'You can't plan beyond next year': Coaching in an NBA where stars call the shots

ByJackie MacMullan ESPN logo
Thursday, August 1, 2019

THE UNMISTAKABLE WAIL of electric guitar prompted Nick Nurse to bound to his feet. The grand finale he'd been waiting on was finally here, and the Toronto Raptors coach waved his arms to the heavens, gleefully swaying to the beat with the rest of the packed house at the Tropicana in Las Vegas.

What Prince fan doesn't love "Purple Rain"? Although the high priest of pop had died of an accidental fentanyl overdose in 2016, Nurse was sold on impersonator Jason Tenner, who, on this steamy July 5 evening, felt to him like the real deal. He turned and grinned at Raptors assistant coach Nate Bjorkgren, who had toiled alongside Nurse in the G League with the Iowa Energy before joining him in Toronto, where they had just delivered the first title in franchise history.

The two young coaches, still immersed in their championship stupor, bumped fists, then crooned in unison, "I never want to cause you any sorrow ... I never want to cause you any pain ... I only wanted to see you laughing ... in the purple rain."

It was too loud to hear their phones as the song hit its crescendo, but both Nurse and Bjorkgren had their cells on vibrate. Instinctively, they reached for their pockets, as manufactured purple haze from the Vegas extravaganza swallowed them.

Nurse looked down. The text message simply read, "I'm going home."

Kawhi Leonard was gone.

Meanwhile, just outside of Los Angeles proper, Clippers coach Doc Rivers picked at his meticulously prepared Dover sole, his favorite meal at his regular Malibu haunt, Nobu, where the wine was flowing as he shared dinner with friends. But Rivers was distracted. It was July 5, and the call should have come by now.

It hadn't, and Rivers' companions, who had no connection to the NBA, understood why he stole repeated glances at his phone, fretting about the spotty service, about the time ticking away, about the magnitude this potential transaction would have on his franchise and his career.

Just 15 months ago, Rivers' future was murky. His team had blown up its core, seemingly headed for the kind of reboot Rivers had bolted Boston to avoid. He had to wait before finally securing an extension from a supportive but demanding owner, Steve Ballmer, who wanted to win -- now.

The quest for Kawhi Leonard had been thorny, complicated. A flurry of text messages from Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank updated Rivers regularly as the lateral pursuit of Paul George, the bait that would entice the big fish to bite, began in earnest. Oklahoma City's price was steep -- an insistence on young point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a player Doc adored, and multiple first-round picks. Ballmer drew the line at four. Rivers trusted Frank, his longtime friend and colleague, to manage the negotiations, but it didn't stop him from sheepishly excusing himself from his Nobu table, stepping outside the oceanfront eatery and calling Ballmer himself to implore him to throw in that fifth first-round selection.

"It wasn't just for Paul George," Rivers would explain afterward, "it was for Paul George and Kawhi. We weren't getting one without the other."

Rivers returned, attempting to engage in the lively conversation at his table. It was pointless. His fish was cold and his phone had gone silent.

Deathly silent.

"I can't do this," he thought, but his screen suddenly lit up. And before Doc could get by the Bonsai tree outside Nobu's exit, he was on the phone.

"We got 'em!" Frank declared.

PLAYER EMPOWERMENT MAY have NBA athletes buzzing with excitement, but it has sent the stress level of coaches soaring to new, unparalleled heights, afflicting everyone from young upstarts to the most established tacticians in the game. In an instant, it can fortify or decimate a roster, make or break a coach's resume and obliterate a carefully crafted long-term blueprint for franchise success.

"The truth is our business is quite fatal," says Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, who is the president of the NBA Coaches Association. "But contracts are historically strong. I believe ownership more than ever understands the need for coaching and continuity."

Not all of his brethren agree. The average term for an NBA coach is 3.8 years, but that number is a bit inflated by the long tenures of San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich (23 seasons), Miami Heat coach Eric Spoelstra (11) and Carlisle (11). Subtract those and the mean of the remaining 27 coaches drops to 2.6 years. Teams traditionally map out a five-year plan (or longer) for growth, factoring in future drafts, trades and free-agency signings.

"But you can throw that out the window now," says New Orleans Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry. "There's too much movement -- too much unexpected movement. You can't plan beyond next year."

So, while NBA fans celebrate the whims of the supernovas, coaches brood over how it affects their future.

"If a team spends all this money and resources to get the best players, you know they will cater to them," says one Western Conference coach. "And if that player says, 'I want that coach gone,' what recourse do we have?"

Star players wielding their muscle is not a new concept. Earvin "Magic" Johnson famously pressured the Lakers to relieve Paul Westhead of his duties in 1981. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar demanded a trade from Milwaukee to Los Angeles while still under contract in 1975, and Charles Barkley bullied his way out of Philadelphia in 1992.

But those Hall of Famers were the exception to the rule. Players from earlier generations, who valued security over movement, mostly stayed put. They also did not engage in camaraderie with their opponents. As Magic opined at a recent event, "I wanted to beat Larry Bird, not play with him."

"The league has always revolved around the top 15 guys," explains Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr. "But how many of them left? Larry [Bird] stayed, Magic [Johnson] stayed, Tim Duncan stayed, Kobe [Bryant] stayed, even Michael [Jordan] mostly stayed.

"What's shocking is the caliber of the players -- LeBron, KD, Kawhi -- that are leaving. And they kind of run the league."

Kerr says he has no issue with players departing in free agency, but he does take umbrage with those who force their way out of town before their contracts are up, citing both Anthony Davis and Paul George as examples.

"That's the real danger," says Kerr. "That's where you start to get concerned. At least I do. As for our league, it's bad for business."

Gentry says there's a right way and a wrong way to request a trade. If a star agrees to work privately with the franchise, and agrees to wait until the offseason, he says, it avoids high-profile disruptions that hurt both the player and the team.

"I'm a realist," Gentry says. "When Anthony signed with Klutch Sports, I knew what was going to happen. They told me, 'No, we're not trying to get him traded,' but we all realized it was just a matter of time.

"I understand that some players feel the need to move on. With Anthony, it could have and should have been handled differently. If it was, I would have been OK with the situation."

After George requested his trade from the Thunder -- and pushed to have it consummated within 48 hours -- Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti lamented the ability of players under contract to talk with and recruit one another without penalty. It is one of many factors the league office is considering.

"You have Paul George, one of our premier players in the league, who was paid very well by the team, suddenly announce, 'Hey, I want to be traded,'" Gentry says. "You have no recourse but to get the best deal you can.

"I hear players say, 'Why is it different from a team trading us?' Because this isn't football, where they can say, 'If you're not playing well, we're gonna cut you and you won't get paid.' We pay our players and it's guaranteed."

Gentry feels the league is to the point that contracts "don't really mean anything anymore, so make them all two-year deals. It will save us a lot of headaches."

Nurse knew all along that Leonard was potentially a one-year rental. When he saw Kawhi's text, he cursed, then exhaled, then resumed waving his arms to "Purple Rain." No one, he reasoned, tried to wrest the Larry O'Brien trophy away from him upon hearing the news.

It wasn't as though Kawhi's decision to leave a championship culture lacked precedent. Just one summer previously, Leonard, upset over the treatment he received for tendinopathy in his right thigh, rejected Popovich, the most respected coach in the game, by demanding a trade and leaving carnage that haunts that organization to this day.

Not even the most vaunted franchises in NBA history are immune to the movement.

STEVE KERR DROPPED his bag alongside a lounge chair on the beach, purposely choosing a quiet spot away from other sunbathers who were enjoying Hawaii's spectacular surf. He craved the solitude, attempting to decompress from the most taxing and emotionally wrenching finish to his coaching career, climaxing with catastrophic injuries to bothKevin Durantand Klay Thompson that left the Warriors under intense scrutiny.

"I was fried," Kerr admits now.

He settled into his chair and opened his book, "Billion Dollar Whale," the true story of a social climber who pulled off one of the most incredible heists in the history of the financial industry. Kerr purposely left his cell phone in his resort hotel room, even though it was July 1, the start of the free-agent frenzy. He became momentarily lost in the text of his book, until a 30-something man not 30 feet away from the Golden State coach, who had not recognized Kerr, suddenly screeched.

"Oh my god!" he exclaimed to his buddy. "KD is going to the Nets!"

Approximately 5,000 miles away from the sandy beaches, Brooklyn Nets coach Kenny Atkinson paced in general manager Sean Marks' office, watching the seconds tick off to the official start of free agency. Atkinson couldn't fathom why everyone had forecast them as the favorites to land Durant. Neither he nor Marks had spoken to KD. He had never been to visit the team's facility. None of it made sense to him.

"I [was] naturally skeptical," Atkinson confesses now.

Brooklyn dutifully had its white board carefully organized with Plan A, B, C and D. The Nets felt confident that Kyrie Irving, who had soured on the Boston Celtics, was coming. Durant was the unknown kingpin that would topple all the free-agent dominoes once he made his decision.

KD said he'd reveal his destination on his Instagram page. Within seconds of 6 p.m. ET, Nets staffers were shouting, hugging, whooping and cheering. Atkinson glanced at the screen, as music from Brooklyn rapper Notorious B.I.G. played in the background.

There it was: Durant declaring his love for the Brooklyn Nets.

A report of the former MVP's move had broken barely an hour earlier, but the Nets coach wanted confirmation directly from the source before suspending his disbelief.

"Even when I saw it," Atkinson says, "I didn't believe it. Durant is going to leave Golden State? I just couldn't wrap my head around it."

Marks answered his cell phone. He engaged in a brief conversation with Rich Kleiman, Durant's agent.

He turned to his coach, beaming.

"It's true," Marks said.

KERR DOESN'T EXPECT anyone to feel sorry for him. He points out that he and the Warriors were the beneficiary of player movement just three summers ago, when Durant spurned the Thunder for the Warriors as a free agent. Ironically, Kerr says, he was sitting on the same beach when he learned of that fortuitous windfall, which led to two championships and two NBA Finals MVP trophies for Durant.

"Hawaii giveth," says Kerr wryly, "and taketh away."

Because of Durant's departure, and Thompson's torn ACL, Golden State is suddenly no longer an NBA favorite. Nor is Toronto. Or Boston, which lost Irving and Al Horford to division rivals. In an instant, the NBA's power structure has shifted.

"It feels unfair, in a way," Atkinson admits. "Can you do a better job than Steve Kerr has? And what about Nick Nurse? He had this storybook year, winning in his first year as head coach. You wonder why the players wouldn't say, 'Can't we keep this going?'

"But I do like the players having the right to choose. We live in this free-market society yet we have a socialistic athletic structure."

Warren LeGarie represents dozens of NBA coaches, Nurse and the Houston Rockets' Mike D'Antoni among them. He says that what his clients require more than ever is support from above so they can maintain their authoritative voice with the players.

"The only way coaches have a chance is for management to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them so there's no space between them to try to divide them," LeGarie says. "Once they're divided, things start to fall apart."

D'Antoni understands that concept all too well. He still has his job, but he is in the final year of his deal after the Rockets offered him only a partially guaranteed extension. In addition, Daryl Morey would not allow him to bring back a number of his assistant coaches, including defensive wizard Jeff Bzdelik, whom the team begged to come out of retirement last winter as it faltered.

"Jeff is not only a great coach, he's a great friend and I would have loved to have him back," says D'Antoni. "When [front offices] want to make changes, they're going to make changes, whether I like it or not. You get upset for a while. It's hard personally, because you think to yourself, 'Did I contribute to this? Was there something I could have done?'"

D'Antoni has been indirectly impacted by the flurry of free agents. Once George forced his way off the Thunder, OKC decided to trade Russell Westbrook, who landed in Houston in exchange for Chris Paul, one of many Rockets players who endured summer trade rumors.

"I keep in contact with the players all the time," D'Antoni says. "We're in the same boat. They could be gone, I could be gone, they could get traded, I could get fired.

"Being upset over what happened in the summer? I'll make sure we handle it. We'll build back up that team trust and go out and try again."

IT BECAME REAL for Atkinson when Durant showed up to the Nets' practice facility about an hour after his free-agency announcement. Atkinson embarked on his speech about the team's excellent culture, their work ethic and then stopped himself. Why was he pitching somebody who had already committed?

"I'm talking to KD and he's looking around at our facility and saying, 'Wow, this is fantastic. What a view of the city!'" Atkinson says.

Atkinson knows his days of operating in relative obscurity are over. There is suddenly pressure to win -- soon -- and it will be up to him to manage the egos of Durant and Irving, which proved to be a tall order for their previous teams.

"We know our path will be different," Atkinson says. "It's part of the evolution of our franchise and my own personal evolution.

"It would be great to think the 'little engine that could' can win it all, but the consensus is 'No, you have to have top talent to win.'

"So, now our job is, 'How do we keep [Durant and Irving] here without compromising our culture?' It's a great challenge for us to figure out. Who wouldn't want this opportunity?"

Nurse, who is suddenly devoid of pressure, has his own decisions to make. He needs to reintegrate OG Anunoby, who missed parts of last season with injuries. He is thinking of moving Pascal Siakam, who should be poised for a breakout season, from power forward to small forward.

"I saw Fred [VanVleet] and Pascal the day after [Kawhi left]," Nurse says. "I told them, 'There are 20-plus shots up for grabs.' They both grabbed their right shoulders and said, 'We're ready.'"

Rivers knows it is championship or bust for the new Clippers. He also knows how difficult it is to land the Big One. In 2000, he nearly wooed Tim Duncan away from San Antonio to Orlando. It has long been reported that Duncan declined because Rivers told him families were not allowed on the team plane ("a myth that's been repeated forever -- not true," Rivers insists).

"We made a strong case for Duncan, but I never truly believed he'd actually come," Rivers admits. "It was better that way, because if I thought he was coming and he didn't, I would have been heartbroken."

Will Davis leave the Lakers, who traded away a bushel of young assets, heartbroken? In response to a question about his future, Davis told ESPN's Rachel Nichols recently, "I don't know what's gonna happen. I have one year here."

"And can you imagine," muses Kerr, "if Kawhi opts out in his second year after all the Clippers gave up?"

This is the new NBA. Players control their destiny, teams are mortgaging their future to appease them and coaches have to learn to adapt on the fly.

"You say players are empowered," Carlisle says. "It's our job now to empower them more.

"And if you don't figure out how to do that, you won't be employed very long."

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