by saying: "I'm not going to let Nellie sit in Hawaii and play golf and get a suntan if I can't get one. He's got to stay here and work this thing out and get it to the next level."
It's believed, however, that Nelson would have to agree to fire the bulk of his current coaching staff, most notably trusted sidekick Del Harris, to keep his job. Cuban is said to want a new voice in charge of the D, no matter what happens. Don't rule out a Nellie-Donnie-Avery triumvirate, with a Dick Harter-style defensive specialist added on.
Someone From The Outside
It's a long shot. As stated above, Cuban values continuity much more than his blow-it-up reputation suggests. Cuban is considerably more apt to replace Nellie with someone he's already comfortable with, as opposed to bidding for one of the available names on the coaching market.
In the past week, as the Mavericks steadily fell behind the Kings, Doc Rivers' name was frequently mentioned in Mavs circles as a possible candidate. Even if Rivers were still on the market, it would have to rank as longer than a long shot to expect Cuban to pay $10-plus million to dismiss Nelson and then pay big money for a replacement.
Which is just one of the many reasons that the Pat Riley myth is just that ... a myth.
The Wild Card
One important Cuban trend to note: He rarely does what the masses expect. In his early days of ownership, when much of the league (and even Nellie himself) was convinced Nellie would be fired, Cuban initially forged a strong partnership with him. He has also shown a willingness to sit out the last couple of February trading deadlines and withhold that mid-level exception to the salary cap that everyone banks on him to spend in the summer.
So it's not inconceivable that Cuban will surprise folks and elect to bring Nelson back.
Nor is it completely far-fetched to suggest that he has a plan no one else has even considered.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.