Tyson Chandler

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Igor Kokoskov joins unfortunate ranks of head coaches fired after first NBA season

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Igor Kokoskov worked 18 years as an NBA assistant coach. The Serbia native worked tirelessly to convince teams he was more than just a mentor for European players. Finally, the Suns hired him as their head coach.

“It’s a dream job,” Kokoskov beamed. “And it’s a special day for me.”

Less than a year later, Phoenix fired him.

What a tough business.

The Suns gave Kokoskov a roster ill-equipped to win. They were comically thin at point guard. They had one of the NBA’s least-experienced teams. Even rising star Devin Booker still has significant flaws that inhibit his ability to win. Veterans like Trevor Ariza and Tyson Chandler appeared apathetic in Phoenix.

And now Kokoskov will pay the price for the Suns’ 19-win season.

His time as an NBA head coach is over already, and he might not get another opportunity. Kokoskov is the first coach to get fired after his first season as an NBA head coach since Mike Dunlap with Charlotte in 2013.

Here’s every coach to get fired after only one season, or less, of his first head-coaching job since the NBA-ABA merger. Interim seasons count only if the coach was retained the following year.

Season Tm Coach W L Future jobs
2018-19 PHO Igor Kokoskov 19 63
2012-13 CHA Mike Dunlap 21 61
2010-11 GSW Keith Smart 36 46 SAC
2008-09 DET Michael Curry 39 43
2007-08 CHA Sam Vincent 32 50
2003-04 PHI Randy Ayers 21 31
2003-04 TOR Kevin O’Neill 33 49
2000-01 WAS Leonard Hamilton 19 63
1999-00 WAS Gar Heard 14 30
1999 DEN Mike D’Antoni 14 36 PHO, NYK, LAL, HOU
1997-98 DEN Bill Hanzlik 11 71
1996-97 PHI Johnny Davis 22 60 ORL
1995-96 TOR Brendan Malone 21 61
1993-94 DAL Quinn Buckner 13 69
1992-93 SAS Jerry Tarkanian 9 11
1987-88 PHO John Wetzel 28 54
1983-84 SAS Morris McHone 11 20
1980-81 CLE Bill Musselman 25 46 MIN
1979-80 LAL Jack McKinney 10 4 IND, KCK
1977-78 SEA Bob Hopkins 5 17
1976-77 BUF Tates Locke 16 30

Of the 21 coaches fired in or following their first season as an NBA head coach, only five – Keith Smart, Mike D’Antoni, Johnny Davis, Bill Musselman and Jack McKinney – got another head-coaching job. Kokoskov faces long odds.

At least he got to finish the season. Phoenix had a late 5-2 stretch that included wins over the Bucks and Warriors. That could be a selling point for Kokoskov.

Randy Ayers (2003-04 76ers), Gar Heard (1999-00 Wizards), Jerry Tarkanian (1992-93 Spurs), Morris McHone (1983-84 Spurs), Bill Musselman (1980-81 Cavaliers), Bob Hopkins (1977-78 Seattle SuperSonics) and Tates Locke (1976-77 Buffalo Braves) all got fired during their first seasons as NBA head coaches. Jack McKinney (1979-80 Lakers) lost his job due to a bicycle crash during the season, and Los Angeles officially fired him after the season to keep Paul Westhead, who guided the team to a title in McKinney’s absence.

The Suns weren’t necessarily wrong to fire Kokoskov. Under his watch, they were sloppy and undisciplined and had chemistry problems – areas where the head coach usually gets credit or blame. General manager James Jones deserves a chance to hire his own coach.

Kokoskov might be a good coach. Even if he’s not, he could grow into one.

But he didn’t do enough to secure his job, as tall as that task might have been.

The above list is filled with coaches who had awful records. McKinney is the only one with a winning record, and his situation was complicated by the bike crash. Michael Curry (2008-09 Pistons) is only first-time head coach to take his team to the playoffs and still get fired since the merger, but Detroit had a losing record and got swept in the first round.

In many ways, it’s unfortunate Kokoskov didn’t get a better chance to prove himself. His job security took a major hit when the Suns fired the general manager, Ryan McDonough, who hired Kokoskov before the coach’s first season even began. Kokoskov survived rumors of a potential firing in February, but that was clearly only a stay of execution.

The Suns’ problems go way above the head coach, and Kokoskov’s experience in Phoenix could dissuade potential candidates from replacing him.

But there are only 30 NBA head-coaching jobs. Except for the most-coveted candidates, many coaches would rush to take this job.

As precarious as it can be.

Al Jefferson retires from NBA

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Al Jefferson was the centerpiece of the return package in one of the biggest superstar trades in NBA history.

Seven years after getting traded from the Celtics to the Timberwolves for Kevin Garnett, Jefferson made his first All-NBA team.

Just when it seemed Jefferson, who was never an All-Star, leveled off as a player. He proved he had another gear with Charlotte in 2014.

That All-NBA third-team selection came in Jefferson’s 10th year. Only Tyson Chandler and Sam Cassell, who made it in their 11th seasons, earned their first All-NBA berth later in their careers.

Now, Jefferson retires as a late bloomer who peaked just in time.

Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe:

Fittingly, our last headline naming Jefferson came in 2016: “Report: Pacers, Al Jefferson agree to three-year, $30 million contract.” The league was evolving. Jefferson’s athleticism was further declining. Indiana didn’t know it, but he was already about finished by the time he signed that deal.

Jefferson has the highest post-up-per-game seasons in the NBA.com database, which goes back to 2013-14 – 19.8 that year and 17.7 the following season. He was sturdy on the block with craft and touch. Defensively, he lacked the hops to protect the rim and mobility to defend smaller players.

In other words, he’s the type of big man who’s becoming obsolete.

But before NBA embraced stretch bigs to the degree it has, Jefferson had some nice years in Minnesota, Utah and Charlotte. He worked hard to improve despite his natural limitations.

Jefferson was also part of one my favorite teams – the 2016 Hornets, who were full of expiring contracts but pulled together anyway. In Charlotte, Jefferson committed more to defense and helped Steve Clifford (who now coaches the Magic) establish his bona fides as a head coach who could implement a strong defense regardless of personnel.

By declaring for the 2005 draft straight out of high school, Jefferson gave himself a lot of time to develop and flourish while in the NBA. He took advantage of it.

LeBron James to teams that may target him on defense: “Come on with it”

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The Lakers’ defense — which bounced between respectable and good the first half of the season — has come apart of late, and it’s the main reason it’s easy to see the Lakers missing the playoffs. They are bottom 10 in the league defensively over their last 10 games. There are multiple reasons and multiple people to blame for this. The roster was not built with players who would provide consistent rim protection (JaVale McGee does it for stretches but can be exposed, and Tyson Chandler is running on fumes). There is not a great defensive identity from coach Luke Walton that the team has bought into. The Lakers miss Lonzo Ball, who is out with a bone bruise in his ankle (Rajon Rondo gets torched at the point of attack a lot). The list goes on.

LeBron James has been part of the problem as well — he has been slow to get back in transition, he has not rotated out to shooters, and at points he seems to stand around off the ball. He is capable, for a stretch, of dialing up great defense, but it’s not something he does for the entire game. Which is exactly what was happening in Cleveland, but it got overlooked because the rest of that roster, in the East, was still good enough to be a threat to make the Finals (which they did). In the West, these Lakers are not even a playoff team.

Which has led to a lot of criticism from fans, media and others about LeBron’s defense. He pushed back on that speaking to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports — LeBron said go ahead and target him.

“I mean, every team has the right if they want to single me out defensively. Come on with it,” James told Yahoo Sports. “Hey, listen, come on with it. Every team has the right to be like, ‘Oh, ’Bron’s over there.’ Hey, just come on with it. … We’ll see what happens.”

As for the noise around the Lakers and the level of criticism he has faced this season.

“I really don’t care. Criticism doesn’t bother me…”

“So if [teams are] switching out on me with a guard and me having to try to get a stop, I mean, guys, they’re going to score. These are NBA players. I just try to make it tough on them. I tried to make it tough on Julius [Randle] all night, and obviously he was a monster [with a game-high 35 points], but I tried to make it tough on Jrue as well. To be able to get that stop for our team and then be able to make that shot for our team, that’s motivating for me. That’s all that matters to me.”

The Lakers problems — which are not solved with a win at home against a stumbling Pelicans team sitting Anthony Davis in the fourth — are multiple.

However, they all go back to roster construction. The Lakers were not going to give out multiple-year contracts to preserve cap space for this summer, so they got veterans willing to settle for one-year deals. Guys without better options. Sure, some players want to suit up with LeBron in Los Angeles, but not more than they want to get paid. Not on a Laker team that clearly was not ready to contend yet. The Lakers got what they paid for.

We all expected LeBron to still be able to lift this team into the playoffs.

Maybe if he’d stayed healthy all 82 games he could have, but he missed time with a groin injury and this roster simply isn’t good enough to lift him up, too. Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and the young guys are doing their part, but the “preserve the cap space” veterans just aren’t that good.

Which means if the Lakers don’t do something impressive with that cap space next summer the real drama will start.

Three Things to Know: Activated? Laker bench veterans are disaster in ugly loss to Grizzlies

Associated Press
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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Activated? Disconnect more like it. Laker bench veterans disaster in an ugly loss to Grizzlies. How much trouble are the Lakers playoff hopes in? Fivethirtyeight.com projects the Clippers and Spurs to finish with 44 wins and get the final two playoff seeds in the West. For the Lakers to get to 45 wins and be in they need to go 16-6 the rest of the way.

LeBron James said he activated playoff mode early — and Monday night he had a triple-double of 24 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists (which moved him into fifth, past Wilt Chamberlain on the all-time triple-double list) — but the Laker bench was a disaster in a 110-105 loss to a Memphis team that traded away Marc Gasol, is without Jaren Jackson Jr. and Kyle Anderson due to injury, and is trying to lose games so they keep their pick in the draft. Yet those Grizzlies played with more poise, cohesion, and passion.

LeBron keeps blaming guys not focused on the game — is basketball the most important thing in your life? After this loss it was, “If you’re still allowing distractions to affect the way you play, this is the wrong franchise to be a part of.”

It feels like that is a shot at the young Lakers.

It shouldn’t be. It’s the veterans — the guys Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka signed last summer who have been the problem. It was that way Monday night — the Laker bench of Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Tyson Chandler, Lance Stephenson, the traded for Mike Muscala, and Josh Hart went 3-of-14 shooting for 7 total points in 70 minutes of game action. It’s not just this one game, either.

Rather than put shooters around LeBron, Magic said the Lakers wanted to go their own way, bring in the veteran playmakers, but only the ones they could get on one-year deals. This is the result. The Lakers get pushed around inside, they lack a game-managing point guard (Rondo isn’t that guy anymore, and it is not Lonzo Ball’s strength, plus Ball is out with a bone bruise in his ankle anyway) and they have stopped caring on defense. And if LeBron wants to complain about defensive effort, well…

Brandon Ingram had 32 points on 12-of-18 shooting against Memphis and was aggressive again — he had another strong game. Although, Avery Bradley broke Ingram’s ankles at one point.

Kyle Kuzma had 22 points in his one. He continues to play consistently well.

Which is to say the guys at the heart of all those Anthony Davis trade talks were just fine, maybe the trade talks did not destroy the psyche of this team. It’s the veterans that are the issue.

Going 16-6 seems like a longshot at best after this loss. The way the Lakers are defending right now, they might as well start ending their team huddles with “1-2-3 Cancun.”

2) James Harden’s 30+ points per game streak comes to an end in Rockets win over Hawks. It had to end eventually. And when James Harden’s streak of 30+ point games did end it was not going to be because some team just locked him down, it was going to be a game where he didn’t need to take over to get the win.

That’s what happened in Atlanta.

Harden wasn’t sharp — 7-of-21 shooting to get to 28 points — but this was a night he could be off and the Rockets still got the 119-111 victory.

Harden had 28 as time ran down, but rather than go for 30 he dribbled it out — while the Hawks threw a quadruple-team at him just in case.

Harden’s streak reached 32 games, second longest 30+ points streak ever behind Wilt Chamberlain’s ridiculous 65 games. Harden admitted he didn’t expect to reach that number. So he settles for the second-longest streak ever, and in doing so got his team back in the playoff picture and himself back in the MVP race.

For the Hawks, Trae Young knocked down eight three-pointers and scored 36 on the night.

3) Classy move by Doc Rivers in tribute to Dirk Nowitzki. And by the way, the Clippers look like a playoff team. With 9.4 seconds remaining in a decided game (the Clippers won 121-112), Doc Rivers called a timeout. He then walked over to the scorer’s table, picked up a microphone, and got the crowd at Staples Center to give Dirk Nowitzki one last standing ovation.

Classy move by Rivers.

This was a big win for Los Angeles, which is now in sole possession of seventh place in the West. On a night where the Lakers/Kings/Spurs all lost the idea of the Clippers in the postseason seems more secure, much to the delight of owner Steve Ballmer. Fivethirtyeight.com has the Clippers with a 75 percent chance of making the postseason.

Which is incredible for a team that two trade deadlines in a row has sent away its best player (Blake Griffin last year, Tobias Harris this year). The Clippers were shrewd with those moves, staying competitive while setting themselves up to be bigtime players in free agency.

This season the Clippers have leaned on Lou Williams to score, watched Montrezl Harrell develop into a Sixth Man of the Year candidate in his own right, and had solid seasons from veterans such as Patrick Beverley and Danilo Gallinari (who has stayed healthy this year), plus the move of trading up in the draft to get Shai Gilgeous-Alexander seems. The Clippers rebuilt on the fly — all while freeing up cap space to chase two max free agents next summer.

The Clippers have been a model “how to rebuild on the fly” example, and this summer may land Kawhi Leonard or another free agent, they are in the mix for the big names. Do that, and this will be one of the great rebuilds of all time in the league.

Mike Conley returns to All-Star Weekend 11 years later, but still not as All-Star

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CHARLOTTE – Mike Conley arrived about 15 minutes late to his press conference this morning. He said arena personnel initially didn’t allow him in, forcing him to go around until someone let him through.

It’s the story of his career and getting to All-Star.

“Just going to make me go around in circles until one day letting me in, right?” Conley said.

The Grizzlies point guard is widely recognized as the best active player never to be an All-Star. But Conley – who will compete in the Skills Challenge tonight – is back at All-Star Weekend for the first time since his rookie year, when he played in the 2008 Rookie Challenge.

Back then, Conley was still hyped as the No. 4 pick in the 2007 draft. He figured the Rookie Challenge would be just the start of many trips to All-Star Weekend. But he didn’t progress in his second season enough to get picked for even the sophomore team in the Rookie Challenge.

“It was tough,” Conley said. “The first year you get invited, you feel like you’re doing good things. The second year, you don’t get invited, and it’s frustrating.”

“But stuff like that helped drive you a little bit, helped give you that motivation to put yourself out there again and hopefully one day you’ll be coming back as an All-Star.”

Time is running out.

Conley will be in his 13th season next year. Nobody has ever made their first All-Star game that late in their career. Kyle Korver (2015 Hawks), Tyson Chandler (2013 Knicks) and Vlade Divac (2001 Kings) first became All-Stars in their 12th seasons.

So, Conley made his way to Charlotte for the Skills Challenge this year. He fondly recalls his dad – Mike Conley Sr., an Olympic gold-medal triple jumper – taking him to events as a kid and getting pictures with him and famous people. Conley said he has already gotten pictures this weekend of his children with Fabolous, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul.

The vacation also timed up well for Conley, who was subject of numerous rumors before last week’s trade deadline. Memphis traded Marc Gasol to the Raptors but kept Conley.

“I just needed a break from all the hoopla and trade rumors and trade talks, and just get away, get my family out here, try to have fun with these guys and experience something other than reading Twitter and Instagram about where I’m going to be at next, “Conley said.

Conley called All-Star Weekend “a big party” and said he particularly appreciated the camaraderie with fellow players. Even in a crowd of stars, Conley stands out.

“The players really respect me and every one of them, like, ‘Man, I can’t believe you haven’t been an All-Star. You should be one. You should have been one this year,'” Conley said. “It’s the same thing over and over. But it’s cool to know they at least recognize it.”

Is there something special about being known as the best player in the game who hasn’t been an All-Star?

“I’d rather have just been an All-Star,” Conley said.