What to Expect from the NBA's 2nd-Year Coaches
Last season, the NBA received an influx of new coaching talent. Nine first-year head coaches entered the league, and now with one season under their belts, it's time to see what year two holds.
Only three of these second-year coaches will be returning to playoff teams. Steve Clifford in Charlotte, Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta and Dave Joerger in Memphis will all be trying to reach the postseason once again. Jason Kidd, who guided the Brooklyn Nets to the playoffs, will try to do so with his new team, the Milwaukee Bucks.
For the rest of the coaches, it's time for their teams to show some improvement. Coaching leashes seem to get shorter and shorter by the year in the NBA, and so the second season is critical both to a coach's reputation and his future job security.
With all that in mind, let's break down what to expect from all nine of these coaches in their second years in the league.
Despite going just 25-57 in his first year with the Boston Celtics, Brad Stevens seemingly won over just about everyone with his coaching style and demeanor.
I just think that’s a testament of Brad. He hasn’t given up. He’s still coaching his butt off. He hasn’t given up on us, and I think this team has bought into his system, has bought into his coaching style. I think the biggest thing is teams where we’re at right now can really just kind of give up and just say, ‘You know what? Forget this season. Let’s try again next year.’ I don’t think any of us are thinking like that, and it shows in our play. I mean, every night we come out and play hard."
Even though the Celtics were often outclassed last year, it's true that Stevens did get good efforts from his team, particularly on the defensive end. On-ball pressure was a hallmark of his teams at Butler, and the Celtics were able to do a lot of that last year as well.
With a healthy Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley and first-round draft pick in Marcus Smart, the Celtics should really be able to ramp up the pressure defensively. Boston was 18th in defensive efficiency last year despite having no rim protector whatsoever, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see them creep up into the league's better half.
While there still isn't a shot-blocker present, Tyler Zeller is at least serviceable in the middle and will play with energy. Again, Boston isn't going to beat teams with pure talent, but the motivational tactics of Stevens and the attention to detail should help them be competitive more often than not.
Boston is still lacking the kind of star talent needed to be a playoff team, but it seems like a strong defense is going to be the foundation for the Celtics going forward with Stevens. Barring a complete collapse, Stevens will be safe until he gets the opportunity to succeed with a more legitimate roster.
It seems incredibly likely that no attention is being paid to the coaching record of Brett Brown by the Philadelphia 76ers front office and ownership. This is a deliberate rebuilding period, and given the roster he's had to work with, it's impossible to judge Brown on wins and losses at this point.
It's never a good sign when a coach goes 19-63 in his first season, but Brown was successful at getting the 76ers to play with a style general manager Sam Hinkie wants. Here's what Brown told Zach Lowe of Grantland in a Q&A last season:
Q: What on-court ideals did you share [with Hinkie]? That the game should be played at a fast pace?
A: Absolutely. Talk in job interviews can be a little bit cheap. If you watched my team play in London in the Olympics, and if he looked at the programs I have come from, right off the bat, there’s common ground.
Whether it’s pace, or the interest in the 3-point line, or anything to do with probably more offense than defense. Every program I’ve come through has been all about defense, and this year, we’ve struggled at times to defend. The pace has caught me off guard. We’re really moving.
The 76ers had the league's worst offense last year in efficiency, according to basketball-reference.com, but they played at the league's fastest tempo and shot a lot of threes, despite being the worst in the league percentage wise at that, too.
Essentially, Brown has established an encouraged system from management even throughout all the losses, which should be viewed as a positive. It's just impossible to see if his strategies will work when he's trotting out a glorified D-League team every night, and the front office has to know that.
So long as players like Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel keep developing and improving, Brown will be safe. Philadelphia should be terrible once again, but Brown won't be under fire until the 2015-16 season at the earliest. It's all about patience for everyone associated with the 76ers right now.
The start to Jason Kidd's coaching career is one of the most unique in recent history.
After leading the Brooklyn Nets to the second round of the playoffs last year, Kidd now finds himself coaching the league's worst team last year, the 15-67 Milwaukee Bucks.
That's obviously a pretty big swing, but at least in the long term, Kidd might have done well to get himself traded to the Bucks, even if he's put a lot of pressure on himself. Here's Zach Buckley of Bleacher Report:
The Bucks have youth, the one thing Kidd didn't have in Brooklyn, but youth takes time, patience, loyalty and luck to translate to the standings.
Buying time shouldn't be an issue in Milwaukee. The Bucks, perhaps begrudgingly, seem relatively committed to a long-term rebuild. The upside is there for something special down the line, but that line could be running for a while.
How patient will Kidd be with the Bucks young guys, and how patient will the Bucks be with Kidd? It's hard to say how this will play out, as Kidd has a history of wearing out his welcome, dating back to his playing days.
Still, the bar in the short term is at least pretty low, as winning more than 15 games shouldn't be a problem.
Kidd will be judged on his development of players like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker more than anything else, but he'll need to keep his cool and keep the locker room together.
This will be a significantly different challenge than the one he faced last year in Brooklyn, but the Bucks should certainly improve in the standings under his watch.
Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford spearheaded one of the most impressive turnarounds we've seen in a while. After years of playing terrible basketball, Clifford helped lead Charlotte back to the postseason when no one really expected it.
Here's Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today:
First-year Charlotte coach Steve Clifford has changed the culture on the floor in short time. The Bobcats are 31-34 this season, a top-10 defensive team and in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
A coach of the year candidate, Clifford, 52, turned Charlotte into a respectable team with a promising future led by Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker on the court.
'I feel good about the important things that have been established in terms of the way we work, our style of play — balanced play, defensive rebounding first. I believe we have very good guys who are committed to winning. Everything starts with culture. In that way, I feel good about where we are.'
The biggest impact Clifford made was on the defensive end, which is usually where great coaches earn their money. Clifford was somehow able to squeeze out the league's fifth-best defense in terms of efficiency according to basketball-reference.com, despite having Al Jefferson and Josh McRoberts in charge of protecting the paint.
Whether Clifford can have the Hornets defend on that level again will be interesting to watch, but it's clear that his players bought into the defensive system and played with plenty of effort on that end. With Lance Stephenson coming over via free agency, Charlotte should have the talent to compete for a high seed in the East.
It will be important for Charlotte not to take a step back, as we've seen that happen before. If Clifford keeps them moving in the right direction, his name will start to get mentioned with the league's best coaches.
Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer might have had the best rookie year of any of the nine coaches, all things considered. Although the Hawks barely won the No. 8 seed at 38-44, Atlanta pushed the Indiana Pacers to seven games even without its best player in Al Horford.
Budenholzer did a great job of establishing an offensive system based on shooting, which provided some really impressive results.
Here's Mike Tierney of the New York Times:
The system has been a godsend to Korver, who attempted nearly twice as many 3-pointers as 2-pointers this season. It was no force-fed meal for Korver, the N.B.A. record-holder for consecutive games with a 3-point basket.
'There are very, very few teams that win just because they have great talent,' Korver said. 'It’s because they have a good system, and they get players to fit that system.'
With Horford back and the addition of smart offseason pickups like Thabo Sefolosha and rookie Adreian Payne, Budenholzer should have more talent to play with than he did last season.
It would be a surprise if Atlanta did anything but improve this year with that being the case. Budenholzer and GM Danny Ferry, both former San Antonio Spurs employees, have done a great job of bringing over some of those principles and practices to Atlanta.
If Atlanta makes a play for a top-four seed in the East, which certainly isn't out of the question, Budenholzer could be a candidate to win Coach of the Year. It was a surprise that Budenholzer waited so long as Gregg Popovich's top assistant to take a job of his own, but he chose wisely with Atlanta. A big second year could be in store.
Perhaps no one will need to show more improvement in his second year than Denver Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw.
There was a lot that went wrong in Shaw's first season. Losing JaVale McGee, Danilo Gallinari and Nate Robinson for the season was tough, but guys like Ty Lawson missed time as well. The Nuggets were rarely at full strength, and there were blowups along the way with Andre Miller getting suspended. It was ugly.
Here's Matt Moore from CBSSports.com:
Shaw had been consistent with tempering praise in public with reiterations of what had to improve. No number of points, rebounds, or hustle plays were going to make up for blown rotations and the lack of a post game. For everyone else, the effort, more mental than physical, wasn't good enough. Shaw went out and shredded his players post-game. People I spoke with around the league couldn't think of a coach putting his players on blast to that degree in the pros, outside of Jerry Sloan.
Shaw wasn't afraid to call his players out, and it's unclear if Denver will buy in going forward. The Nuggets should be at full health once again, and a return to the playoffs might be expected.
That's going to be awfully tough to pull off in the Western Conference, but with a roster full of guys already getting paid major salaries and little flexibility going forward, that's the goal.
If the Nuggets implode or play with poor effort for stretches again, Shaw could be on the chopping block quicker than you might expect. Last year was bumpy enough to raise some eyebrows, and just marginal improvement won't do the trick. The Nuggets need to be in the playoff hunt for Shaw not to be on the hot seat after this season.
Jeff Hornacek received legitimate publicity for Coach of the Year last season, and for good reason. The Phoenix Suns surprised everyone by competing for a playoff spot until the very last days of the season, despite having such a young roster.
Hornacek finished second in the voting behind Gregg Popovich, which isn't a bad place to be.
Here's Paul Coro of azcentral sports with more on Hornacek:
Drawing from former coaches like his father, Cotton Fitzsimmons and Jerry Sloan, Hornacek showed an immediate acumen for the job with his tactical skills on the sideline and his on- and off-court communication with players. He instilled confidence and chemistry in a made-over roster full of players who were getting the best playing opportunities of their careers and created a system that fit their strengths.
'He brings that quality of the best a player can be,' Suns guard Goran Dragic said. 'He's such a good guy. He's vocal. He's always calm. He understands the game because he played that game and that makes it even easier for us because he understands us. Sometimes, some players if they're hurt or something, they say, 'OK, I'm not going to play.' But, for Jeff, even if I had one leg, I would play for him. He gives me a lot. He's not only a coach for us but he's a friend too. He talks with us a lot. He communicates with us. He's making jokes. That's what brings players and coaches closer and then you would do anything for the coach.'
In year two with the Suns, Hornacek will be looked at to have the Suns continue their positive momentum and crack the playoff picture.
That's a tough bar, but it's one Hornacek set. With Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas and possibly Eric Bledsoe, the Suns will have one of the very best backcourts in the league on the floor at all times, and players like Markieff Morris will be looked at to continue their improvement.
Hornacek's "space and pace" offensive style and ability to get the most out of young players should have him regarded as one of the best coaches in the league after this season, particularly if Phoenix knocks one of the big boys out of the playoff picture in the Western Conference.
Sacramento Kings coach Mike Malone might be in the worst situation of any second-year head coach. Unlike teams that are clearly rebuilding, the Kings are trying to compete in a brutal Western Conference despite not having nearly enough talent to do so.
Here's Lang Whitaker at NBA.com with why Malone might be on the hot seat:
All it takes is for one owner to be unhappy with his team’s performance or placement in the conference — particularly in regard to wherever that owner believes they should be. I am not saying this will happen or should happen, but will ownership in Sacramento, where they are desperate to be competitive, be patient with Mike Malone?
Trades for players like Rudy Gay and a big payroll would indicate that Sacramento thinks it should be competing now, which might be trouble for Malone.
The Kings made no real defensive improvements in terms of personnel this offseason, which is problematic after finishing 23rd in defensive efficiency last year according to basketball-reference.com. Malone was brought on largely for his expertise in that area, but he just doesn't have the pieces in place.
Will there be patience exercised? The constant coaching changes in Sacramento haven't helped over the years, but this is a new regime that might not feel burdened by past choices. If ownership and management are delusional enough to think the Kings are a playoff team, Malone might be in a no-win situation here.
It would be a surprise if the Kings did anything but struggle next season, which could put Malone out of a head job.
Memphis Grizzlies head coach Dave Joerger made one of the most seamless transitions to the big chair, even though there was pressure in taking over a playoff team.
Despite losing Marc Gasol for a good chunk of the year, Joerger kept the Grizzlies on track and notched 50 wins in his first campaign. After a brief flirtation with the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Grizzlies locked Joerger up with an extension to remain as coach.
Here's Tom Firme of Bleacher Report:
[Owner Robert] Pera said that he likes Joerger. The extension seems to suggest confidence in Joerger.
With 50 wins in his first season despite losing the NBA's best all-around center for 23 games, Joerger merits confidence. Not only was the defense solid overall, but the offense was supportive. The team's field-goal percentage improved 2.1 percent on 2012-13 and placed fourth in the league with 13.7 turnovers per game.
For Joerger to continue to inspire confidence, the Grizzlies will need to get over the hump and at least make the Western Conference Finals at some point in the near future. With Gasol eligible for free agency after this year and Zach Randolph getting up there in age, the title window is getting smaller.
Joerger should be safe, so long as Memphis keeps getting into the playoffs and doing damage. This is a team built around defense, and if Joerger can continue to improve the offense and introduce some of the new personnel brought on board, he should be safe in spite of this offseason's drama.
All stats via basketball-reference.com unless otherwise noted.