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Tom Thibodeau To Go?

Tom Thibodeau Coaches (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)

The NBA coaching carousel never stops spinning and the current darling of the circuit is Boston Celtics assistant coach and defensive wunderkind Tom Thibodeau, who has drawn interest from the New Orleans Hornets, Chicago Bulls, and New Jersey Nets.

In light of the Celtics recent defensive lapses against the Orlando Magic, and with ESPN reporting that the New Orleans Hornets have already offered Thibodeau their head coaching position, the question arises:  has the Thibodeau – New Orleans courtship affected the Celtics?

Thibodeau is Doc Rivers’ defensive coordinator. He designed schemes that contained Kobe Bryant in the 2008 finals as well as LeBron James in the second round of the playoffs this year. The man knows how to prevent scoring. Theo Epstein would be so proud. But will he succeed as a head coach?

Should Danny Ainge have allowed a vital assistant coach to conduct a mating ritual with another team in the midst of a deep playoff run? Shouldn’t Thibodeau’s undivided attention be on the Celtics opponents and nothing else?

In Utopia, of course. In the real world, not so much.

But why the rush?

It never ceases to amaze me. NBA franchises, convinced that whomever they have targeted is the next great head coach and the man who holds the key to all that is good and holy, turn into anxious, breathless teenage girls at a Justin Bieber concert. They must have this coach now, for without him they will simply die.

And most of this is all for naught, as we all know NBA head coach is an inherently transient position. Coaches are hired to be fired, especially in a player’s league like the NBA, but should there be a protocol as far as courting coaches whose teams are still alive?

Tempted To Tamper

The most famous, or infamous depending on your perspective, in-season head coaching courtship occurred in a sleepy town 22 miles southwest of Boston in 1996.

The New England Patriots, under head coach Duane Charles Parcells, were in the second Super Bowl in franchise history. They had momentum. They had karma. Heck, they had Jambalaya (I still, to this day, have no idea what that watchword was supposed to connote).

They also had a grouchy head coach who, the previous offseason, stormed out of the draft “war room” after franchise owner Robert Kraft usurped his power and chose Terry Glenn.

Parcells, acting out like a petulant child whose mother wouldn’t by him a Happy Meal, then had the audacity to execute a mating dance with the New York Jets that culminated during the very same week his current team was preparing for Super Bowl XXXI.

I’m no big city lawyer, but that is a conflict of interest.

Obviously, Thibodeau is not the head coach here and the stakes are somewhat smaller but the concept is the same. Should not your undivided attention be on your current team?

Thibodeau is an associate head coach, with more responsibility and stature than your typical assistant. He designs and implements the defense. He has a voice in the huddle. He is just as important to the Celtics as Rivers is.

One would assume that Thibodeau got the Hornets job with a strong interview. He probably spent time analyzing the roster and watching film of the Hornets. He broke down their defense and their offense. All the things he would have been doing to prepare for a Celtic opponent.

I’m sure Rivers has allowed Thibodeau some time away from the team this postseason to meet with Hornets management as well.

Isn’t this, by definition, spreading oneself too thin?

The Hornets, of course, could care less about this. They want to get moving as fast as possible. An uncertain head coaching situation can lead to some chaos but it is not as if Thibodeau has to get out there on the recruiting trail. The New Orleans roster, save for a few moves, is set.

The Parcells situation was precedent setting, as then NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue ordered the Jets to compensate New England with a first round draft pick and it eventually led to the NFL adopting a rule that coaches cannot be contacted by other teams while their current season is still active.

(Digression:  Can we just take a quick moment to appreciate the ass backwards thinking that occurs in the minds of team owners and general managers? Romeo Crenell, New England’s defensive coordinator for their dynastic run in the early 2000s, was caught in this limbo yearly. He could never get a head coaching job because by the time his season was done it was early February and all vacancies had been filled.  Teams were so anxious to hire a head coach that they wouldn’t wait for a man who wasn’t available because his team kept making ridiculously deep playoff runs. That is all.)

These tampering rules exist and compensation demanded because the owners know it is hurtful to their franchises to have their coaches being pulled at by other teams during the season.

This is also happening with Phil Jackson, who has been rumored to be going back to Chicago, or to New Jersey. Of course, Jackson shot down these rumors with a witty remark and that sly grin of his.

Would it surprise anyone, though, if Jackson met with Bulls management? At least a dinner at Ditkas?

You know he wants to hang with Mikhail Prokhorov. The two have probably spelunked the Himalayas with Hansel and two midget sherpas while discussing the future of the New Jersey Nets.

The Celtics have a profoundly veteran team and players understand the “game,” but it has to affect them somewhat to read about their coaches and their dalliances.

With the hazy malaise that seemingly surrounds the Celtics play these last two games the last thing the team needs are coaches fostering a “jumping the ship” mentality.

Dropping a seven game series after being up three games to none isn’t such a big deal if you’re departing. With persistent rumors that Rivers will be leaving at the end of the season as well, the Hornets might turn out to be the Celtics toughest playoff opponent.

Second Time Is A Charm

Thibodeau deserves a chance to be a head coach. He has put in his time and shown an alarming acumen for defense.

He has experience and a championship ring. He coached Kevin Garnett to a Defensive Player of the Year award.

None of this matters, as Tom Thibodeau will fail as head coach of the New Orleans Hornets.

The NBA is a player’s league and it is no small coincidence that an overwhelming majority of successful coaches are former players. Today we have Rivers, Jackson, Jerry Sloan, Larry Brown. The great Celtics – Lakers rivalry of the 80s was coached by two former players:  Pat Riley and K.C. Jones.

On the flip side, Isaiah Thomas was also a former player and Gregg Poppovich was not, so there is no hard and fast rule that players will only listen to former players, but many do think that way. It’s the old “you never played the game” card.

Thibodeau, while not a former player, has earned the respect of the veteran Celtics and that should buy him some amount of goodwill right off the bat in New Orleans.

He has a clear team leader in Chris Paul and a reliable second scorer in David West. He’ll also have James Posey back under his wing, so at least he has one guy who will play defense.

The Hornets have nowhere but up to go defensively. Their defensive rating, which is points allowed per 100 possessions, was 110.1, good for 21st in the league.

But none of this is why this squirrely man will ultimately fail.

Look at the current Boston sports-scape. Other than being bathed in championships over the past decade, what do the Celtics, Patriots and Red Sox have in common?

Each one of them is helmed by a man who is not only on his second stint as top dog of a team but was ridden out of town on a hyperbolic rail in their previous jobs.

Bill Belichick was viewed as the devil in Cleveland. His smug demeanor, secretive ways and overall weirdness left some in Cleveland to blame him for the move to Baltimore.

Rivers, who actually picked up a coach of the year award in his rookie season with the Orlando Magic, was eventually fired in the midst of a 19-game losing streak at the start of the 2003 season and has the blood of the failed Grant Hill – Tracy MacGrady era on his hands.

Terry Francona, as a rookie skipper with the Philadelphia Phillies, was given no support by his GM. His teams never rose above a third place finish and his fate in Philadelphia was cemented when he wasn’t allowed to bench Bobby Abreu for chronic lateness.

See the theme here? All of these now sage and wise leaders of men crashed and burned in their first jobs. They took those experiences and created success for themselves in their second job.

I don’t know if or when Thibodeau will get a second job but as far as first jobs are concerned, I fear the fate of Messrs. Belichick, Rivers and Francona will be his as well.

In Boston, with the Big Three and Rajon Rondo, he had the NBA’s version of the Legion of Justice. He is used to dealing with a self-motivated, focused group of experienced players. In New Orleans he’ll be dealing with a group that has more of a Cosby Kids feel.

The best move for Thibodeau would be to wait and see if Rivers really does walk away from the Celtics. Ainge would be foolish not to seriously consider having Thibodeau slip into the daddy chair, as it would be a seamless transition.

NBA head coaching jobs are hard to come by. There are only 30 of them, so it is perfectly understandable that Thibodeau not pass up this opportunity.

Maybe he crashes and burns as Hornets coach and then has a successful rebirth with the Celtics, who would have by then fired the coach they hired to replace Rivers.

The carousel never stops.

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