What does an NBA head coaching candidate look like in 2013?
A few new trends have emerged in the coaching ranks, namely the Rise of the Video Kids (see Spoelstra, Erik; Vogel, Frank), but most hires in the NBA follow a well-trodden path. Owners and executives love a track record of success and will pay top dollar for a big name. NBA assistants with winning pedigrees are still popular, as are former NBA players who look the part. In general, guys whose career numbers are visible on Basketball Reference are preferable to those who never suited up in the NBA, while college coaches are viewed with a jaundiced eye.
Some of these biases make sense on the surface, but general managers and owners are often driven by their aversion to risk. By and large, a head coaching hire ranks behind only free agency and the draft as a primary factor when measuring a front office’s competence. The easiest way to pass this test is to hire a winner. The second easiest is to hire someone who seems like a winner and, if he loses, remind ownership and the public of that pedigree. There’s a reason we see certain names pop up on short lists each time there’s a coaching vacancy -- there’s comfort in familiarity. That sentiment becomes stronger when a dark horse like Mike Dunlap doesn’t succeed in Charlotte.
It’s difficult to assess whether the league as a whole is doing a good job of hiring coaches. There are only 1,230 wins to go around each season, so even if we could identify the 30 most capable NBA head coaches in some foolproof, empirical way, about half of them would lose more games than they’d win -- and some of them would lose a whole bunch. There’s no simple way to look at someone and know for certain whether they can thrive as an NBA head coach.
A survey of several league execs, players and other team personnel about what makes a quality hire revealed a few common themes:
It’s all about the buy-in: Game management, preparation and the whiteboard arts are all indispensable qualities for an NBA head coach, but the ability to earn the faith of a superstar and key rotation players is qualification No. 1. “You can always find a graybeard or a grinder who can come up with coverages,” says an NBA front office exec. “But what most teams are looking for now is someone who knows how to build a culture and get the stars to buy in.”
Risk is in the eye of the beholder: What constitutes a safe or risky hire? Ask a dozen execs and you’ll get two dozen answers. For many, coaches from the college ranks represent a considerable risk, and the NBA coaching trail is littered with big-name NCAA coaches with winning pedigrees who flamed out at the next level. Others cite career assistants as high-risk. “You never really know how much of an assistant’s success is based on who his head coach is, and how much of it is real,” one NBA exec says.
Not every fit is a great fit: NBA organizations aren’t one-size-fits-all. They each have a unique character that starts with ownership and management. Some teams project a buttoned-up corporate culture, while others have that foozball-in-the-employee-lounge, open floor plan feel. A coaching candidate who might thrive in one situation won’t necessarily be the right fit in another. Roster, market and ownership are all major variables when measuring fit.
Money is (almost) always an issue: With each passing season, the NBA inducts more owners who come from a “new economy” background, a place where every expenditure is examined for value and efficiency. In this world, wins are measured by the dollar, so spending $4 million per year for a coach if you feel similar results can be achieved with a coach at $1.2 million doesn’t add up.
As we head into the thick of hiring season, here are seven candidates regarded as capable future NBA head coaches. None of the seven have previously held the head job in the NBA -- and some aren’t necessarily the safest choices by conventional measures -- but each would bring an intriguing set of skills and attributes to the job:
David Fizdale, Miami Heat assistant coach
Give Erik Spoelstra the slightest opening and he’ll gush about the impact Fizdale has had as a stabilizing force, teacher and communicator in the circus environment that’s enveloped the Heat over the past three seasons. Fizdale has been instrumental in the evolution of LeBron James’ post game, as well as the feeding and caring of the Heat’s superstar core. When there are new schemes to be implemented or skills to be refined, Fizdale takes it upon himself to make sure the work gets done.
There are a dozens of assistants in the NBA who are certified basketball brainiacs, but few of them have Fizdale’s combination of acumen and capacity to relate to NBA players, despite having never played in the league.
“[Fizdale] grew up hard and fought to get to where he is,” says another NBA power broker. “It’s given him an ability to connect because he understands where a lot of these guys came from.”
Like Spoelstra, Fizdale is an alumnus of the Heat’s video room during the 1990s. He also cut his teeth in the player development realm at Tim Grgurich’s venerable big man camp and as an assistant with Golden State and Atlanta. There’s a broad consensus that the question isn’t if, but when Fizdale will be tapped for a lead job.
David Joerger, Memphis Grizzlies assistant coach
Not long ago, success as a head coach in the Continental Basketball Association was a reliable predictor of success in the NBA. Phil Jackson, George Karl and Flip Saunders, among others, all came up through the minor leagues before landing on an NBA bench. So did Joerger, who won five championships in seven seasons as a head coach in the IBA, CBA and D-League -- all before turning 35 years old.
“He loves the craft,” says an NBA general manager. “Look what he’s done with [the Memphis] defense. He’s got Thibodeau’s thing for defense, but he’s a lot more likable than Thibs.”
When Lionel Hollins delegated the Memphis’ defensive game plan to Joerger, the Grizzlies were the league’s 24th-ranked defense. In the three seasons since, they’ve finished ninth, then seventh and now second in defensive efficiency, and they did it with Zach Randolph at power forward and an unusually small point guard in Mike Conley. It’s rare that NBA players cite their assistants by name, but Tony Allen routinely praises Joerger’s defensive blueprint as an essential ingredient in the Grizz’s success.
Joerger loves to problem-solve and grapple with game theory, and he has an appreciation of analytics. He knows which NBA point guards, in descending order, reject screens most frequently and understands how to impart that information to players. Most of all, Joerger has an acute awareness of what each player on the roster can and can't do. Randolph won't be asked to perform Joakim Noah tasks, and a unit's collective shortcomings are priced into coverage schemes.
Every NBA team these days wants to patent a defensive system, and those in search of an architect have a natural candidate in Joerger.
Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State head coach
Every once in a while, the name of a prominent college coach will circulate as potential NBA material. The communicative and well-tailored Jay Wright was the trendy choice back in 2009 after Villanova’s Final Four run.
Yet for the most part, college coaches have been seen as untouchable by most NBA front offices after a procession of high-profile failures over the past two decades. Are the principles of college ball not transferable to the pro level, or is the under-performance of college coaches a function of the general disposition of the men in question and the rosters they inherited?
Whatever the case, Hoiberg would have all the bases covered. Unlike most of the coaches from the college ranks who dabbled in the NBA, Hoiberg played 10 seasons in the league and has an intimate knowledge of the rhythms and demands of NBA life. After his retirement, he served in the Minnesota Timberwolves front office and was passed over for the top job in basketball operations when David Kahn was hired in 2009. Hoiberg endured a season in the Kahn administration before leaving to coach at Iowa State, where he has effectively rebuilt a flailing program into a tourney team.
“He’s a worker bee who has proven he can coach,” says one NBA exec. “If [Rick Adelman] decides to retire, he’d be the perfect fit in Minnesota. He has a track record there. He could coach Rick’s team, and even coach Rick’s philosophy.”
In retrospect, striking out on his own to gain valuable experience coaching his alma mater was probably a blessing for Hoiberg. But after a while, recruiting gets old and there’s a lot of goodwill for him among NBA decision-makers who see him as a young coach with a bright future.
Steve Kerr, TNT analyst
Would you rather evaluate talent or put it to use? Manage the expectations of a moody owner or a dynamic player? Construct a message for a coach, or just be the coach?
Kerr’s three-year stint as general manager of the Phoenix Suns proved that, with most NBA franchises, the easiest way to have an impact on the floor is not as an executive but as a head coach. Many insiders feel that when Kerr is ready to jump back in, it will be on the sidelines. He’d likely want a major say in personnel decisions and would look to avoid many of the trappings encountered in Phoenix, but if the right gig came along, he’d strongly consider the challenge.
“Steve speaks and thinks the game and has a lot of institutional knowledge,” an NBA executive says. “He sees the value of 1-through-12 and would understand how to manage delicate personalities in the locker room. After [Phoenix Suns owner Robert] Sarver, it would be a vacation.”
Personality management is more vocation than vacation in the NBA, but Kerr has a shadowbox full of rings. It’s probably not in his nature to plunk them down on a table a la Pat Riley, but a championship pedigree commands respect. Combine that with Kerr’s even disposition and silver tongue, and a convincing profile of an NBA head coach emerges.
Alex Jensen, Canton Charge head coach
Jensen was the near-unanimous answer to the question, “Who’s the most likely future NBA head coach currently in the D-League?”
The 36-year-old Jensen just finished his second winning season as the head coach in Canton, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ owned-and-operated affiliate, but he’s best known in basketball circles as the late Rick Majerus’ star protegee. Jensen played for Majerus at the University of Utah in the mid-90s and was the starting forward on the Utes team that lost the 1998 title game to Kentucky. After bumping around the Turkish league -- with a few stops in between in Japan, Spain and the CBA -- Jensen reunited with Majerus, joining his staff at Saint Louis for four seasons.
Jensen has preached Majerus’ doctrine in Canton, where the ball must be shared and players must defend. He’s taken Majerus’ motion offense and peppered it with some of the basic high ball-screens and pin-downs that dominate NBA offenses.
“[Jensen] is cerebral and smart,” an NBA coach says. “He already had a great feel for the game, then he soaked up everything Rick [Majerus] taught him.”
D-League players have been getting call-ups and making key contributions at the NBA level. It’s just a matter of time before we see an NBA team dig into the D-League ranks for a head coach.
Robert Pack, Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach
Had Vinny Del Negro not been granted a reprieve by Clippers owner Donald T. Sterling in March 2012, Pack would have been a playoff head coach last season as Del Negro’s replacement, despite only three seasons of service as an NBA assistant.
Pack raised his profile as a hard-nosed but fair instructor, the guy on staff unafraid to get in a player’s face and tell him when he’s disrespecting the game. The Clippers’ roster is a tough audience of veterans and young supernovas, but Pack quickly earned credibility as someone who offered coaching and an honest ear.
Pack brings a floor general’s approach to the game, and can claim Darren Collison and Eric Bledsoe as young point guards who flourished under his direction. Chris Paul has conveyed his respect for Pack’s expertise and manner.
The short résumé might give some potential employers pause, but pair him with a seasoned assistant steeped in game preparation and Pack figures to be a quick study. The Clippers were ready to hand him the keys to the family wagon during a playoff run. A young team looking to invest in the future could afford him the time to grow, as Orlando has with Jacque Vaughn.
David Blatt, Maccabi Tel Aviv head coach
If basketball is an American game gone global, then Blatt is its quintessential ambassador. Raised near Boston, he has spent the last two decades establishing himself as one of Europe’s premier coaches, currently with Maccabi and during the 2012 Olympics with the Russian national team.
It’s been a few years since the persistent chatter about an NBA team -- Toronto the most popular hypothetical -- hiring a head coach out of Europe. Whenever that line of inquiry is resuscitated, Blatt is the most oft-mentioned name, along with Ettore Messina (formerly of Mike Brown’s staff in Los Angeles) and Sergio Scariolo (head coach at Milano, and the Spanish national team that’s won gold at the last two FIBA EuroBasket championships).
Blatt’s American upbringing and playing career at Princeton under Pete Carril make him a logical trailblazer should an NBA team want to take the plunge. Blatt wouldn’t likely be lured by an assistant’s spot on the bench nor by a consultant’s title similar to Messina’s with the Lakers.
“[Blatt] would want some authorship of the roster and a seat at the table,” says a member of an NBA front office who keeps a close watch on Europe. “Mike D’Antoni is the analog.”
D’Antoni was the last real import, and no NBA team has expressed public interest in a coaching candidate from Europe recently. Still, the prospect of a mind like Blatt’s taking the reins of an NBA team is a fascinating thought exercise. Given Blatt's body of work, characterizing such a hire a risk would be silly.