Over the past couple of decades, the average NBA franchise has evolved from family business to multinational entity. Whether it's the rise of the new-economy owner and/or the preeminence of management as religion, NBA teams have come to embrace the idea of a workplace not just as a setting where basketball is produced for public consumption, but as an expression of organizational culture.
The superstar might be the face of the NBA franchise in a popular sense, but the head coach is its connective tissue -- the liaison between players and management and its most prominent voice who gives state-of-a-franchise addresses to the media on a daily basis. In the age of the Silicon Valley, in which an NBA team is a holistic pursuit just like every other modern business, a coach can no longer be just a guy with a whiteboard and a pedigree. He must have an appreciation of how an organization functions.
At least that's the theory to which owners and general managers give credence. Are they getting what they want?
Anyone taking a stab at this question stumbles across a strange contradiction. The hiring wave of the past few years has produced a fair share of coaching talent: the top two vote-getters for 2015's coach of the year award, Steve Kerr and Mike Budenholzer, to name just a couple. At the same time, only seven current coaches have held their positions longer than three seasons, and 10 coaches have been fired in the past year.
Teams may have refined their criteria for what they want in a head coach, but on balance they don't seem any better at finding it.
Over the past few months, we've spoken to more than three dozen league insiders, including general managers, head coaches, assistant coaches, veteran players, agents, scouts, analytics operatives and high-level executives on the business side about current trends in the practice of identifying coaching talent. A few common themes emerged in our conversations about the state of things in 2016:
Everyone works in the same building
For many years, choosing a head coach meant hiring someone who could handle game preparation, oversee a staff and manage the 15 guys in the locker room. Today, a head coach is no longer merely a basketball practitioner, but a collaborator who must share a cultural bond with ownership and management.
NBA organizations are no longer bifurcated along basketball-business lines. Teams want assurances that everyone is rowing in the same direction, which is the best way to prevent conflict. That means having a coach who can schmooze sponsors, serve as a mouthpiece for the franchise, and not kvetch about requested demands for his players time from the business folks.
There are more voices than ever in the ear of a head coach, from sports scientists to aggressive execs on the business side favored by new-wave owners. And more money than ever is at stake, which makes general managers more selective about to whom they're entrusting the development of their high-priced talent.
Winning the room
There are a host of assistant coaches in the NBA who are universally admired for their acumen and have a coaching book that sings, but put 'em in a room with a billionaire owner or a slick exec and they look and sound like they're selling a burial plot.
No matter how beautiful a candidate's basketball mind, he has to have an intuitive sense of what both a general manager and owner -- and quite often a star -- specifically wants to hear. One owner wants to feel like he can be bros with his head coach, while another may crave gravitas. One GM needs certainty that a coach echoes his basketball philosophy, while another wants a guy who isn't afraid to challenge sacred cows.
It's an instinct that even 15 years next to a Hall of Fame coach can't be taught. No matter how much the NBA aspires to be a pure meritocracy, there remains a species of assistant coach that, in the eyes of owners and execs, simply doesn't look or act the part.
Back to school
If you're a former NBA head coach who is truly passionate about the teaching and mentoring component of the gig, why spend your time on the golf course or do hits on NBA TV or Sirius XM while waiting for the phone to ring when there are respectable college programs who'd perform backflips to have a pro breathe life into their programs?
Avery Johnson, Larry Krystkowiak and now Mike Dunleavy Sr. have taken head jobs in the NCAA, while Chris Mullin opted to return to St. John's after a dalliance with Sacramento. Execs around the league and coaching agents say NBA assistants would be prime candidates for the head job in college basketball. For most NBA assistants, though, the amenities and perks of the NBA are still a strong pull relative to life on a college campus, where a head coach is expected to recruit, schmooze deans and boosters and deal with demanding parents.
What percentage of his salary should a head coach be paid during a lockout? That's a question that will complicate matters between teams and candidates at the negotiating table this summer. There are three ways to go here: (1) A coach would be compensated a percentage of his salary, but not the whole sum. (2) A coach would defer a certain amount of dollars on a prorated basis to be paid back over the course of the contract. (3) The team would be on the hook for the full amount.
Chances are Tom Thibodeau and other marquee names would be eligible for Door No. 3, but most first-time candidates will likely have to settle for less than 100 cents on the dollar. It's an issue that can get sticky when it's time to etch the fine print on a head coaching contract.
Just as we did in 2013, 2014 and 2015, we asked our insiders who they felt would make a successful NBA head coach. Names on those previous lists include Steve Kerr, Dave Joerger, Fred Hoiberg, Quin Snyder, Tyronn Lue and David Blatt.
Several other names on previous lists were frequently cited this year as well: Atlanta assistant Kenny Atkinson, San Antonio assistant Ettore Messina, Miami assistant Dave Fizdale, Utah assistant Alex Jensen, University of Virginia head coach Tony Bennett, Chicago assistant Jim Boylen, and San Antonio assistant Ime Udoka were the top vote-getters.
Here is our 2016 list of coaching candidates who smart people inside the NBA would include on their interview lists:
Nate Tibbetts, Portland Trail Blazers assistant coach
There are NBA assistants who love to be caught on camera piping in authoritatively during a huddle or whispering into a nodding superstar's ear. That's not Tibbetts, who's an understated but vital presence in Portland. The Blazers' young backcourt praises him for his ability to communicate and provide players with cheat codes -- nuanced observations such as opposing players' tendencies or a play call from the other bench. They also appreciate that he'll gladly hop in a taxi with them at 3:30 p.m. if they want to get in an early pregame workout at the arena. Tibbetts simply loves games, loves the preparation that goes into them and loves being in the gym with players.
Organizations increasingly value head coaching experience at the D-League level, and Tibbets cut his teeth for four seasons at the helm of Sioux Falls in his native South Dakota, then Tulsa for the Thunder organization, which courted him this past offseason to join Billy Donovan's staff. Tibbetts, 38, received an interview in Charlotte for the vacancy that ultimately went to Steve Clifford.
Though he's not a big personality, per se, Tibbetts' combo of player development chops, time as a head coach, positive energy and communications skills is starting to reach front offices around the league. With a slew of openings this spring and summer, Tibbets is likely to visit some executive suites after the Blazers' season ends.
Jarron Collins, Golden State Warriors assistant coach
Former NBA players seem to have fallen a bit out of favor among many decision-makers around the league. They're still valuable members of any staff for their ability to relate to players. But fair or not, they often get tagged as having a lesser work ethic than guys who have toiled away in the dark recesses of the video room, or paid ample dues on the bench or in the D-League.
Collins would give a team all the attributes of a grinder, but with 10 years of playing experience as a consummate locker room guy who has demonstrated as an assistant coach an aptitude for connecting with players.
Luke Walton is among the hottest prospects for a permanent head job (his stint as interim head coach in Oakland disqualifies him from our list), but those in the know say that Collins' was one of the big brains behind the Warriors' early-season run during Steve Kerr's absence.
Some of those who have worked with Collins regard him as one of the quickest studies they've seen come through the league in recent years. They describe a young coach with a knack for schemes and coverages, but who has a quiet intensity beneath his steady demeanor -- more Erik Spoelstra than Doc Rivers, for whom he worked as a scout then assistant coach before heading to the Warriors. He might not outwardly convey competitiveness, but a loss to a fellow member of the coaching staff in a game of one-on-one will leave him stewing for hours.
Collins hasn't hit the interview circuit, but any team looking to concoct some of that Warriors secret sauce could bring in a candidate who checks a bunch of boxes.
Nick Nurse, Toronto Raptors assistant coach
With the current emphasis on workplace culture in the NBA, executives want a coach who transmits positive energy through the grind of the NBA season. As an assistant on Dwane Casey's staff in Toronto, Nurse has established himself as that kind of presence, a coach who sees the daily problem-solving required of a coach as a creative opportunity.
Learning under the tutelage of an NBA luminary has its virtues, but executives now regard experience as a head coach at the professional level -- be it in international competition or in the minor leagues -- as a vital ingredient. Nurse has logged hundreds upon hundreds of games in that capacity over the past 20 years. He served more than a decade in Europe as a head coach before crushing it in the D-League: He spent four seasons with the Iowa Energy, winning a title in 2011, after which he succeeded Chris Finch at Rio Grande Valley, where he won another championship in 2013.
Steeped in the offensive gospel of the new era, Nurse has led the Raptors to a Top-10 finish in efficiency during each of his three seasons as the team's offensive coordinator. He sees the craft of coaching as a lifelong education. He'll reach out to coaching legends for their expertise and to general managers for a sense of what's working and what's not in the league.
Nurse's profile might not have caught the attention of NBA front offices 10 years ago, but his journey coupled with his reputation for preparedness, tenure with a well-respected staff in Toronto and being well-mannered make him an interesting candidate for a team more interested in value than the flashy name.
Chris Finch, Houston Rockets assistant coach
For an NBA coach, it's one thing to talk yourself into playing faster, but quite another to be an evangelical on matters of pace and space.
Finch has an edge, both to his personality and his conviction that an offensive basketball team needs to be constantly pressuring the defense. There's some Mike D'Antoni in him, an undying belief that conventional wisdom should be challenged and new ideas pursued at all costs.
Asked for features they look for in candidates, NBA executives name diversity of experience more frequently with each passing year. Finch coached for a decade in Europe, where the Rockets found him while scanning the globe for undervalued sideline talent. In 2009, they installed him in Rio Grande Valley of the D-League, where he led the Vipers to the title his first season and another finals appearance in his second. He then joined the staff in Houston, where he has been a primary architect of the speedy, bombs-or-bunnies offense.
The Rockets' decision in the offseason should be interesting. Will they be big-game hunters, retain J.B. Bickerstaff, or look at a value coach like Finch, who has the organization's ethos firmly in his DNA?
Stephen Silas, Charlotte Hornets assistant coach
It's tempting to raise an eyebrow at legacy candidates. But those who have worked with Silas, son of longtime NBA player and coach Paul Silas, describe a young coach with humility and an exceptionally good manner with players for someone who never suited up in the league.
After playing four years at Brown University, where he double-majored in sociology and management, Silas worked for five seasons as an advance scout and college scout during his father's head coaching stints with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Charlotte Hornets. After another season of scouting for Washington, he caught on as an assistant with Don Nelson for four seasons in Golden State before returning to Charlotte.
Those who work with Silas describe a curiosity about the game that compels him to formulate new ideas, whether it's a new concept in transition or a practice drill he picked up from Nelson he introduces to Steve Clifford. Jeremy Lin has name-checked Silas as a factor in both his development and in Lin landing in Charlotte as a free agent last summer.
Though the family name helped Silas get a head start, that rapport with players, his understanding of the rhythms of NBA life and his indifference to taking credit should earn him a look a couple of seasons down the road.
Sean Sweeney, Milwaukee Bucks assistant coach
File this one away for future reference, because at 31 with only a couple of seasons on the bench, Sweeney is probably several years away from pitching his services to a general manager. But Sweeney has cultivated several fans around the league who note both the level of responsibility he has been granted by Bucks head coach Jason Kidd, and his work with the young Milwaukee defense (which excelled last season and has improved dramatically since the All-Star break this season).
Sweeney has risen quickly from an assistant job at the University of Northern Iowa to the Brooklyn video room in 2011, then Kidd's coaching staff in 2014. He handled summer league for the Bucks each of the past two seasons. Those who want to geek out can pick up his compendium of X's & O's classics, "101 Plays Of The Playoffs."
A workaholic who lives at the Bucks' facility, Sweeney displays a fiery intensity in Milwaukee. Yet confidantes say nobody is better at defusing tension with some wry, off-handed snark. He takes himself seriously ... but not too seriously.
The Bucks' young core, including Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo, seek out Sweeney's counsel and adore him. He's a refined "system guy," but is aware of the individual and collective limitations of the team and can tweak accordingly.
As one head coach of a rival team put it, "That's a guy I'd want on my staff." Over the next few seasons, we'll see if that translates to, "That's a guy I'd want leading my team."