It was as if Byron Scott knew he would be heavily scrutinized when the season concluded. He used the pregame media session before his Cleveland Cavaliers faced the Celtics on April 5 essentially to lobby for his job, blaming injuries and lack of cohesion for the team’s disappointing season.
The Cavaliers weren’t expected to make the playoffs, but they were expected to take a significant step with one of the game’s emerging stars — Kyrie Irving — dazzling fans on a nightly basis.
Just hours after the Cavaliers dropped their sixth consecutive game to end the season (a listless effort at Charlotte), Scott was fired, beginning the spin of the coaching carousel as teams search for that perfect leader in a pool of unproven or retread candidates.
Brian Shaw, Stan Van Gundy, Jeff Van Gundy, Nate McMillan, Flip Saunders, David Fizdale. Those are the names being tossed around for job openings. The downtrodden Detroit Pistons followed their rivals from the Central Division and fired former Celtics assistant Lawrence Frank in a move that was not surprising.
In Cleveland and Detroit, growth was not only expected but demanded. Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert wants desperately to move forward from the LeBron James era, and consistent lottery appearances and the occasional Irving splash isn’t enough. In Detroit, new owner Tom Gores made the call to hire Frank and give him a second chance after being fired in New Jersey. That decision failed miserably.
With a poorly constructed roster of not-ready-for-prime-time youngsters and over-the-hill veterans just playing out the string and collecting a paycheck, the Pistons finished 29-53 after a 2-10 start. The Pistons finished nine games behind the eighth-seeded Milwaukee Bucks for the final playoff spot and dropped a handful of games with blown leads in the second half.
Gores is apparently giving team president Joe Dumars the ultimate decision on hiring the next coach, which could be one of the bigger decisions in team history.
The Cavaliers are flirting with bringing former coach Mike Brown back after they fired him in 2010 to appease James, and then he was fired again five games into his second season with the Los Angeles Lakers. General manager Chris Grant entrusted Scott with elevating the franchise after hitting a low point the season following James’s departure to Miami, but the Cavaliers are a franchise that is stuck. They are painfully young, lack quality veterans, and have to add a drawing card to attract major free agents.
“We were just not seeing enough progress on a day-to-day basis,’’ Grant said. “We need to be better. We’ll look for someone with proven success. We’ll look for somebody who’s strong defensively with a proven system. We’ll look for somebody that’s a teacher. We’ll look for somebody that’s a grinder and a worker.
“I don’t think Byron lost the team. I have an enormous amount of respect for Byron and I think the players do. There’s certainly challenges. All of us are accountable. We didn’t see the progress we needed to see.”
The Cavaliers were accused of not playing hard in stretches following the All-Star break, and Irving’s play declined after a series of nagging injuries. But Grant has to make an impact hire this time with no slam-dunk candidate that could sell Cleveland basketball.
The Pistons are in a similar position, as Dumars has gone through more coaches than George Steinbrenner with the Yankees in the 1970s. The pressure is on the former Pistons great to bring the organization back to respectability. They scored big in drafting center Andre Drummond to pair with power forward Greg Monroe, but the task of picking the right coach is more difficult with the lack of proven candidates. Frank had won in New Jersey and was considered one of the game’s bright minds, but that didn’t reflect in Detroit.
The Phoenix Suns have to make a decision on Lindsey Hunter, and unfortunately for the organization he didn’t make the expected impact. Struggling organizations struggle for a reason, and on many occasions it is because of poor management decisions, not necessarily coaching.
So, it will be fascinating in the coming weeks to see whether the Cavaliers call on Brown, the Pistons give Bill Laimbeer a shot, and whether Phoenix gives Hunter more than 41 games to make his mark. These decisions are difficult because the game’s top coaches are taken or retired. It will be up to general managers to take a chance on rising coaches such as Heat assistant Fizdale or Golden State’s Mike Malone.
Allen, Heatin driver’s seat
For the first time in five years, Ray Allen is a member of a No. 1 seed. His former team, the Celtics, always seemed to deal with drama as the postseason began; the injury to Kevin Garnett in 2009, a 27-27 finish in 2010, lack of depth in 2011, and finally lack of home-court advantage last season.
Allen’s top-seeded Miami Heat begin the postseason with no detectable issues. Coach Erik Spoelstra was able to give his veterans rest and the Heat are still gleaming with confidence after a 27-game winning streak. All of their offseason moves — signing Allen, Chris Andersen, and Rashard Lewis — have worked out. That trio has extensive playoff experience.
So, the Heat begin their title defense peaking and Allen is in the unusual position of being the big dog, as he was in 2008 when the Celtics survived a rugged seven-game series with the Atlanta Hawks and then won the title.
“I truly believe any time you’re at the top of the pack like that, it’s seems like it’s that much harder, you worry about so many little things,” Allen said. “So many things that can go wrong. People on the outside talk about matchups and we’re supposed to win this game and in my mind it seems so simple, but it’s so complicated. I tell [those people] there’s a lot of work that goes into this. I don’t think we ever worry about a seed as much as thinking about where and how we’ve got to get better because we don’t want to be that team that gets disappointed.”
The Heat changed their approach after last month’s loss to Chicago ended their winning streak. Dwyane Wade got considerable rest for his sore knees. LeBron James and Chris Bosh took a chunk of games off, but they were able to gather themselves and looked sharp in a 109-101 win over the Celtics on April 12.
“We had guys out over the last two weeks, just getting rhythm back, being in synch, developing a routine lineup,” Allen said of the Heat’s major concerns. “Rashard has been playing great for us the last two weeks. Mike [Miller] has been playing awesome, so just getting all our guys, our starters, back tuned up again, I think we’ve got to get our engine tuned up more.”
In his first season with the Heat, Allen has come off the bench exclusively for the first time in his career. He averaged 10.9 points and shot 41.9 percent from the 3-point line in 25.8 minutes per game. There was a question of whether Allen, a 10-time All-Star, would adjust to a reserve role. His presence carved into the minutes of Miller and fellow 3-point specialist James Jones, but the Heat were able to continue their harmony.
“We’ve got guys who can play on this bench,” said Allen. “You just sacrifice. You play when your number’s called. Guys have gotten in there and played well. Ball movement has been the strongest key, we make the easy and extra pass.”
In four games against the Celtics, Allen averaged 15.8 points — nearly 5 above his season average — and shot 52.8 percent from the field, as Miami won three. While emotions about Allen’s departure remain raw with the Celtics, the all-time leader in 3-pointers tried to downplay the rivalry after the fourth meeting.
What was noteworthy about the Heat’s 109-101 win over the Celtics was that James decided to wear green shoes and encouraged his teammates to do the same. Allen declined.
“You know how many pairs of green shoes I have?” Allen said, citing his five years with the Celtics. “I have a lot but they’re at home. LeBron asked me that and I didn’t have any.”
On several occasions against the Celtics, Allen posted up against Jason Terry and was able to score. The two have often been compared this season because the Celtics signed Terry to essentially replace Allen. Privately, Allen is pleased with the increased offensive freedom he’s received from Spoelstra, specifically posting up smaller players, which is something he said he wasn’t allowed to do in Doc Rivers’s offense.
Kings’ future up in the air
To no one’s surprise, the NBA had nothing to offer last week in terms of a decision on the fate of the Sacramento Kings. Ownership groups in Sacramento and Seattle have made comparable offers. The Seattle group, led by real estate mogul Chris Hansen, has the more advanced plan, and KeyArena, formerly the home of the Sonics, has been approved to host the club for two years until a new arena is constructed.
The Sacramento group also has an arena plan but it’s in the beginning stages, giving Seattle a slight edge. But commissioner David Stern is stressing the decision is in the lap of the Board of Governors, which includes Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca, and the Relocation Committee, headed by Thunder owner Clayton Bennett. Stern said Friday he has not encouraged the BOG to favor either side and it may take weeks before the Kings have a permanent home.
Either way, it serves as one of the more controversial topics in Stern’s tenure.
“I think it’s a huge decision for the league and it’s two fantastic cities and it’s a very difficult position that the owners find themselves in,” said league deputy commissioner Adam Silver, who will take over as commissioner in February 2014. “But I’ll only echo what David has said. There’s a procedure outlined step by step in the constitution, and the Maloofs [the current owners] fully understand. They’re part of a larger association. They’re one of 30 ownership groups.
“And so while we would have liked to have seen it move faster, we can’t short-cut this process that requires the committee to meet, the committee to consider various factors that are laid out in the constitution, the committee to then deliberate and make a recommendation, the report then to be issued. Seven business days then have to pass and then the NBA Board of Governors votes. So, there’s no short-cutting of that process.”
Silver reiterated that this decision has been agonizing because while the owners want Seattle back in the fraternity, especially with such an affluent ownership group that includes department store owner Pete Nordstrom and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, Sacramento has done everything asked to retain the team.
“I can’t remember anything in recent history where we’ve had so many lengthy meetings, so much deliberation,” Silver said. “There’s no lobbying or campaigning going on by the league office. We are presenting the facts in a most full way we can to the owners. They’ve asked other questions. They’ve sent us back to get additional information. We will be presenting that information to them over the next few days.”
Said Stern: “We have expended not only enormous man hours but enormous sums of money for outside consultants. This will be by far our most extensive review of anything like this in the league’s history.”
When asked how Seattle could ever trust the NBA again if the Kings remain in Sacramento, Stern said, “I don’t know. We can only do what we do and tell you transparently what we do. And I guess I would say that Seattle is a very strong market, and in fact has gotten stronger and more growth-oriented than when the NBA left. But there is another city involved. So, I think that the owners are probably individually wrestling with the degree to which the Sacramento incumbency deserves consideration as well.
“There is going to be a disappointed city one way or the other. And I don’t know how you figure in issues of trust or not to that.”
There was no truth to the rumors that the Celtics were negotiating with former All-Star Allen Iverson on a contract. Iverson has been looking to return to the league at age 37, but the Celtics were not interested in adding the guard this late in his career. There was a level of interest a few years ago. The Celtics would have had to waive a player to make room for Iverson, and while D.J. White is expendable, there was no chance he would be replaced by Iverson . . . After a season that began strong but ended with a whimper, O.J. Mayo said he will opt out of the final year of his contract and again become a free agent. The Celtics have long coveted Mayo, who has said before he does not want to play in Boston. Mayo averaged 17.9 points and shot 46.3 percent from the field and 41.3 percent from the 3-point line before the All-Star break. In Dallas’s final 30 games, those numbers dwindled to 10.9, 41.7, and 39.2. Teams will have to decide whether Mayo is really an All-Star-caliber player, or the wildly inconsistent player of the first five years of his career . . . The New Orleans Hornets no longer exist, as the organization sent out an e-mail the day after the regular season ended declaring themselves the Pelicans, the official state bird of Louisiana. With “Hornets” now available, the Charlotte Bobcats, formally the Hornets, may pursue the name. The Bobcats were named after inaugural owner Bob Johnson, who sold the team to a group headed by Michael Jordan. The Johnson ownership era is not viewed fondly in Charlotte . . . While UConn guard Shabazz Napier was considering leaving the Huskies for the NBA draft, the point guard is close to deciding to return to school for his senior season. Napier was likely a second-round pick or would have gone undrafted this year. A strong senior season could push Napier into the first round in June 2014 . . . An intriguing free agent this summer is center Nikola Pekovic, who had a splendid season with the Timberwolves and is a rugged, physical big man who could start for many clubs.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and teams sources was used in this report.