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NBA PLAYOFFS | THE NBA

Trip Might Be Coach, but the Cost Is First Class

May 11, 1997|MARK HEISLER

Let's say you're paying Antoine Walker $2.5 million to run around like a puppy chasing its tail, what do you budget for the guy giving him orders?

Revolutionary thought!

How about getting a top coach, someone who has proved he makes a difference, even if he costs as much as Rarely-in-Service Pervis Ellison and Dino Radja put together?

This league is 50 years old, and owners are just starting to figure out the guy in the suit, jumping up and down on the sideline and drawing those funny X's and O's with the arrows and squiggly lines, is important.

With players arriving younger and more in need of guidance but less inclined to accept any, management must be unified, authoritative and decisive. Otherwise, you've got the Clippers.

The smart teams have already caught on. Before the '90s, there was no such thing as a $1-million coach. Chuck Daly won championships in Detroit in 1989 and 1990 but worked without a contract for months when management balked at paying him $650,000.

Now most coaches make $1 million, and the hot ones more. Next season's pecking order goes like this:

1. Rick Pitino, Boston Celtics, $7 million.

2. Larry Brown, Philadelphia 76ers, $5 million.

3. Larry Bird, Indiana Pacers, $4.5 million.

4. George Karl, Seattle SuperSonics, $3.5 million.

5. Pat Riley, Miami Heat, $3 million.*

6. John Calipari, New Jersey Nets, $3 million.

7. Phil Jackson, Chicago Bulls, $2.75 million.**

8. Doug Collins, Detroit Pistons, $1.5 million.

9. Lenny Wilkens, Atlanta Hawks, $1.4 million.

10. Rudy Tomjanovich, Houston Rockets, $1.4 million.

11. Mike Fratello, Cleveland Cavaliers, $1.3 million.

12. Danny Ainge, Phoenix Suns, $1.25 million.

13. Del Harris, Lakers, $1 million.

14. Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs, $1 million.

15. Jeff Van Gundy, New York Knicks, $1 million.

16. Jim Cleamons, Dallas Mavericks, $1 million.

* Gets 20% of franchise if he stays 10 years.

** Contract has expired. Now negotiating with other teams.

The Cleamons example, of course, suggests that paying your coach a lot doesn't make him special, which is why prices are going up on the aces.

Wilkens' agent, Lonnie Cooper, for example, just announced Lenny deserves more, noting his contract runs out next summer.

"How crazy is it?" asks Daly, considering getting back into the game himself.

"What owners are finding out is what a lot of us have known for a long time, that it [the coach] may be one of the hardest pieces of the puzzle to put into place. . . . This is a rare situation where you're supposed to be an authority figure, and the pay scale doesn't indicate that."

In the day of the monster rookie, who shows up with an agent, posse and shoe contract, teams need an effective counterweight. Hiring a schlep will cost you $500,000. Why not pay another $1 million-$2 million and get a coach who has shown he might be able to do the job?

Say you're the 76ers. . . .

Last season, you hired Johnny Davis, a nice guy who was an assistant in Atlanta. Since he had never run anything, you weren't sure what he was. It turned out there were things he couldn't do--like coach a lick of defense--so a team of bright prospects played like forlorn journeymen and lost 60 games.

Now you hire Brown for $5 million. It might not work long term, but Larry gives everybody a ride for his money.

Say you're the Celtics. . . .

You haven't had a clue in the '90s. You just spent three years staging a modern rendition of "The Emperor's New Clothes," taking M.L. Carr out of community relations, where he cut ribbons at dedications, and handing him the front office.

Then you let him coach. How about this for a surprise: He couldn't do that, either! You lost a franchise-record 67 games, which may land you Tim Duncan--and that might have been an accident, after injuries to Ellison and Radja.

Now you hire Pitino for $7 million. That's pricey, but he has done a wonderful job everywhere he has been. All he wants is the money and Red Auerbach's ceremonial title as team president. Red, you don't mind taking another title, do you? Thanks for the (puff, puff) memories.

Why the heck not? It was either that or keep Carr and disband the franchise.

Let's say you're the Heat. . . .

Your franchise won as many as 42 games--once--then dropped to 32. Your young prospects--Rony Seikaly, Steve Smith, Harold Miner, Sherman Douglas, Grant Long--were all gone.

You hired Riley. He acquired Alonzo Mourning by committing an unheard-of $15 million a year to him. Everybody said it was too much. Riley went 42-40 in his first season and signed more free agents over the summer.

The Heat just went 61-21. Mourning is 26. There's a new arena going up downtown. Your 80% is already worth more than your 100% was two years ago.

That's management. Everybody else will have to keep up or get out of the way.

IN BOSTON, AN ERA BUMBLES TO AN END

The amazing thing is not that the Celtics finally bagged their elephant, but that they almost blew this slam dunk and wound up with nothing--no Pitino, who had talked about coming for years, no Larry Bird, no nothing.

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