Shoals Unlimited: The Firing of Eddie Jordan vs. P.J. Carlesimo, a Lesson in Contrast

Welcome to Shoals Unlimited, where Bethlehem will post a long-form piece on basketball once a week. ↵

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↵Eddie Jordan's gone. He follows P.J. Carlesimo, let go by the Thunder over the weekend. Both the Wizards and Thunder had one victory when their respective coach was fired. But that's where the similarities end. ↵
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↵About a week ago, a piece in Slate made the very Slate-like claim that, more or less, coaches rarely matter. They even brought in tons of Dave Berri, so you know it was for real: ↵

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↵⇥The job of an NBA coach, then, may be less about coaxing better performances out of athletes than about getting their skills and personalities to fit together. By the time a player has moved through the basketball machine to the NBA, he's a relatively finished product. Despite Mike D'Antoni's best efforts, the plodding center Eddy Curry is doomed to be himself. ↵
↵The Wizards are in the classic Eastern Conference rut: Just good enough for decent playoff seeding, but zero chance at getting past the East's elite, much less actually contending. The injury woes of Gilbert Arenas have certainly exacerbated the problem, but not in the way you think. The same thing happens with Gil, without him, or with a partial version. The core of Gil/Jamison/Butler is locked in -- three stars, but not the kind that takes on monster movie-esque Big Three status. And while JaVale McGee, Andray Blatche and Nick Young have at various times showed promise, none are going to put the team over the top. ↵
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↵Jordan was once a hotly recruited offensive genius, supposedly the architect of the Nets' high-scoring offense when they made the Finals. Those who have watched the Wiz closely over the years have learned to question this reputation, but the Gil-less proficiency had done much to remind us all that yes, this man can coach. However, this team is treading water, maybe through no fault of Jordan's. I hate to say it, but this Wizards team is fatally flawed with or without Eddie to kick around. ↵
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↵The East has changed; it's no longer about beating the Baby Bulls. For the Wizards to make a leap, they'd need all the youngsters to suddenly pan out, and Arenas to return at full strength, but wiser. That would've put Jordan in a position to do some real coaching, the kind of thing we've seen him do (to varying degrees) in the past, and maybe have a shot at the moon. But that's not happening. Last year's controversial Arenas-less run was Jordan's swan song. It was also proof that it's this roster as currently constructed, not the man's intellect, that's the final culprit here. ↵
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↵In Oklahoma, though, you've got nothing but rank incompetence that's just been waiting to fall 'neath the blade. The job of the Thunder coach was, supposedly, to both instill a Spur-like culture in young players and bring along these inchoate studs like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Jeff Green. Anyone who has watched this team over the last two seasons can tell you that P.J. couldn't tell you the first thing about helping young players thrive. That's not what they do in the marines if you're especially good with a rifle, so why here? ↵
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↵Over the weekend, Tom Ziller wondered if P.J. had gotten a fair shake, while presuming that this marked the end of dude's ride on the coaching carousel -- a ride he'd been off of for too long after the Latrell Sprewell incident. There's no doubt he meant well, but unlike Jordan, who made the most he could of his situation, Carlesimo just felt like an inadequate, mismatched placeholder. ↵
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↵Jordan tried to win with Jamison, Butler (who came into his own under Eddie), DeShawn Stevenson (same), with very little flexibility cap-wise. He weathered Arenas' antics and uncertain basketball situation. In short, while this especially putrid start is as good a reason as any to make a change in D.C., you can't say he didn't do his job, try to solve problems, or work with what he had. He was not, in Henry Abbott's formulation, a "deck chair." Jordan tried, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing, and did so for a team that was far from perfect, nor faced an easy path to greatness. In short, you've got to figure he emerges from all this with a decent amount of respect, and the reputation of a relatively creative basketball mind. He's not a D'Antoni-esque visionary, but nor is he a passive, interchangeable bum. ↵
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↵Actually, he might be a great coach for the Thunder. P.J. was the absolute worst choice. No one had less business coaching a mediocre, ineffectual, .500 team in varying states of stagnation than Carlesimo, whose stock in trade was yelling, benching, and ignoring such trivialities as on-court chemistry and the ability to shape young players -- because sorry, Dave Berri, Eddy Curry's demise happened slowly, over the years, and could've used a more nuanced intervention than, say, the tyrannical Scott Skiles. That's an unfair caricature of Skiles, maybe, but it's safe to say that, like P.J., paying attention to his players' needs -- especially those young, unproven chips -- has never been his forte. ↵
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↵The Thunder, as OKC is fast learning, will not win now, and do not have anything resembling a viable roster. What they do have, though, is three potentially great lottery picks who can grow together, adapt their games to each other, and work with knowledgeable vets and staff to be the best they can be. That kind of defeatism is anathema to someone like P.J. But really, you want Durant's long-term identity on offense to take a backseat to the Thunder getting one or two wins? Trial and error, experimentation, and firm-yet-patient mentorship is what that team needs. And above all, a coach interested in working with players, and a team, on that level of deferred gratification. ↵
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↵You could send P.J. to coach the Wizards; that team's a victim of itself, and some of Jordan might have been wasted on such a logjam of a situation. On the other hand, take Jordan -- still relatively young, open to a challenge, and known for innovation -- and install him in Oklahoma City, and you just might see that trio of young talent start to develop in less fitful ways. And Jordan reminds us why, unlike Carlesimo, he's likely to stay on the coaching radar for some time to come.↵

This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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