What We Can Expect from Each New NBA Coach This Season
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Every NBA team experiences some change when a new coach takes the helm. The question is: how much?
It all depends on how different the replacement is from his predecessor, and how insistent he is on emphasizing those differences.
Is this regime going to stick to the old on-court philosophy, or will it try to fit the players already there into a new system? Will this coach connect to an overburdened roster, or will he restore discipline to an unruly locker room?
These questions won't be answered in full until regular-season play begins, but we can glean some ideas from what people close to the new coaches are saying.
Atlanta Hawks: Mike Budenholzer
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With a Gregg Popovich disciple running the Atlanta Hawks, there's going to be a much closer relationship between the coaching staff and the front office.
That much was clear on draft night, as the Hawks came away with a pair of international prospects—Dennis Schroeder and Lucas Nogueira—in the first round. The emphasis on foreign scouting is a hallmark of the San Antonio Spurs dynasty, and Mike Budenholzer, along with GM Danny Ferry, deserves credit for pushing the Hawks in that direction.
It’s not just O’s and X’s, it’s relationships with players and managing practices, developing strategy and making it fit with the players you have, all that sort of thing. He also along the way really developed a knowledge of the (salary) cap, how trades are made, how free agents affect the group, what’s the five-year plan, what’s the eight-year plan. He became very valuable in all ways here in the organization. He’s basically got it all, no exaggeration.
It also makes sense when you consider Paul Millsap replacing Josh Smith. Atlanta's new power forward makes about half the money the old one did and has a more reliable mid-range jumper. That will give Budenholzer greater roster flexibility and better floor spacing.
He was recruited by Pop back when the Spurs boss was coaching at DIII Pomona, then joined his staff and followed him to the NBA. It's a pretty safe bet Budenholzer will try to keep following in his mentor's footsteps.
Boston Celtics: Brad Stevens
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It takes a special breed of player's coach to build an NCAA title contender at Butler. In that vein, Brad Stevens is an ideal candidate to oversee the Boston Celtics' rebuilding efforts.
As former Bulldog Matt Howard told Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe, the 36-year old coach excels at two things: Earning his charges' trust and taking the game as it comes to him:
He has a great bond with us players and I think he really tries to get to know each player, how they tick and try to make them better, ... And then within the game, I haven’t been around anyone who is so good at making adjustments. You go and watch Butler over the years out of timeouts, see how effective and efficient they are, that’s coaching. There’s so many angles and he’s always one to learn. I think that makes for a great coach.
The most important question from the personnel side for Stevens is how he will use Rajon Rondo. While the divisive point guard allegedly clashed with Doc Rivers and his veteran teammates in years past, his new coach envisions him as a leader, both on and off the court.
Per ESPN Boston's Chris Forsberg: "I think he's eager for that challenge," said Stevens. "And I'm looking forward to that. I've talked to a lot of the guys that are on this team already, and I think we've got a good young group that, I'll tell you what, has been great to meet. They seem eager and excited. They all speak very highly of playing with him."
Under Stevens, Rondo will be the go-to guy, leading a balanced team taught to play tough, smart and selflessly. It's the way of the future for the now-upstart Celtics.
Brooklyn Nets: Jason Kidd
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A unique feature of Jason Kidd's quick turnaround from veteran guard to rookie coach is that he can view his Brooklyn Nets from an opponent's perspective.
In comments to Peter Schrager of Fox Sports, Kidd expressed doubt that last year's Nets could come through against high-scoring offenses.
"My experience against Brooklyn was once they got to 88-90 points, they kind of came unplugged, so I want this team to get up and down, but you can't forget about (Brook) Lopez," Kidd said.
Granted, he made that statement before Brooklyn traded for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett—a transaction abetted by Kidd convincing KG to waive his no-trade clause.
Inserting those two vets into the lineup will surely cause Kidd to take his foot off the gas pedal and allow his squad to stick to a half-court attack. On the other hand, the second unit should still be looking to run.
Per Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald, the neophyte on the sidelines says he will have no trouble limiting Pierce's and KG's playing time if and when he needs to:
I’ve always called the regular season dress rehearsal for the real season and winning a championship. KG and Paul are warriors, and they want to be out there. There are times when you look in that locker that the jersey won’t be there. That’s the best way to keep those guys in line.
Of course, this is what Kidd says—that he will be able to apply his point guard perspective to the team's offense and that he will have the strength to lay down the law when need be. That's the plan; we'll see if the star-laden roster will respond to its new leader.
Charlotte Bobcats: Steve Clifford
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Now on their sixth coach in seven seasons, the Charlotte Bobcats desperately need Steve Clifford to provide some stability.
According to DeAntae Prince of Sporting News, the latest Bobcats head man comes with serious names behind him. Clifford names Tom Thibodeau, Jeff Van Gundy and Stan Van Gundy as coaches from whom he has developed his approach.
That explains the Al Jefferson signing. He would not appeal to Clifford's defensive-minded teachers, but his presence on the left block will allow Charlotte to run a bruising half-court offense. Furthermore, expect a greater emphasis on Kemba Walker to distribute the ball from the point as opposed to scoring first.
Yet, he won't fully shy away from Walker's speed in transition, nor will he attempt to transform Jefferson into a defensive pillar. He has his influences, but the players at his disposal will have the greatest impact on his game plan. Clifford told Prince:
The challenges always change, ... Players get older, you have different guys, but my sole effort from now until the end of whenever season ends, I need to try to be the expert on these players, get them playing to their max, have the right system, have the right staff, set the right tone and be the right coach for this team.
We know that means he'll lean on Jefferson, Walker and their offensive skill. Filling out his lineup and building a defense will depend on which supporting players stand out during training camp.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Mike Brown
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Mike Brown and the Cleveland Cavaliers have literally been here before; there are fewer mysteries in his second coaching stint.
Yet, Anderson Varejao is the only Cav remaining from Brown's previous tenure, so much of the roster is getting to know him for the first time.
Dion Waiters told Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal that not only was Brown preaching defense first, but that he was doing so with a heretofore unseen thoroughness.
“I knew right then he was very detailed-oriented as far as what he wanted us to do and how he wanted us to do it,” Waiters said. “It’s going to be different.”
Considering he's taking over a very youthful group, Cleveland's once-and-future coach stresses the importance of instilling this team with two-way discipline early and often:
It’s something that has to be drilled on a daily basis, has to be preached on a daily basis, ... And the guys have to understand how important it is to you and the rest of the staff and the organization. They have to understand there’s going to be accountability if the smallest of small details doesn’t get taken care of on that end of the floor.
On the offensive end, don't look for the infamous Princeton offense to rear its head. Not only does Brown likely lack the fortitude to use it, but the Cavs don't have the off-ball talent to run it.
What they do have is a bona fide star who excels off the bounce. Much like LeBron James dominated the ball for Brown his first time around, everything should run through Kyrie Irving now.
Denver Nuggets: Brian Shaw
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Let's start with this: As ESPN reports, Brian Shaw will not bring the triangle offense to the Denver Nuggets.
I jokingly said to (Jackson), "Coach, I thought playing for you and working for you would be my biggest asset. Actually, it's hurt me the most," ... I've never gone into an interview and said, "I only believe in the triangle and this is the system I'm going to run." But I understand everyone's thought process because it's such a unique system.
Rather, Shaw is going to finesse his new squad toward a more methodical offense without forcing it there. After all, he has a speed demon in Ty Lawson running the point and no reliable post-up scorers, let alone a dominant one. Under those conditions, the triangle would be impossible.
In order to implement change in Denver, Shaw needs the players to buy in. As the longtime assistant puts it, that has to do more with how he acts now as opposed to what he has done before:
They don't necessarily care how much you know, they want to know how much you care, ... I've been through a ton of things in my life that puts things in perspective for me so when I sit down with a player and I say, "I know how you feel, I can relate to that because I've dealt with that," they feel it.
That's Shaw's only hope of maintaining the Nuggets' franchise peak. Without George Karl's system, this team will slide unless it trusts in the new coach.
Detroit Pistons: Maurice Cheeks
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Even before Maurice Cheeks was officially announced as the coach of the Detroit Pistons, according to Brendan Savage of MLive, he was already showing Jonas Jerebko, Kim English and Khris Middleton some tough love. Jerebko said of Cheeks:
Me, Khris and Kim were out there shooting and I had a couple flip-flops on, messing around, and he told us when you're out there you have to put in work, ... He told us on Day 1 what he wanted. I definitely respect that.
That's what you want as a player. You want somebody to tell you what to do. I won't be wearing my flip-flops no more.
In Mo Cheeks' eyes, you don't rise above the lottery by screwing around. The changing culture was readily apparent to English, who noted it as a shift in the right direction:
He commands respect. You have no choice but to respect him. It's the right thing. You want discipline. You want to do everything the right way. Without a doubt it will be done the right way with Mo Cheeks.
As for the on-court product, the front office has essentially decided Cheeks' style of play for him. The best three players on this team are Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond; they're going to pound the ball inside and they are going to slow the pace.
There is also the matter of whether Smith plays small forward or power forward, but that's less a matter of Cheeks' opinion and more about the former Hawk hitting his jumpers. The coach will simply emphasize what he can control: consistency and mindset.
Los Angeles Clippers: Doc Rivers
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We have watched Doc Rivers lead the Celtics from futility to a championship, showing he can turn veteran talent into a winning product.
He has talent in spades with the Los Angeles Clippers, to the point that his only concern is teaching his players how to play team basketball.
In an interview with USA Today's Sam Amick, Rivers explained that youth is the thing that is holding the Clippers back most:
This is a younger team. This is a younger group. And so I think it will be really interesting to find out, "Do you want to stand out, or do you want to win?" For young guys, that's hard to understand that if you win, you do stand out. Or, you can stand out alone and you'll get a lot of accolades, but you won't win and that's an individual thing.
It's obvious that L.A.'s bread and butter will be the two-man tandem of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, using guys like J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley to create space in the middle.
Rather, Rivers' X's-and-O's focus will be on the defensive end. If Griffin and DeAndre Jordan cannot form a better interior unit, they'll continue to be a liability in the postseason. Protecting the rim will be key if Doc wants to succeed.
Memphis Grizzlies: David Joerger
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The Memphis Grizzlies were the only NBA team to promote a new coach from their own ranks this offseason.
If anyone was going to, it was the Grizz—a franchise built on defensive intensity and grit-and-grind mentality.
In order to retain that identity, David Joerger had to stay in the fold.
From Clay Bailey of the Associated Press (via The Tennessean): “This is a blue-collar town, and I’m a blue-collar guy,” Joerger said. “I came up the hard way. I came up through the minor leagues.”
The mastermind behind Memphis' elite defense hasn't coached an NBA team before, but he has won titles in the International Basketball Association, Continental Basketball Association and the D-League. With that background, he will approach this job with the intent to build on an already sterling track record.
“I am ready for this opportunity,” he said at a news conference. “I have won in the past. I know how to win. We’re going to win.”
The system will remain the same under Joerger. He just needs to maintain his roster's respect in order to keep the winning formula working.
Milwaukee Bucks: Larry Drew
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There are a lot of player-oriented coaches in the NBA, but none so open and adamant about it as Larry Drew.
Per the Associated Press (via ESPN), Drew developed such a close relationship with Kyle Korver when he coached him in Atlanta that the small forward texted him his congratulations upon landing the Milwaukee Bucks job.
The way he sees it, Drew will form many comparable bonds with his new players.
"That's not going to change. I'm going to do the exact same thing coming here to Milwaukee," Drew said. "We're going to become buddies. We're going to become good friends."
It would be particularly helpful for him to get close with John Henson and Larry Sanders. Drew told the AP that he would have big roles for Milwaukee's rangy, athletic big men, but he was unwilling to commit to anything more philosophically—at least at this point.
"I'm not a big fan of predictability," Drew said. "Offensively, I think that's very easy to defend."
More on this as Drew's team—and particularly Henson's and Sanders' offensive games—develop, but this reads like coach speak for a guy who will simply go with whatever offensive game plan fits this roster. He can't see it right now, but he'll work something out in time.
Phoenix Suns: Jeff Hornacek
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Jeff Hornacek knows exactly how he wants to run the Phoenix Suns; he has done the math.
In his conversation with Grantland's Zach Lowe, the former guard revealed a surprising trust for numbers over subjective on-court experience:
The one thing I really like to show players, which I don’t think a lot of them actually look at, is just simple shot charts. Where do they shoot the ball well from? And where don’t they?
You’d be surprised how many times I ask a player, “If I make a play for you to shoot from the free throw line, that’s a great shot for you, right?” And the guy will say, “Oh, yeah, absolutely.” And then I’ll pull out the sheet and show him he only shot 34 percent last year from that spot. I don’t think they understand where they shoot well from.
The quest to get his players the best possible shots will lead Hornacek to run a high-octane offense, which will rely heavily on Phoenix's two point guards. He continued:
Sometimes it might shake out one way or another, but our vision is to be a good rebounding team, where we can just get the ball and hit the first guy you see. And in our set offense, depending on the plays we run, maybe it’s Goran one time with Eric off the ball, but Eric goes on the ball for another set of plays. We’ll have to get a feel for it.
Hornacek has the advantage of a relatively blank slate for his Phoenix overhaul. Players not used to his analytics-based logic could resist his teaching, but that won't be a threat to the coach's authority.
Nearly everyone on the Suns is expendable; Hornacek's system will be the constant, while the parts may shift around.
Sacramento Kings: Mike Malone
When Cowbell Kingdom's James Ham visited a Sacramento Kings predraft workout, he was treated to the unanticipated sight of Mike Malone doing more than just running the show; he was playing D and trying to redirect shots.
“For me, it’s great because I want these guys, when they leave here, to have a feel for me and what I’m about,” Malone said. “They can spread the word that you go to Sacramento, Coach Malone is going to be out there working with you and preaching defense and teaching. I want to see guys that can understand and buy in.”
That makes Malone an interesting kind of coach: He's a player's coach who is committed to leading a disciplined squad.
So wonder no longer why the Kings brought him in to work with DeMarcus Cousins and Co.
Malone will stress the fundamentals with Sacramento—moving the ball around on offense and keeping up tight rotations on the other end. Depending on which talented but ineffective Kings players keep up with Malone's demands, that will determine his minutes distribution.
No King is exempt, especially not Cousins. Malone will certainly try to build his team around the talented center, but unless Boogie can get his mindset and work ethic in check, don't be shocked if Malone holds it against him.
When the coach has his whole heart invested in the team, the players must match him as well.