One by one, in something approximating inverse order of desirability, the names of NBA free agents have come off the proverbial big board. What began with the likes of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Pau Gasol has dwindled now to fellows such as Andray Blatche, Dante Cunningham and Ekpe Udoh.
This game of offseason musical chairs is played for even more blood among coaches. There are fewer jobs to be had in the first place (five or six per team vs. 15 player positions), and it’s not nearly the meritocracy that it is for players. Abilities, work ethic and results matter less than connections or change for its own sake.
There are a lot of coaching free agents still on the board, both former head coaches and notable assistants. Among the former, we have George Karl, Jeff Van Gundy, Scott Skiles, Mike Woodson, Doug Collins, Vinny Del Negro, Mike Brown, Mike D’Antoni, Keith Smart, Avery Johnson, P.J. Carlesimo, Lawrence Frank and Maurice Cheeks.
The latter group, even bigger, includes Jack Sikma, Mario Elie, Terry Porter, T.R. Dunn, Igor Kokoskov, Scott Williams, Bill Peterson, Bernie Bickerstaff, Brian Hill, Bob Ociepka and, hey, Rasheed Wallace. Actually, you could go dozens deep with solid coaching pros who once were in but now are out, the one place few of them want to be.
“There’s an old expression in the NBA, ‘Never get off the bus. Stay on the bus!’ ” said Jim Boylan, an NBA assistant for most of his 22 years in the league who survived a coaching change in Cleveland this offseason. “We all realize it too — it’s a privilege for us to be involved in the NBA and to coach athletes at this level.”
But it’s fleeting. Coaches face more scrutiny and grab more headlines when they’re fired, but their landings are often cushioned by seven-figure paychecks. Assistant coaches get flushed, and that six-figure salary — while comfy by most folks’ standards — doesn’t go quite so far when you account for the costs of multiple residences or constant moves.
Ociepka, who entered the league in the 1980s as a part-time volunteer scout after a storied career as a high school coach in the Chicago area, scrambled through five NBA teams in five years in the ’90s. Boylan and his wife, Jane, counted recently and realized they have owned or lived in 25 homes during his basketball career.
“It’s not a surprise when you’re an assistant coach in the NBA,” Sikma, the former Seattle and Milwaukee center, said recently. “You look at the number of staffs that have turned over in the last few years — it’s more of a constant than not. You know you’re probably going to have to bounce around a little bit.”
There are a multitude of factors for the turnover, most obvious the turnover at the top. When a coach gets fired, some or all of his staff typically gets shown the door with him. And there has been a LOT of turnover lately — nine new NBA coaches this summer, 13 such changes a year ago. Going back just five years, to the start of the 2009-10 season, only San Antonio (Gregg Popovich), Miami (Erik Spoelstra) and Dallas (Rick Carlisle) now have the same coaches. And both the Spurs’ and Mavericks’ staffs have changed considerably.
“Most people who are making the decisions probably have a narrow list going on, from relationships or what they’re looking for,” Sikma said. “It’s a transient line of work for sure. So you have to be quick on your feet.”
Here are glimpses of three assistant coaches whose dance cards are filled to varying degrees. Sikma would like very much to get back in after spending the past seven seasons working with now-retired Rick Adelman. Boylan beat the odds by surviving a coaching change in Cleveland, then beat them again when LeBron James’ yearning for home rocked the Cavaliers’ landscape. And Ociepka is at the point, after so many hirings and firings, where he might prefer more stable options.
Sikma: Lots to offer
Sikma was a seven-time NBA All-Star who scored 17,287 points and grabbed 10,816 rebounds in a 14-year career, helping Seattle reach The Finals in his first two seasons and win the championship in 1979. He was effective on the block, yet pioneered a reverse-pivot move that confounded his big-man opponents. He raised a family in Seattle, coached with the Sonics from 2003-07, then spent seven years on Adelman’s staffs in Houston and Minnesota.
It was Adelman’s decision to retire that put Sikma and Timberwolves assistants Porter and Dunn in the job hopper. It was nice for Sikma to tag along when Adelman moved north in 2011. But this is the flip side, so to speak, with Sikma out when Flip Saunders assembled his own staff this offseason.
Choosing to search without an agent, Sikma said he knocked on several doors this summer to no avail. He also has looked into broadcast jobs and might even do well if he hung out a shingle as a big-man consultant. But he hasn’t given up yet on finding something with a team for this season.
“I have a little time before the season starts to figure out what else I can do that keeps me close to the game,” Sikma said. “If you’re going to look at places where I can be unique working with bigs — especially with my experience playing, where I started inside in the post and finished my career outside, and I had three or four assists a game when we played through me — I had to adapt a few times in my career.
“One of the things I feel I can really do is seeing what’s going on and having something I can give them that can impact that game. Make adjustments, whether it’s in the post or in space. Coverages on pick-and-rolls. Reading cuts, making passes, footwork, that type of stuff. Once a game’s over, they can watch film and they can learn from it, but that’s an opportunity lost.”
Boylan: Changes everywhere
It isn’t just the faces on NBA benches that are changing. Boylan sees the turnover among general managers, other front-office people and even owners as the league re-invents, and re-re-invents, itself.
“To me … it’s been up and down over the last four or five years on the owner, coach, general manager and front office side, too,” he said. “There’s been a huge influx of new people. The league is going through a transformation.
“For a long time, it was the longtime, old-time owners who bought way back in the ’80s, and that’s all changing now. It’s great. It’s what the league needs to continue to prosper. You can’t stay the same, you’ve got to keep moving. But as coaches, you get caught in that, too.”
Boylan, who played and coached overseas after starting at point guard on Marquette’s 1977 NCAA championship team, worked at Michigan State and New Hampshire before reaching the NBA as a video coordinator and scout with Cleveland. Everywhere he has worked, he has forged relationships that led to subsequent opportunities. And he stacked up some impressive connections: Lenny Wilkens, Mike Fratello, Hill, Hollins and Skiles.
Boylan was out for one season (with pay) after Skiles got fired in Phoenix, but Terry Stotts — a teammate on a European touring team — brought him to Atlanta. Skiles hired him again in Chicago and Milwaukee, the assistant serving as interim coach at both stops after Skiles exited.
Boylan’s return to Cleveland last year was due less to his network and more to how relatively small the NBA circle is. “I knew Mike Brown but only as someone friendly on the NBA circuit,” he said. “But he respected the job I’d done and when we met, it was pretty quick. He told me, ‘I want to hire you and hopefully you want to come.’ ”
A great thing happened in July. Not only did Boylan survive when the Cavs hired David Blatt as coach, they all celebrated Christmas in Las Vegas when James decided to return to Cleveland. The team was at shootaround before its first Summer League game when the news broke. “You want to talk about having trouble concentrating,” Boylan said. “It was hard to go through baseline-inbound drills with guys after hearing that.”
Blatt’s staff is a mix of old and new, with Tyronn Lue as associate head coach and Bret Brielmaier, Larry Drew, James Posey and Phil Handy joining Boylan as assistants. They’re all psyched about the season, but Boylan is grateful for the stability, too. As good and as satisfying as his jobs have been, he and his family have paid a price. Neither of his daughters, Jessica and Shaina, made it through high school without moving. Don’t forget those 25 different homes.
“If I had to do it over again, the only regret that I had, I would have liked to stay in one place,” Boylan said. “That was really hard on them, not so hard on me. If you’re coaching, your office is that court, you’re just with a different team. That’s way easier than what they have to go through.”
Ociepka: Time to settle down?
When he worked in Orlando for Chuck Daly, Ociepka got some friendly advice from the Hall of Fame coach. “He told me, ‘This profession is all about personal contact. Forget resumes. Forget that type of thing. If you don’t have a contact with somebody or somebody who knows somebody, you’re probably not going to get in,’ ” the longtime assistant coach said.
“He said, ‘You have to know what you’re doing, you have to bring something to the table.’ And ‘Another big factor is trust — a head coach has to trust that you have his back.’ ”
Ociepka has been loyal to his coaches way more than their bosses have been loyal to them. In 25 years, he worked for 10 different teams, with two stints each with Detroit and the L.A. Clippers. He bristles still over the firings that plunged him and his head coaches back into the job market — Nate McMillan and Del Negro, in particular, struck him as deserving better fates. And he admits that the knockaround life probably cost him his first marriage.
“I don’t want to sing a sad tale here because things have worked out, and I’m not the only guy who’s bounced around from place to place,” Ociepka said. “But when you’re gone like we are throughout the year, it causes a lot of stress on your family and your relationship. It’s difficult to maintain. Somebody told me years ago about the [high] divorce rate in the NBA. The travel, the moving and everything, it puts a lot of strain on everyone.”
Now 65, despite much to offer, Ociepka didn’t tell his agent, Lonnie Cooper, to bang on doors. With the many changes throughout the league, he doesn’t feel as connected as he once did.
“Most of the jobs that I’ve gotten, people have contacted me,” he said. “Most of the time I needed the job, too. I needed to go. Now I’m in a position where I can afford to be a little choosy about what happens. And in all honesty, the phone’s not ringing.”
Ociepka last worked with Del Negro and the Clippers in 2012-13. He has spent his time in the suburbs of his beloved hometown of Chicago, in a home he purchased and kept during his two-season tenure with the Bulls from 2008 to 2010. It has been payback time for his second wife, Andrea, whom he married in 2009.
“Y’know, my wife has moved so many times,” he said. “That was tough on her. I had taken her away from her family, her mother, her grandchildren, that stuff. For a year, I kind of sat back and gave her a chance to get back to the roots here a little bit.”
Boylan, by the way, had a house that he vacated in the summer of 2008 that was a little closer to the Bulls’ practice facility. He tried to sell it to Ociepka. “The price was too high,” said Ociepka, laughing.
Now it’s Ociepka who is thinking about getting back to his roots. After his successful high school career at Gordon Tech and York in Chicagoland, he wonders if a small-college job might scratch the itches he has left.
“I don’t know if they would think I’m too old,” he said. “But I haven’t been a head coach since working in high school. I wouldn’t mind getting my own team again and seeing if all the stuff I’ve learned through the years could work at a different level.”
The NBA moves a little too fast and sporadically now for Ociepka, it sounds like.
“When we got fired with the Clippers, I was angry about the whole thing, and feeling more bad for Vinny because he’s a good coach and deserves better respect,” the veteran assistant coach said. “My thing now is, I would want to be in the right situation with the right people who I really get along with. If it doesn’t happen, I’ve had a good run and this is fine.
“I had a lot of great years in the league. I love to coach, I love to work with players and I had opportunities to do that all over the place. Finished up with a team that won its division and 56 games. And if that’s it, it’s a pretty good way to go out.”
That is, after all, the constant of the NBA coaching life. At some point, you will go out.