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NBA Insiders See Bright Future for These Black Assistant Coaches

A. Sherrod BlakelyContributor IMarch 2, 2021

David Vanterpool
David VanterpoolAssociated Press

The NBA is a transient league in which the only thing you can be sure about is that change is inevitable.

But in NBA circles, change seldom happens when it comes to the hiring of Black head coaches, which has become a hot discussion topic in recent days.

The Minnesota Timberwolves fired Ryan Saunders last week and replaced him immediately with then-Toronto Raptors assistant coach Chris Finch, a move that caught many by surprise—including Minnesota associate head coach David Vanterpool, who is Black.

This is Vanterpool's second season with Minnesota, having spent the previous six as an assistant under Terry Stotts with the Portland Trail Blazers. Vanterpool was among the candidates to interview for openings with the Houston Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers and Timberwolves, who promoted Saunders to head coach following his 17-25 record as the team's interim head coach after Tom Thibodeau was fired in January 2019.

The decision to hire Finch and not give Vanterpool a shot as the team's interim coach raised the ire and concerns of many throughout the NBA, from league executives to fellow coaches who felt so compelled by the decision that they released a statement expressing their concerns about the lack of diversity and transparency in Minnesota's hiring practice.

"It's always bittersweet when one coach is fired and another is hired," read the opening line in the National Basketball Coaches Association statement. "But this is not about individual coaches. We would be remiss not to acknowledge a deeper concern and level of disappointment with the Minnesota head coach hiring process."

The hiring of Finch and bypassing of Vanterpool shined a spotlight on the dearth of Black head coaches in the NBA despite what league executives say is a talent-rich pool of Black assistant coaches.

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On the 30 NBA team rosters, 46.8 percent of assistant coaches are Black, while just 20 percent (six out of 30) of full-time head coaches are Black. That number rises to 23.3 percent when you include Atlanta Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan, who replaced Lloyd Pierce (also Black) after Pierce was fired Monday.

The Black head coaches in the league are J.B. Bickerstaff (Cleveland), Dwane Casey (Detroit), Stephen Silas (Houston), Tyronn Lue (Los Angeles Clippers), Doc Rivers (Philadelphia) and Monty Williams (Phoenix).

While most NBA head coaches come from an NBA bench, there is an exception when former players jump to the front of the head coach pecking order.

We saw that before this season when Steve Nash was plucked to be the Brooklyn Nets' head coach with no prior head coaching experience.

While it's unorthodox, it certainly isn't unprecedented.

The Golden State Warriors hired Steve Kerr away from the broadcast booth to replace Mark Jackson in 2014. Since then, the Warriors have won a trio of NBA titles (2015, 2017, 2018) in five trips to the NBA Finals.

We also saw it with Doc Rivers when he was hired in 1999 by the Orlando Magic with no prior coaching experience.

Rivers, now with the Philadelphia 76ers, won a championship with the Boston Celtics in 2008 and ranks 10th on the NBA's all-time wins list with 966.

The consensus among league executives is the next player to make a similar leap to calling plays will be Chris Paul.

"You look at his leadership, the fact that every team he winds up with is better once he gets there than they were before he arrived. It makes you believe that he'll be a hell of a coach," an Eastern Conference executive said. "I think any organization would be crazy not to see if there's a way to get him on board when he's done playing."

In addition to Vanterpool and Paul, here are some other potential Black head coaches whom league executives believe will be among those strongly considered for jobs in the near future.

   

Chauncey Billups, Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach

Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

Strengths: Leadership; proven NBA veteran with championship pedigree. Teams can no longer use uncertainty about Billups' interest in coaching as an excuse to pass him over. League executives anticipate there will be a more vigorous pursuit of Billups as a head coaching candidate now that he's a Clippers assistant coach and has made his desire to be a head coach clear.

   

Johnnie Bryant, New York Knicks assistant head coach

Strengths: Strong ties with the Utah Jazz as a player development coach who worked with NBA stars Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell, Paul Millsap and Gordon Hayward; watches a ridiculous amount of video on par with his boss, Tom Thibodeau. New York's success this season will likely catapult Bryant, only 35 years old, to the top or near the top of wish lists of teams looking for the next on-the-rise coaching prodigy.

   

Sam Cassell, Philadelphia 76ers assistant coach

Chris Szagola/Associated Press

Strengths: Leadership; established NBA veteran and now a veteran assistant in his second decade on the sideline. League executives thought he would have been a solid choice for the Rockets before they hired Stephen Silas. Interviewed for the Clippers job that went to Tyronn Lue.

   

Jarron Collins, Golden State Warriors assistant coach

Strengths: Even-keeled demeanor; NBA veteran. Has worked in winning culture as a Warriors assistant. Interviewed in recent years for head coaching vacancies with Hawks (2018) and Memphis Grizzlies (2019).

   

Adrian Griffin, Toronto Raptors assistant coach

Ashley Landis/Associated Press

Strengths: Player development; experience working with different styles of play; has been an assistant for five teams; has been promoted to lead assistant at each of his last three stops (Orlando, Oklahoma City, Toronto).

   

Darvin Ham, Milwaukee Bucks assistant coach

Strengths: Assistant with three organizations (Los Angeles Lakers, Hawks, now Bucks); played for six different teams, including the 2004 champion Detroit Pistons; finalist for the Clippers' and Indiana Pacers' head coaching jobs in October.

   

Jason Kidd, Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Strengths: Hall of Fame player; four-plus seasons as a head coach with three playoff appearances. "If getting to the playoffs is the ultimate goal and sign of success for my team, Kidd can get you there," a league executive said. "But taking that next step...He can get you to the playoffs, and I'll just leave it right there."

   

Ime Udoka, Brooklyn Nets assistant coach

Strengths: Vast experience as an international and NBA player; assistant coaching jobs with three teams, including a seven-year stint (2012-2019) with San Antonio and the league's coaching czar, Gregg Popovich; interviewed for multiple head coaching gigs (New York, Charlotte, Atlanta) in the last couple of years. "Ime's a bit of a mystery why he hasn't gotten a head coaching job yet," a Western Conference executive said. "But being in Brooklyn now ... If I had to put money on it, I'd bet he'll get a head coaching job in the next year or two."

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