Up then down, Knicks’ Tom Thibodeau trying to become rare coach who gets back on track

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Kobe Bryant pined for the Lakers to get him. The Pelicans organized their search around him. The Magic prepared a large offer. The Nets showed interest before even hiring a general manager. The Timberwolves proposed giving him front-office control. Even teams without an opening had interest.

Tom Thibodeau was the hottest coach on the market just a few years ago.

And no wonder.

Thibodeau was coming off an awesome run with the Bulls. He won Coach of the Year in his first season as a head coach. Despite superstar Derrick Rose missing significant time due to injury, Thibodeau guided Chicago to the playoffs all five of his seasons there. He won nearly 65% of his games – which ranked sixth all-time.* His exit from the Bulls was attributed to a rift with management far more than a reflection of his coaching ability.

*Minimum: 300 games. At the time, Thibodeau ranked behind only Phil Jackson, Billy Cunningham, Gregg Popovich, K.C. Jones and Red Auerbach.

Simply, Thibodeau was a coaching superstar and unrestricted free agent. He practically had the pick of the litter with coaching vacancies.

He chose Minnesota.

And then failed there.

The Timberwolves fired Thibodeau in his third season. Minnesota made the playoffs only once and won only one playoff game.

Won-loss record is far from a perfect measure of coaching ability. Player talent is such an important factor in record and often outside a coach’s control.

But coaches who win in their first job tend to have the power to be highly selective with their second job, to position themselves to win again. Fail in that second job, and it often reflects quite poorly on the coach.

In NBA history, 38 coaches had a winning record in their first job then a losing record in their second job. Just six of those coaches have produced a winning record in their third job.

Hired by the Knicks, Thibodeau will attempt to become the seventh.

Here’s every coach who had a winning record in his first job then losing record in his second job. Those who had winning records in their third jobs are in orange:

Coach First Second Third
Tom Thibodeau 2011-2015 CHI: 65% 2017-2019 MIN: 48% 2021-2021 NYK: ?
Frank Vogel 2011-2016 IND: 58% 2017-2018 ORL: 33% 2020-2020 LAL: 78%
Nate McMillan 2001-2005 SEA: 54% 2006-2012 POR: 50% 2017-2020 IND: 57%
Dave Joerger 2014-2016 MEM: 60% 2017-2019 SAC: 40%
Jason Kidd 2014-2014 BRK: 54% 2015-2018 MIL: 48%
Lionel Hollins 2009-2013 MEM: 56% 2015-2016 NJN: 40%
Maurice Cheeks 2002-2005 POR: 54% 2006-2009 PHI: 45% 2014-2014 DET: 42%
Larry Drew 2011-2013 ATL: 56% 2014-2014 MIL: 18%
Byron Scott 2001-2004 NJN: 52% 2005-2010 NOH: 48% 2011-2013 CLE: 28%
Avery Johnson 2005-2008 DAL: 73% 2011-2013 NJN: 34%
Alvin Gentry 1998-2000 DET: 50% 2001-2003 LAC: 40% 2009-2013 PHO: 52%
Scott Skiles 2000-2002 PHO: 59% 2003-2008 CHI: 49% 2009-2013 MIL: 47%
P.J. Carlesimo 1995-1997 POR: 56% 1998-2000 GSW: 29% 2008-2009 SEA/OKC: 22%
Isiah Thomas 2001-2003 IND: 53% 2007-2008 NYK: 34%
Brian Hill 1994-1997 ORL: 65% 1998-2000 VAN: 20% 2006-2007 ORL: 46%
Rick Adelman 1989-1994 POR: 65% 1996-1997 GSW: 40% 1999-2006 SAC: 63%
John Lucas 1993-1994 SAS: 66% 1995-1996 PHI: 26% 2002-2003 CLE: 30%
Dave Cowens 1997-1999 CHA: 61% 2001-2002 GSW: 24%
Mike Dunleavy 1991-1992 LAL: 62% 1993-1996 MIL: 33% 1998-2001 POR: 64%
Rick Pitino 1988-1989 NYK: 55% 1998-2001 BOS: 41%
Chris Ford 1991-1995 BOS: 54% 1997-1998 MIL: 42% 1999-2000 LAC: 21%
Jimmy Rodgers 1989-1990 BOS: 57% 1992-1993 MIN: 19%
Matt Guokas 1986-1988 PHI: 57% 1990-1993 ORL: 34%
Paul Westhead 1980-1982 LAL: 69% 1983-1983 CHI: 34% 1991-1992 DEN: 27%
Mike Schuler 1987-1989 POR: 60% 1991-1992 LAC: 41%
Willis Reed 1978-1979 NYK: 51% 1988-1989 NJN: 30%
Bill Russell 1967-1969 BOS: 66% 1974-1977 SEA: 49% 1988-1988 SAC: 29%
Jack Ramsay 1969-1972 PHI: 53% 1973-1976 BUF: 48% 1977-1986 POR: 55%
Jack McKinney 1980-1980 LAL: 71% 1981-1984 IND: 38% 1985-1985 KCK: 11%
Gene Shue 1967-1973 BAL: 53% 1974-1978 PHI: 47% 1979-1980 SDC: 48%
Larry Costello 1969-1977 MIL: 61% 1979-1979 CHI: 36%
Cotton Fitzsimmons 1971-1972 PHO: 59% 1973-1976 ATL: 44% 1978-1978 BUF: 33%
Butch van Breda Kolff 1968-1969 LAL: 65% 1970-1972 DET: 47% 1973-1973 PHO: 43%
Dolph Schayes 1964-1966 PHI: 54% 1971-1972 BUF: 27%
Harry Gallatin 1963-1965 STL: 58% 1965-1966 NYK: 40%
Al Cervi 1950-1957 SYR: 59% 1959-1959 PHW: 44%
John Kundla 1949-1957 MNL: 61% 1958-1959 MNL: 41%
Ken Loeffler 1947-1948 STB: 61% 1949-1949 PRO: 20% x

Seasons are listed by their ending year. Interim seasons count only if the coach was retained the following season.

Many of these coaches never got hired again – often for seemingly deserved reasons. Still, even of just the 19 coaches who got a third job, more than two-thirds had a losing record in that third job.

Two of the major exceptions are coaching right now – the Lakers’ Frank Vogel and Pacers’ Nate McMillan.

Vogel coached Indiana so well, Larry Bird firing him sparked plenty of outrage. With options, Vogel chose the Magic next because of their young core. But he took Orlando nowhere and got fired after two years. His market dried up… until the Lakers hired him last summer. Though Vogel is still in his first season in Los Angeles, he has looked darned capable in the tricky situation of coaching LeBron James.

After overachieving with the SuperSonics, McMillan earned a larger contract with the talented Trail Blazers. But Portland underwhelmed with McMillan and fired him. He resurfaced with the Pacers years later amid questions about whether his old-school style would work in the modern NBA. It does. McMillan has kept Indiana playing hard, defending effectively and winning amid roster turnover.

Maybe Thibodeau will continue to reverse the trend.

He was in over his head as team president with the Timberwolves, both in managing the roster and collaborating within the franchise. With that responsibility off his plate, he can get back to just coaching.

However, Thibodeau’s once-revolutionary defensive system has lost effectiveness as offenses have improved spacing in response. Really, Thibodeau deserves more credit for sparking the modern NBA as we know it. But, in the evolution, he has also lost a competitive advantage.

And Thibodeau must rely on the Knicks, led by new president Leon Rose, to form a winning roster. That’s no safe bet.

Because he failed in Minnesota, Thibodeau is about to learn a harsh reality: It’s even harder for a coach to win after losing than win after winning. The good-looking jobs just aren’t available to losing coaches. Losing coaches are stuck trying to rebuild their reputation with teams like the Knicks.

It’s a treacherous hill to climb when sliding the wrong way.

Durant tired of talking Nets dramatic offseason: ‘I didn’t miss any games’

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No team had an offseason quite like the Brooklyn Nets. First, they would not give a long-term extension to Kyrie Irving, which sent the star guard looking for a new team (but there were no offers that worked for everyone, so he opted in with Brooklyn). Then Kevin Durant asked for a trade, and to gain a little leverage reportedly threw down an ultimatum of him or the coach and GM. No trade could be found — how much the Nets wanted one is up for debate — so he is back in Brooklyn. And all that is not even getting into the return of Ben Simmons, a trade for Royce O’Neal, or anything else.

The Nets drama and how they move past it has been the talk of training camp. The only talk at training camp, it feels like.

When asked Friday if there were any inaccuracies in the reporting of the Nets summer he would like to clear up, Durant sounded weary of rehashing the summer.

The only thing that will start to move the conversation in a new direction is the Nets playing and winning games (they open the preseason Monday against the 76ers). And even those wins will have the shadow of the offseason cast over them. Durant and Irving made this bed.

Part of the fascination is the Nets remain the team hardest to predict in the league. They arguably have the most talented roster in the league and, if everything comes together just right, they can contend for a title. It’s also possible the wheels fall off early and by Christmas the Nets are looking to trade Durant again. Both things feel possible (even if reality most likely lands somewhere in the middle).

That uncertainty about the Nets’ future is the drama that will keep eyeballs on them — which also means more questions about this past offseason. Durant can choose not to answer them, but the questions aren’t going away.

Highlights from Clippers preseason win fueled by Luke Kennard

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No Kawhi Leonard. Or Paul George. Or John Wall, Norman Powell, Reggie Jackson and Nic Batum. The Clippers decided to rest six key rotation players in their preseason opener in Seattle against Maccabi Ra’anana, a game played in Seattle.

All those guys are expected to suit up Monday when the Clippers play the Portland Trail Blazers in a preseason game also in Seattle, the first NBA exhibition game played in the city since 2018.

Against Maccabi, it was the Luke Kennard show as he had 16 points.

The Clippers also got 14 points and 13 boards from Moses Brown. As a team, the Clippers cruised and put up a few highlights.

The Clippers have great depth, which should allow them to survive a season where both Leonard and George are expected to get their share of load management nights off. Leonard missed all of last season coming off a torn ACL, and George played in just 31 games due to a few injuries, including a shoulder issue. Still, the Clippers finished eighth in the West with a 42-40 record and had a top 10 defense in the league.

Adding Leonard and George to that mix is why the Clippers are considered title contenders out West. Monday night against the Blazers we should get our first look at the real Clippers team for this season. But Los Angeles is 1-0 this preseason.

Report: Udoka used ‘crude language’ with female subordinate prior to improper relationship

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The Boston Celtics handled the Ime Udoka investigation and suspension by the corporate handbook: They kept the woman’s name out of the news, kept details confidential (not even telling the players much for legal reasons), and acted swiftly and decisively.

But as the team on the court starts defending its Eastern Conference title, there has been a concern that details leaking out about the investigations — and responses to those leaks — could turn this into a season-long drama and distraction for the team. That first started on Friday when Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported this:

The independent law firm probe into Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka found that he used crude language in his dialogue with a female subordinate prior to the start of an improper workplace relationship with the woman, an element that significantly factored into the severity of his one-year suspension, sources told ESPN.

Those investigative findings — which described verbiage on Udoka’s part that was deemed especially concerning coming from a workplace superior — contribute to what is likely a difficult pathway back to his reinstatement as Celtics coach in 2023, sources told ESPN.

A few thoughts here.

• “Crude language” is just part of a more detailed and damning report, league sources have told NBC Sports. There is much more uncovered by the independent investigation, including about the power dynamic in play. It was enough that the Celtics thought the best move was to suspend for an entire season a coach loved by players who led the team to the NBA Finals (it’s not something the Celtics organization did lightly).

• As Wojnarowski and others have noted, it’s increasingly unlikely Udoka returns to coach the Celtics next season, even if that is not yet official.

• While some pundits and people around the league have said Udoka is “done,” the NBA has seen unexpected turnarounds before. Never say never in this league.

• About the only sure thing is that this story is not over.

Lillard poised to pass Drexler as Trail Blazers all-time leading scorer

2022-23 Portland Trail Blazers Media Day
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images
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Damian Lillard could have done what a lot of NBA stars have done — what a lot of them told him to do while recruiting him — and has chosen to stay in Portland. He wants to be remembered as the greatest Trail Blazer ever.

One good way to do that: Become the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Sometime around Thanksgiving or a little after, Lillard will do just that, passing Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler and his 18,040 points (Lillard is 531 back).

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports spoke to Lillard about when he knew the record was within reach, during Trail Blazers training camp in Santa Barbara, California (go Gauchos!). It was when Lillard got to 10,000 points.

“I was like, ‘Damn, I got 10,000 already?’ ” Lillard told Yahoo Sports he recalled at the time. “It was my sixth season in the league. That’s when I started thinking, if I could be consistent, I could score into the high 20,000-point range. As a scorer, 20,000 points is always looked at as a special mark. From that moment, I knew it was possible, but it’s also when I first researched Clyde Drexler’s [scoring] record with the team.”

Drexler is good with being passed by Lillard.

“You and I know records are made to be broken, but I can’t think of a better player or person to break the record than Dame,” Drexler told Yahoo Sports. “He exemplifies being a team player and going about his business in a professional way. I have nothing but admiration and respect for him. When he comes close to getting the record, and if our schedules align, I would love to be there to help out in any way I can. That’s a nice milestone to achieve. I am looking forward to him accomplishing that.”

Lillard is on a lot of front office people’s watch list this season, as in “how long before he is unhappy and asks for a trade?” The thing is, Lillard has been on that list for years and he keeps choosing Portland — he isn’t looking to leave. Of course, the $120 million extension and a retooling of the roster around him helped with that decision, but Lillard always had other options if he wanted them (and at times it felt like he would take them).

The Trail Blazers brought in Jerami Grant, re-signed Anfrenee Simons, and will put them with a solid core of others such as (a finally healthy) Jusuf Nurkic, Josh Hart, Gary Payton II and others. It’s a good roster, the question is how good in a deep West?

There are a lot of questions about how this season shakes out in Portland, but the one seeming sure thing is Lillard becoming the Trail Blazers’ all-time leading scorer. And that seems fitting.