Arc Of History
If you watched an NBA game in 1990, not only did you see many more free throws than you'd see now, but you also didn't see anything like as many 3s. Here's how the game improved. Henry Abbott »Brett Davis/USA TODAY Sports
The coaching carousel slowed down in 2014-15 after a flurry of turnover the previous couple of seasons. While we could conceivably see a couple of firings ahead this summer, most NBA teams and head coaches seem to have happy marriages, as only Sacramento, Orlando and Denver have made in-season changes.
Does this relative calm suggest that NBA teams are getting better at the practice of hiring head coaches?
Like most marriages, it's impossible to know at the altar or under the chuppah what the relationship will look like 15 years down the road. But there's a healthy consensus around the league that the vacancies filled during the Great Purges of 2013 and 2014 were done so thoughtfully.
David Blatt, Mike Budenholzer, Steve Clifford, Jeff Hornacek, Dave Joerger, Steve Kerr, Jason Kidd, Quin Snyder and Brad Stevens -- none has completed two full seasons of service, yet all can claim success relative to expectation. Even Mike Malone, one of the three in-season dismissals, has plenty of sympathizers who feel he got a raw deal in Sacramento.
Numerous conversations with execs, current and former coaches, players and scouts revealed some common ideas about how the league is identifying and hiring coaching talent:
You're a manager first: It's not that whiteboard wizardry is out of fashion, but "can get the buy-in" is the new "defensive mastermind." Tactical prowess means zilch if a coach lacks the power of persuasion to get his team to run all that pretty stuff. To do that, a coach has to manage the sensitivities of his players, all of whom require different messages. He has to handle a large staff, sell ideas to the guys upstairs and schmooze the media (but resist taking credit, lest he tick off players, management and ownership). Owners and general managers hiring a coach appreciate more than ever not only the enormousness of the job, but the nuanced roles that go with it.
The new blood: A couple of general managers noted that the success stories from the classes of 2013 and 2014 are largely first-time NBA head coaches. More notably, the retreads are having a tough go of it. The game is evolving quickly, and those who see a head-coaching gig in the NBA as continuing education are reaping the benefits, and those who feel as though they have all the answers are finding themselves at a loss when they learn the questions have changed.
There's no hard-and-fast formula: The league is learning that there's no one single way to arrive at the first chair on an NBA sideline. Start from the top of the leaguewide standings and you'll find teams coached by: a former player who had stints as both a general manager and a color analyst, a career assistant to the game's top coaching luminary, a standout D-League and CBA champion coach, a Hall of Fame power forward and veteran point guard, neither of whom served a single game as an assistant coach, as well as a legend of European coaching. Accordingly, few front offices have a predetermined type anymore. It's the human, not the resume.
The dual role: Find a grouchy NBA head coach and there's a good chance his primary grievance is that he hasn't been furnished with a roster that can execute what he wants to run. He's also peeved because he hasn't been consulted sufficiently on the selection of those players. In response, a number of prestige head coaches are angling for final authority on all basketball operations matters. Doc Rivers, Stan Van Gundy and Flip Saunders have joined Gregg Popovich as principals who preside over both the sideline and front office. With Danny Ferry in exile, Budenholzer is currently the Hawks' senior basketball ops manager. George Karl and Kidd have a very strong say with ownership in Sacramento and Milwaukee, respectively. But there's good reason why this model rarely succeeds. NBA head coach and NBA general manager are jobs far too demanding to combine unless there's the utmost trust in those empowered with the day-to-day responsibilities (see San Antonio).
In the spring of 2013 and 2014, we canvassed insiders for the names of coaches who, given the opportunity to lead an NBA team, have the tools to succeed. Those on the previous two lists who subsequently have been hired include Blatt, Joerger, Kerr and Snyder.
An individual on the list can't have previously had an NBA head-coaching gig. We also bypass those who have been on the list previously, though it's worth noting Fred Hoiberg, Dave Fizdale, Jim Boylen and Adrian Griffin each popped up more than once this time.
Here are six coaches whose combination of intelligence, work ethic, experience, people skills and temperament make them interesting candidates for an NBA head-coaching position either sooner or later:
Kenny Atkinson, Atlanta Hawks assistant coach
The arrival of a new head coach often signals the exodus of the previous staff. But when Budenholzer was brought on in Atlanta in 2013, Ferry strongly recommended retaining Atkinson, his first hire. Budenholzer didn't need much persuading. Player development was Atkinson's strength and it was a priority in Atlanta. And feedback among the Hawks players was so overwhelmingly positive bringing Atkinson back was a no-brainer.
After four seasons under Mike D'Antoni in New York, Atkinson has flourished in Atlanta as far more than a player-development guy. He's earned a reputation as an affable teacher who is both cerebral and a high-level communicator. He thoroughly enjoys getting on the floor with a player and sees that individual development work as a collaboration between player and coach.
"He believes you can improve as a player, even at the highest level, and that there's always something you can add to your game," Hawks big man Al Horford says. "He's been here for three years with me, and he's challenged me. For instance, before he got here, I was pretty much a shooter on the pick-and-pop. I was never really driving. Kenny has challenged me to put the ball on the floor. It's something we've worked on together, and now it's something I feel comfortable doing."
After a nice college career as a point guard at Richmond, Atkinson had a long career in Europe, where he stayed to coach before heading to New York. He's worldly, with a curiosity for forward-thinking ideas, everything from injury prevention to analytics. He's someone who would look for new solutions as a head coach rather than insist he has every answer and rely on tired conventional wisdom.
Philadelphia general manager Sam Hinkie gave Atkinson a look in 2013, and there's a strong belief around the league that he's earned another series of interviews as one of the top assistant coaches currently on the market.
Tyronn Lue, Cleveland Cavaliers assistant coach
After three seasons under Rivers in Boston and Los Angeles, Lue has quickly established himself as a whole-package coaching prospect. He was pursued vigorously by the Cavs in their head-coaching search last spring, and ultimately finished as a strong runner-up to Blatt, making such a strong impression during the process that Cleveland offered him a deal in excess of $6 million to join them as associate head coach. Who better to complement an Ivy League-educated, often stubborn, first-time 55-year-old head coach who'd spent his career in Europe than a former NBA vet with a passionate knowledge of the NBA game and its rhythms to whom players flock?
"He respects the work that's required to do the job and he has the gift of being able to verbalize things to players in a straightforward way without being offensive," Rivers says. "He sees things in games a lot of people can't see. He'd see opportunities for us -- in games, watching film, observing -- and would bring them to me. He has a chance to be very special."
When Rivers took over in Los Angeles in July 2013, he quickly dispatched for Lue, who spent the entire summer breaking down the league, and meticulously studying the Clippers' core. His observations were instrumental in building the architecture for a defense that finished the season ranked seventh in efficiency.
Clippers players loved Lue, and he's earned the trust of a Cavs roster with several combustible parts. By all accounts, he has been crucial in maintaining relative order and harmony in the locker room. Lue is on a four-year deal, but it's difficult to imagine he'll still be the associate head coach in Cleveland three seasons from now.
Jay Larranaga, Boston Celtics assistant coach
The basketball world is a far more interconnected place than it was 15 years ago. In that time, international basketball has made a strong imprint in the NBA game and the D-League has grown into a laboratory for ideas. As they survey the landscape for potential NBA head coaches, an increasing number of franchises value diversity of experience in a candidate. For those who do, Larranaga is a natural.
Mention of Larranaga's name was met with praise around the league as a hard-working pro who is universally liked and respected. Though Larranaga is the son of longtime college coach Jim Larranaga, he clawed his way up through the ranks without any free passes. He played pro ball in Europe for over a decade, enjoyed a solid run in the D-League as a head coach for two seasons before landing on Rivers' bench in Boston, where he remains under Stevens.
"Coaching is in his blood and he's been around the game his whole life," Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge says. "He's a class act, an intelligent, experienced basketball mind."
In a player's league with know-it-all owners, miked-up coaches and constant media scrutiny, temperament has never been more important. Larranaga scores well in this event, a coach who understands how to relate to a varied roster of players, can motivate a staff and whose likability will endear him to ownership and the media. In 2013, he got a close look from Philadelphia and consideration to succeed Rivers in Boston. He'll continue to appear on lists for vacancies as he hones his identity as a coach.
Sean Miller, University of Arizona head coach
College basketball is safe for fishing again. With the Celtics' hire of Brad Stevens in 2013, the league now has a blueprint for how to successfully transition an NCAA head coach into the NBA: Identify a thoughtful coach who understands that basketball is about the players and has an agile basketball philosophy. Then offer him security and guide him with patience as he builds a culture.
Hoiberg, whom we featured on the 2013 list, is widely regarded as the next college coach who will make the jump, once he finds the right gig. Over the past couple of years, Miller has emerged as a name execs and scouts view as strong NBA head coach material should he get restless in Tucson.
The son of a legendary high school basketball coach, Miller grew up absorbing the game like a sponge. He was a sick ball handler who, as a kid, showed off his skills in "The Fish Who Saved Pittsburgh," and on "The Tonight Show." Stan Van Gundy has said that Miller and Erik Spoelstra are the only two people he instantly knew were born head coaches. As an assistant at Wisconsin, Van Gundy got to know Miller, who was a Badgers graduate assistant.
"He has always understood the game inside and out," Van Gundy told me last year. "What really got me was how he connected with players. It's natural for players to be skeptical of a 23-year-old guy. But right from the beginning, he's working out high-level players -- Michael Finley, Tracy Webster. He knew what he was talking about, knew how to teach, and they connected to him and respected him. It was amazing to see."
Miller is a charismatic but still mild-mannered personality, a good fit for a team that sees the head-coaching position as an organizational pulpit. But he's also not a guy who carries himself as bigger than the job. In short, Miller is a celebrity coach, which will please an owner. But he's not a prima donna, which will please players ... and the exec making the hire. At the moment, there's no indication that Miller has immediate interest in leaving Arizona. Should that change, he'd have suitors in the NBA.
Nate Bjorkgren, Bakersfield Jam head coach
There's a school of thought among some in the NBA that the most valuable attribute a candidate can have is head-coaching experience somewhere -- be it college, the D-League or overseas. Working as a top assistant under an elite head coach offers all kinds of training, but a head coach is the chief operating officer above all else, and there's no substitute for spending time in the first chair, where the buck stops. For years, basketball's minor leagues served as a testing ground for potential NBA head coaches. Phil Jackson and George Karl both wet their feet in the Continental Basketball Association, and Joerger has proved that minor league basketball is still a quality finishing school.
Bjorkgren has compiled a robust D-League resume with sustained success wherever he's landed. He is known as an intensely self-critical coach who viscerally hates losing. His supporters describe someone who has markedly matured over the past four seasons, and he's learned when to push buttons and when to lay off, both with players and staff.
"He's won everywhere he's been," says Warriors assistant GM Kirk Lacob, who was instrumental in hiring Bjorkgren at Dakota when it was Golden State's affiliate. "He does a great job with players. He connects with them on a personal level, and also he cares about their personal careers."
Regarded less as an innovator-philosopher and more as pragmatic problem-solver, Bjorkgren is a likely candidate to soon find his way to an NBA bench as an assistant -- not unlike Nick Nurse, under whom he served as an assistant -- then possibly an opportunity to roam the sidelines down the road.
Ime Udoka, San Antonio Spurs assistant coach
The former journeyman has fewer than three seasons as an NBA assistant under Popovich, but already has a number of fans around the league who have a ton of admiration for his basketball smarts, manner and personal journey.
Udoka was a fourth-round pick in the NBDL draft, and toiled in obscurity until he got an invite from his hometown Portland Trail Blazers, who were in search of a warm body, and he ended up starting 75 games. Naturally, the Spurs came calling, and he was adopted as family, spending three of the final five seasons of his playing career in San Antonio.
"He exudes a confidence and a comfort in his own skin where people just gravitate to him," Popovich says. "He's a fundamentally sound teacher because he's comfortable with himself, he knows the material and players read it. Often times, I'll say, 'Ime, can you go talk to so-and-so? Go talk to Patty Mills, go talk to Timmy, go talk to Kawhi.' And he'll do it better than I would do it -- and I'm not blowing smoke. The only thing I don't like about him is that he doesn't drink, so I can't enjoy a glass of wine with him. He's really boring at dinner."
Players and coaches who know him describe Udoka as a stoic with an even disposition, more of an inner intensity than a roaring fire. At Spurs U, he's at the finest graduate school in the league, alongside another oft-mentioned name, Boylen, who was listed in 2014 as a future head coach. Udoka probably has a couple more years of seasoning ahead of him, but it's not long before he hits the interview circuit.
Doc Rivers doesn't have to build a contender -- Rivers himself was supposed to be the missing piece -- he just has to maintain it. That's the privilege allowed by a roster featuring two top-10 players near the peak of their powers. That's the luxury of carrying at least the fourth-most efficient lineup by net rating each of the past two seasons.
So when Rivers, now in his second season as team president, consistently reaffirms "I like our team" because they're capable of playing at a higher level than last season, he's right; the core has a season under its belt, and the starters plus a sprinkling of Jamal Crawford have scorched defenses.
But when Rivers says they've played worse than they have last season, he's also right. The struggles of the bench have been the haunting issue for the Clippers all season. All of their offseason value acquisitions have underachieved (a strategy not dissimilar to the previous offseason, when the essential difference was Darren Collison wildly overachieving), and the objectives set out for Los Angeles reserves seem to be more about maintaining a pleasant work environment than production off the bench.
Managing expectations has been the story for this front office since the demise of the Sterling regime. The practice facility was top-notch and top players were well-compensated, but basketball operations were left to languish; there was no analytics department previously, no dedicated salary-cap manager. Much of the staff is new and still figuring out how they fit together, even more so with the installation of Rivers’ proxies in Kevin Eastman and Dave Wohl to share the day-to-day general manager duties with Gary Sacks (the lone survivor of Shelly Sterling’s sale stipulations after son-in-law Eric Miller left before the season began). That’s how gaffes like unknowingly hard-capping themselves occurs; the head of the office is focused on playbook strategy and scouting, not salary accounting and regression analysis. As a result, it's been a season of half-measures, backtracking and indecision.
Take, for example, the arrivals for two recent roster additions: Austin Rivers and Jordan Hamilton. In the case of Austin Rivers, the number of mistakes that needed to be hastily corrected to acquire him is startling: It required the admission that Jordan Farmar and Chris Douglas-Roberts were incompatible for this team, that using the bi-annual exception on Farmar -- which contributed to the Clippers’ hard cap and thus the trading away of Jared Dudley and a first-round pick -- was a mistake. That's a lot of errors to own up to in quick succession.
Taking a low-risk flyer on a struggling lottery pick who was once the top high school prospect in the nation is a reasonable proposition. Even if said prospect is the son of the coach and carries perception issues of nepotism. The Clippers are a team sorely in need of players that can be developed.
But pair that with the decision to move another asset in Reggie Bullock and a second-round pick to the Phoenix Suns -- primarily because Doc & Co. were acquainted with GM Ryan McDonough from their Boston days -- well, now at the very least it becomes a justifiable decision executed poorly.
The eternal optimist will consider the acquisitions of Austin Rivers and former first-round pick Jordan Hamilton as a glimmer of hope, though. At least these weren’t aged journeymen staving off retirement, overseas duty in China or both.
The front office flirted with three recent draftees who were at least well-regarded prep prospects if not collegiately (Quincy Miller and Darius Miller being the other two), eventually settling on Hamilton, and that method of thinking runs directly counter to the social-media punchline of Rivers preferring veterans that peaked in 2009. And even then, after announcing intentions to sign Darius Miller to a 10-day contract, the Clippers reversed course and brought good locker-room presence Dahntay Jones. Why? After deciding to try Miller out, they discovered he was not at a satisfactory fitness level, a factoid that would seem like a part of basic due diligence.
It’s a common tactic of the “smart” teams: cycle through young, underachieving prospects. Is it the player? Was it the fit? Is it something their particular organization could address? Danny Green, the former second-round pick who fell out of the league -- that the Spurs waived multiple times -- before catching on and becoming an elite 3-and-D guard, is the most famous recent example.
Players like Green are much more the exception than the rule, though. And if the draft is like playing the lottery, then plucking a player who has slipped through the cracks is like hoping someone couldn’t be bothered to cash a winning ticket: profit can be discovered, but not without a lot of effort.
Which leaves Doc speaking out of both sides of his mouth. He likes his team, but he’s rummaging through castoffs in search of a contributor. His starters play with the urgency of a title window closing at any moment, but he casts the bench with players just happy to be around. And the Clippers keep winning. They’re still third in Hollinger’s Power Ranking, still second in Pythagorean Winning Percentage.
Being innovative is hard. And who needs to do things the hard way when you’re as talent-rich as the Clippers?
Andrew Han is an editor at ESPN.com. Follow him @andrewthehan.
On Dec. 31, the Toronto Raptors ruled the Eastern Conference. On the heels of a magical season, with the corporate and cultural tenacity of #WeTheNorth at its peak, Kyle Lowry’s bullheaded heroics and a smoking-hot bench propelled Toronto to a reason-defying 24-8 record. The believers were vindicated, DeMar DeRozan’s return from injury was on the horizon and the East was there for the taking.
And yet, the Raptors have fallen almost as quickly as they ascended. To watch Toronto since the start of 2015 is to witness hope’s ugly side: bloodless regression.
They’ve gone 18-21 since the new year, dropping to fourth in the East, in danger of losing home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, while the Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks have turned into juggernauts. Lowry, who carried the team in DeRozan’s absence, has spent 2015 worn down and injured while DeRozan, mired by timidity after returning from a groin injury, is only now starting to pick up the head of steam that earned him countless trips to the free-throw line and a spot at the 2014 All-Star Game.
And all of this is overcast by the big defensive elephant in the room. The ball-pressure and double-teaming defense, an undercurrent to their success after the Rudy Gay trade, has completely vanished this season. Since Jan. 1, only five teams have performed worse defensively.
Post-whiplash, a fan base already heavy on emotional extremism -- remember the frenzy at the Air Canada Centre during last year’s playoffs? -- is reacting to something as overlooked as defense with a familiar refrain: panic.
Overhaul the defense. Overhaul everything. Fire the coach. Fire Drake.
But wholesale change in mid-March isn’t only impossible, it’s in nobody’s interest. The execution gap between these and last year’s Raptors is tremendous but the roster is fundamentally the same. Accepting that the problem lies in the nuts and bolts, not the machinery, is vital to understanding the collapse. What’s missing here is what, on both ends, was the catalyst to the 2013-14 Raptors’ success: trust.
With Gay gone, DeRozan and Lowry became the Raptors’ identity. DeRozan’s ability to shed the empty-calorie attempts from his shooting diet, force his way to free throws and hone his drive-and-kick game was vital to the team’s attitude shift. Patrick Patterson and Amir Johnson set hard screens from the short corner and rolled knowing that Lowry and DeRozan wouldn’t waste them on long 2s unless they had to.
The plan heading into the season was to build on that continuity and leverage incremental improvement. But at some point during the early hot streak, the gears shifted and realigned, like a button in the wrong hole of a shirt. Lowry’s early-season tear justified some individualistic decision-making off screens, but that, along with DeRozan forcing things post-injury and Lou Williams’ score-first mentality, led to a backward shift in the identity they created last season. Once better than the sum of their parts, the Raptors became disjointed.
On defense, Lowry hasn't resembled the bulldog from years past. Same goes for DeRozan, who made important strides on that end last season. That, combined with Johnson’s wobbly left ankle hindering his mobility in the early going, has made every other deficiency more glaring.
The Raptors let the results overshadow their goals, and solvable problems turned into entrenched habits. Necessity may be the mother of invention -- the Raptors learned as much in the aftermath of the Gay trade. But progress is never promised.
Friday’s loss to the depleted Chicago Bulls proved a sobering backdrop for overdue self-evaluation. Even with Lowry missing in action, the team finally had to backtrack from its stance that they could, in Johnson’s words to the Toronto Star, “hit the gas” and “pull a San Antonio.”
Anyone who saw the thrashing could understand why. Over and over again, the Raptors tried desperately to muster a big moment and came up empty. DeRozan scored a lean 27 points but couldn’t stop Tony Snell from getting into the paint. Patterson snarled and flexed after made triples, trying to siphon fresh blood from a corpse.
“We didn’t win a championship last year,” said DeRozan after the loss. “We haven’t done nothing to feel that way, think that way. We need to grow every single day and get better, and understand how to win games game in and game out, and not wait for a big situation.”
With 11 games left until the playoffs, the Raptors should be fine-tuning their attack. Instead, they’re trying to rediscover it, grappling with the question of whether a formula predicated on belief can be reclaimed once it is lost.
The soft schedule ahead has built-in advantages; it’s easier to find and stay true to principles when things are easy. But if Toronto finds its groove, it’ll go untested until the playoffs, where the stakes are high and the room for mistakes is thin.
At best, the Raptors can enter the postseason with blind faith, not the level of trust they built last season, and hope things go their way from there. That’s the hole they’ve dug themselves into, their punishment for staying in the dirt for so long. It’s time to see if they can find their way out.
Seerat Sohi is a writer from Edmonton, Canada. Follow her @DamianTrillard.