Biggest Challenge Each New NBA Head Coach Is Facing Entering 2014-15
First years on the job can be difficult.
You're still new, figuring out how things run, sometimes battling the adjustments that come with relocating. The initial experience can make you anxious. But what the actual experience does is nothing compared to thinking about what it does.
Certain NBA coaches have to know what we're talking about—like this year's crop of newbies, for instance.
Nine teams hired new head coaches over the summer. Not all of them are rookies, to be sure.
All of them, however, are new to their situation, facing obstacles and barriers of different kinds—some of which are bigger and more season-defining than others, a few of which may even result in loss of sleep, appetite or proverbial marbles.
How they juggle their new problems matters.
What are their most-pressing tasks exactly?
To the drawing board!
Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz
Biggest Challenge: Backcourt clarity
Quin Snyder was one of the better basketball minds on the open market, and it's a good thing the Utah Jazz scooped him up. His lauded intelligence will come in handy as they try to figure out who's a point guard, and who's not a point guard.
This is also known as the Dante Exum and Trey Burke conundrum.
Selecting Exum came as a surprise, in part because he wasn't projected to fall that far (No. 5 overall). Mostly, though, he doesn't address a clear need unless the Jazz plan to use him at shooting guard.
Which Exum likely won't be happy about.
"I think I’m still comfortable at the point," Exum said of his performance at the Las Vegas Summer League in July, per the Deseret News' Jody Genessy. "I still want to get the ball in my hands as much as possible. I didn't get it a lot in my hands these last couple of games."
At 6'6", Exum has the physical tools to play shooting guard. Does he have the jump shot? Not at all. But that could come in time. It's his distaste for the 2-guard spot that poses a dilemma, along with Alec Burks' continued presence. Exum didn't even work out for Utah prior to the draft because it already had a starting point guard, according to David Locke, radio voice of the Jazz.
That basically leaves Snyder with two starting-caliber point guards, neither of whom can shoot like 2-guards, both of whom want the ball in their hands as much as possible.
Good luck cracking this Rubik's Cube without also cracking some young, budding, fragile egos in the process, Mr. Snyder.
Stan Van Gundy, Detroit Pistons
Biggest Challenge: Floor spacing
Overpaying Jodie Meeks and Caron Butler hasn't made Stan Van Gundy's job with the Detroit Pistons that much easier.
Both players have three-point range, giving the Pistons—who ranked 29th in long-ball gamesmanship last season—more of what they need most. Actually playing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope should help treat Detroit's deep-ball maladies, too.
But there is only a single cure to their lethal on-court illness—one which the Pistons haven't yet self-medicated with: breaking up their space-sapping frontcourt.
Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond cannot play together. When they do, last season happens. The Pistons rank 21st in offensive efficiency. Smith feels compelled to chuck contested jumpers left, right and center. Detroit misses the playoffs.
Similar hurdles threaten the Pistons' 2014-15 campaign. Monroe will accept his qualifying offer and explore unrestricted free agency next summer, according to Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today, and Smith isn't going anywhere.
It's Van Gundy's job—assuming everyone up front returns next year—to figure out what happens next.
Will more rims be busted, bricks laid and estates fit for amusement park duty built? Or will he somehow teach his team of space-slaying gunners (mostly Smith) how to shoot efficiently?
Either way, Van Gundy's job—as both president and head coach—is not to be envied.
Jason Kidd, Milwaukee Bucks
Biggest Challenge: Talent development and evaluation
The Milwaukee Bucks are not the Brooklyn Nets. They are not expected to win anything next year. That, in a way, makes Jason Kidd's job easier, freeing him from pressure so taxing it compelled him to deliberately spill carbonated greatness all over the hardwood.
Not everything about Kidd's job in Milwaukee is easier, of course. While there's less of an incentive to misinterpret the rules of flip cup, he's not coaching seasoned veterans with profound understanding of the game. Nor is he guiding players fully aware of who they are and what they can do.
From Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker to John Henson and Zaza Pachulia Larry Sanders to Nate Wolters and Kendall Marshall, he's piloting relatively raw prospects who need developing.
Such coaching takes patience and a knack for correcting and adjusting, not to mention a stomach for losing. Lots of losing.
Kidd didn't have to be that sideline-wanderer in Brooklyn. Milwaukee thrusts him to the forefront of an extensive rebuild, charging him with the well-being of inexperienced youngsters, demanding he give the Bucks direction.
"When you're a player, you're going to be criticized," Kidd said at his introductory presser, per the New York Post's Tim Bontemps, "and as a coach, you're going to be criticized."
Fail to effectively mentor his wealth of young minds and Kidd will be criticized just as much as any player or coach out there.
Flip Saunders, Minnesota Timberwolves
Biggest Challenge: Embracing, then executing, a rebuild
Unless Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski's absurdly accurate crystal ball is on the fritz, Kevin Love is gone. In his departure, the Minnesota Timberwolves will find heartache, closure and the means to move on—provided president-turned-head-coach Flip Saunders permits it.
Saunders didn't come downstairs to coach the Timberwolves for fun and good stories he can share while huddled around campfires, toasting marshmallows. He wants to win. And that, as CSN Washington's Ben Standig says, won't change once Love is officially gone:
Saunders returns to the bench for the first time this season since his time with the Wizards ended in January of 2012. After experiencing playoff success with the Detroit Pistons and his first stint in Minnesota -- and disaster in Washington, the 59-year-old probably doesn't want any part of any start-up.
Contending for a playoff spot isn't an option without Love in the powerhouse-packed Western Conference. It was barely an option with him. The Timberwolves are better off starting over. Again.
This roster will be alive with young, intriguing talent following Love's exit. It's imperative that Saunders give players such as Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Anthony Bennett—assuming he isn't shipped elsewhere—Gorgui Dieng and Ricky Rubio plenty of burn. Let Shabazz Muhammad and Glenn Robinson III loose, too. Those players are of top priority; they are the core.
More established talents like Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin, J.J. Barea and Corey Brewer will have to take a back seat. Bench them. Trade them. Doesn't matter (though dealing them would be preferable).
After 10 long years—many of which were filled with false hope—of dwelling near the bottom, the Timberwolves have to get this rebuild right. Saunders must point them in the right direction, resisting the urge to place immediate wins ahead of future prosperity in the process.
Lionel Hollins, Brooklyn Nets
Biggest Challenge: Finding a cornerstone
Lionel Hollins has his work cut out for him with the Brooklyn Nets.
Brooklyn is the rare combination of built-to-win-now and toeing-the-lottery-line. Losing Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingston doesn't guarantee the Nets are doomed to finish outside the Eastern Conference's top eight, but continuity—especially after bidding farewell to Kidd—is of the utmost importance.
Stabilizing the infrastructure begins with laying a foundation. Who is the foundation for Brooklyn, the player who will be featured and leaned upon most?
Kevin Garnett's 38-year-old frame?
There was no clear No. 1 option for the Nets last season. They began the year in disarray before finishing strong enough to clinch a playoff berth, their late-season success coming by committee.
Next year needs to be different and the same. Contributions must come from everyone, but a stabilizing force needs to emerge—someone who, while not necessarily part of Brooklyn's long-term future, ensures the Nets are functional and consistent enough for a postseason return.
It's on Hollins to identify that someone and build his plan of attack accordingly.
Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors
Biggest Challenge: Improving the offense
This is what happens when a team replaces the first coach to guide it toward back-to-back playoff berths in two-plus decades for an offensive-minded, triangle-touted, motion-weak-wise novice.
This is also what happens when Sam Amick of USA Today brings word that the same team—that he says hired Steve Kerr, in part, because it wanted an offensive upgrade—passes on the opportunity to acquire the point-piling Love.
Some will see the Golden State Warriors' refusal to deal Klay Thompson as admirable, and perhaps it is on some level. But rejecting this trade because of what Amick calls a commitment to defense is a two-headed, six-legged, 88-eyed monster.
First, the Warriors better remain an elite defensive team. They ranked third in defensive efficiency last year. Regressing in any way, after emphasizing defense in Love negotiations, would be a failure.
So, too, would an offensive stalemate. Only more so.
Offense is part of the reason Kerr calls Oakland home now. If the Warriors—they of massive offensive firepower—cannot improve on their top-12 standing from 2013-14, people are going to talk. Questions are going to be asked.
Should the Warriors have been more aggressive in their pursuit of Love? Should they have bent to the Timberwolves' demands?
Take a step back or move nowhere at all on the offensive end, and the answer will be an obvious yes. Two times over.
Derek Fisher, New York Knicks
Biggest Challenge: Implementing a system and culture
Coaching the New York Knicks is a massive undertaking for Derek Fisher. Not just because he's new to this, or because the Knicks approached new levels of disappointing last season, but because he's tasked with purging the franchise of systematic stagnancy.
Installing Phil Jackson's famed triangle won't be easy. Some of the personnel fits—Carmelo Anthony, for instance. But the Knicks' roster is a blend of youngsters expected to play big roles (Iman Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr., Cleanthony Early, etc.) and veterans who don't fit the mold of a rebuilding club (Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire, Jose Calderon).
Making the playoffs isn't out of the question, but the Knicks' offense will have to run smoothly—better than last year, when it ranked 11th in efficiency. They aren't built to defend; anything less than an outstanding offense could leave them lusting after pingpong balls next June.
Triangular perfection doesn't come that easily, though. "Anthony and the Knicks deserve some time to figure this out," NBC Sports' Kurt Helin writes. "The triangle offense takes a little while to learn, and a roster that is likely to see more upheaval is not going to make that process easier."
Time is not something Fisher has a lot of. Missing the postseason won't play well when the Knicks are recruiting marquee free agents in 2015. They could use a playoff berth to reinforce whatever they're selling. And then there's the whole Anthony-guaranteeing-a-postseason-appearance thing.
"Yeah, I think so for sure," he said when asked if the Knicks would return to the playoffs next year, per the New York Post's Fred Kerber. "Absolutely.”
Any return to the playoffs will start with a dominant offense; any dominant offense will materialize through some version of the triangle. Fisher must implement said system—that which is complex because of its chameleon-like, adapt-on-the-fly versatility—quickly.
Next season's redemption, as well as New York's foundation for the future, depends on it.
Byron Scott, Los Angeles Lakers
Biggest Challenge: Minutes management
What? You didn't think it was actually going to be "coaching defense," did you?
Although much has been made of Byron Scott's ability—or lack thereof—to impart defensive wisdom upon his new team, that's not his biggest challenge. It's an impossible challenge.
The Los Angeles Lakers don't have the personnel to defend. They ranked 28th in defensive efficiency last season, and there's a good chance they're just as bad, if not worse, in 2014-15.
More realistic than asking Scott to make five-star dessert out of baking soda and prunes, is expecting him to tackle the minutes problems. In their attempt to construct a team that is both competitive and cheap, the Lakers created a number of playing-time battles.
Re-signing Jordan Hill and claiming Carlos Boozer off amnesty waivers could eat into playing time for developing prospects Ed Davis and Julius Randle. It's easy to roll with experience in this case, but Davis and Randle could represent the future. Should Scott limit their exposure for the chance to win a couple more games now?
Toeing along different lines is Kobe Bryant. How many minutes is he capable of playing? How many minutes should he play? Same questions apply to Steve Nash.
Scott's approach to this minutes mess will vary by direction. If the Lakers are hell-bent on winning as much as possible now, exploiting established veterans has its merits. If they're more concerned about talent evaluation and planning ahead, Davis and Randle will become prominent parts of the rotation while Bryant and Nash face stringent minutes caps.
Which way will Scott sway?
Not even he himself likely knows.
David Blatt, Cleveland Cavaliers
Biggest Challenge: Expectations
David Blatt's worst enemy or best friend will be the Cleveland Cavaliers team he's now captaining.
Almost overnight, the Cavaliers went from a 33-win, lottery-lost franchise facing marginal expectations to a star-stuffed superteam projected to contend for an NBA championship. LeBron James and—if all goes according to plan—Love have that effect on team potential.
Grace periods are unicorns now. The Cavaliers won't be given much time to mesh. They'll be held to all-world standards that offer little clarity. Like Bleacher Report's Jim Cavan surmises, their success or failure doesn't follow one discernible path:
That the Cavs might well mimic Miami’s year-one trajectory is certainly plausible. Still, Cleveland’s unique combination of youth, depth and star power makes its mold altogether different. Not better, per se, but different.
Short of missing the playoffs completely, there aren’t many outcomes to Cleveland’s season that would be considered shocking to the basketball-viewing public.
This team Blatt has inherited is unlike any other. Where most new-to-the-NBA coaches face a feeling-out process, he is up against a make-everything-happen-now decree.
Minor improvements won't cut it. Regression would be a cardinal sin. Measurements for their performance will be fluid, but dependent on the Cavaliers traveling in one non-negotiable, predetermined direction: up.
Success might mean flirting with title contention. It might demand nothing short of winning that championship. We don't know.
And neither does Blatt, the rookie sideline-stalker with a job the most venerated veteran couldn't even begin to understand.