For the past year, Lionel Hollins lived in that coaching purgatory, still smarting over his firing by the Memphis Grizzlies, waiting for the right opportunity and fully realizing it may require more patience.
Suddenly, Jason Kidd asked the Brooklyn Nets for more power and was flatly denied. The Milwaukee Bucks pursued Kidd and the Nets were determined to find a new coach. This all occurred in a matter of days earlier this month.
Hollins was monitoring every NBA coaching job, having talked with the Cavaliers and Lakers about their openings. But the Brooklyn job was a better fit. He’s a veteran coach who has reached the Western Conference finals with the Grizzlies and is experienced enough to inherit a group of veterans determined to win immediately.
Finding Hollins to replace Kidd in such a short period compensated for an embarrassing episode for the Nets. They felt betrayed by Kidd, who accepted the Nets job shortly after retiring, and maintained their confidence in his coaching abilities despite a series of missteps during the first season. Hollins doesn’t require tutoring. He is a confident coach who built the Grizzlies into a consistent winner. Yet it will be a challenge to win in Brooklyn.
“Yeah, it was sudden,” Hollins said of the call from Nets general manager Billy King. “Saturday I was sitting at home with no job and Sunday night I’m flying to New York, Monday I’m having dinner with Billy and his staff, Tuesday I’m interviewing, Tuesday night I’m on my way home, and when I get home contract negotiations had already started, and Wednesday it was a done deal.”
Hollins, 60, coached in Memphis for five seasons before clashing in philosophy with the analytics-based management team and being fired by new owner Robert Pera. It was a controversial move since the Grizzlies reached the conference finals with an improving roster.
The Nets are considerably different. They carried championship aspirations last season with a roster built to win immediately with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, and Brook Lopez. They struggled from the start, Lopez broke his foot in December, and Kidd’s job appeared in jeopardy until a midseason resurgence.
Losing to Miami in the conference semifinals was a disappointing ending to the season, and the Nets have lost Pierce to Washington in free agency, while an aging Garnett has indicated he will return for a 20th season. The Nets will hardly be a favorite in the Eastern Conference, but Hollins appears ready for the challenge.
“Can’t tell you [the difference between the Grizzlies and Nets], I don’t really know,” he said. “Memphis teams [I coached] went from 24 wins to 56 in four years. So obviously the talent grew. It’s not so much that we had so much talent. They grew and meshed together as a team. They bought into a system that worked very well for them. They became very defensive-oriented and pounded the ball in the paint and controlled the paint basically, led the league a couple of times in points off turnovers and points in the paint and second-chance points. That was their strength.
“I see this group maybe being a little more versatile with more outside shooting, more ability to attack the paint with multiple ballhandlers.”
The Nets still have talent but there are questions. Lopez is coming off yet another foot injury. Williams underwent ankle surgery during the offseason and there are murmurs that he is in decline. Johnson will be 33 when the season begins and the salary cap-strapped club has made no major offseason acquisitions.
“I think that [Lopez], Joe, and Deron are the three big names in the nucleus, and KG if he decides to come back and play will certainly be in that mix, and I look for him to start and play,” Hollins said.
Hollins has spent the past few weeks trying to find housing in Brooklyn, reaching out to players on the roster, and assembling a staff.
“Yes, I was surprised by the fact that it did open,” he said of the Nets job. “It’s not something that you think. But I always say that every year you go through and all the job opportunities fade away and then something happens where somebody decides to resign, or somebody does what happened in the Brooklyn case. It’s not like I was dead to coaching — I’m watching TV, I worked for NBA TV, I worked for NBA Radio, and so I never shut down from looking and thinking about the game and what I would do in certain situations. It just flows. It’s what I do. I just took a break and got some physical and mental rest, but now it’s back into the pressure cooker.”
GIVING IT ANOTHER GO
Greene’s comeback long and winding road
When you’re 26 in corporate America, you’re essentially just beginning your career. When you’re 26 in the NBA summer leagues, you’re essentially an old man, seven years older than some of your teammates.
Donte Greene was a one-and-done draft entry six years ago, a 6-foot-11-inch perimeter-shooting power forward brimming with potential. Now, after major ankle surgery, four uneven seasons with the Sacramento Kings, and a stint in China, he is trying to return to the NBA at age 26. The former Syracuse standout is no longer a prized commodity for NBA teams, but rather an afterthought trying to make a favorable impression with the Nets’ summer league team.
“You just come in and use the years to your advantage,” Greene said. “Try to be a leader on the floor, be active, always be in the right spots. Play smart. Play hard. Trying to do the little things. Me being older now, it’s not so much coming out and having 30, 40 points as it was when I was younger. Now it’s about coming out and show teams I know how to play the game.”
Greene was the 28th overall pick by Memphis in 2008 after a solid freshman year at Syracuse and then traded to the Kings, expected to emerge as one of the team’s cornerstones. But Greene was wildly inconsistent and the Kings continued to draft forwards such as Jason Thompson and DeMarcus Cousins, leaving Greene with a diminishing role.
The Kings did not pick up the option on his fifth year, and Greene headed to the NBADL, a stint with the Grizzlies, some time in Puerto Rico, and a deal with the Nets before a serious ankle injury ruined his shot to go to training camp two years ago. Greene went to China to revive his career, averaging 19.6 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks for the Dongguan Leopards.
“Sometimes you can get caught up in the politics of the NBA and not really have the love for the game that you should,” he said. “Going to China helped me get my passion back. It’s where it should be. I’m just trying to come back and be a pro. I’m older now, more mature, and I’ve got a big family to take care of.”
Greene always has been polished and affable and does not display any bitterness about his disappointing NBA experience. There are many former first-rounders and onetime potential cornerstones floating around summer leagues looking for training camp invitations or perhaps lucrative contracts overseas. The rosters are filled with “what happened to that guy?” players, and Greene is on that list. Having lost some of his athleticism since the ankle injury, he is just trying to show scouts he can serve as a veteran presence.
“I didn’t get completely healed until the middle of the season in China,” he said. “I just snapped it working out [in the summer of 2012]. It was a freak accident. But I’m completely healed. I’ve still got the six screws in place.”
Greene averaged 9.4 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 2.8 assists in five summer games with the Nets, hoping for an invitation to camp. He remains upbeat, unwilling to relent to the perception that his best days are done.
“My family really, really was there for me,” he said of the difficult times. “From my wife to my kids, everybody was really there for me. God blessed me with the ability to make it back strong. I’m just glad to be back, really.”
NEW COMMISSIONER, NEW IDEAS
A midseason tourney may create excitement
Adam Silver promised when he took over as commissioner for David Stern in February that he would assess the entire league and form new ideas to improve an already flourishing product.
One of those ideas he presented during a news conference last week, and it caused quite a social media stir. While he touched mostly on the state of the Donald Sterling/Los Angeles Clippers ownership issue and summer league play, Silver also brought up a fresh idea.
“One of the things that I didn’t mention before that the competition committee talked about and seemed excited about is potentially some sort of midseason tournament,” he said. “Very early days in the discussion of that, but we’re looking at other opportunities in the league to create excitement.
“As one of our general managers said at the meeting, there’s very few things that you can win in the NBA. I mean, when you think about European soccer, for example, they have the FA Cup and they have other tournaments throughout the season, so I could imagine if we were to look at some sort of midseason tournament I would imagine doing something in Vegas. This would be a terrific neutral-site location.”
It is an intriguing concept, a mideason tournament of perhaps the best teams of the NBA’s first half that would play a single-elimination tournament. Of course, there is very little chance for all 30 teams to participate, so let’s say a tournament consisting of the 16 teams that would qualify for the playoffs by Feb. 1.
A four-round tournament that would begin Monday and conclude with the final on Sunday in prime time would be fascinating, and the value of the championship would grow exponentially once the tournament gained popularity. While it’s an unusual idea that would need approval of the NBA Players Association and would be heavily criticized by certain coaches, including perhaps the one in San Antonio, it should not to be dismissed because of its unprecedented nature.
If organized properly, a midseason tournament would only enhance the season. The NBA doesn’t need desperate grabs at headlines to foster growth, but this is a good idea if it doesn’t involve too many teams and too much time.
Short-term contracts equal long-term gain
Why are so many contracts during free agency — including that of LeBron James — for the short term? James signed a two-year deal with the Cavaliers intentionally, understanding the league’s television deal is up for negotiation in 2016 and Fox Sports will join the NBA broadcasting partners along with ESPN and TNT.
With perhaps a 100 percent increase in television revenue over the $930 million, eight-year deal signed in 2008, the salary cap could approach $90 million for the 2016-17 season, and the owners and players split the basketball-related revenue 50-50, according to the collective bargaining agreement.
“Well, I think it’s appropriate in that the players are our partners,” Silver said about players taking shorter teams to ensure themselves a raise with their next contracts. “We have a system in place in which the players receive roughly 50 percent of the revenue, and we’ve been very transparent with you, the media, obviously our owners know what’s going on, but we’ve also included the Players Association directly in updates on those discussions.”
It’s interesting that Silver would acknowledge the expected increase, an indication that the league is soaring in popularity. The desire of Fox Sports to pursue a Saturday national game of the week only confirms that. While there has been criticism of the Celtics signing Avery Bradley to a four-year, $32 million deal, it is expected to devalue and become more of a bargain for the team once the new television agreement is reached.
“The current deals expire in two years, so whether or not they were party to these discussions, the marketplace seems to be suggesting that we’re going to get a substantial increase in our next television deals, and of course the way the cap is set,” Silver said. “In essence it’s based off 30 teams — you take 50 percent of our total revenue and divide it by 30, and that’s roughly how our cap is completed. So the basic math is such that if we get a large increase in our television deals, the players are going to get half and the cap will go up.”
While James, barring injury, will again be the most sought-after free agent on the market in two years, others signing these two-year deals could be taking a chance if they fail to fulfill expectations during that period and then attempt to cash in on a substantially raised cap in 2016.
“I think it’s sensible, but if I were representing a player, there’s also risk. There’s a reason that players want to do longer contracts,” Silver said. “The money for the most part is almost all guaranteed in the NBA, so to the extent a player goes shorter, I assume they can buy insurance and they also have their endorsements and also other streams of income. But there’s some amount of risk in deciding to do short-term deals.”
It seems that with the signing of Chris Kaman and presence of Joel Freeland, the Trail Blazers have a glut of big men, meaning third-year center Meyers Leonard could be expendable. That would give teams a chance to acquire a physically impressive but unproven player. Leonard played in 69 games as a rookie but that dwindled to 40 with the presence of Robin Lopez. Portland also has Thomas Robinson who can play some center . . . One player who has made quite an impression at the Las Vegas summer league is Golden State guard Aaron Craft, who predictably is playing stellar defense and trying to make the adjustment to point guard. Craft scored just 8 total points for Philadelphia in the Orlando summer league but has played extensive minutes for the Warriors in Las Vegas, scoring 13 points in a loss to the Lakers . . . Before the Lakers decided to make an amnesty claim for Carlos Boozer, occupying more than $3.2 million on their salary cap to ensure more space next summer, NBA sources said they considered making a bid for Phoenix restricted free agent Eric Bledsoe. Although the Lakers already acquired former Harvard standout Jeremy Lin and his $14 million salary for this upcoming season, it was only to create more space next summer. Bledsoe could have been the team’s point guard of the future. Teams such as Houston and Milwaukee are considering bids for Bledsoe, who remains the biggest free agent on the market . . . Jerryd Bayless signed a two-year deal with the Bucks with the full endorsement of the Celtics, who were impressed with his professionalism but already had a crowded backcourt. Bayless is expected to play both guard positions in Milwaukee.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.