NEW YORK -- There's a price to be paid when you play not to win, but for cap space. That bill came due Sunday for Lawrence Frank, a good coach who will work again in this league because the list of coaches who work harder is considerably shorter than he is.
Frank is no Red Auerbach. But in a Jeff Van Gundy sort of way, he overcame the stigma of being a little guy who couldn't post up a garbage pail and earned the respect of most players he coached. There are some things wrong with the NBA, but a little guy who was dedicated to the craft, who never cut any corners, and who always had his team prepared was not one of them.
"I guess it's Lawrence's fault that they wanted to go young and [clear] cap space and that everybody got hurt," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said Sunday night, before his team beat another one that is dangerously walking the 2010 tightrope, the Knicks. "Maybe he was banging them up in practice, taking a baseball bat to them or something. I just know that with the lineups he's had to put on the floor, I don't think any coach would've done anything better than he's done."
So the march to nowhere goes on in New Jersey without him. Frank was fired before having a chance to suffer the embarrassment of piloting the worst start in NBA history. Who replaces him for the rest of this season is almost as irrelevant as the Nets are in their lame-duck arena in the swamplands of Jersey. You get what you pay for, which is something that must be occurring to a certain Russian billionaire right about now. Mikhail Prokhorov soon will be able to tell all his friends and playmates that he owns the biggest joke in American basketball this side of Florida International. (And if Prokhorov ever gets tired of having a lot of cap space, Isiah Thomas would be his guy.)
Don't feel sorry for Frank; this story is about more than him. He'll receive the $4 million he's owed for the balance of this season, with the fortunate fringe benefit of not having to work. There are more victims in this cap-clearing calamity, and they reside higher up the food chain than Frank.
Nets president Rod Thorn will spend the next 24 hours deciding which lucky contestant will take over the Titanic for the rest of this season. But nothing permanent can be decided until the sale to Prokhorov goes through -- presumably by the end of 2009 -- and that includes a decision on Thorn's future. He did everything right -- building a two-time NBA finalist out of nothing by trading for Jason Kidd, then dumping Kidd before he got too old for a point guard 10 years his junior, Devin Harris, in a deal that was universally applauded. But clearing the books for a move to Brooklyn -- and selling the team to someone who could actually take it there -- was more important to owner Bruce Ratner than keeping Vince Carter, who didn't want to talk about the whole thing Sunday night. Asked for his comment on Frank's firing, Carter said simply, "None. I don't want to talk about it, if you don't mind."
Now Thorn looks into the future and sees a few months left on his contract, a mysterious new owner on the way, and a one-way ticket from the Meadowlands to an imaginary Brooklyn arena hanging by a thread. Through no fault of his own, Thorn could be left holding a tattered bag containing what's left of his reputation when this is all over.
"What happened to our team this year," Thorn told me on the phone Sunday night, "was really a perfect-storm type of thing."
|Despite all his hard work, Lawrence Frank can't avoid his fate Sunday. (Getty Images)|
The 0-16 start that got Frank canned notwithstanding, Thorn and Vandeweghe have a credible plan and should be allowed to carry it out. First, there's the potential for two first-round picks in each of the next two drafts; New Jersey has Dallas' unprotected No. 1 in 2010, followed by a lightly protected No. 1 from Golden State in '11. As the ledger stands today, the Nets will have at least $25 million in cap space for a July 1 shopping spree. And unlike, say, Portland and Detroit -- which had to use their space this past summer or lose it through obligations to re-sign current players -- the Nets' space is good for two years. If they don't get who they want next summer -- i.e. LeBron James -- the money will still be there in '11. It all looks good on paper, except we don't know who's doing the shopping. As Frank learned, and as his comrades in the Nets' front office may soon have to face, cap space isn't free. It involves casualties.
The Nets will hold day-long organizational meetings Monday in New Jersey to decide whether Sunday night's coach, Tom Barrise, will carry this team to the finish line. In addition to Vandeweghe, Thorn also is considering assistant coach John Loyer and has interviewed at least one candidate outside the organization. (Who? Rollie Massimino?) It is not a process that Thorn relishes; he liked and respected Frank, and appreciated the fact that he showed up ready to work as hard as it took, every day, no matter what.
Thorn is too selfless to worry about this, but this stain goes on his resume, too. Reputations are hard to build in the NBA, and even harder to rebuild once they're torn down. As I write this, I am sitting in Madison Square Garden, watching another cap-space victim walk the lonely path toward July 1, 2010: Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni.
The architect of the Suns' "seven seconds or less" mastery was riding high when he came to New York having averaged 58 wins per season over the previous four years in Phoenix. He got a free pass in his first year while team president Donnie Walsh began dismantling the mistakes of the past. It's still a work in progress, one that may never be completed.
Two summers ago, D'Antoni shared the golden touch with Mike Krzyzewski, coaching Team USA to the top of the medal stand in Beijing. Prominent 2010 free agents Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and James got a chance to spend quality time with a coach all three have acknowledged they'd love to call their boss.
Now look at him. D'Antoni's face was pale and drawn Sunday night after the Knicks fell to 3-14 with a 114-102 loss to the Magic -- and this was on a good night. With games coming up against Phoenix, Orlando again, and Atlanta, D'Antoni's hair is turning gray faster than President Obama's, and his reputation is taking an even bigger hit. One NBA front office executive told me recently that D'Antoni is no longer on the "A" list of coaching candidates. His system of running, spacing the floor, shooting threes, and living off the high pick-and-roll is coming to be viewed as a product of the talent he had in Phoenix. That's not true of course, but when you replace Steve Nash with Chris Duhon, this is what happens.
While their teams play for the holy grail of free agency, good basketball men watch their reputations crumble. I am reminded of the day D'Antoni was hired, a made-for-postcards day when the savior stood on Seventh Avenue holding a basketball and smiling for the cameras.
And now I can't help but think, be careful how much cap space you wish for.