"He desperately wants it," a front office official told Popper. "He won’t say it out loud. The NBA is the only place he’s ever failed and it drives him nuts. He’s not the same guy he was then. He came to the NBA and he wasn’t ready. He’s ready now."
Over the last decade, Calipari has become a superstar coach in college basketball, dominating the recruiting scene with Kentucky en route to building a national juggernaut. Other than a disappointing three-year stint with the New Jersey Nets before the turn of the century, his career has been defined by quickly build great teams full of one-and-done players at the college level.
Now that Calipari is nearly done with his magnus opus -- the first possible 40-0 season in NCAA history -- it's possible he's considering his next move. There are "ties already in place" between the coach and the Brooklyn Nets, per Popper, and it's likely they're the front-runner if the coach is really itching for a new challenge. Could this be his final season in Lexington?
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Why it makes sense
Calipari hasn't just been successful at Kentucky, he's redefined what success in college can be. A masterful recruiter who manages to rebuild his team every year with a new set of one-and-done stars, he's taken that formula and perfected it this season.
The Wildcats' prosperity under Calipari cannot be understated. He's won 84 percent of his games while reaching four Elite Eights, three Final Fours and two NCAA title games, winning it all once. He should add to those numbers this season, where he's already led the Wildcats to a 36-0 record and Sweet 16 appearance. Kentucky is the heavy favorite to win their second title in the Calipari era next month.
There's nothing left for Calipari to accomplish at the college level, unless he wants to set the college win record and the kind of special relationship that Mike Krzyzewski has with Duke. He could certainly prefer that kind of comfort, settling in for another couple decades of dominating the SEC, but it's obvious the next challenge would be the NBA.
If Calipari feels like he's reached his ceiling at Kentucky or simply wants something new, he's going to the pros. The Nets appear to be frontrunners given his past ties to the team, and it's possible his recruiting ability makes for a perfect fit. Calipari has strong relationships with a ton of stars, and he could help lure big names to Brooklyn in free agency when the Nets have cap room in 2016. For a team lacking draft picks, having a leader who's close with various stars is very important.
As Popper notes, Calipari likely requires complete control of basketball operations. That's something Brooklyn denied Jason Kidd last year, but Calipari may be too perfect a fit to turn down. If the Nets will hand him the reins to do whatever he wants, that may trump his cozy spot in Kentucky.
Why it doesn't make sense
Not every big-time college basketball coach wants to make the NBA leap and the track record isn't great for those who have. Brad Stevens may be making it work, but he's the exception to the rule.
Some of college basketball's biggest names, such as Coach K and Tom Izzo, have turned down NBA opportunities. Others who accepted those chances, like Rick Pitino and Tim Floyd, couldn't translate their NCAA success to the professional game.
Maybe Calipari prefers to stick in Lexington, where he signed a seven-year, $52.5 million contract last year. Maybe he's waiting for the right opportunity, one that offers more than Brooklyn could this summer. It's hard to know exactly what Calipari wants out of the next few years of his career, but the benefits and job security afforded by his deal with Kentucky are reasons for him to stick around.
Calipari has no reason to hurry out of his current gig. Even if he's considering leaving, it won't necessarily happen this year (or at all).
Likelihood it will happen: 3/10
Calipari is still in the middle of an NCAA Tournament run with the Wildcats and he made a commitment to the school when he signed that contract last year. The coach might be interested in making the NBA leap, but it would take a serious desire to walk away from all that money to risk falling short again in the pros.
Even if becoming successful in the NBA is worth that to Calipari, it's hard to speculate that far in advance while he's still on Kentucky's sideline.
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