1. Latest Word On Big Coaching Decisions
Mike D'Antoni. Jerry Sloan. Nate McMillan. Flip Saunders. Jeff Van Gundy.
And Phil Jackson.
All potential candidates to fill the next coaching vacancy.
Whether or not they're ready to come back to the bench.
With that sort of coaching talent available -- and with league-wide trading essentially on hold until June -- our gaze is naturally drawn to the hottest of seats on the NBA map. So let's dig into some of the game's most pressing questions in the world of X's and O's, with a focus on the following five prime situations:
No coach in NBA history has notched 100 regular-season wins faster than the Bulls' Tom Thibodeau, who recently reached that milestone in his 130th career game, bumping Avery Johnson (131) out of the top spot and nudging Red Auerbach (135) down to No. 3.
Thibodeau, though, is still waiting to receive a contract extension from the Bulls.
That doesn't mean he's leaving Chicago. The Bulls hold an option on Thibodeau for next season and will certainly exercise it eventually after all the winning they've enjoyed this season and last season, despite countless injuries to Derrick Rose and other front-liners. Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf told the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson in February that "we certainly hope and expect that Tom will be with the Bulls well beyond his current contract."
Thibodeau associates privately insist that the NBA's reigning Coach of the Year is dismayed that he hasn't been offered a more lucrative extension after signing a modest two-year contract with a team option when he joined the Bulls. Sources close to the situation say, furthermore, that his displeasure with the situation is an open secret in team circles. Although the uncertainty about his future hasn't had any discernible impact on Thibodeau's famed game-night intensity, it's a development that has to be monitored.
Extending Thibodeau sooner rather than later would figure to be a smart move from Reinsdorf, since the coach's value presumably can only spike if Chicago overcomes its injury woes to win a championship this season. But Bulls historians would note that Phil Jackson and Scott Skiles likewise had to battle Reinsdorf before extracting a representative salary from the boss.
It's getting tougher and tougher to scoff when someone suggests that ex-Knicks coach and general manager Isiah Thomas continues to possess a decent measure of influence in Madison Square Garden matters. Mike Woodson and Glen Grunwald, two longtime Zeke cohorts, happen to be the Knicks' current coach and GM. The sudden arrival of longtime Thomas pal Darrell Walker as a Knicks assistant, without any clear ties to Woodson, only strengthens such suspicions.
Woodson, of course, is technically only New York's interim coach, but sources close to the former Atlanta Hawks man say that he's increasingly hopeful of retaining the job beyond this season if the Knicks can turn their 8-1 start to post-D'Antoni life into, say, a first-round upset. The Knicks, remember, haven't won a playoff series since 2000.
It was a year ago, after the trade-deadline acquisition of Carmelo Anthony, that MSG chairman James Dolan forcefully denied the notion that his "very, very good friend" Thomas continues to have input on Knicks decision-making, calling the concept "fiction." In coaching circles, however, rumblings persist that Woodson's cause is being aided by behind-the-scenes support from Thomas, who is believed to have lost little of his sway with Dolan even though he's coaching at the faraway Florida International University.
The wild card here, of course, is Phil Jackson. If the Zen Master decides after the season that he's willing to take one more NBA job and return to his spiritual basketball home at age 66, it's widely assumed by rival teams that Dolan will spend whatever it takes to sign him ... hard as it can be to picture how a loose cannon like Jackson would function in MSG's buttoned-up world.
It's become increasingly clear that Dolan is married to Anthony. So you have to wonder if Jackson, after his recent knee surgery, is truly prepared to return to the NBA travel grind to coach a Melo-centric team in that tightly wound environment Dolan prefers. The more winning Woodson does with Melo as the focal point can only enhance his chances of sticking around.
No coach in the modern day is foolish enough to bank on a vote of confidence from an owner. Least of all when it comes from Donald Sterling.
So what was said in last week's Weekend Dime still holds. The lack of a slam-dunk interim option, more than anything Sterling told the Los Angeles Times this week, should help Vinny Del Negro keep his job for the rest of the season.
Sources briefed on the situation told ESPN.com that "chaos" isn't too strong a term for what's happening in the Clippers' locker room -- with Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans said to be clashing -- but sources likewise insist that former Grizzlies coach Marc Iavaroni is not considered an option to replace Del Negro even on a rest-of-the-season basis.
Robert Pack, not Iavaroni, is the Del Negro assistant at the front of the interim line, but Pack's promise and presumed ability to connect with Chris Paul after working with him in both New Orleans and L.A. doesn't change the fact that he's never been a head coach before. That would make it a hard handoff from Del Negro to Pack, given how much pressure the Clips are already facing to salvage something from this season, with Blake Griffin eligible for a contract extension in July and CP3 under contract only through June 2013.
The working assumption is that the Clips will certainly be in the market for a new coach in the summer who can entice Griffin and Paul to make long-term commitments to Clipperland, but a lifetime of Sterling-watching has me skeptical. What veteran coach is going to go there without some strong evidence that Griffin and Paul are willing to stay? Pacers assistant Brian Shaw, still waiting for his first head-coaching opportunity, seems a likely target.
(D'Antoni's name is routinely attached to this job as the best fit to coach CP3 and Blake, which is certainly true, but sources close to the freshly ousted MDA insist that he's serious about taking a season off after this summer's Team USA duties on Mike Krzyzewski's staff to recharge with family. One assumes that the quality of the offers will ultimately determine how long D'Antoni sits, but that's the early word.)
The fates of Magic coach Stan Van Gundy and general manager Otis Smith won't be clarified until after Orlando does what it does in the playoffs.
The whispers, though, have already begun to spread on the coaching grapevine that Nate McMillan will emerge as a prime candidate to replace Van Gundy if this is it for SVG in Central Florida. McMillan has been mentioned for years as the future coach of the Bobcats, given his strong ties to Charlotte, but skepticism persists about Michael Jordan's willingness to pay the sort of coaching dollars McMillan is sure to command.
Rest assured that there will be no shortage of immediate interest in Van Gundy from other teams if Magic management decides that a coaching change is central to its plans to convince Dwight Howard to commit for the long term. One source cautions that the Magic are known contrarians and thus apt to keep Van Gundy no matter how many people are calling for his head. The reality, for now, is that uncertainty reigns unless the Magic go on a longer-than-expected playoff run, since Howard's celebrated "opt-in" decision this month only contractually ties him to the Magic through the 2012-13 season.
Thibodeau isn't the lone title-contending coach waiting for some direction from his bosses.
Oklahoma City's Scott Brooks and Dallas' Rick Carlisle, who dueled in last spring's Western Conference finals, are also curiously extension-less as the 2012 playoffs approach.
It's a bit less surprising in Carlisle's case because of Mark Cuban's longstanding aversion to extensions in general and what happened the last time he broke from that policy, when Dallas' loquacious owner rewrote Avery Johnson's contract after its trip to the 2006 NBA Finals, only to end up firing Johnson a year into the new four-year deal in May 2008.
All indications are that Cuban has no intention of letting his current coach leave after last season's championship breakthrough, but Carlisle also has the comfort of knowing that in the highly unlikely event that he and the Mavs part ways there would be no shortage of suitors coming after one of the three active coaches in the league with a ring (along with Gregg Popovich and Doc Rivers). Portland has already been mentioned as a team with interest in trying to pry Carlisle away from Big D, with the Blazers having already employed Carlisle as an assistant coach and broadcaster.
Brooks' outlook is a bit more tenuous, since he's a younger coach still chasing a championship. The Thunder have made a habit of springing extensions on us when we're not expecting it -- Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha are two such recipients who come to mind -- so instinct tells me that we could still see an extension announced before the playoffs. But the fact that Brooks hasn't been extended after all of OKC's ongoing success since he won NBA Coach of the Year honors in 2010 raises eyebrows. It has also prompted conspiracy theorists in the coaching ranks to wonder if the Thunder want to see how the playoffs go before committing to Brooks ... and leave open the option of trying to swipe Carlisle from the neighboring Mavs.
2. Western Conference
Wilson's Chandler's new contract in Denver, widely reported to be worth $37 million over five years, actually comes in at $31.7 million, according to sources familiar with the contract.
The deal starts at $5.5 million for the rest of this season and tops out at $7.2 million in 2015-16, sources said.
At present, though, only $2 million of Chandler's 2015-16 salary is guaranteed.
Some numbers of note in the West this week:
262: Kevin Love needed only 262 regular-season games with the Timberwolves to score 40 points four times and match Kevin Garnett's franchise record. Garnett's four 40-point outings came in a span of 927 regular-season games with Minnesota.
37: With his recent 20-point, 11-assist performance against Portland, Ramon Sessions become the Lakers' first in-season acquisition with a 20-point and 10-dime showing in 37 years, dating to Lucius Allen's three such games after being traded from Milwaukee to L.A. during the 1974-75 season.
190: When Ty Lawson had 27 points and nine boards in Denver's road rout of Chicago on Monday night, it marked the first time in Lawson's 190-game NBA career that he led both teams in scoring and rebounding in a single game.
12: The Jazz became the 12th team in NBA history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, to play the next day after a four-overtime game. Teams are now 4-8 in that situation after Utah followed up its heartbreaking four-OT loss in Atlanta by routing New Jersey.
A case can be made that Kentucky coach John Calipari should be included in the lead box with all of the other big names mentioned up high on the very deep list of coaching free agents.
No matter how many times he denies his interest in leaving the college game, Calipari continues to be mentioned as a possible candidate to coach the Knicks especially, since he and Carmelo Anthony are both represented by CAA.
But multiple Calipari experts I've consulted aren't so sure he's willing to give up the power and prestige he has in the college ranks to take on the headaches and uncertainty that come with coaching in New York.
I actually conducted a lengthy interview Tuesday night with one of those experts -- Marcus Camby -- that was sadly obliterated by the sudden death Wednesday of my trusty BlackBerry Bold 9700.
The recording of a 10-minute chat with Camby is nowhere to be found on my surviving SIM card, which is a shame because the newest Rocket was informative on a variety of topics. As usual.
The one quote I memorized from the chat, when Camby was asked if his former UMass coach could bring himself to leave his kingdom in Lexington: "He's coaching an NBA team right now."
3. Eastern Conference
Some numbers of note in the East this week:
3: The Sixers scored only three of their 103 points in Tuesday's victory over Cleveland from the free throw line. That's the lowest single-game total in franchise history since the club joined the NBA as the Syracuse Nationals in 1949.
2: Despite going four overtimes Sunday night, host Atlanta and Utah fell two OTs short of the NBA record. Indianapolis scored a 75-73 victory over Rochester on Jan. 6, 1951. The Hawks and Jazz combined for the ninth four-OT game in NBA history and first since 1997; two other games (one in 1949 and one in 1989) went five overtimes.
17: Monta Ellis scored 17 points in the fourth quarter of Milwaukee's come-from-behind victory over Atlanta. No Bucks player had scored 17 or more points in the fourth quarter of a game that began with Milwaukee trailing since Ray Allen in a victory over the Bulls in 2001.
24: George Hill's recent 24-point game against Milwaukee marked the highest scoring total from an Indy-born Pacers player since George McGinnis scored 24 points against Washington on March 12, 1981.
10: You should know by now that I can't resist any stat that allows me to refer to a game that I covered in another lifetime. So there was no way I would ignore Toronto's Jose Calderon's 10 assists while shooting 0-for-10 from the floor in the only game that the Knicks have lost under Mike Woodson entering Friday's play. I heard, via Elias, Calderon is the first player to shoot 0-for-10 or worse from the field while recording 10 or more assists in the same game since the Clippers' Pooh Richardson missed all 10 of his shots and registered 14 assists against Dallas on December 17, 1994 ... early in my second season covering the Clips for the Los Angeles Daily News.
4. President's New Payday
The Oklahoma City Thunder took full advantage of the financial flexibility it had in the race to sign Derek Fisher.
Sources with knowledge of the contract terms told ESPN.com Fisher received the bulk of Oklahoma City's remaining midlevel exception money: $2.3 million for the rest of the season.
In actual dollars, Fisher will earn nearly $1.9 million for the rest of the regular season from the Thunder, which computes to 66/82 of his $2.3 million salary-cap number, thanks to the 66-game schedule in this lockout-shortened season.
To read more on Fisher's new contract at TrueHoop, ESPN.com's NBA blog, click here.
5. Marc's Quote
"Everybody thought he was nuts. At the end of the day, he wasn't nuts."
Suns coach Alvin Gentry, reflecting on Jason Terry's willingness to publicly challenge LeBron James during the 2011 NBA Finals.
The Mavericks' regular-season return to Miami on Thursday night, coming at the end of a month filled with more than the usual share of provocative proclamations from Terry, naturally invoked memories of what happened last June. That's when Terry responded to his bumpy Finals start against James' fourth-quarter D by taking the unprecedented step of calling out the bigger, stronger and longer superstar checking him, openly questioning whether LeBron "can do it for seven games."
Terry went on to shock the world and back up his big talk with a huge fourth quarter in Game 4 and a combined 48 points in Games 5 and 6 to help Dallas clinch the first championship in franchise history.
And he really hasn't stopped talking since.
The 34-year-old came into camp publicly complaining for a contract extension that was never going to be offered and has only grown more outspoken as the season has progressed. In a nod to the Mavs' well-chronicled attempt to focus on amassing significant salary-cap space for the first time in Mark Cuban's 12-season reign as Dallas' owner, Terry went so far as to tell local reporters two weeks ago that he's playing for "29 teams" in addition to the Mavs and that "every night I'm on the floor I'm on a job interview" because he knows the Mavs aren't planning to re-sign him in free agency in July.
"Every minute of every day," Terry recently told my ESPN Dallas 103.3 FM colleague Ben Rogers when asked how much he's thinking about his contractual status.
Although it remains to be seen how much goodwill erodes locally after the popular Terry's latest comments to Fox Sports Florida's Chris Tomasson about possibly signing with Miami in the offseason, Dallas has taken the general position so far to let Terry go and shrug when he sounds off. Dirk Nowitzki has joked for years about instituting a "no-interview policy" for his longest-tenured teammate in hopes of limiting the bulletin-board material Terry routinely generates, but team officials haven't been trying to muzzle him. "Jet being Jet" is how Cuban brushes it off, which reflects the Mavs' in-house belief that Terry says the things he says to fuel his game more than anything else.
It certainly didn't work this week, when the NBA's 2009 Sixth Man Award winner busted out his all-gold Reeboks -- modeled after the championship trophy that Terry just helped the Mavs win -- and managed just three points in 31 minutes as Dallas got pounded in Miami by 21.
Yet you can count Gentry among those around the league who think Terry can still get past his obvious dismay with the organization about potentially being cast aside in July to light up another top defender or two in the postseason.
Nowitzki continues to call Terry "one of the best closers in the game" when he's locked ... and the Suns' coach took it a step further.
"He's of the most underrated guys in the whole league," Gentry said.
6. One Big Hand
7. Luxury Tax Corner
The full impact of the NBA's new/escalating/suffocating luxury tax system won't start to be felt before the 2013-14 season, when the revamped and ramped-up scale of penalties for teams that stray into tax territory agreed to in December by the league's owners and players will finally be phased in.
Teams are clearly already making decisions with an eye toward lowering their payrolls sooner rather than later, thanks to the looming implementation of that more punitive system, which will charge clubs a progressive penalty for every $5 million they go beyond the tax threshold and cost repeat taxpayers even more.
In this first season of the new labor agreement in which teams are still only being charged $1 for every $1 over the tax line they sit, we're already down to six teams on course to wind up as tax teams. And only one of those six teams -- Kobe Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers -- is looking at a tax bill that strays beyond the $10 million mark.
You'll recall that as recently as last season, Orlando, Dallas and the Lakers finished the season with payrolls in the range of $20 million past the tax line.
The following are the estimated dollar-for-dollar tax amounts, after all of this month's trade business, for the six teams over the $70.3 million tax threshold in effect in 2011-12:
• L.A. Lakers: $15.1 million after donating Lamar Odom's $8.9 million contract before the season started to gets their payroll down.
• Boston: $9.1 million
• Miami: $7.6 million
• Dallas: $5.6 million
• San Antonio: $2.9 million
• Atlanta: $1.2 million
Ps. The total pot of paid taxes is thus poised to land in the $41.5 million range at season's end, but sources say that money will not be distributed to the 24 non-taxpaying teams after this season as in past seasons. The tax money, sources say, is earmarked for the league's new revenue-sharing system.
8. Upset Special
Which team would be most likely to upset the Bulls in the first round?
A. Sixers; B. Pacers; C. Hawks; D. Celtics; E. Knicks; F. Bucks
Marc Stein: D. Celtics. Assuming that the Old Three and their moody point guard get to the playoffs -- as I definitely do assume -- Round 1 is when Paul, KG, Ray and Rondo figure to be at their freshest and thus most dangerous. Factor in D-Rose's iffy health, and you can almost start to picture another Bulls/Celts first-round classic that goes longer than it's supposed to. Almost.
To read more from this 5-on-5 looking at the East's biggest threats to a Bulls-Heat showdown in the conference finals, click here.
9. Chatter Box