Sports Nut

The Loser

Why does the NBA’s worst coach have a new job?

Floyd’s flaws could sting Hornets

When the NBA season tips off tonight, a record 11 of the league’s 29 teams will begin with new coaches at their respective helms. The New Orleans Hornets, for example, will for the first time take orders from Tim Floyd, who needed a mere 239 games to win 49 in Chicago before he activated the ejector seat there a couple of years ago. His career winning percentage wouldn’t even pass as a batting average: .205, the worst in league history. And yet he’s in charge of a team expected to contend in the Eastern Conference. The always delicate Charles Oakley, who played under Floyd in Chicago, said this month: “I give Tim Floyd three months, maybe four at the most, in his new job. The man is not an NBA coach. He doesn’t have a clue. He proved that trying to coach the Bulls.”

So how exactly is it that Floyd still coaches pro basketball? The Hornets’ majority owner, George Shinn, professed to being impressed by Floyd’s verve. “I could just see in his eyes the burning desire that he wanted to prove that his stay in Chicago was a mistake,” Shinn said in the news conference after Floyd’s hire in June. Bob Bass, the Hornets’ VP of basketball operations, vetted Floyd and gave the thumbs-up after checking with other coaches and management around the league. Then Floyd “got tears in his eyes” when Shinn asked him how much he wanted the post. Job-seekers everywhere, take note. Just don’t expect New Orleans players to warm immediately to “Pink” Floyd as he replaces the popular and affable Paul Silas.

The NBA delights in reassessing, recycling, and reinstalling its former (and often failed) coaches. Floyd got the nod over Mike Fratello, who used to coach in Cleveland, which is where Paul Silas landed when he left New Orleans. Also this offseason, the Clippers disinterred Mike Dunleavy, who coached the Bucks, Lakers, and Trail Blazers. Jeff Van Gundy bolted New York when matters there soured and now directs the Rockets. Sure, there are a few new faces: Ex-Sacramento assistant Terry Porter taking over in Milwaukee; Stan Van Gundy (Jeff’s big bro) getting a promotion in Miami after Pat Riley’s sudden departure. Kevin O’Neill was 5-25 his last year at Northwestern, bolted for an assistant position under Jeff Van Gundy and this year was hired to coach the Raptors on the strength of his work with Detroit’s defense. But O’Neill’s old boss, Rick Carlisle, is now in Indiana after getting axed by the Pistons, who themselves welcomed old 76ers coach Larry Brown. Brown, who seems to be touring the NBA at three-year intervals, has previously put in time with the Pacers, Spurs, Nuggets, Clippers, and Nets. Let it be said that in the high-school-harvesting NBA, only the players enter without big-time experience.

In Floyd’s case, finally the Zen question can be answered: Can this guy possibly be as terrible as his record? No way to tell for sure without handing him the keys to a team that has a legitimate shot at going to the NBA Finals. From the beginning in Chicago, he was installed as a dupe, the first coach of the Potemkin Bulls. The rebuilding job after all those Michael Jordan titles began as practical joke, with mostly a ragtag bunch of fungible college-grade castoffs. (In 2000, for instance, Chicago’s 12-man roster began the season with 15 years of pro experience.) While flailing with the Bulls, Floyd did earn respect, at least initially, for acting as a human shield, when possible, to protect meddling team management. Such loyalty no doubt helped his standing with Shinn, widely loathed since pulling the team out from under Charlotte, N.C., when he couldn’t get a stadium deal.

Nonetheless, Floyd is a bizarre choice for the Hornets, considering that the team seems to need only a good, hard nudge, as they have been at least a .500 team for 11 straight years without ever emerging from the second round of the playoffs. And time is short: New Orleans next year gets realigned to the deeper, tougher Western Conference, where 50-win teams go to die in the postseason. This season will be the best chance the Hornets have to make the finals in the foreseeable future—so, naturally, in rides Floyd. Granted, he can take heavy blame for piloting the Bulls to two of the three lowest-scoring seasons in league history, and his younger players in Chicago developed only after he left. But at least when someone absolutely, positively has to lose 79 percent of his games without ripping management, he’s a proven quantity. Really, now, what a find!

Then again, maybe there’s a coach under all those losses. How refreshing would it be, if a league that seems perpetually out of ideas, finally hit upon an epiphany: Hire the guy with the worst numbers in history and put him in charge of a gang of underachievers. Such an unconventional approach should count for something in the NBA. As for Floyd, if he finishes at least 24-58 he’ll no longer have the worst 150-plus-game winning percentage ever, which in the event of his departure will make his next job just that much easier to land.