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Reinsdorf Economics: The Method Behind the Chicago Bulls Coaching Search

At last, the Bulls coaching search makes sense to me. Silly me, I was looking at the qualifications of the candidates originally interviewed and accusing the Bulls (that is to say, owner Jerry Reinsdorf) of being cheap. Now that word is starting to leak out about potential assistant coaches, I have begun to grasp that this coaching search is a lesson in Reinsdorf economics.

We all know that Reinsdorf was stinging for having to pay Scott Skiles after Skiles “left” the organization (just exactly how voluntary it was when Skiles resigned is questionable). Let’s back up and take in what it costs to hire a coach. A new-ish coach would cost you $2 million (Our Coach Vinny’s reported salary) to $2.5 million (the reported salary for new Suns coach Terry Porter, who coached the Bucks for two years) per year. You want to get an experienced coach like Doug Collins, one who has a track record for winning, that’s going to run you in the neighborhood of $5 million per year. A good coach with a winning record and a hot reputation will cost you a little more than that. Mike D’Antoni got a little over $6 million a year from the Knicks. Yes, the Knicks spend more freely than a lot of teams, but my guess is Avery Johnson would have cost closer to $6 million than $5 million.

What does this have to do with the Bulls hiring assistant coaches? Well, according the Chicago Tribune, Our Coach Vinny is looking to get at least one former head coach to be his lead assistant. Possibly two former head coaches. Ideally, one offensive expert and one defensive expert. Ever since Our Coach Vinny surfaced, Bob Hill’s name started coming up as a lead assistant. While Hill wasn’t on my short list for potential coaches, I have no problems with Hill. He’s coached four teams, took two different teams to the play-offs, five trips in all. Truth be told, he coached a couple very good Spurs teams. Indeed, I’d be much more comfortable having Hill as head coach than Vinny.

Now, come to find out Paul Westphal has interviewed for an assistant’s position. Westphal was on my short list for Bulls head coaching candidates. Westphal got the Suns to the NBA finals and while his tenure with the Sonics wasn’t as fruitful, he did get them into the play-offs. Now there’s another assistant coach I’d be more comfortable running the team than Vinny.

Also being mentioned are Del Harris, a fine candidate who was on my short list, even though he could be retiring and Bernie Bickerstaff who I’m not as sold on as a head coach, but I wouldn’t object to as an assistant.

They’re even talking about trying to snag oft-rumored head coaching candidate and current Boston defensive specialist assistant, Tom Thibodeau.

Now it all makes sense to me. What makes sense you ask?

I had occasion to ask someone familiar with coaching salaries what a lead assistant coach makes. While you might have the odd superstar that pulls in $1 million, the normal range is roughly $300K – $500K.

So, if you were to hire Doug Collins for $5 million and then lowball a couple assistants for $300K each, you’ve got $5.6 million in coaching salary for the top 3 slots. Now, if you hire Vinny for $2 million and then hire two ex-head coaches at an absolute top-line assistant salary of $1 million each, you’ve only got $4 million in coaching salary. You could, theoretically, have the benefit of two coaches with the approximate experience level of Collins and save $1.6 million. I’m not so sure it isn’t disingenuous to the point of ethically challenged, but from a pure dollars and cents perspective, that’s brilliant. You might not even have to pay $1 million. As I understand it, $750K would be at least a 50% raise for most assistants.

There are three kickers that make it even better. By hiring a head coach with zero coaching experience, he’s more likely to listen to your experienced assistants. Less chance of an ego-related blow-up. You also have fiscal wiggle room to seriously out-bid what other teams consider normal for an assistant coach without breaking the bank. And finally, if Vinny flames out, you just promote the lead assistant, who knows what he’s doing, and you probably get the rest of the year at a discount, compared to what he’d cost as a normal hire.

Diabolic in efficiency, this scheme. Had I not heard Westphal and Hill were already interviewing, I would not nearly be this upbeat, but those two would fit the bill nicely.

It reminds me a bit of the film version of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” What do you do when your new James Bond actor doesn’t have much acting experience? You hire Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas to feed him lines. Lazenby wasn’t the best Bond, but OMSS was a fine film. If they pull off Westphal as offensive guru and Thibodeau as defensive guru, I’m liking the net effect a whole lot better than when I heard they hired Vinny.

Mind you, given the current track record for signing coaches, nobody should be holding their breath until the final selections actually get signed, but a method to the madness is emerging (a cheap method, but a method nonetheless).

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  1. If the Bulls hire Bob Hill as an assistant, he will immediately angle for the head job. He will try to use Delnegro as his puppet, and when he falls on his face Hill will be there to step into the head coaching job… and then screw that up. He did it in Seattle, and everyone who saw him coach at Fordham predicted it.

  2. Why would Thibodeau leave the defending champions to take the exact same job in Chicago?

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