Calipari’s NBA Leap Inevitable, Ill-Advised
By Anthony Olivieri
A quick glance at NBADraft.net tells you all you need to know about John Calipari’s cushy situation at Kentucky. But a glance at his past makes me think that he could be leaving Lexington really soon.
The top two players selected in the web site’s 2012 mock draft, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, along with the projected No. 28 pick, point guard Marquis Teague, are freshmen for the Wildcats.
Terence Jones, the projected 18th overall choice, and No. 23, Doron Lamb, are sophomores.
Calipari, who reached his second straight Final Four and is a national title away from god status at UK, has been funneling players to the NBA for years and doesn’t seem poised to stop anytime soon. He could win year after year with the combination of his recruiting chops and Kentucky’s history and reputation.
My advice? Don’t do it, John.
Calipari, though, won’t listen. A jump to the NBA, which is littered with his former players, is inevitable as it will be too tempting for him to turn down.
If Kentucky wins the national title Monday as expected, I see it happening as early as next season for Calipari, who once left Final Four participant UMass to lead the New Jersey Nets to a 72-112 record over three forgettable seasons - begging the question: Why give up the top of the mountain for the bottom of the Atlantic again?
You see, Calipari doesn’t see it that way; his past dictates that.
Say what you want about how he has done it, but Calipari knows how to build a program - any program - to the point at which it can contend for titles on a consistent basis. He infused life into an annual doormat (UMass), resurrected a previous contender (Memphis) and brought one of the sport’s blue bloods back to prominence (Kentucky).
That’s why it will be tough for Calipari to convince himself that he can’t win anywhere, including the NBA, which will have some openings after this season that certainly could intrigue him.
The Washington Wizards, led by John Wall, fired coach Flip Saunders in January and are playing out the string of a lost season under interim coach Randy Wittman, a man whose name should appear next to “stop gap” in the dictionary. Washington currently has the second-worst record in the NBA, which would land it the second overall pick in the draft, perhaps Kidd-Gilchrist, if the ping-pong balls fall its way.
Then there are the New York Knicks, whose coach, Mike D’Antoni, resigned midseason after its team’s stars were unable to jell and made it obvious that they no longer wanted to play hard for their coach. Sure, interim coach Mike Woodson has the team headed for a playoff berth but, if things don’t go right the rest of the way for Woodson, Calipari has the profile for success with teams that have had multiple stars.
Just look at the 2011-12 Wildcats.
“We’ve got seven players on this team that average 25 points a game in high school and all seven led us in scoring this year (at some point),” Calipari said, according to ESPN’s Andy Katz.
“Anthony Davis, would you say he’s pretty good? He’s our fifth-leading shot-taker. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is our fourth. When Kyle Wiltjer’s in the game, they love it and they throw him the ball. They’re fine with that. They’re excited when he makes it. They figured it out that as a young team they had to do it together and they would all benefit.”
Forget the Knicks and Wizards, that sounds like a verbal resume from Calipari addressed to all NBA general managers, whose teams are filled with guys who averaged a boatload of points in high school and college that have a tough time playing nice with each other.
Vinny Del Negro, the coach of one of those teams with the Los Angeles Clippers, has been skating on thin ice, according to some reports. Do you think Calipari would be interested in putting the pieces - including former Kentucky guard Eric Bledsoe, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin - of that talented puzzle together?
It’s not that easy in the NBA, which chews up and spits out coaches in an unforgiving carousel. Program patriarchs like Lou Carnesseca and Jerry Tarkanian tried their hands at pro coaching like Calipari and Rick Pitino did with similarly poor results.
Nowadays, there are NBA teams that stop playing for coaches they don’t like in a league that has let its stars, rather than coaches and general managers, control destinies. Dwight Howard’s saga in Orlando is the latest example of that, whether he has decided to stay for the time being or not.
Calipari, no matter which team he takes over or how good he coaches, would be at the mercy of players to which franchises have hitched, well, their salary caps. That’s not so in Lexington, where fans do things like cut the coach’s likeness into a cornfield.
As it is right now, Calipari is Kentucky basketball no matter how many blocks Davis records or awards he wins.
So I would advise Calipari to refer to the career of his nemesis and upcoming opponent, Louisville’s Pitino, whose second tour of NBA coaching duty, with the Boston Celtics, fell flatter than his first go-around with the Knicks.
Calipari should remember that Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist, Jones, Lamb and Teague aren’t walking through that door at the next level - at least not on the same team.
Coach Cal is saying all the right things, recently Tweeting, “I have the greatest job in the world. I’m not going anywhere.”
Of course, he has to say that to win recruiting battles. And he probably believes it. But when given the opportunity to coach Wall and Davis or Kidd-Gilchrist in Washington, Paul and Griffin in L.A. or be on center stage as the coach of the Knicks, Calipari will be tempted.
And as we’ve seen time and time again with coaches like Pete Carroll, college coaches just can’t turn down the money, allure and challenge of success at the highest level - especially when they have failed there before.
So soak up the next week, Kentucky fans, because Calipari will likely be taking his talents to the NBA sooner rather than later.
Anthony Olivieri is the managing editor of LostLettermen.com. His column appears each week.