Calipari, CAA’s Connection to NBA Storyline to Watch

Posted by Chris Johnson on November 22nd, 2013

Most coaches never love their teams as much as you do. This is an important fact fans rarely consider when coaching changes occur. They condemn smart, aspirational, full-grown men for leaving to pursue a better opportunity. They yell and shake their fists and go on message boards and commiserate with each other about feeling “betrayed.” They try to rationalize the move by telling themselves their former coach will fail at his new job, or that his replacement will be just as good or better than the former coach ever was. Really, though, coaching changes are a lot less complicated than that. When coaches leave jobs of their own volition (but for a few exceptions), they are typically acting in their own best interests (financial and otherwise). Doing what’s best for their careers. Untying emotion from an important professional decision. Making a smart, rational choice. So when it seems like a coach would never, ever, leave his current job – that he’s such a good fit, no other job offer would ever tempt him – think again. Coaches, like most of the rest of us, have proven over time that they are always looking for the next best move.

John Calipari

Will John Calipari be on the move again? (Kentucky Athletics)

Which brings us to Kentucky coach John Calipari. Ken Berger of CBSSports.com wrote an interesting column yesterday suggesting Calipari is a logical candidate to become the next head coach of the New York Knicks. Before we get to Kentucky’s wildly popular coach, a few words the Knicks’ convoluted front office situation:

For those of you who don’t follow the NBA, know that the Knicks are more reliant on one player, Carmelo Anthony, than any other team in the league (you can make an argument for the Lakers and Kobe, or the Cavaliers and Kyrie Irving). Since trading for the former Syracuse star in February 2011, the Knicks have tried to improve their roster by adding players that best complement Anthony’s skills. He is the centerpiece, the superstar, the main attraction. Without him, the Knicks would be an afterthought in the Eastern Conference. The prospect of Anthony leaving the Knicks through free agency this summer, when he can opt out of his contract, makes Knicks fans shudder. It would also be a huge blow to the Knicks’ chances of competing for an NBA championship, the goal owner James Dolan had in mind when he allegedly strong-armed former GM Donnie Walsh into compromising the team’s future by trading multiple draft picks and young players for Anthony. So the Knicks are doing everything in their power to make sure Anthony is happy in New York – that he won’t consider opting out and joining a different team this summer, even if it means a clearer path to an NBA Championship.

Cash-strapped and lacking a first-round pick in 2014 (or the means to acquire players through a sign-and-trade), the Knicks can’t do much to improve their roster, which – if their 3-8 record wasn’t proof enough – is at best mediocre, at worst a lost cause. The state of the roster won’t keep Dolan from trying to convince Anthony to re-sign with the Knicks. The maligned owner is so bent on placating Anthony, he demoted the man, Glen Grunwald, who helped build the Knicks into a 54-win team that won its first playoff series in more than a decade by acquiring valuable low-cost players like Jeremy Lin, Steve Novak and Pablo Priogioni. Grunwald, relegated to an “advisor role” – one New York Daily News Knicks beat writer recently characterized as “hush money in Jim Dolan’s Garden” – was a smart, savvy basketball mind who managed to improve the Knicks’ roster with scant financial resources. Dolan decided to replace him with Sam Mills, a business man with, according to former New York Times Knicks beat writer and current Bleacher Report NBA writer Howard Beck, “no track record as a talent-evaluator, salary-cap specialist or analytics expert.”

What Mills, the former president of Madison Square Garden, does have is influence. Connections. Relationships. “He is close to players, agents, team executives and influencers across the league,” Beck writes of Mills, who was involved in many of the regrettable personnel moves Isiah Thomas made during his tenure as the Knicks’ president of basketball operations. In Dolan’s warped world, where keeping Anthony matters more than prudent salary-cap management and long-term planning, Mills is a better fit than Grunwald. Why? He has more clout with, as Beck writes, “agents, team executives and influencers,” which gives the Knicks a better chance of acquiring a second star player in 2015. That’s what Anthony wants, according to Beck. “Anthony is said to be agitating for change, for help on the court, for reassurance that the Knicks are capable of acquiring elite talent. If he elects to stay next summer [2014], it will have to be with the confidence that the Knicks can land another star in 2015, when they are expected to have millions in cap room.” A more specific reason the Knicks replaced Grunwald with Mills? His relationship to William “World Wide Wes” Wesley.

World Wide Wes

World Wide Wes is a Basketball Power Broker Par Excellence

You might know World Wide Wes. He is a well-connected agent. He’s also mysteriously ubiquitous, present at seemingly every significant basketball-related event over the past decade. Wes is a consultant for Creative Artists Agency, which represents Knicks coach Mike Woodson, director of player personnel Mark Warkentien, assistant general manager Allan Houston, and Knicks guard J.R. Smith. That list of clients is more than enough to prove that CAA is deeply involved with the Knicks’ inner-workings. The team even gave J.R.’s brother Chris, a D-league player SI.com’s Rob Mahoney characterized as “definitively the worst player in the league,” a guaranteed contract. “His invitation to Knicks training camp was not a move made with basketball in mind, and his inclusion on New York’s regular season roster stands as a blatant appeasement of Smith’s older — and far more talented — brother,” Mahoney writes. If the Knicks were willing to waste a roster spot on a useless player to sweeten up their offer for a just-OK one, the equivalent of an old-school package deal in college basketball recruiting, it’s not hard to reconcile the extreme measures the team has taken to make sure Anthony stays.

Or why their next move, according to rival executives who spoke to Berger, could involve Calipari. If the Knicks, now far removed from Eastern Conference Championship contention, make a coaching change, it would be no shock to see them make a run at the Kentucky coach, another CAA client. “That’s what Wes will be pushing,” a rival executive told Berger. “That’s what CAA will be pushing.”

Would leaving Kentucky for the Knicks be a good move for Calipari? One league executive who spoke to Berger speculated that Calipari might command a salary of at least $8 million per year. Calipari, because of his affiliation with CAA – which, if you can’t tell by now, influences basically everything the Knicks do – would likely have full personnel control. That sounds like a pretty good deal. Then again, Calipari would be leaving arguably the best job in college basketball. Few coaches in the sport seem better fits for their schools than Calipari. For one, he recruits the type of elite talent a powerhouse program like Kentucky needs to compete for national championships on an annual basis. He uses social media to frequently communicate with an obsessive fan base. He writes blog posts. He says outlandish things like, “We don’t just play college basketball, we are college basketball,” and he’s become such an iconic figure in Lexington, some UK fans probably believe him. The biggest reason why Kentucky fans love Calipari, though, is that he wins. Elite Eight (2010), Final Four (2011), National Championship (2012), sort of speaks for itself. And the craziest part is, for all the talent Calipari had on those rosters, none of those are as broadly talented as the team he has this season. The Wildcats, after missing out on the NCAA Tournament in 2013, were a Julius Randle lay-up or two away from knocking off the (now) number one in the country, Michigan State, a couple of weeks ago. Teams this young, no matter how talented, shouldn’t be ready to compete against veteran national championship contenders this early in the season. That they were extinguishes the fear that this year’s UK team will be more like the 2013 squad that saw its season come to a close in a tiny gym in Moon Township, Pennsylvania, than the one that, behind Anthony Davis’ otherworldly talents and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s visible intensity, cut down the nets in New Orleans in 2012. This year’s team is probably better than that title-winning group.

But what will Kentucky look like a year from now?  Several major contributors on this Kentucky team are likely to declare for the NBA Draft this summer, and the group of recruits Calipari has lined up to replace them are less promising than Kentucky’s 2013 class. Calipari – whose chokehold on blue-chip recruits seems to be loosening, with Coach K and Bill Self appearing to make up considerable ground over the past year – has missed on a number of top targets in the 2014 class, including point guards Emmanuel Mudiay, center Jahlil Okafor and shooting guard Kelly Oubre. The Wildcats could still add to their 2014 haul – which includes five-star center Karl Towns Jr., five-star power forward Trey Lyles, four-star shooting guard Devin Booker and four-star point guard Tyler Ulis and is ranked No. 2 in the country by Scout.com. But it’s doubtful that group can recreate the collective contributions the 2013 class will make. That’s why this year may be Calipari’s best chance to win a second national championship. Even if he falls short of winning it all this season, Calipari would leave having authored an immensely successful tenure at a blueblood program. Plus, if he does flop at the next level – as he did the last time he coached in the NBA, when he was fired after his Nets team won just three of its first 20 games in 1998-99 – there are few college programs that wouldn’t hire him immediately.

As career moves go, leaving an arguably peaking Kentucky program for an $8 million salary, total personnel control and a sphere of influence abetted by a network of loyal front office executives doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. If Calipari is offered the Knicks coaching job at some point over the next six months, he might have to consider the offer.

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