With Kentucky on the verge of going undefeated, the rumor mill is starting to heat up that John Calipari has nothing left to prove in college and that he wants another shot at the NBA. According to this report by Steve Popper of the Bergen Record, “[t]he NBA is the only place [Calipari’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.” Popper goes on to note that Calipari gets his star players to all buy into an unselfish system, proving he is now better at coaching and handling egos and that he might help an NBA team recruit free agents (Cal is supposedly tight with LeBron James). Popper further notes that there should be a natural fit between Calipari’s energy and ability to woo players and the Nets big spending ways.
Before really assessing whether this plan is a good idea in 2015, I thought it might make some sense to actually go back to Calipari’s first NBA tenure to see how good/bad it really was and see what, if anything, that teaches about 2015 Calipari.
The Ugly Mid-1990s Nets
Back in the summer of 1996, the Nets were a team starting over. They had just let go of their two building blocks of the early 1990s, Derrick Coleman and Kenny Anderson. Both players were up for big paydays and the Nets didn’t feel comfortable paying them. In early 1995-96, DC was traded for Shawn Bradley and Anderson was traded for Kendall Gill. With a less than inspiring core of Gill, Bradley, and Jayson Williams the 1995-96 went 30-52, playing solid defense but were abysmal offensively and not that fun to watch. Gill was injured most of his first season in New Jersey and the Nets other perimeter players just couldn’t score (they leaned heavily on Chris Childs, who was decent but the other options were Kevin Edwards, Ed O’Bannon, Greg Graham, and Vern Fleming).
The Nets decided to shake things up and hire a big name college coach to create excitement for the franchise that summer. The Nets first target was Rick Pitino, who had led Kentucky to an NCAA title on a team loaded with future pros, who all played smaller parts in the system (sound familiar?). Pitino was a fixture Kentucky and had been successful in a brief stay with the Knicks in the late 1980s (he left town after a power dispute with GM Al Bianchi in 1989).
Nets Pursue Pitino and Calipari
Pitino initially told the Nets he would likely take the job and then went on a vacation to Ireland to think about it. The legend was that Pitino went on vacation with tons of Kentucky alumni, who worked him over until he felt he should stay in Lexington. Pitino recommended his old protégé Calipari for the job (FYI, Pitino’s Wildcats lost in the NCAA Finals against Arizona the next season).
An NBA team hiring Calipari back in 1996 was kind of like the Celtics hiring Brad Stevens last season out of Butler. Cal was young and hungry and turned a small school into a basketball powerhouse. Of course, Calipari and Stevens had very different reputations. Whereas Stevens looks and seems like the choirboy type, Cal’s was a bit less pristine.
Calipari was initially an assistant at Kansas and Pitt and was known for his recruiting chops and energy but was not universally loved. Bill Reynolds wrote in “Big Hoops: A Season in the Big East Conference” that, while at Pitt, Calipari allegedly told a recruit that St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca was ill and would not be able to coach much longer. Still, Cal impressed enough to land the UMass job in 1988 when he was only 29.
UMass was a very low profile job, as it played in a small conference and hadn’t had a winning season since 1977-78. Calipari slowly built UMass into a strong team, without any top level talent. He tried to have the campus rally around the team and lobbied the administration for a new more modern facility and market a slogan “Refuse to Lose,” which he copyrighted and used to sell apparel and collect royalties when others used it.
After steady improvement on and off the court, UMass really broke out to 30-5 in 1991-92 and the Sweet 16, despite a roster with little top talent (they were led by Jim McCoy, a two guard who shot 0-12 from three for the season and 65% from the line). Calipari was a polarizing figure, whose frenetic energy annoyed some, including John Chaney, who was so angry about Cal’s gamesmanship with refs that he once attacked Calipari after a game.
UMass remained a force over the next four seasons and Calipari somehow managed to land a top recruit in Marcus Camby, to come to Amherst. In 1995-96, Camby’s sophomore season, UMass went 35-2 and lost a close Final Four game to Pitino and Kentucky. With Camby likely to headed to the NBA and rumors of NCAA sanctions coming to UMass, Calipari was now set up to take a bigger coaching job at a major powerhouse.
But Cal was now headed to the NBA on a five year, $15 million contract, and was being given that coveted GM/coach role that only Pat Riley had at the time. Calipari spent the 1996-97 trying to pump up enthusiasm like he did at UMass but the 1996-97 Nets were a bad team. They went 26-56 and didn’t defend well or score well, though Cal had them playing at a high pace (5th in the NBA).
Calipari’s management decisions were also interesting. His first major decision was to decide whom the Nets should draft with the eighth pick in the 1996 draft. Calipari was convinced that Kobe Bryant was the right choice but passed on Kobe for Kerry Kittles based upon Bryant’s claim that he would only play for the Lakers (Bryant later admitted he was bluffing). Calipari should have stuck with his guns on this choice, Bryant had no recourse but to not play in the NBA. Apparently, the specter of a showdown with his first lottery pick made Cal back off his hunch. In the short term, though, Kittles was a pretty good player and not a terrible pick.
During the 1996-97 season, Calipari turned over the roster with a trade of Bradley and trinkets (O’Bannon, Reeves, and Robert Pack) to Dallas for Sam Cassell, Jim Jackson, and Chris Gatling. This was a big win of a trade for the Nets, as Cassell was really good, Gatling was useful bench player, and Jackson was also still considered an asset (he was about to enter the nomad stage of his career).
Calipari’s did make one major mistake that season, when he called a local beat reporter a “(bleeping) Mexican idiot” apparently because Calipari did not like the “grade” Calipari was given on the reporter’s hypothetical Nets report card. Calipari apologized and was fined $25,000 by the NBA but the incident made him seem, at best, to be immature and , at worst, a racist jerk. Though it is not a defense for Calipari’s behavior, the postscript to the incident does not make the writer look much better. After initially accepting the apology, the writer decided to file a $5 million lawsuit against Calipari, alleging that he suffered “extreme humiliation and emotional distress” from Calipari’s berating. The lawsuit was dismissed quickly by the court, but it showed that the jerk train ran both ways with Calipari and the writer.
Despite the incident, the 1996-97 season ended hopefully for Calipari. With a core of Cassell, Kittles, Jackson, Gill, Williams, and high pick in the 1997 Draft, the Nets were considered a team to watch, even though they were a bit shooting guard heavy. The draft pick in 1997 was a very big deal and if the Nets could hit on that pick, they would really be set up for the future.
1997-98, Cal’s Nets Peak
Calipari then decided that Keith Van Horn was the missing piece to make the Nets a contender (his workouts were supposed to have looked great). Van Horn was the consensus second best prospect in the draft (behind some Tim Duncan guy). The Nets then traded their seventh pick (who would be Tim Thomas) and Jim Jackson for the second overall pick and selected Van Horn (the trade was not officially consummated until after the draft but all parties were aware of the deal beforehand).
At the time, there was a very real thought that Van Horn was going to be a star and be the player that Dirk Nowitzki ended up being. So, there was much excitement for the 1997-98 season. The Nets were undersized with Van Horn at power forward and Williams at center but the core was very young and interesting. The Nets scored a lot (5th in the NBA in offense) but were beat up defensively (21st in NBA). On this wild ride, the Nets peaked at 31-21 in late February 1998 but suffered injuries and suffered a seven-game losing streak shortly thereafter before rallying to eke into the playoffs at 43-39.
Despite all the Van Horn hype, he was merely okay as a rookie (15.7 PER and was -0.4 in his BPM). Cassell was the real engine that made this team go (21.0 PER). Interestingly, Calipari was ahead of the curve in terms of lineups. He played three guards (Cassell, Kittles, and Gill), Van Horn as a stretch power forward, and Williams as an undersized center. Alas, the rules of the late 1990s did not help smallish teams the way they do today, and the Nets were beat up (literally) by brutish team like the Pacers, Heat, and Knicks on occasion. In the playoffs, the Nets were dispatched 3-0 by the MJ Bulls, though they did play the first two games tight.
People Did Not Like Cal
The buzz around the team was still very positive for 1998-99, though it wasn’t hard to find people to complain about Calipari’s persona:
-During Game 3 of the Nets-Bulls series, Michael Jordan took a moment to glare at Calipari for behavior that bothered MJ. After the game, Jordan indicated he wasn’t thrilled with Calipari animated coaching: “I haven’t played against a guy that runs up and down the court as much as he does. I have a lot admiration for his players, being able to deal with that.”
–In that same article after the Bulls-Nets Game 3, Hartford Courant writer Alan Greenberg noted that the Nets “have few illusions about the grandstanding Calipari. It was hard to hide the snickers when they saw Jordan staring down their coach during the Bulls’ series-ending romp….[The Nets] have the league’s most explosive young team. They can win with Calipari—and in spite of him.”
-Calipari also battled with Williams. Sam Smith reported that Calipari was controlling and resented that Williams was popular. Smith quoted Williams as stating that: “[w]e don’t see eye to eye on things. We don’t trust each other right now.” Williams also wrote an article in GQ specifically criticizing Calipari for getting on players to work harder. Calipari did not publicly freak out about this and was on board re-signing Williams to a big contract (it didn’t hurt Williams that Van Horn encouraged the team to keep Williams).
-There were rumors that Calipari was obsessed with media coverage and even tried to manipulate callers to give him favorable reviews on WFAN, the local sports talk radio show.
1998-99: The End Comes Quickly
Then things got out of control. First, the NBA entered into a protracted dispute with the NBPA, resulting in a lockout that kept the NBA closed until February 1999. The abbreviated training camp led to more injuries and slow starts for some team. In a piece of bad luck, Cassell was injured in the first game of the season and was out for two weeks. At the same time, Kittles missed the first few games of the season as well. The Nets couldn’t compete without Cassell (the bench was very thin) and the losing snowballed into a terrible start.
Given Calipari’s contract, the fact that he had done a decently nice job in 1997-98, and the weird conditions of the lockout season, there was an argument to give Calipari a mulligan for the season and start over in 1999-00. But Calipari’s style had apparently grated too many people with his less-than-understated manner. Perhaps even more problematic, in December 1998, Lewis Katz became the new controlling owner of the Nets. Since Katz hadn’t hired Calipari, he certainly had less invested in keeping him than the prior ownership.
So, management decided to trade Cassell for young star Stephon Marbury and they fired Calipari a day later. There is a nice amalgamation of all the Calipari firing stories gathered here. Suffice it to say that the firing brought mixed reactions. There were many who noted that Calipari’s 3-17 record was reason enough to drop the axe. Others clearly resented Calipari’s style (even a few silly writers who thought Calipari was a phony for taking a $15 million deal from the Nets) but quite a few, including the acerbic Peter Vescey, thought that Calipari’s ability to bring excitement and respect to the Nets merited Calipari more time.
How Badly Did Calipari Faile
What do we take away from the 1990s Nets Calipari tenure?
-His personnel instincts were mostly pretty good (see the Sam Cassell trade)
-He drafted solid enough. He identified Kobe as the correct pick but was scared away from picking him and Kittles was a decent enough second choice (though that 1996 Draft has some other seriously good options). While Van Horn was never the star Calipari thought he would be, trading Tim Thomas and Jackson for him was a good deal.
-As a coach, Cal’s manic intensity was annoying but he played a fun style and did not make glaring tactical mistakes.
-Calipari was insecure and worried about idiotic sideshow problems that were totally inconsequential.
-Cal’s firing had, at least, as much to do with management changes than it did with Calipari’s own failings.
In all, Calipari’s tenure was not a success by objective standards but was not the miserable failure it is remembered to be. Certainly, by his own standards, you could see why Calipari was not happy with how he performed. Still, there were quite a few positive developments for the Nets. The real problem was that Calipari was overly concerned with ancillary stuff. I can’t imagine 2015 Calipari cares what his fake grade will be from a local beat writer. History also shows that the Calipari-Williams clash may not have been proof that Cal was a problem (Williams’ dismal post-NBA life indicates that Calipari might’ve had cause to not totally like Williams).
What does any of this have to do with 2015? Not a ton. Calipari is still a good coach and he has definitely relaxed since the old days. It does seem that some of his bad instincts from the 1990s are gone. The only question is how much the ability to recruit players now matters in the modern NBA. Certainly, we have seen star free agents coalesce around coaches/franchises that excite them. If Calipari somehow creates that potential excitement, he is worth giving the keys to a franchise. If not, he is just another interesting coaching name that deserves one more shot.