An NBA rookie coach being handed a team with expectations of going deep in the playoffs? It sounds like a difficult task.
Actually, it’s been easier than one might think.
Mike Dunleavy went to the NBA Finals in his first year with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1990-91. Indiana’s Larry Bird was Coach of the Year as a rookie on the bench in 1997-98 and took the Pacers to the Eastern Conference finals. Two years later, his Pacers reached the Finals. Avery Johnson went 16-2 when he took over Dallas as a rookie coach to finish 2005-06 and got to the NBA Finals in his first full season while winning Coach of the Year.
Then there’s the ultimate story of what can happen after a rookie coach takes over. Phil Jackson joined the Chicago Bulls in 1989-90 and went to the Eastern finals. He then won six titles over the next eight years with Chicago and wound up claiming five more with the Lakers.
Of course, the common thread is none of the above coaches won a championship in their rookie year. And don’t expect Jason Kidd to do that with the Brooklyn Nets, although it’s hardly unreasonable to think he will have a strong campaign.
The Nets suddenly have become contenders after a deal was agreed to Thursday in which Boston stars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce will go to Brooklyn in a salary dump that will bring the Celtics three first-round draft choices.
Only two rookie coaches in the past half century have won NBA titles. But both Paul Westhead, who won with the Lakers in 1979-80 after Jack McKinney had a serious bike accident, and Pat Riley, who did it with the Lakers in 1981-82 after replacing a fired Westhead, were midseason replacements. So they took over with different expectations.
“Larry Bird was unproven, and he surrounded himself with strong assistants with Dick Harter and Rick Carlisle, one in charge of the defense and one in charge of the offense, and look what (the Pacers) did. So it can be done,’’ TNT analyst and former NBA coach Mike Fratello said about Kidd, 40, having initial success after retiring as a player and going straight to the bench.
“And it’s not like Jason is short on experience. He’s going to have Lawrence Frank on the bench, and he (Frank) was with Garnett and Pierce in Boston (as an assistant in 2010-11 between stints as a head coach), so he has a relationship with them.’’
Fratello calls the Nets title contenders. But don’t get the idea he thinks the Miami Heat, fresh off their second straight title, are shaking in their high tops.
“Obviously, they’ve made a tremendous commitment to winning in bringing two future Hall of Famers to Brooklyn to give them a championship mentality,’’ Fratello said. “They have the right mindset. They have good players. … But the Heat are the champions until somebody beats them. I don’t think they’re saying, ‘Oh, my goodness, look what Brooklyn did.’ ’’
Heat stars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade haven’t been available for comment since the Nets and Celtics agreed to the move, which won’t become official until July 10, and neither has tweeted about it. But it’s doubtful they or any others on the Heat are too worried.
There was plenty of talk last year about the Lakers putting together a superteam to rival Miami. Those on the Heat pretty much yawned when asked about it.
Scout and former Miami star player Tim Hardaway apparently is the only member of the Heat organization who has spoken about the impending trade. At least he has given Brooklyn some props, saying it will help Kidd that Garnett and Pierce are practically coaches themselves.
“Now, (Kidd) doesn’t really have to coach,’’ Hardaway told reporters Friday in New York, where he saw his son, Tim Hardaway Jr., be introduced to the media after being drafted with the No. 24 pick Thursday by the Knicks. “He’s got guys out there that can coach themselves. Even with (point guard) Deron Williams, now you’ve got Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett that could police the team. They’re proven winners; they’re established winners.’’
The forwards were on Boston outfits that won the 2008 NBA title and made it to the Finals in 2010. The deal also will give the Nets guard Jason Terry, who won an NBA crown with Dallas in 2011 and made it to the Finals with Johnson’s Mavericks in 2006.
For those three Boston players, the Nets will give up first-round picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018, in addition to Kris Humphries, Gerald Wallace, Kris Joseph, MarShon Brooks and Keith Bogans. Most of the players being sent to the Celtics are for salaries to balance out and make the deal work.
When the dust settles, the Nets will have five likely starters who have combined to be selected to 35 All-Star Games (Garnett 15, Pierce 10, guard Joe Johnson six, Williams, three and center Brook Lopez one). That’s nearly as many combined All-Star selections as Miami’s 38, with Ray Allen (10) James (nine), Wade (nine), Chris Bosh (eight) and deep reserve Rashard Lewis (two).
But one big difference on the Nets, of course, is age. Yes, Johnson is 32, Williams 29 and Lopez 25. But Garnett is 37, and Pierce and Terry will be 36 when next season starts.
“What jumps out at you is they maybe don’t have a lot of quickness and athleticism,” Fratello said. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t compete. … San Antonio didn’t have the most athletic guys and nearly beat the Heat for the championship.’’
True, but the Spurs, who fell to Miami last week in Game 7 of the Finals, at least have Gregg Popovich, the league’s top coach. It will be interesting to see how Kidd meshes as a rookie boss with some players who had been his NBA contemporaries.
But Kidd has a championship pedigree, having won a title as Dallas’ point guard in 2011 and helping the Nets to the Finals in 2002 and 2003. And Fratello agrees with Hardaway that Garnett and Pierce will be invaluable in policing themselves and others on the revamped Nets.
“Those two guys are going be vocal in the locker room,’’ Fratello said. “They will clean up the locker room, and they might take care of some things that Jason might not be thinking about doing until the next day. And Jason will be able to go to them on some things and say, ‘What do you think?’ ’’
Kidd will have a lot of help. But saying he can win a championship in his first year on the bench, that’s a stretch.
Even Jackson wasn’t fitted for his first ring until after his second season.