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OF THE astounding 17 coaching changes since last season ended, none was more shocking than Jim O'Brien's Jan. 26 departure from the Celtics. "We were going to talk for a couple of hours, hash things out and then move on," says Celtics director of basketball operations Danny Ainge. Instead their meeting ended with O'Brien essentially telling Ainge to take his job—including the last two years and $6 million of his contract-and shove it.
With apologies to Vince Lombardi, winning isn't the only thing that matters in the NBA anymore. Since last season four of the league's top coaches—Byron Scott, Rick Carlisle, Paul Silas and Rudy Tomjanovich—have been replaced. The bloodletting may not be over yet: The Nuggets have yet to pick up their option on Jeff Bzdelik, a Coach of the Year candidate, and Eric Mussel-man, the Coach of the Year runner-up in 2002-03, will be at risk if his Warriors fail to make the playoffs.
O'Brien quit because he couldn't embrace Ainge's controversial moves. He protested Ainge's Dec. 15 decision to package Eric Williams and Tony Battie to the Cavaliers in a six-player deal that netted Ricky Davis, an explosive player who may never learn to put a team's needs ahead of his own. That trade summarily ended a five-game Boston winning streak; at week's end the Celtics had gone 10-15 since and sunk to 22-27.
"There is not enough solidarity between the front office and the coaching staff?," says Jerry Sloan, a coaching anomaly in his 16th year whith the Jazz. What has brought on this era of the disposable coach? The primary factor is the luxury tax; avoiding it drives personnel decisions and puts the power in the hands of whomever manages the cap. As a result, lavishly paid G.M.'s—from Ainge in Boston to Isiah Thomas in New York to Kiki Vandeweghe in Denver—are fast becoming the faces of their franchises.
"When I came in, the roster was maybe the 18th best in talent and one of the worst in cap management," says Ainge. "I know the players we have now aren't as professional as the players we traded. You take gambles, and time will tell if they pay off."
Ainge's three-year plan is to model Boston after last year's Kings, who led the NBA in defense while playing an attractive, high-scoring style. He has the makings of decent rotation up front with Raef LaFrentz, Chris Mihm and 19-year-old rookie center Kendrick Perkins. Vin Baker's $30.4 million salary may come off the books this summer if his problems with alcohol enable the Celtics to void his contract, and Ainge is dangling Chris Mills's expiring $6 million contract to acquire veteran help before the Feb. 19 deadline.
The odds of Davis's turning into a reliable pro are longer now that O'Brien is gone, and All-Star Paul Pierce has been struggling since the Williams trade. Next summer Ainge hopes to hire a coach who shares his vision—John Carroll has taken over in the interim—and he's likely to consider someone who was on the Suns' bench when he played in Phoenix: Lionel Hollins or Paul Westphal. "I was hoping because of Jim O'Brien's character and work ethic that he'd become comfortable with me," Ainge says, "but mainly I'm just looking for a coach to help me win."