- NBA writer for ESPN.com since 2008
- Former contributor and editor at NPR
With the NBA schedule determined for the coming months, the league’s annual coaching carousel is once again firing up. The New York Knicks are reportedly ready to begin the process of finding their next head coach. Other teams that held off because of the optics of handing out a pink slip during a pandemic, or because of the uncertainty surrounding the season, will likely soon pursue a change on the bench, a move many had planned for months before the league went on hiatus March 11.
New hires will be made in Brooklyn and most likely New York. Speculation swirls around a number of other teams, including Houston, Chicago and Philadelphia.
The head-coaching gig has never been more multifaceted and, consequently, more demanding. We spoke to more than 30 insiders — head coaches, assistant coaches, executives from the basketball and business sides, former and current players, owners and agents — about which realities of the job a new NBA head coach should understand before taking over:
Playcalling has never been less important
It’s the player, not the play, that will determine a coach’s fortune. As coaching has evolved from craft to art in today’s NBA, fewer possessions are strict interpretations of the coach’s playbook. Sets that were once ordered by the sideline are now basic actions that promote playmaking opportunities in a free-flowing system.
Devising a coverage scheme is a task that can be delegated to a bright assistant, but listening to a player, demanding accountability from him and his 14 teammates, and voicing a message that inspires rests with a head coach.
It’s not a team, it’s an enterprise
What used to be three assistants and a trainer has evolved into a cast of dozens, all to be managed by the head coach, from bench assistants to nutritionists.
Given the size of the operation, it simply isn’t enough for a head coach to have an elite basketball mind, or even be a leader of 15 basketball players. He must have an instinct for the task of management — organizational skills, an ability to inspire and to identify what’s really important, what can wait and what can be ignored.
What does the science say?
Coaches report that gut and instinct are giving way to biometrics and data. Front offices are increasingly directing their head coaches to defer to the recommendations of sports scientists on staff when determining who practices for how long and who needs their load managed. Coaches are also being furnished with a trove of information from analysts, and what used to be implicit suggestions are more frequently explicit mandates from the front office. Choosing when to embrace, when to acquiesce, when to ignore and when to fight presents another challenge for a head coach in maintaining alignment with management.
After years of steady growth, compensation packages for head coaches are expected to diminish as revenue projections crater due to the fallout from the coronavirus. While a couple of teams might splurge for a candidate they feel they can’t live without, robust four-year deals for $5 million to $6 million a year for coaches who have never paced a sideline in June will be harder to come by. Likewise, average annual salaries for first-timers will shrink. And some teams could opt for a rookie head coach to save money. It’s not just head coaches, either. First, second and even third assistants who have seen tremendous growth in their pay stubs may see a rollback, and coaching staffs that have grown in numbers could be contracted in size.
No two vacancies are the same, and recognizing the characteristics of an opening reveals a lot about how an organization defines its current mission and where it is in its developmental arc.
This season, the nature of the openings themselves and some of the candidates in the coaching pool suggest who might be strong fits. Many of the names would be right in any number of situations. Some coaches are listed because they previously served as head coaches and will likely be considered. Others are up-and-coming prospects who league insiders say have the qualities necessary to succeed as a first-time NBA head coach.
The contender catapult
Ownership, management and star players believe that the nucleus of the roster has championship potential but that the existing head coach doesn’t have the capacity to lead the team there.
The Brooklyn Nets’ opening falls into this category, as presumably would the Philadelphia 76ers’ opening if the brass decides to move on from Brett Brown.
Previous examples: Milwaukee 2018, LA Clippers 2013, Chicago 1989
Former head coaches
Last spring, Tyronn Lue backed out of the Los Angeles Lakers’ search when the franchise balked at providing him the compensation and security generally afforded a championship coach. Other teams with title aspirations might not have the Lakers’ misgivings, given Lue’s track record of agility working with some of the brightest and more temperamental stars in the NBA.
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Though he’d be a first-time NBA head coach, Juwan Howard, now the head coach at Michigan, has been preparing to lead a veteran professional team for the past decade. He was the wise graybeard on the championship Miami Heat rosters, then moved immediately into an assistant’s role under Erik Spoelstra. He’s steeped in player development, Spoelstra’s laboratory of ideas and Heat culture.
The long runway
After a sustained period of success, the team initiates a full teardown and pledges patience to a new, culturally oriented coach who can nurture and develop a young core.
Though the Hinkie-style model has become increasingly popular in recent years, for whatever reason, no such openings appear to be imminent on the market this offseason.
Previous examples: Memphis 2019, Philadelphia 2013, Boston 2013
Few assistant coaches saw a bigger season-to-season jump in our informal poll than Charles Lee, 35, who’s in his sixth season working under Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta and now Milwaukee. Fans of Lee, who played professionally overseas before spending a couple of years as an equity trader on Wall Street, tout him as a five-tool coach who is every bit as comfortable having meaningful conversations with a backup point guard as he is dining with a team owner. Those who have worked with him say he has an intuitive sense of how to inspire improvement from players but also understands high-level strategy and the preparation required to implement it. He is, in the words of one peer, someone who is “categorically going to be an NBA head coach.”
Many talented assistant coaches understand the value of networking and visibility, be it schmoozing pregame, fraternizing at camps or working the media. Then you have those who shy away from self-promotion and just do the job. Count Wes Unseld Jr. among that group. The 15-year assistant who oversees the defense for the Denver Nuggets is finally beginning to attract attention for his combination of steadiness, smarts and empathy. Growing up around the NBA and his work for a variety of head coaches have given him a firm understanding of the dynamics that drive staffs and organizations. He may not be the firebrand his boss Michael Malone is — but these days that’s an asset, especially with veteran rosters.
Names previously mentioned
Every season or so, a staff generates attention for its depth of talent and potential. This season, that staff is in Denver under Malone. In addition to Unseld, David Adelman and Jordi Fernandez (both cited in 2018 as part of the next wave) are bolstering their reputations as young coaches who will be hot names in the rumor mill in the coming years.
Those who have worked with Adelman rave about his combination of knowledge and intuition — no surprise given his pedigree — but also his presence on the court. Malone has given Adelman a loud voice in practices and film sessions, and the team has responded. Fernandez, who was courted by both Minnesota and Memphis in recent seasons for key positions on their staffs, is the kind of coaching Renaissance man front offices are increasingly seeking. He’s been a member of a championship organization in Cleveland, served as a G League head coach, worked with the Spanish national team and grinded in the video room.
Also known as “the reset of the reset,” the newly selected head coach will seek to do what his predecessor couldn’t — add wins, develop young talent and instill culture. Quagmires tend to present a high degree of difficulty because the conditions are often the product of a dysfunctional organization.
Both the Knicks and Bulls, should they make a change before next season, are quagmire vacancies.
Previous examples: Phoenix 2019, Orlando 2018 and 2015, New York (eternal)
Former head coaches
There’s a broad consensus that former Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson will be among the most sought-after candidates on the market. Whatever transpired in Brooklyn, Atkinson is still regarded as a multiskilled coach who is an expert teacher, culture maven and expansive thinker who understands how to work his team’s strengths.
Tom Thibodeau, who as a CAA client has a long history with Knicks president Leon Rose, is a front-runner for the Knicks’ vacancy, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. This would be his third job as a head coach, having previously served in Chicago and Minnesota.
After two rocky stints in Brooklyn and Milwaukee, Jason Kidd has received favorable reviews as an assistant under Frank Vogel for the Lakers. He’s eager for another chance as a head coach and will likely have opportunities to make a pitch to owners and execs in the near future.
Mark Jackson is often mentioned as a candidate with high favorable ratings among players.
Steve Clifford’s bench in Orlando is another staff on the rise. Whether it’s the Heat family or members of the Van Gundy brothers-Clifford coaching tree, Magic assistant Pat Delany has huge fans around the league. They believe there are few assistants with greater fluency of the NBA game. Clifford certainly agrees, and he entrusts Delany with control of the Magic’s late-game strategy. If Delany doesn’t receive an interview this offseason, the time is not far off. Praised for his work with Kemba Walker in Charlotte and this season with Markelle Fultz, fellow Orlando assistant Steve Hetzel carried his reputation as a teacher and communicator into an interview for the Cleveland vacancy last summer. Having come up as a video coordinator, Hetzel has always had a knack for detail. In recent years, players and coaches have admired his ability to establish trust with players through sweat equity — he tells them the unvarnished truth and furnishes them with information that will make them better.
Executives and members of the coaching fraternity have recommended Oklahoma City lead assistant Brian Keefe more vocally every year. Yet another alum of the Spurs’ video room, Keefe has engendered the confidence of the Thunder organization with his sharpness, and they were thrilled to bring him back to serve beside Billy Donovan. Keefe is a question-asker, the voice in the room who’s inclined to suggest a contrary approach with thoughtfulness. He forges positive relationships with players and is a big-picture person.
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Darvin Ham would command the instant respect of current players with his voice and manner as a hard-nosed NBA vet. He also brings a strong development background as a longtime assistant to Budenholzer, who offers an annual clinic in the art of team building and management.
Adrian Griffin, who played nine years in the league and is currently an assistant on Nick Nurse’s Toronto staff, has gotten his share of interviews — most recently last spring with Memphis — and has amassed a strong résumé as a veteran assistant. Professional, mature and relatable are qualities repeatedly mentioned by those whom Griffin has worked for or alongside.
An aging core still has championship potential, but the window is closing quickly. This position doesn’t necessarily demand a veteran coach (see Lue, Tyronn), but it must be someone who can quickly earn a buy-in from players with stature.
If Mike D’Antoni and the Rockets can’t come to terms on a new contract, Houston will qualify as a sunset vacancy, should its superstar core remain intact.
Previous examples: Cleveland 2015-16 (midseason), Los Angeles Lakers 2011, Phoenix 2008
Former head coaches
As the NBA’s on-air analyst of record for the past decade and former Knicks and Rockets head coach, Jeff Van Gundy needs no introduction to players, owners and executives. Van Gundy has also spent the last few years as Team USA’s head coach. His name has been in the rumor mill for the past several years.
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Executives around the league are bullish on the creativity and philosophy of Chris Finch, currently an assistant in New Orleans. They see an outside-the-box thinker, not unlike Toronto’s Nurse, who has worked in a ton of different contexts — several years as a head coach overseas, a standout run in the G League and a strong presence on the bench as an NBA assistant.
A former NBA player and an essential part of the Warriors’ championship staff, Jarron Collins has experience working with superstars, devising high-stakes strategy and navigating the precarious contours of team culture at the highest level.
Building around a rising star
These teams are still in a rebuilding mode but feature a superstar they believe is transcendent and has the potential to accelerate their timetable.
The New Orleans Pelicans, should they decide to move in a new direction, would be such a team.
Previous examples: Minnesota 2016, LA Clippers 2010, Cleveland 2005
Former head coaches
Last September, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski asked Erik Spoelstra and Doc Rivers to name an opposing head coach for whom it was particularly tough to prepare. Both coaches cited Dave Joerger for his creativity and game management. There are competing books on Joerger, who spent three seasons each in Memphis and Sacramento. Either he’s a strong tactician with some jagged edges, or he’s a basketball savant who was unceremoniously fired by two notoriously dysfunctional front offices. Several executives and veteran head coaches say they’re curious to see how Joerger could perform in a more stable situation.
“Retreads” get a bad rap, but the passage of time and the benefit of new experiences can help a coach take inventory of his strengths and weaknesses and learn new approaches. Mike Brown, who just turned 50, has spent the last four seasons as the associate head coach in Golden State and maintains deep ties to the Spurs family, having accumulated a breadth of experiences during his 23 seasons.
NBA executives are conflicted about prospecting the college landscape for a head coach. The John Beilein experiment in Cleveland demonstrated how a venerated teacher in the NCAA can have trouble translating those qualities for pro players who find him unrelatable. But Dayton’s Anthony Grant, who led the Flyers to an improbable 29-2 record this past season, might bring the right formula of authority and connectedness. Grant, who spent two seasons on Billy Donovan’s Oklahoma City Thunder staff, is a commanding, yet empathetic coach who is strong in his convictions. A certain expectation comes with every practice, and the principles about team-building are well-defined. Grant works at relationships, be it a general manager or athletic director, a superstar or 15th man.
New voice wanted
Though the team isn’t in rebuild mode or a true contender, it wants to renovate and identifies the coach’s office as the place to start.
Virtually every offseason, we see a surprise firing that raises eyebrows. It turns out that, behind the scenes, frustration was mounting. Perhaps the incumbent coach has lost the locker room, or the front office doesn’t like his stylistic approach. Whatever the reason for the organizational malaise, the brass feels a new voice will provide the remedy.
Previous examples: Detroit 2018, Indiana 2016, Oklahoma City 2015
Talented young NBA players develop new skills and refine their games during their first few seasons in the league — and so do NBA assistant coaches. Few have charted more yearly improvement than Jamahl Mosley, who serves as the defensive coordinator on Rick Carlisle’s Dallas Mavericks staff, one of the league’s finest incubators of coaching talent. There’s a certain blend of personal qualities executives look for in first-time head coaches: affability, discipline, mental fortitude, self-awareness, intellectual curiosity and energy. Mosley checks every box and has the added benefit of a graduate education in X’s and O’s from one of the game’s best tacticians.
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Fellow Mavericks assistant Stephen Silas impressed in interviews with both Houston and Atlanta in recent seasons and now presides over the NBA’s top-ranked offense in Dallas. With the right audience of players eager for a new voice, Silas’ intelligence and unassuming manner, along with the tactical ingenuity he brings to the facility every morning, could be the right fit.
A franchise luminary calls it quits after an illustrious reign. Rather than open up the search to a bevy of candidates, the franchise taps a longtime assistant with deep organizational ties.
The prevailing assumption is that when Gregg Popovich ultimately retires in San Antonio, a member of the Spurs family will succeed him.
Previous examples: Utah 2011 (midseason), Miami 2008, Boston 1988
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In the ongoing NBA parlor game “Who’s Going to Succeed Pop?” San Antonio assistant Will Hardy is a morning line favorite. Steeped in Spurs gestalt, Hardy, 32, has performed just about every function imaginable in the organization, from grinding in the video room to deep immersion in the Spurs’ player development apparatus to summer league coach and now the bench. Adored by the brass and courted by the Warriors in 2017 for their G League opening, Hardy has a deep understanding of modern basketball and the flexibility it demands.
Ime Udoka has the unanimous respect of the Spurs organization from top to bottom, having served on Popovich’s staff for seven seasons following a seven-year NBA playing career. Now with Philadelphia alongside Brett Brown, Udoka is a reliable, process-oriented coach with measured confidence and a way with players.
Two for the future
They might be a few years away from consideration, but keep an eye on these coaches.
The community of midlevel front-office execs who closely follow the G League and the player development scene name current Thunder assistant Mark Daigneault as a brainy coach with promising upside. Daigneault coached the Thunder’s G League team for five years before moving to Donovan’s bench, where he has distinguished himself with his disposition and direct but empathetic manner of communicating with players and co-workers.
After 11 years as head coach of the women’s programs at UC Santa Barbara and Cal, Lindsay Gottlieb was offered the job with the G League’s Iowa Wolves but ultimately opted to join the Cavaliers’ coaching staff. Since her arrival, Gottlieb has wowed with her attention to detail and temperament. When the Cavs’ young stars grow frustrated headed into a timeout, Gottlieb is often the first face they look for on the bench, and her developmental work with Collin Sexton has impressed players, colleagues and management. Her analytical mind and problem-solving lead some to believe that she could also be considered as a future NBA GM.
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