Why Adding Fresh Blood to the NBA Coaching Tree Is the Right Call

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Why Adding Fresh Blood to the NBA Coaching Tree Is the Right Call
Ben Margot/Associated Press

Is the idea of the "retread" NBA coach almost completely dead? 

Sure, some franchises are still interested in hiring head coaches with plenty of experience on the sidelines. But with Phil Jackson in a front office and old-school legends like Larry Brown, Don Nelson and Jerry Sloan apparently drawing little or no interest from teams with vacancies, there's been a pronounced shift. 

Fresh blood is being added to the NBA coaching tree, slowly but surely. Well, maybe not even too slowly at this point.

Just think about the candidates who have been discussed ad nauseam during the playoffs. Steve Kerr has already been hired by the Golden State Warriors, despite not having any coaching experience at any level. Names like John Stockton, Earl Watson, Derek Fisher, Scottie Pippen, Tyronn Lue and plenty more have been bandied about, even though their coaching resumes are just as threadbare as Kerr's. 

And all this comes on the heels of Jason Kidd being hired by the Brooklyn Nets before the start of the 2013-14 campaign, even though he'd only been retired for a period so short it's better measured in days than weeks. 

Granted, many of these former players have learned under one of the members of the old regime. Even though they haven't served as assistant coaches for the more sturdy branches of the coaching tree, they're still going to be de facto offshoots. 

But they're fresh blood nonetheless, and that's a good thing for the league. 

 

The Need for Novelty

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

As the saying goes, you can't teach an old dog new tricks. 

But if you take that sentiment even further, it's rather difficult for an old dog to come up with innovations that will end up becoming league-wide trends. The coaches of the past generation—your Sloans, Jacksons and Nelsons—are set in their ways. They aren't suddenly going to change things and adapt to the times, not when their tried and true methods are still available to them. 

Nonetheless, the NBA goes through cyclical strategic changes. Defenses adapt, then offenses change to provide the counter. And once that trend goes viral throughout the Association, there's another defensive change to make up for the offensive advancement. 

Rather than remain general, though, let's get specific. 

A few years ago, Tom Thibodeau began shaping the Chicago Bulls defense to his vision. He wanted to provide as much weak-side help as possible, trying to pack the paint with plenty of bodies for as long as possible. Thibs figured that he could dare referees to blow their whistles for lane violations as often as they liked, simply because the benefit of extra defensive bodies near the hoop trumped the possibility of technical free-throw attempts. 

Here's ESPN.com's Beckley Mason on the Chicago scheme: 

He is often credited with being the first coach to fully leverage the abolition of illegal defense by loading up the strong side box while having the weakside defenders zone the back side of the defense. In effect, Thibodeau's defenses force ball handlers -- whether in isolation or in side pick-and-rolls -- to the baseline and then send a second defender from the weakside over to the strong side block to cut off dribble penetration. 

Once that proved successful, everyone started following Thibodeau's footsteps. Defenses started trying to use extra bodies in the paint to clog things up for strong-side ball-handlers, and all of a sudden, it was the less-glamorous end of the court that had an advantage. 

Enter Erik Spoelstra. 

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

He wasn't the true innovator of a position-less scheme, but he popularized it and made it as successful as possible by winning both the 2012 and 2013 titles. This hasn't gained widespread acceptance because not every team boasts a LeBron James, but the league is starting to think more positively of combo guards, combo forwards, swingmen and combo big men. 

Essentially, positions are becoming more irrelevant than ever before, thanks to the benefit of tweeners. 

"I've found, through pain of the (losing) 2011 Finals, I needed to look at this team in a different lens," Spoelstra explained heading into the 2012-13 season, via Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today. "And that was key for us to play more position-less, to put our best players out there and to create a system where guys could fully utilize their versatility of playing multiple positions."

Obviously, it's worked. And because of the success, it's spawned adjustments. 

Billy King, the general manager of the Brooklyn Nets, literally admitted that his team was built to beat Miami. While talking on ESPN Radio's The Herd with Colin Cowherd, as relayed by Nets Daily, he said as much: "Yeah, you try to build a team to challenge the champion. So, yes, I would say we did."

USA TODAY Sports

Ultimately, Brooklyn failed in its attempt, but it did set forth the blueprint for how to challenge a team that disavowed play based on traditional basketball positions. By assembling a roster full of big point guards and versatile defenders, your squad gains the ability to switch on virtually any pick. 

Before too long—and this is assuming the Heat stay together or someone puts together a similar scheme—someone will master this strategy. And then someone else will adjust to that. 

But what do the coaches of these aforementioned teams have in common?

Thibodeau was 52 years old when he took over the Bulls and started implementing his vision. He had no prior experience as an NBA head coach. 

Spoelstra was 37 years old when he took over the Heat and 39 when LeBron's presence allowed him to start pondering a scheme that de-emphasized conventional positions. He had no prior experience as an NBA head coach. 

Jason Kidd was 40 years old when he took over the Nets and started leading a team that could switch in any situation. He had no prior experience as an NBA head coach. 

Noticing a trend here? 

 

Increases Value of Front Office Vision

The Star-Ledger-USA TODAY Sports

As we learned from the Mark Jackson situation in the Bay Area—or rather relearned—front offices and head coaches can often butt heads. They don't always possess the same type of vision, and that can become particularly problematic when trying to either assemble or lead a team. 

Think back to Lionel Hollins, part of the old regime. 

The head coach was fired by the Memphis Grizzlies at the end of the 2012-13 season, not because he did a poor job leading the squad but because he wasn't on the same page as management. Fresh off the hiring of John Hollinger, formerly with ESPN, analytics were taking over in Memphis, and Hollins wasn't accepting of the change. 

What about George Karl? 

He was let go last offseason by the Denver Nuggets, right after he was named Coach of the Year. Why? Because he and owner Josh Kroenke couldn't get along. It didn't matter that Karl had overachieved during the regular season and had to play without Danilo Gallinari in the playoffs. 

Now, let's fast forward and run with a current example, albeit one with a slightly different situation. Instead of discussing a firing, we'll discuss a hiring. 

Phil Jackson hasn't yet signed off on a head coach since he took over as the president of the New York Knicks. He went after Steve Kerr, who ultimately joined the Golden State Warriors and, in doing so, spurned his former coach. 

Now, Derek Fisher is right at the top of Jackson's wish list, per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski. The current Oklahoma City Thunder backup point guard played under the Zen Master while he was with the Los Angeles Lakers, and he's intimately familiar with his teachings. 

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Tyronn Lue, according to ESPN Los Angeles' Ramona Shelburne is another candidate. Then there's Luke Walton, per Shelburne and ESPN.com's Marc Stein 

There are other candidates, sure, but Jackson seems intent on hiring someone who's already familiar with his system, namely guys who spent time playing for him. He ran that system, the triangle offense, to a great deal of success during his time with both the Chicago Bulls and Lakers, as you might recall.

Reimplementing that system wouldn't work with a dinosaur running the on-court show. It's important to get fresh blood on the sidelines, simply because those new guys can be molded and shaped in the image of the front office.

There's less pushback, and there's plenty more flexibility. And when the front office and coaching staff of an organization agree, more success tends to follow. It's easier to work in harmony than discord. 

Every so often, there's a generational shift, and now seems to be the time that's taking place in the coaching ranks. Of course, that's partially due to age, but there are plenty of other factors as well.

The influx of candidates like Fisher, Stockton, Watson, among others, as well as the hiring of Kerr, promises plenty of on-court innovation, and it also allows front offices to carry out whatever visions they might possess. 

Is the trend toward fresh blood in the NBA coaching ranks a good thing?

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In a way, Stan Van Gundy going to the Detroit Pistons works in a similar way. While he is indeed part of that old regime and qualifies as a retread head coach, he's also serving as president of basketball operations, ensuring that harmonious feeling between the front office and the sidelines. 

There's most assuredly a generational shift going on in many places, and even the franchises who aren't hiring a young gun to lead the coaching ranks are making subtle changes that steer them away from those older branches of the coaching tree. 

So, when will there be fresh blood in front offices?

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