Thoughts on the Cavs Coaching Search

June 10th, 2014 by Nate Smith

I was all set to write a scathing criticism of the Cavs coaching search, tonight. So far the search has been filled with mediocre candidates, a failed run at John Calipari, and the conspicuous snub of the 2013 coach of the year. Sensing this, Dan Gilbert and David Griffin decided to preempt my scathe-a-thon by making the one move that would totally redeem them…

They’re interviewing Mark Price on Tuesday.

I’m as excited as Anderson Varejao in a salon full of hair care products.

I don’t need to sing the praises of Mark Price. Cleveland Jackson of Stepienrules did that over three weeks ago.

Every team that has hired him as an assistant or shooting coach has improved its shooting that season.

He remains the dean of shooting a 29.5 inch circumference basketball through an 18 inch diameter rim.  He invented splitting the double team off the dribble, and he remains a commander in the understanding of the pick-and-roll…

Improving the shooting of a team with future Hornets like Bismack Biyombo, Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was not an easy task.  But Charlotte’s point guard Kemba Walker improved this season in his assists, three point shooting percentage, and free throw percentage. He improved developed a floater in the lane which the former Huskie used all season and into the postseason.

Price has coached at every level, and as Jackson noted, Doc Rivers, Steve Kerr, Greg Popovich, Jason Kidd, Mark Jackson, Larry Bird, and (probably) Derek Fisher all had no head coaching experience when they became head coaches. Price is at least as qualified as any of them were when they took over. And, as Jackson noted, one of the Cavs’ biggest problems is that they are a lousy shooting team. They’ve finished no better than 26th in the league in field goal percentage or and effective field goal percentage in each of the last four seasons. Price might be more qualified to help the Cavs in that area than any other coaching candidate. Did I mention I’m excited? I feel like LeBron James in a room full of “overcoming adversity” narratives.

And I’m not saying the Cavs should hire Mark Price as head coach. All that I and many members of the Cavs blogosphere have been saying is that Mark Price should get an interview. He has to be more deserving than the posterboy for NBA retreads, Alvin Gentry. My bet is that Price blows away the Cavs front office with his interview. Why do I believe that? Because Price the player was a self-made man. Our own Tom Pestak went over that this spring, when he wrote the profile for Mark Price and his #CavsRank No. 1 ranking.

Price continued his ascent to the highest ranks of the NBA during one of its most talent-laden eras.  In his third season, he joined a very exclusive club, doubling its membership.  He became the second member of Larry Bird’s club, the 50-40-90 club, named for those select few sharpshooters that shot at least 50% from the field, 40% from the 3-point line, and 90% from the free throw line.

No one — NO ONE — shoots that well without an unbelievable amount of discipline, practice, and preparation. Mark Price as a point guard was an innovator, and a player who dominated games with his preparation, practice habits, and understanding of how to set up his teammates. He used those to exploit defenses as much as he used his quick first step and deadly jumper. The qualities that made Price a great player are exactly the ones he’d need to be a great head coach.

The knocks on Price? He’s too quiet. He is not a tireless self promoter like the TV personalities turned coaches that seem to be dominating the NBA hiring process. And the biggest? He may be too close to Cleveland. “It would be too heartbreaking to have to fire Mark Price as head coach, or to see him fail,” the criticism goes. That thought is complete and utter self-defeating BS. That’s the the kind of thinking that has doomed Cleveland teams to mediocrity for years. If you think Mark Price is the best guy for the job, you hire him, and you don’t worry about anything else. Mark Price is a big boy. If he can deal with being traded to the Bullets, he can deal with the pressure and consequences of coaching for the Cavs.

Hiring Price would be a bright spot in the #SummerOfHuh. So far, this coaching search has looked like Dan Gilbert and David Griffin plotting to defeat the Shelbyville softball team à la Burns and Smithers. Yesterday, it leaked that John Calipari turned down up to 10 years and $80 million dollars to be the coach and President of the Cavs. Now, I get the move. Dan Gilbert thinks The Vacator can get him LeBron. But Calipari played the Cavs to help negotiate a seven year, $52 million dollar extension with the Wildcats. In the process, Dan Gilbert neutered David Griffin. Gilbert made it obvious that getting the right person was more important than Griffin’s role as the top basketball decision maker with the Cavs.

In some ways, it was a good move. Grant’s buddy/buddy relationship with Brown has to give Gilbert pause before he commits to one of Giffin’s flunkies like Del Negro or Gentry. (I will mention for the umpteenth time that Gentry has had three winning seasons in his 12 years as an head coach in the NBA).  And yeah, before Monday’s reveals of Price, Blatt, and Calipari, the Cavs search could only have been described as a murder’s row of mediocrity. So at least we’re stirring the pot a bit now. That makes me feel good — like Dwyane Wade in a whistle factory.

Yet it still remains utterly baffling — completely incomprehensible — that the Cavs haven’t even interviewed the most qualified candidate for the job. I am of course talking about George Karl. In fact, Karl seemingly hasn’t gotten a sniff anywhere in the league. Karl was coach of the year in 2013. He coached a Nuggets team with no stars to a 57 win record and the number one offense in the NBA.  The year after Karl left? The Nuggets won 36 games. In 25 NBA seasons as a coach, Karl has had two losing seasons and only missed the playoffs three times. Want to talk player development? Bingo Smith, Sleepy Floyd, Gary Payton, Nate McMillan, Sam Perkins, Detlef Schrempf, Anthony Mason, Ray Allen, Michael Redd, Tim Thomas, Carmelo Anthony, Nene, Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith, Reggie Evans, Aaron Afflalo, Ty Lawson, Chris Andersen, Timofey Mozgov, Kenneth Faried, Kosta Koufos, Dino Galinari, Wilson Chandler… Shall I continue? Do front offices know something the public doesn’t?

Karl practically invented the stretch big, trapping in the corners, and attacking in transition.  He does everything the Cavs claim they want a coach to do, except have a personal relationship with LeBron James. (He doesn’t, right?) And maybe that’s Karl’s tragic flaw.  He’s not David Fizdale, Mike Krzyzewski, or John Calipari. George Karl is not the magical LeBron Genie.

The fact that the greatest NBA coach yet to win a championship can’t get an interview points to the problem with a lot of NBA owners right now: unrealistic expectations. Robert Pera, James Dolan, Jim Buss, Dan Gilbert… They all seem to think you can just conjure a contender through the power of wanting it really really badly and having lots of money. But the thing is, there’s only so many great players to go around. And there’s only three ways to get them: draft them, trade for them, or sign them in free agency. The first requires patience, intelligence and luck (see: Thunder, Oklahoma City; Spurs, San Antonio). The second requires a collection of “assets,” impeccable timing, and a GM with connections (see: Rockets, Houston; Celtics, Boston). The third requires money, the good graces of the agent mafia, a market befitting a “superstar,” cap management, and the requisite amount of player collusion (see cHeat, Miami).  (OK, your team has to successfully to recruit the free agent, so I guess free will might play a factor). Thing is, there’s only 3-6 teams in the league every year that can assemble enough of these great players to even compete for a championship, let alone win one. And these petulant owners think there are short cuts to success.

Maybe there are, but the NBA is zero sum gain enterprise. Every team in the league can’t be successful. The Cavs can’t improve unless some other teams regress. In the NBA, not every billionaire can be successful at the same time, which leads to some of them making really bad impetuous decisions: like hiring Mike Brown and then firing him a year later, giving Kobe Bryant $48 million, or drafting Anthony Bennett. And this Cavs’ off-season is so hard to read. #SeasonOfHuh? indeed. One minute they’re interviewing a coach who got a tech for putting six players on the court, and the next minute they’re shooting for the moon with “the Vacator.” Does it seem like the Cleveland Cavaliers don’t have a plan at all?

If by “plan,” you mean some pie-in-the-sky machinations to trade for Kevin Love, lure LeBron James, bring John Wooden out of retirement to teach Kyrie how to play defense, and still somehow draft the next Hakeem Olajuwan, well, then maybe the Cavs do have a plan. But the Rube Goldberg method of team building doesn’t seem very realistic. What is realistic? Hire a coach who can develop players. Draft the best players you can. Trade for and hire high character free agents that can help instill a tough, professional attitude in the teams young players. Use your analytics department to find players who other teams aren’t valuing, who will help you win. (The Matthew Dellavedovas of the world). Work every day to get better: as players, as coaches, and as an organization. That’s how average becomes good, good becomes great, and great becomes the best. To go careening from wild scheme to wild scheme trying to pry good players from other teams seems like a bad way to run an organization — not conducive to winning or being the kind of organization the Cavs claim they want to be.

With Mark Price interviewing Tuesday, maybe the Cavs are back on the right track. Arguably the greatest Cavalier in history has a chance to return to the team, and I’m not talking about #6. I hope the return of Price is the catalyst for developing a stable, rational team-building process. Just the thought of it has me as giddy as Kyrie Irving sorting through a binder full of commercial scripts.