Inside the Highly Scrutinized NBA Head Coaching Hires in Portland, Dallas

Jake Fischer@JakeLFischerContributor IJune 28, 2021

FILE - In this March 19, 2014 photo, Detroit Pistons guard Chauncey Billups watches from the sideline during an NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets in Denver. A person familiar with the situation says Billups has not made a decision about joining Cleveland’s front office. Billups is weighing several factors and remains unsure if he wants to head up the Cavs’ basketball operations, said the person who spoke Monday, June 26, 2017 to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the talks. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)
David Zalubowski/Associated Press

The hiring and firing of NBA play-callers is often described as a coaching carousel, but this year's version has felt more like a series of dominoes.

And the dominoes certainly began to fall last week as league personnel congregated in Chicago for the draft combine.

When Ime Udoka landed the Boston job on Wednesday—a choice by new Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens that was widely applauded around the NBA—it seemed to signal to many team personnel that Chauncey Billups, another top candidate for the Boston opening, was headed to Portland.

Indeed, Billups was meeting with Trail Blazers ownership that very same day in Seattle, sources confirmed to Bleacher Report.

Of course, the status of Damian Lillard played a central role in the Blazers' coaching search.

On June 5, the All-Star guard publicly called for Jason Kidd to be the next leader of Portland's bench. The gesture clearly indicated a mounting pressure on the Blazers front office.

After years of unwavering loyalty, Lillard has begun acting on his frustration with Portland's inability to return to the deeper rounds of the playoffs. His on-the-record support for Kidd was something that Blazers officials were not expecting, sources said, until it was published and broadcast on social media. When Lillard's comments surfaced, several Portland staffers were surprised his public support was not for former Blazers assistant David Vanterpool, whom he previously endorsed for Minnesota's head job.

Otherwise, it seems Lillard was organically involved in the Blazers' search, which does not appear to truly have considered the "20-25 candidates" that general manager Neil Olshey asserted it would. From the beginning stages of replacing Terry Stotts, Billups was always a name that Lillard and Olshey aligned on, sources said, and the Clippers assistant has received nothing but rave reviews around the league during his first year on an NBA bench.

Like Udoka in Boston, there's a newfound premium being placed on hiring former players, or simply coaches who are known to relate well with players—especially superstars.

Billups is not only a former Finals MVP, but someone who's repeatedly described as having a certain presence and a gravitas to command a room in such a competitive business.

Duane Burleson/Associated Press

Billups had been considered the leading Portland candidate for months, but it does appear that both Brooklyn assistant Mike D'Antoni and San Antonio assistant Becky Hammon were legitimate finalists to fill Portland's vacancy. D'Antoni was billed as the choice somewhere in the middle, a noted offensive guru that could boost Lillard's production and vault him into a legitimate MVP conversation.

Hammon impressed Portland officials and was generally liked among Blazers staffers, sources said. But when Portland reached out for intel from San Antonio figures, the background on Hammon was not nearly as complimentary pertaining to various aspects of day-to-day coaching responsibilities. That sentiment has been echoed by sources around the league. Blazers personnel then cast doubt that Hammon was the candidate to steer the ship through such delicate waters with Lillard.

Blazers chair Jody Allen was the strongest champion for Hammon, sources said. Allen was energized by the idea of hiring the first female head coach in NBA history, also evidenced by the team contacting South Carolina women's basketball head coach Dawn Staley.

As someone who the Blazers website describes as "recognizing the team's role as a powerful catalyst for civic pride," Allen and the franchise's lead decision-makers were also quite cognizant about the questions pertaining to Billups' past, particularly for a high-profile job in the city of Portland, according to sources.

The facts at play: In November 1997, a woman said Billups and his then-Celtics teammate Ron Mercer sexually assaulted her. Billups and Mercer settled a lawsuit for an undisclosed amount of money in January 2000. Both players have maintained their sexual interactions with the woman were consensual.

Billups gave his version of events to Portland ownership, sources said. The allegation hasn't prevented Billups from getting work in the past—at Disney, where he served as an analyst for ESPN, and then the Clippers—and he's continually emerged as a vaunted candidate for roles in and around the league, though there has been significant public criticism this time around.

Billups' longstanding relationship with Olshey, from which the executive brought the point guard to Los Angeles as a reserve from 2011-13, likely further factored into Portland's thinking. That cleared the final roadblock in cementing this long-expected marriage with Billups and the Blazers.

Dallas' decision to quickly replace Rick Carlisle with Jason Kidd also sparked its share of backlash.

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Kidd has a history of domestic violence allegations, beginning with an arrest in 2001—he pleaded guilty to spousal abuse—for hitting his ex-wife Joumana, who later filed a lawsuit in 2007 alleging consistent physical and emotional abuse, as well as adultery. He was also suspended two games in 2013 after pleading guilty to driving while impaired after steering his car into a utility pole in New York in 2012.

For an organization with a noted history of sexual harassment, hiring Kidd, especially on such a brief timeline, prompted questions from the Mavericks fanbase and many around the NBA.

Kidd is also known to be close with Dallas governor Mark Cuban, and several sources with knowledge of the situation suggested Carlisle vouched publicly for Kidd because of his own frayed relationship with Mavericks assistant Jamahl Mosley. A noted defensive mind, Mosley has cultivated strong relationships with Dallas players, particularly Luka Doncic.

It's believed Carlisle felt threatened by the inroads Mosley made with his roster. At 42, Mosley is still able to get on the court and "defend" players in post-practice drills, in turn building a strong rapport.

Kidd's coaching prowess has also come into question from various NBA figures. Yet his success with the Lakers' championship team a year ago, his willingness to learn under Frank Vogel and his ability to ingratiate himself with LeBron James and Anthony Davis are seen as the reasons for his return to candidacy for head coaching roles across the league. Dirk Nowitzki, now onboard as an official adviser, was also said to have played a central role in pushing for Kidd's hiring.

That domino falling would seemingly clear the way for Kenny Atkinson in Orlando. Word about the Magic's own head coaching vacancy has been relatively mum of late, but the former Nets head coach and current Clippers assistant has been the loudest name mentioned for Orlando's open post. It's believed the Magic are looking for a candidate with previous head coaching experience, and Terry Stotts could also be a strong option for Orlando, sources said. The Athletic reported that Penny Hardaway interviewed for the Magic opening.

A former Magic play-caller, Jacque Vaughn, has seemingly emerged as the most likely candidate in New Orleans' head coaching search, sources told B/R. The Pelicans' interview process will likely stretch into later this week, culminating with New Orleans assistant Fred Vinson, but Vaughn's name, even more so than Bucks assistant Charles Lee, is continually mentioned as the Pelicans' leader.

Lee and Atkinson were also considered potential replacements for Lloyd Pierce in Atlanta at the onset of the Hawks parting ways with their former head coach, sources said. Yet with Nate McMillan's ongoing success this postseason, it appears likely that he will return to Atlanta's sideline in a full-time capacity, with a lucrative extension.

Lastly, Washington general manager Tommy Sheppard will conduct a lengthy and thorough search to decide the Wizards' next play-caller. So far, the names most often linked to that opening by league sources have been Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld Jr., whose father is as storied a member of the franchise's history as any, as well as Sixers assistant Sam Cassell, a former Wizards assistant from 2009-14.

It's only a matter of time for the next coaching domino to fall.