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Friday, April 3, 2009
Seven subs: Interim coaches on edge

By Chris Sheridan
ESPN.com

Kenny Natt
Where does Kenny Natt stand in Sacramento? As an interim coach, it's hard to say.

Kenny Natt spent nine seasons as an assistant in Utah, watching Jerry Sloan rule the Jazz with an iron fist.

He also spent time in Cleveland, observing the much softer touch of Paul Silas, then Mike Brown.

He means no disrespect to the folks he worked with on the Cavs, and he thanks them for teaching him the so-called Popovich system, but Natt would prefer to do things Sloan's way (the Jazz coach has been known to yell at players who let their shirts come untucked at practice) now that he is in charge of the Sacramento Kings.

Problem, is, he can't.

Not with the scarlet "I" attached to his title, the "interim" tag that seven NBA coaches are toting into the final two weeks of the regular season. (That's not including Lionel Hollins, who was hired by Memphis through the 2009-10 season, replacing Marc Iavaroni, after Johnny Davis served as interim coach for two games.)

"Just trying to instill discipline in the guys, letting guys know that you want things a certain way, that's one of the things I struggle with being an interim coach. Because it makes a difference when you have two or three years on your contract, whereas when you're an interim coach but you want to be a hard-line disciplinarian, it doesn't work quite the same. It puts me at a disadvantage, so I'm struggling with that," Natt said.

"You also want to be in a position as a coach, as Jerry taught me, that hey, if you're not listening, you're coming out. He still does it now with [Andrei] Kirilenko. And that's another situation that I don't have as an interim coach, because I have only so many guys to work with, and the accountability factor -- you need to use that.

"That's what Sloan does," Natt said. "I can't."

What the Kings say publicly about Natt is the same as what every team with an interim coach is saying: His future will be determined after the conclusion of the regular season.

But some of the interim coaches are actually far more interim than their counterparts, ESPN.com has learned through discussions with numerous front-office and coaching sources in compiling the following late-season look at all seven guys carrying that tag on their title:


Brooks
Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City Thunder

Named interim: Nov. 21, after P.J. Carlesimo was fired with the Thunder standing at 1-12
Record: 20-41
Chances of staying: A near lock

What's the deal? Start with the fact that nobody in Oklahoma City has uttered anything but positives when discussing him. Add in the dynamic that he gets along splendidly with general manager Sam Presti and got more out of Jeff Green and Kevin Durant by sliding them over to power forward and small forward, respectively. And toss in their two most recent efforts -- playing the Celtics tough for 3½ quarters Sunday, then stunning the Spurs in San Antonio on Tuesday -- and you pretty much get the picture that Brooks is there to stay.

Think the Sacramento Kings are kicking themselves for passing over Brooks in favor of Reggie Theus two years ago? When they promoted him, the Thunder said they'd give Brooks every opportunity to earn the job. He did.


Tapscott

Ed Tapscott, Washington Wizards

Named interim: Nov. 24, after Eddie Jordan was fired with the Wiz at 1-10
Record: 17-49
Chances of staying: Zero

What's the deal? It has been no secret in Washington that Tapscott will return to the front office at the conclusion of this season. But what has been understated nationally is how appealing this position will be to the long list of high-quality, unemployed coaches who will be looking for work this summer.

The Wizards still have a solid core of players from the team that reached the playoffs four straight seasons before injuries to Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood ruined this season; plus, they'll likely have a top-three lottery pick to add to the core this June. A team source said Washington will be looking to hire someone with NBA experience and a solid track record -- a list that'll likely include Flip Saunders, Avery Johnson, Maurice Cheeks, Sam Mitchell and Mike Fratello.

We'd have Jeff Van Gundy on this list, too, if he hadn't burned his bridges with Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld when the two were with the Knicks in the late '90s and Grunfeld lost his job in a power struggle between the two.


Triano
Jay Triano, Toronto Raptors

Named interim: Dec. 3, after Sam Mitchell was fired with the Raps at 8-9
Record: 21-36
Chances of staying: Strong

What's the deal? He gets a pass for this season, despite missing the playoffs, for several reasons: Injuries to Jose Calderon, Jermaine O'Neal and then Chris Bosh limited what he had to work with; the trade for Shawn Marion caused a major midseason adjustment; and the team, currently riding a five-game winning streak, has been looking better lately with everyone relatively healthy.

Still, there will be a bench hiring in Toronto, and deposed Grizzlies coach Mark Iavaroni is the top candidate to become Triano's lead assistant. That might seem like an awkward coach-in-waiting situation, but Triano and Iavaroni have been friendly since working together at a European big man camp in Treviso, Italy, several years ago.

Retaining Triano also gives the Raptors a good shot at bringing back Carlos Delfino, who can get out of his Russian team contract for a mere $500,000. The Raptors still hold his restricted free-agent rights.


McHale

Kevin McHale, Minnesota Timberwolves

Named interim: Dec. 8, after Randy Wittman was fired with the Wolves 4-15
Record: 17-39
Chances of staying: Mysterious

What's the deal? Minnesota owner Glen Taylor is on record as saying he'd like McHale to return as coach, but McHale has been straddling the fence as to whether he wants to stay on the bench long-term. Also, McHale lost much of his organizational power when he was relieved of his front-office duties as part of the Wittman ouster, and you have to wonder whether that demotion will impact his thinking.

One common misperception is that McHale would be content to spend the rest of his days in seclusion fishing in Hibbing, Minn. He'll be an empty-nester in two years when the youngest of his five children finishes school, and he doesn't want to sit around the house doing nothing through the cold Minnesota winters.

One person close to McHale says his dry wit and intelligence would make him a better studio personality than Charles Barkley if he ever chooses to go into the broadcasting field.


DiLeo

Tony DiLeo, Philadelphia 76ers

Named interim: Dec. 12, after Mo Cheeks was fired with the Sixers 9-14
Record: 30-21
Chances of staying: Strong

What's the deal? It's an unusual situation here, because if you asked DiLeo a year ago what his career ambition was, he'd probably have said he wanted to one day be the general manager of an NBA team, not a coach.

He probably has the lowest face and résumé recognition factors among any of the league's 30 head coaches, but he's done a better-than-solid job of guiding the Sixers to their current fifth-place spot in the East; if they're able to hold on to the 5-seed, they'd have a realistic chance of winning a first-round playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks. That likely would be more than enough to entice management to offer DiLeo a long-term contract despite this being his first time back in the lead seat on the bench since he coached a team in Cologne, Germany, in the mid-'80s.

"I still want to take some time to re-evaluate everything, but overall, am I happy? Yes. Do I like the team? Yes. And I've been with the Sixers for 19 years, so I love the Sixers," DiLeo told ESPN.com Wednesday.

There's also the factor that head coaches get paid a lot more than assistant general managers (the job DiLeo held before replacing Cheeks), and DiLeo is so well-respected around the NBA that there'd be 29 teams willing to hire him if he flamed out as a coach in Philly.


Natt

Kenny Natt, Sacramento Kings

Named interim: Dec. 15, after Reggie Theus was fired with the Kings 6-18
Record: 10-40
Chances of staying: Shaky

What's the deal? The gossip around the league is that Eddie Jordan or Tom Thibodeau (New York assistant Phil Weber is among the long shots) could land in this job over the summer, though the Sacramento Bee reported on Friday that John Whisenant, the general manager and former coach of the WNBA's Sacramento Monarchs, would be "the unofficial front-runner" if the job were to come open, just as he was in 2006 when Eric Musselman was hired instead.

In any case, whoever is hired would become the fourth head coach Sacramento has had since Rick Adelman was let go in 2006. It wouldn't hurt Jordan's candidacy that the Kings are feeling all nostalgic these days, what with the lovefest they gave Vlade Divac on Tuesday, and Sacramento fans still remember that Jordan got his first head coaching gig at the end of the 1996-97 season when he was the replacement for the fired Garry St. Jean.

On the flip side, the Kings' economic situation is not a pretty picture, and the Maloofs (whose family fortune is closely tied to the fortunes of Wells Fargo, another bank receiving TARP funds) are still paying Musselman and Reggie Theus to sit home and watch games from their recliners. (They have a $1.5 million option on Natt for next season that can be exercised by early May.)

If Natt does lose his job, he can take heart in the fact that his mentor, Sloan, was fired once, too (by the Chicago Bulls in 1982), yet found plenty of stability in the ensuing years.


Gentry

Alvin Gentry, Phoenix Suns

Named interim: Feb. 16, after Terry Porter was fired with the Suns 28-23
Record: 13-11
Chances of staying: Iffy

What's the deal? The first factor to consider here is the financial one: Suns owner Bob Sarver is still paying Terry Porter, had to buy out Mike D'Antoni, and has a ton of debt service on what he paid Jerry Colangelo to purchase the team. Oh, plus he lost a boatload of net worth, with his money tied up in the recession-battered Nevada and Arizona real estate markets and a bank holding company currently receiving TARP funds.

So it's not like Sarver is ready go commit $20 million for four years to someone like Jeff Van Gundy, Also, factor in that Gentry is popular in the locker room and did not have Amare Stoudemire at his disposal, and he should stand a good chance of having the interim tag removed in what is now his third stint as an interim (he also replaced Kevin Loughery in Miami and Doug Collins in Detroit).

Still, we list him as iffy because if there's one thing we've learned about Sarver, it's that he changes his mind about as often as the wind changes direction.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Sheridan, click here.