The role of a defensive coordinator isn’t something that’s exclusive to football.
For a very long time in the NBA, there has often been an assistant coach on NBA coaching staffs that has the responsibility of getting the players ready with general defensive philosophies and opponent specific strategies on a game-to-game basis.
2011 NBA Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau is one of the more famous defensive coordinators of the past couple decades in the league because of the way he helped mold the Boston Celtics into a historically successful defensive-minded team. Only five teams in NBA history have had a defensive rating lower than 99.0 while winning 60 games, and only two of those five teams (99-00 Lakers, 07-08 Celtics) ended up winning the NBA title. He then interviewed for numerous coaching jobs before finally being hired by the Chicago Bulls this past year and running away with the Coach of the Year voting, thanks to transforming his new team into the top seed in the East.
Guys like Elston Turner and Dwane Casey were often in the same boat as Thibodeau, up until the Bulls hired him. They were the defensive coordinators of their respective teams, working as hard as any coach in the league and consistently being passed over for head coaching spots in the league. Casey had a brief stint as the Minnesota Timberwolves head coach, but was fired just 122 games into his time as the head coach.
As more and more defensive coordinators get picked up around the league and tried out in various spots, Elston Turner has remained a guy that often interviews, yet never gets brought in to be the leader of a team. He’s been a mainstay on Rick Adelman’s coaching staff for a decade now, and has often made great strides in turning Adelman’s teams into very good defensive units.
When Turner joined the Kings’ staff, Sacramento had just come off of their most successful season since moving from Kansas City. They were already the 10th best defensive team in the NBA, but they were being noticed a lot more for their offensive execution and stellar ability to share the ball. What Turner did over the next three years with a roster that was playing Peja Stojakovic and Mike Bibby significant minutes was remarkable.
They improved season by season in terms of league rank before finishing with the second best defensive rating in the NBA during the 2002-03 season. In the 2003-04 season, they dropped to 21st in the NBA as they tried to piece together a frontcourt most nights while waiting for Chris Webber to return from a serious knee injury.
When Adelman was fired from Sacramento and ended up taking a job in Houston a year later, Turner followed as well. The first two years, his defensive scheming helped the Rockets be the second and fourth best defensive units, respectively. And even over the last two years as they tried to figure out how to play with a team built around an absent Yao Ming, they were still top 20 in both seasons.
Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic talked to Turner recently about his recent hiring as the defensive coordinator for the Phoenix Suns. Considering Turner has been a part of staffs who have been attacking the Suns’ defense for years, he is easily one of the best candidates for the task of fixing the issues of a team that was 25th in the NBA last season in defensive rating.
We would always attack them and attack the rim," Turner said. "We didn't think there was a great rim presence there. Stay aggressive. Crash the boards. When you flip that, we need better rim protection and rebounding. Those are blanket categories that must improve and are going to improve.
You can't single out Nash, because of his age, and say, 'Stay in front of the quickest guys in the league,' " Turner said. "(Backup point guard) Aaron Brooks will have trouble staying in front of most guys. The whole thing is based upon help. Some need it more than others.
If anybody is capable of turning the Phoenix Suns' ability to stop opponents from scoring at will around, it’s Turner. Hopefully for him, it will be the final stop as a defensive coordinator before he is finally hired to be some lucky team’s head coach.