And as quickly as he was placed in the big chair was he pulled out of it; so goes Jay Triano and his tenure as the Toronto Raptors head coach.
Wednesday afternoon word came down the pike that the final option year of Triano's contract as head coach, the one that everyone and their dog assumed was going get picked-up as recently as a week ago, was being declined. He will instead be shuffled upstairs to work alongside management as the organization looks in another direction for their strategic leader. The move leaves many to wonder what went wrong in the weeks since the season ended that wound up terminating Triano's chances of staying on as the team's man in charge, and many wondering who the team has in mind as his replacement.
Remember, it was just six weeks ago after the season had drawn to a close that Bryan Colangelo, in his season-ending press conference, spoke effusively about Triano and the job he had done over the course of the last year. He talked about how Jay made the sacrifices handed down by management to play the youngsters over the veterans, at the cost of wins and possible job security. He talked about how every player, to a man, endorsed the job that Jay had done with the team that year. He even went so far as to say that if he, Colangelo, was not retained that Triano should nonetheless get serious consideration to return as head coach. It truly felt like if Colangelo was brought back Triano would not be far behind, and that if he wasn't Triano still stood a chance of finishing out his contract.
Clearly, though, that's not how things have turned out. The shift in tone from Colangelo's season-ending press conference to an interview he conducted on The Score Radio last week was stark, suggesting much changed with regards to Triano over the last six weeks. Where he once offered support to Triano regardless of his own employment, Colangelo changed course by saying that due-diligence would be performed before Triano's situation would be dealt with. While he still praised Triano's willingness to follow the organization's plan for developing the youth, he cited sub-par defense and ball-movement as areas that needed to be addressed in a one-on-one with Triano before talks about picking up his contract option could move forward. Those same areas, in fact, were cited after Triano's option was declined, even though neither seemed to be of particular concern (at least as it applied to the coach) when the season ended in mid-April when the wounds of such failures would theoretically have been freshest.
While both areas were lacking last season (defense was actually lacking for Triano's entire tenure), the reason why now became a good time to sever ties with the coach are a little more complex. The Raptors are at a very crucial juncture with regards to their development right now. They have an exceedingly young team full of players that are basically defining today what kind of pros they are going to be tomorrow. It no doubt worried Colangelo that some of the bad habits the youngsters were picking up on defense could ultimately color their ability to ever grasp the nuances of the defensive side of the game. Colangelo was also surely aware that if he wasn't sold on the idea of Triano as a coach long-term that it would behoove him to install a more permanent replacement now to help forge and develop the core of this squad rather than wait a year to begin that process. Considered along those lines, Triano's 'reassignment' was less about failures in the past as much as it was about trying to protect the team's future. Might Triano have grown exponentially as a coach in the next year and beyond? Perhaps, but Colangelo was clearly not certain it would happen, so with an eye to the future he divorced the team of its recent past.
Whether Colangelo deserved more of the blame for Triano's failure (since he built some flawed rosters during Triano's tenure) is immaterial at this point, too. So long as he's running the show it is his job to put the future of the team first, and this was a move he felt essential for the future of this team. One can argue the fairness of such an arrangement until they are blue in the face but the head coaching job is not a charitable position. Triano got a shot but two straight years trailing the NBA in defensive efficiency, combined with a 87-142 record, was not enough to guarantee his job going forward. NBA head coaches have been fired for a lot less and while the team probably could have justified keeping him for another year if they chose to, that's not the way that things worked out. Hopefully working in management transitions him nicely into a job he can find equally fulfilling (working within the upper-stratosphere of Team Canada would make a lot of sense), because Triano's basketball mind would be a terrible thing to waste. For the Raptors, though, the work to find his replacement begins.
Coaching Changes: What direction will the Raptors take to find a replacement?
So, when does Lawrence Frank get to Toronto? Like, have they booked the plane ticket yet or are they still checking flight times? I may be WAY off at reading Colangelo after he described the criteria for his next head coach, but seriously, can you find me another guy that fits what he was talking about any better than Frank does?
First, he says he wants someone with a great deal of experience. Well, you know that Phil Jackson and Jerry Sloan aren't trekking up to Toronto for a rebuilding project. You can feel fairly certain that Rick Adelman isn't interested, either. If Jeff Van Gundy has waited this long to get back into the ring, you can safely assume it wasn't so that he could have the chance to guide a 22-win club out of the league's basement. Such a requirement would also appear to eliminate Mike Malone, Mike Budenholzer, Mark Jackson, Brian Shaw, Chuck Person and any other highly thought-of assistant coach waiting for their first shot at the big chair. That would leave Frank, Dwayne Casey, Mike Dunleavy, Mike Woodson, Mo Cheeks, Eddie Jordan, Keith Smart and Jim O'Brien as a rough list of who else is available, even if 'great deal of experience' is applied generously to some of the names.
Next, Colangelo says they are going to look at success and rate of success as defining the team's search. That should knock Smart right out of the running, and it probably knocks O'Brien out, too. Smart coaxed very little out of Golden State last season, his first as a head coach, and O'Brien has had some success as a head coach but he has been wildly inconsistent in terms of his results and that kind of instability is not going to put him high on anyone's list for a little while.
Next comes defense, or at least a history of fielding defensive lineups. That sound you here is Eddie Jordan's candidacy flying out the window, as his reputation for indifference towards defense challenges that of Mike D'Antoni - and that's saying something. While I believe that people have overemphasized Colangleo's desire to have a defensively-capable coach, there is no doubt that any candidate is going to have give Colangelo a reason to believe that defense is something that they'll be able to coax out Toronto's current and future rosters. Such a qualification would also appear to disqualify Cheeks, who has only twice had a team in the top-half of the league in defensive efficiency in eight seasons as a head coach in Portland and Philadelphia.
The last overt quality that Colangelo said he wants is a coach that employs a free-flowing offense. Now, that qualification was mentioned more to offset the defensive qualification as anything, as sometimes defensive specialists are so enamored of that end of the floor that they forget that they still have to figure out a way to score the basketball. That said, Colangelo has built a team with several exciting young athletes and there is no way he brings in a guy that's going to have them standing around and isolating a player one-on-one at the offensive end of the floor. That basically eliminates Mike Woodson from the field of candidates, and probably kibosh's Dunleavy, too, as his recent Clippers' teams were routinely among the worst in the NBA when it came to offensive efficiency.
Which leaves us with the two names that are already most bandied about when it comes to the job in Toronto: Lawrence Frank and Dwayne Casey. Casey is an interesting case because his experience is minimal as a head coach (just 122 games over a season and a half with the Timberwolves), but he's an tremendously experienced assistant that many feel got robbed in Minnesota since his team was 20-20 when he was replaced by Randy Wittman (the team went 12-30 thereafter). The fact that he's been interviewed for just about every head coaching opening over the last few years is a testament to the respect he commands around the league, but one wonders if his minimal experience will work against him as it pertains to the job in Toronto. It would certainly fly in the face of the one qualification that Colangelo kept coming back to when describing his ideal candidate, so that probably means that Casey won't cut it and Frank wins the job by default (sort of).
Now, if we are to assume that Frank is in the pole position for the job with the Raptors, does that mean he's the best man for the job? Honestly, given all of the noise listed above, especially about those who wouldn't be interested, I'd say yes. Frank has a career .482 winning percentage after five full years and two partial years in New Jersey. That record is hindered some by the losing the team did as the roster was stripped-down in his last years on the job, but he amassed a .548 record in his first three years with the club before rebuilding entered their vocabulary. While one would never call Frank a defensive guru, but his teams were among the best in the NBA defensively to start his career in New Jersey, and his defensive reputation is buoyed somewhat by his replacing Tom Thibodeau on Boston's staff this season. He coached in 38 Playoff games, winning 18 of them, and he went to the Finals twice as an assistant under Byron Scott in 2002 and 2003. Frank would certainly appear open to having a rather free-flowing offense as his team's Assist Ratio's were almost always in the top-ten (thanks Jason Kidd), but his teams never excelled in terms of offensive efficiency, points per game or pace. Clearly those factors are dictated by personnel to a certain degree, but year-over-year trends eventually start to fall on a coaches shoulders and top-notch offense has never been a Frank hallmark.
Basically, Frank is a balanced coach that doesn't excel notably in any one area, but has demonstrated in the past that if you give them the players he can make them win. He doesn't have a defined style like some other coaches do, his approach is more adaptive to his roster (which should be considered a good thing). His hiring wouldn't be a home run for the Raptors organization, but then again none of the viable names mentioned on this list would be, either. Hiring Frank would bring a voice to the locker room that carries some valuable experience, he'd certainly hold players more accountable, and getting him wouldn't leave anyone thinking "well why didn't they just keep Triano?"
In truth, he may not be the man the club has zeroed in on - heck they may be circling Larry Brown for all anyone knows at this point - but it's reasonable to guess that Frank is at or near the top of the team's list and if that's where the team ultimately takes this job opening it would be a solid, if unspectacular, hire for the organization. The team will get extra credit if they can get him (or whomever they wind up with) secured before the draft in three weeks, but so long as they come away from their search with the 'right' hire, no one should mind if they slip past that pseudo-deadline.