The life of an NBA coach, volatile by its very nature, is becoming increasingly unstable with every passing offseason.
The Cleveland Cavaliers' firing of Mike Brown on Monday leaves seven vacancies across the league (including the Detroit Pistons). Combined with the 12 coaching hires last summer, well more than half of the league has hired or fired a head coach within the last calendar year. There are only nine—nine!—coaches who have three seasons of tenure under their belts.
Gregg Popovich was hired nearly 12 full years before the league's next longest-tenured coach, who just so happens to be 43-year-old Erik Spoelstra.
|Head coach||Team||Start date|
|Gregg Popovich||San Antonio Spurs||December 10, 1996|
|Erik Spoelstra||Miami Heat||April 28, 2008|
|Rick Carlisle||Dallas Mavericks||May 9, 2008|
|Scott Brooks||Oklahoma City Thunder||November 22, 2008|
|Monty Williams||New Orleans Pelicans||June 7, 2010|
|Tom Thibodeau||Chicago Bulls||June 23, 2010|
The change is indicative of a league-wide shift in how organizations are run. For years, the NBA was a players-first, coaches-second league. General managers and owners, with some exception, stayed largely anonymous. There were Ted Stepiens who went down in infamy and Elgin Baylors who became franchise fixtures, but the hierarchy was largely the same in Michael Jordan's second three-peat as it was during the Boston Celtics' reign of dominance in the 1960s.
That script has been flipped in recent years. The era of the monolithic coach is over, replaced with an ever-increasing emphasis on organizational synergy.
Coaches of the Year get canned, 50 wins is no longer enough and very good, smart men are left scrambling for a job. If you do not buy into the system from top to bottom, the man leading the charge—typically a general manager—will find someone who does. And the deep-pocketed ownership group employing both men are continuously siding with the decision-makers.
There are a few exceptions, as there are to every rule. Popovich, Doc Rivers and Rick Carlisle will coach for as long as their hearts see fit, as I suspect will Spoelstra and Tom Thibodeau. If your name is not on that list, however, rest assured your job status is constantly being monitored—as are your interactions with your superiors.
With that in mind, I thought it best to check in on every vacancy and assess who fits its broader organizational profile.
(Note: We're not covering the Pistons here. There is no general manager yet in place, and John Loyer still "technically" has a job. Hard to get a read on the situation at the moment.)
(Note No. 2: Just to be clear, these are the best fits—not predictions about who will get the gig.)
New York Knicks: Steve Kerr
Because honestly, there is no other face-saving option at this point. The Knicks are in bed with Kerr, covers on and morning brunch on the way. This is the Phil Jackson Situation 2.0. The process has been dragged out in the press and publicized to the point Kerr holds all the negotiating power, while the Knicks will look bamboozled if he goes elsewhere.
Jackson tabbed him as the top target to replace Mike Woodson early, holds a close personal friendship with the TNT analyst and needs to put his stamp on the franchise. If Kerr spurns New York for Golden State or another job better suited to winning early, it looks terrible. How are the Knicks supposed to convince Carmelo Anthony they can get their (expletive) together if they can't even land the coach they want?
Kerr has zero coaching resume, working three years as the Phoenix Suns' general manager and in television since retiring as a player. But he's learned under two of the greatest minds this sport has ever seen, Jackson and Popovich, and is generally smart, engaging and open-minded. Wherever he goes next season, our television sets are going to miss his insight.
Kerr is also a system guy, born in Jackson's triangle and raised in a Popovichian era before Tony Parker took the reins from Tim Duncan. Players will view him as a conduit to Jackson, running the organization as the Zen Master sees fit. I'm not sure whether running the triangle or a modernized version will work in today's NBA. Part of me thinks the league has evolved past the system and that Kerr will quickly have to alter his philosophy to find success.
Regardless, Jackson can't save face without landing Kerr. Odds are he will. Ian Begley of ESPN New York reported negotiations are picking up steam and are in their "final stages." It's unclear whether Kerr will turn out the right choice, but Jackson and Co. have very publicly married themselves to this outcome.
Golden State Warriors: Stan Van Gundy
In the intro, we briefly discussed organizational synergy. There was no bigger victim to a lack thereof this offseason than Mark Jackson. The Warriors fired Jackson despite back-to-back playoff appearances and leading the team to their first 50-win season in two decades. Jackson also had the unwavering support of his players, most notably Stephen Curry.
It didn't matter. Jackson was combative behind the scenes, getting into spats with assistant coaches and higher-ups within the organization. Tension had been brewing between him and owner Joe Lacob since stalled contract negotiations last summer and spilled over to the point the relationship became toxic.
"Look, I don’t think we should get into the great details of what did happen, other than to say that this is a decision that was based on what was good for the organization as a whole," Lacob told Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News. "And when I say the organization as a whole I don’t mean just the team and just the 15 players that are involved and the coaching staff. I mean everybody. There’s 200 employees here."
That's not a direct confirmation of rumors, but it's as close as you're going to get. Firing Jackson has a secondary effect, though: It puts the pressure squarely on Lacob and general manager Bob Myers. Jackson's confusing rotations and struggles as an offensive game-planner can no longer be scapegoated.
The Warriors need someone who is easier to work with behind the scenes, yes. They also need a coach with a damn good resume.
Enter Stan Van Gundy. The former Heat and Magic coach is far from demure. He'll give public opinions pretty much whenever he pleases. Van Gundy also left his previous two organizations well-liked, with a few exceptions. His demanding nature is more likely to give a culture shock to players used to the preachy Jackson than result in an assistant coach secretly recording conversations.
SVG also has the coaching goods. Take the now-unemployed Jackson out of the mix and he is the best available head coach—arguably by a significant margin. Van Gundy is one of a few coaches who can keep Jackson's defensive principles in place while adding much-needed spice to their offense.
ESPN's Marc Stein noted the Warriors are expected to interview Van Gundy soon and that he's considered the top candidate at this point. The job is attractive enough for him to leave his comfortable TV gig and return to the bench. Should he indicate a readiness to negotiate, Lacob shouldn't allow him to leave without signing a contract.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Alvin Gentry
Brown's body isn't even cold yet, so it's hard to expect all that much on a tangible candidates list. Just know that there is one already circulating through the Cavs front office. Dan Gilbert did not fire Brown, thus agreeing to pay him $16 million to do nothing over the next four years, without no-longer-interim general manager David Griffin presenting possible targets.
Stein was the first to throw out an instantly intriguing name: current Clippers assistant Alvin Gentry. Griffin and Gentry worked together when the former was with the Phoenix Suns, so they already have the prior relationship check mark out of the way. Gentry also prefers an uptempo style, fulfilling the other requirement of a newly hired coach having to represent the polar opposite of his predecessor.
More importantly: He's just a pretty dang good coach. The Clippers finished the regular season with the NBA's most efficient offense, as Gentry was integral in upping their tempo and developing Blake Griffin's (and others') skill sets. With Rivers implementing his Tom Thibodeauian defensive scheme and Gentry taking co-lead on the offense, the Clippers have possibly the league's best coaching staff.
In parts of 12 seasons as a head coach, Gentry's record is mixed. He has a 335-370 career record but has been on the end of some bad-luck jobs. The Suns were gasping for air by the time he took over for Terry Porter in 2008-09, and his three previous head coaching gigs were either temporary or doomed from the start.
It would be interesting to see how Gentry could develop Kyrie Irving. The third-year guard regressed a bit under Brown, with whom he never seemed to mesh. Putting him in Gentry's system and upping the tempo would amount to an unshackling of his offensive gifts. Gentry would need a defense-first lead assistant, as that has never been his forte and Irving, Dion Waiters and others need developmental work on that end.
Of the names we've heard kinda-sorta linked to the Cleveland bench, Gentry's is the best at this point.
Los Angeles Lakers: Kevin Ollie
I tackled this topic in a more nuanced manner last week, so I'll avoid belaboring or repeating a majority of those same points.
For those who don't feel like making a click, here's the gist: The Lakers did not want Mike D'Antoni to leave because they lacked a cogent plan for the future.
The 2014-15 season, more than likely, will be about biding time while waiting for the 2015 free-agent class—where they're expected to be major players. Having D'Antoni as a lame-duck head coach allowed them to enact said plan while having an easy scapegoat when things inevitably went sour. D'Antoni leaving puts the franchise in a tricky situation in which it will attempt to appease Kobe Bryant while not losing its eye on the future.
The only way to pull that plan off? Follow the Boston Celtics route. Hire a young, up-and-coming coach, give him a contract that makes clear to Bryant he stands second on the totem pole and hope you chose wisely. NBA assistants J.B. Bickerstaff, Robert Pack and Quin Snyder are perfectly fine options, as would be current Iowa State head man Fred Hoiberg.
Ollie gets the nod here mainly because he'd be most justifiably given the necessary long contract. He just won a national championship at Connecticut and is undoubtedly due a nice, fat, hefty, robust, rotund raise. Granting him long-term security in Los Angeles along with one of the most high-profile jobs in sports is probably more than enough for his student-athletes to understand an expedient departure.
Sources close to the situation told Fox Sports' Bill Reiter a meeting was imminent between the two sides but has not happened yet. The Lakers are being understandably slow in their process, with general manager Mitch Kupchak indicating no timetable has been set for a hire.
"Although I won’t rule out hiring a coach prior to the lottery on May 20, I think it’s likely that we don’t, because that’s really the first step in terms of additional information for this franchise," Kupchak told Mike Trudell on L.A.'s official website. "Let’s find out what kind of pick we have. That may even help us decide what direction to go with for our coach."
That works fine for Ollie, who can probably stretch this at the very least into a fat raise. Regardless of draft position, the Lakers need to make a hire for the future. Ollie or any of the aforementioned assistants is a good start.
Utah Jazz: N/A
The Jazz have been linked to Italian legend Ettore Messina by Gery Woelfel of the Racine Journal-Times. That's about the extent of the news on that front.
Utah has a nice enough stable of young talent with Trey Burke, Alec Burks, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter forming at least the superficial frame of a long-term starting lineup. The Jazz were mildly competent after Burke returned from injury. This isn't a bad job in the slightest and should be attractive to myriad assistant coaches.
The only reason it hasn't been mentioned more, frankly, is because it's Utah. Messina has been a consultant with the Lakers and formed a reputation overseas as one of the sport's smartest minds. With a secure, high-paying job with CSKA Moscow in Russia, though, it's highly suspect that he would leave a coaching circle where he is so well-respected for a small-market NBA team.
The lure of American professional basketball is strong. Just probably not strong enough to get him to leave for any non-Lakers, Knicks, Big City Job X. A coach currently sitting on an NBA bench as an assistant will land in Utah and probably be better off for it.
If I had to advocate for someone, Bickerstaff, currently working as a Rockets assistant, gets my vote of confidence. But Snyder, Pack, David Fizdale and quite a few others are ready to make the leap.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Fred Hoiberg
Flip Saunders cannot afford to screw this up. His decision-making this summer, starting with the new coach, will likely determine whether Minnesota is a perennial playoff contender or headed for its latest bottoming-out.
Everyone knows Kevin Love's patience with watching postseason basketball from home has evaporated. Love is also going to hit the open market next summer, where he'll command max-contract offers from the bright lights of New York and Los Angeles. Saunders has one shot to get his Neil Olshey on, fix this capped-out roster on the fly and convince Love he can make this work.
Coaching candidates are aware of the pressure they face taking the Timberwolves job, leaving the franchise in a similar situation to the Lakers. Minnesota will have to bite the bullet and make a significant, long-term financial commitment if it doesn't want to settle for the sixth or seventh man down the list. No next-in-line lead assistant or secure college coach is going to touch that gig without at least a four-year commitment.
Given the easiest way to anger Love is to cheap out on coaching salaries, the one area not governed by the NBA salary cap, the Timberwolves will have to acquiesce.
Assuming the above scenario plays out, Saunders should push hard to lure Hoiberg from his alma mater. The former NBA guard is the rare collegiate coach who employs NBA tactics at that level, running his base offense through a balance of pick-and-rolls, transition opportunities and isolations. Iowa State ran the NCAA's 17th-fastest tempo last season and took 37.5 percent of its shots from three-point range, per Ken Pomeroy (subscription required).
Hoiberg lacks NBA coaching experience, but his system should be a solid fit for the various Timberwolves offensive weapons. Ricky Rubio might also finally benefit from a coach who can help him develop into a more consistent jump shooter (Hoiberg was nearly a 40-percent three-point shooter for his NBA career).
Mum has been the word for Minnesota since Stein most recently linked Hoiberg and Minnesota. Michigan State's Tom Izzo and Florida's Billy Donovan have also been linked to the job. Based on a pretty significant sample of their collegiate coaching styles, I'm unsure whether either would be an ideal NBA fit. A transition to Hoiberg, on the other hand, could be seamless.
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