9 Assistants on Their Way to Landing Head Coaching Jobs in the NBA
Goodbye, coaching carousel. Hello, coaching meritocracy.
The NBA, like pretty much every other professional sports league, has traditionally treated its coaching ranks like a private country club: When you’re in, you’re in.
As for everyone else? Enjoy the wait.
Refreshingly, the last few years have seen a surge of assistant coaches finally scaling the ladder’s last rung. What’s more, they’re doing it with the full faith and patience of their respective organizations.
From Steve Clifford of the Charlotte Bobcats to Mike Budenholzer of the Atlanta Hawks, Michael Malone of the Sacramento Kings to Dave Joerger of the Memphis Grizzlies, the 2013-14 season saw a seismic shift in the NBA’s coaching demographics.
That trend seems poised to continue apace, as a number of as-yet-unfilled vacancies—with more sure to come—promise a slew of compelling sidebars to the summer’s sexier storylines of free-agent coups and draft-pick hype.
Today, we look at nine assistant coaches poised to make the leap from right-hand man to head honcho in the coming months and years.
Yes, Alvin Gentry has been around the NBA block, most notably as the head coach of the Phoenix Suns from 2009 to early 2013 and the Detroit Pistons from 1998-2000. Since then, he’s served as the top assistant to Doc Rivers with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Gentry is so close to a top seat, in fact, that he was actually granted the title of associated head coach.
Needless to say, you don’t earn that kind of nameplate—by one of the league’s most celebrated skippers, no less—without being really, really good at what you do.
Which is part of the reason why Gentry, who has been noted for his affable demeanor, might be ripe for another go-round, particularly with a young, up-and-coming team in need of a seasoned but patient guiding hand.
Following his retirement in 2002, Ewing wasted little time before joining Doug Collins’ staff with the Washington Wizards. Since then, the Hall of Fame center has pulled stints with the Houston Rockets, Orlando Magic and—most recently—the Charlotte Bobcats, where he now serves as an assistant to Steve Clifford.
Watching Ewing’s career, it’s hard not to think of the old adage, “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.” Indeed, even after 12 years, Ewing can’t seem to get more than polite, passing consideration whenever there’s a head-coaching vacancy.
Ewing confided as much in a July 2013 interview with the Associated Press, conducted shortly after he was hired to be Clifford’s associate head coach (via ESPN.com).
"Every now and again I'm discouraged, but I look at it like, 'Hey, I'm going to keep on working,' " Ewing said. "Right now, I'm blessed to have the opportunity to be coaching in the league. Every experience is a learning experience.”
On a recent episode of The Dan Patrick Show, Ewing was asked whether he believed there to be a bias against "tall coaches." His answer, for lack of a better word, was revealing:
I think so. For whatever reason. When people think of point guards, they think they’re the leader of the team, they’re the floor general. But the center is a floor general, too. We’re just a floor general on the defensive end of the court. We’re the ones batting it back, calling out plays, blocking shots, calling out the pick-and-roll coverages and all that stuff. They just think the point guard is more of a thinking position.
Sooner or later, Ewing’s clout is bound to push him to the top of the heap—to say nothing of his skills, which Clifford described as exemplary enough to “make for a great head coach.”
While perhaps overly paranoid, Ewing's comments about the NBA's preference for point-guard coaches isn't entirely without merit.
Which is why Sam Cassell, the longtime firebrand floor general currently serving under Randy Wittman with the Washington Wizards, could be next in line.
According to The Washington Post's Michael Lee, Cassell was considered a candidate for the Houston Rockets' head-coaching job back in 2011, before Kevin McHale ultimately landed the post.
Here's what then-Wizards skipper Flip Saunders had to say about Cassell's transition from the hardwood to the clipboard (from Lee's story):
He’s been through it. He understands. Sam never played because he was fast or jumped very high. Sam is a guy who didn’t play because of his athleticism. He played because of how smart he was. He knew angles and played to those. He’s able to help and transform that to some of the players.
Since then, the former three-time NBA champ has bided his time, helping All-Star point guard John Wall hone his craft. But you know that next phone call is more a matter of when than if.
Last name sound familiar? It should: He’s the son of longtime NBA coach Bernie Bickerstaff, with whom J.B. got his start as an assistant with the Charlotte Bobcats back in 2004.
After interviewing with the Detroit Pistons, Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns for their respective vacancies last summer, Bickerstaff now serves as an assistant to Kevin McHale with the Houston Rockets.
Bickerstaff’s combination of palpable drive and basketball pedigree will doubtless keep him at or near the top of many a coaching short list in the coming years, although his age—he turned 35 in March—could be enough to deter some.
Still, don’t be surprised if some NBA team, emboldened by the league’s influx of first-time coaches, takes a flyer on the budding Bickerstaff.
For someone with a career winning percentage of .514—better than P.J. Carlesimo (.431), Hubie Brown (.461), Alvin Gentry (.475) and Butch Van Breda Kolff (.513), among others—Nate McMillan sure gets a bum rap.
Especially when you consider that his two previous stops, the Seattle Supersonics and the Portland Trail Blazers, each entailed their fair share of youth-laden dramatics and sheer bad fortune (the Brandon Roy injury, for example).
Since being cut adrift by the Blazers following the 2012-13 season, McMillan has bided his time as Frank Vogel’s top assistant with the Indiana Pacers.
And while Vogel’s job is safe for the moment, his seat isn’t exactly room temperature, either—not after one of the most confounding seasons by an NBA team in recent memory. As such, if all breaks badly in Indiana, McMillan could be sitting in the captain’s chair sooner than later.
Even if his future resides outside of Indiana, McMillan’s reputation as a hard-nosed, no-nonsense coach would play well with a franchise looking to put its rebuilding house in order.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Utah Jazz have each interviewed Griffin for their openings in recent days. And while the Jazz ultimately went with Quin Snyder, Griffin’s reputation as a top-notch assistant with head-coaching promise seems to be growing by the week.
Here’s part of ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz’s take on the Tom Thibodeau assistant:
He had barely filed his retirement papers in 2008 when Scott Skiles and the Milwaukee Bucks offered him a job as an assistant. After two seasons with the Bucks, Griffin joined Thibodeau, with whom he’s developed a close relationship. After coaching the Bulls’ summer-league squad, Griffin stuck around Las Vegas to pitch in at Team USA’s minicamp.
‘You combine that kind of professionalism with that kind of mentorship and you’re going to have a good chance to succeed,’ a general manager says.
The result is a coaching prospect who was characterized by one league insider as 'a player-friendly Tom Thibodeau.’
Resume recommendations don’t get much more sterling than that.
The fact that Griffin has already interviewed for two positions tells you everything you need to know about this young assistant’s stock: You’d better buy it now, because it’s going nowhere but up.
Vanterpool, currently with Terry Stotts in Portland, made a name for himself when he just missed out on the Philadelphia 76ers head-coaching gig last summer (the job eventually went to longtime Gregg Popovich assistant Brett Brown).
Fortunately for him, Vanterpool’s eminently impressive resume isn’t going anywhere. From a report by Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski:
Vanterpool made an immense impression with management, coaches and players in his first season on the Blazers' staff under Terry Stotts, and many in the league view him as a future head coach in the league. Vanterpool works closely with the NBA's rookie of the year, Damian Lillard, with the Blazers.
After finishing his playing career with CSKA Moscow under legendary Euroleague coach Ettore Messina, Vanterpool, 40, spent three seasons as an assistant coach with Messina. Vanterpool was an undrafted free agent out of St. Bonaventure who reached the NBA briefly with Washington and had a successful career in the Continental Basketball Association, China, Russia and Italy.
As the NBA continues to broaden its international influence, that kind of globetrotting career is bound to prove more a boon than a burden.
That, coupled with the kind of player development hinted at by his work with Lillard, proves Vanterpool will remain a force to be reckoned with on the coaching-interview circuit.
Fans who came of age during the 1990s might remember Robert Pack as one of the games most ferocious dunkers—even at an underwhelming height of 6’2”.
Since 2009, however, Pack has steadily been building his coaching resume, logging stints with the New Orleans Pelicans, the Clippers and, most recently, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Like Griffin and Vanterpool, Pack’s relative inexperience hasn’t seemed to hinder his rise to the upper echelon of head-coaching candidates.
Here’s what Pacers skipper Frank Vogel had to say about Ed Pinckney, currently an assistant with Tom Thibodeau in Chicago, via Aggrey Sam of CSN Chicago:
Ed’s someone I’ve known for a long time. I got to know him a lot when I was working with the 76ers. They were obviously right up the street from where I lived. He’s really a knowledgeable guy in the game of basketball, in terms of the big-man play. But working here in this system, under coach Thibs, when you just have conversations with him, you see his experience level and knowledge level has grown to the point that I think that he’d be a great candidate for head-coaching jobs. I think he’d do a great job.
Sam’s profile of Pinckney—who first rose to prominence as the linchpin of Villanova University’s 1985 national championship team—is loaded with insightful, laudatory quotes. They’re so glowing, in fact, that you can’t help but wonder once you’ve finished reading how it is that Pinckney doesn’t have a job already.
Just as long as he doesn’t steal Patrick Ewing’s gig. That could end poorly.
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