For players, summer league success has traditionally been affixed with an asterisk -- witness Anthony Randolph and Jermaine Taylor, whose dominance in Las Vegas never translated into NBA glory. For coaches, the barometer in Vegas is even tougher to read. In retrospect, should we look back at perfect records for Dave Joerger and Mike Budenholzer in 2009 and 2010, respectively, as harbingers that they’d be strong NBA head coaches? If that’s the case, should teams around the league look more closely at Pete Myers, whose 2012 Warriors were flawless, and Eric Hughes, whose 2010 Raptors were perfect and ran up gaudy offensive numbers?
Summer league might not be a clear signal that a coach is destined for a career in the first chair on an NBA sideline, but winning the Vegas tournament and finishing with a 6-1 overall record, as Becky Hammon did as the head coach of San Antonio’s summer league squad, isn’t irrelevant. It’s the sort of modest achievement that suggests a coach can sell a common vision to a disparate collection of players, each of whom, by the very nature of summer league, has his own individual agenda.
By virtue of accomplishing that, Hammon is now officially on the NBA radar, however near or far from its antenna. She only has a single season behind Gregg Popovich’s bench under her belt, but those two resumé items certainly put her near the top of the Class of 2014 of assistant coaches. Like the rest of that class, consideration for a head job is likely years away, but given the extraordinary significance a Hammon candidacy would represent at the highest level of professional sports, it’s worth looking at the factors that will move her closer to an interview. We asked a half-dozen general managers and a few veteran head coaches for their impressions.
Get to know you
A few general managers asked about Hammon’s future first qualified what followed with this: “I’ve never met Becky.”
They merely offered it as a disclaimer, a recognition that familiarity established by person-to-person interaction serves as an important first impression. Coaching is like any professional subculture -- it has a very social component. Assistants often grow up together in the scouting ranks, where they might find each other sitting at the bar of a Marriott property late at night. They attend the same off-season coaching clinics and maybe worked at five-star or ABCD basketball camps together.
This world is sometimes referred to as a fraternity. The metaphor is telling, and possibly a moderate hurdle for Hammon. But the underlying message here is the importance of meeting the league, “breaking bread” as the Spurs often refer to communal dinners. Because no matter how impressive an assistant coach looks from afar, teams rarely hire anyone whose mood and manner they haven’t observed one-on-one.
Diversity of experience is as important as diversity of identity
This was consistently identified as Hammon’s strongest asset by decision-makers. Though she went undrafted, she scrapped to build a solid 16-season career in the WNBA in New York and San Antonio, then played at the highest level of international competition.
Then, of course, was her matriculation at Spurs U. After wrapping up her playing career, Hammon was given broad access to the Spurs’ coaching staff during the 2013-14 season. She sat in on coaches’ meetings and, according to Popovich, was even invited to argue during the Spurs’ legendary debates where some of the finest spitballing and bantering in basketball is conducted. Collaboration is a hallmark of Popovich and the opportunity (and expectation) to contribute sharpens a coach’s outlook on the game.
Work-life balance is increasingly valued as a vital personal quality, and Hammon is, well, interesting. She has called herself an adrenaline junkie who, literally and figuratively, swims with sharks and barracudas, per Howard Beck’s comprehensive biographical feature on Hammon. As a teen in South Dakota, she toted around a shotgun but was at heart a gym rat.
For a growing lot of general managers who see the head-coaching gig as a holistic one enhanced by an eclectic set of life experiences, Hammon covers the bingo card -- underdog, international chops, player development and time under a luminary.
The San Antonio Pedigree
The branches of the Spurs’ coaching tree have extended to every corner of the NBA, and it’s not just that assistant who emerge from San Antonio are well-trained. The power of a Popovich endorsement is the NBA’s ultimate seal of approval. NBA general managers and owners have marveled at what a conversation with Popovich during the interview process can do for a candidate.
In Atlanta, Mike Budenholzer didn’t exactly ace the interview. But a call from Popovich that touted Budenholzer’s nuanced qualities and commitment to culture moved opinion. When a rival general manager is ready to measure Hammon’s capacity for a head-coaching job, that power of persuasion, which has the league’s best track record, will be at play on her behalf.
Skills to lead
Peripheral factors like who’s in your corner, a global sensibility and being a social butterfly can help, but nobody hires a head coach who doesn’t convey high-grade basketball smarts. And those who know Hammon rave about her instincts and understanding of the game. She’s quickly established a reputation as an “out-of-the-box thinker” who appreciates the practical application of situational strategy but also the pursuit of new ideas and innovation, like her mentor, who has emphasized that the former point guard knows as much about the pick-and-roll as Tony Parker.
The other big -- quite possibly most important -- piece for an NBA: the buy-in.
However gender-blind players profess to be, the experience of serving under a female head coach is an unprecedented experience for an NBA player. But so far, relatability hasn’t been a shortcoming for Hammon but a resounding strength. The Spurs vets treat her like family. Jonathan Simmons, MVP of the Las Vegas Summer League championship game, called playing for Hammon a player’s coach. This is a quality that will grow over time, especially on a staff where emotional accessibility and sense of humor are essentials for the job.
Virtually every executive stated that Hammon is some years away and will need to log time sitting on the front row alongside Popovich or another head coach. That’s true for virtually every candidate and Hammon is no different.
The larger question is to what extent will Hammon’s gender influence her potential hire when the time comes. Here, there’s a range of opinion from the managerial and coaching community. Some are pessimistic and believe that most owners and general managers are risk-averse. Much like the signing of a gay player, there’s an available excuse that even if they personally don’t have an issue, the locker room might.
But there’s also a contrary opinion cited by three GMs: even if an eventual Hammon hire is a non-starter for a plurality -- or even a majority -- of teams, “all it takes is one.” A franchise that sees in Hammon all the things the Spurs do will be the perfect fit. It’s hard not to wonder if, down the road, San Antonio could potentially be that place.
LAS VEGAS -- The NBA is often referred to as a copycat league, with teams mimicking the styles and strategies of the most successful teams. While it’s not always intentional, incoming prospects will similarly mimic the play of established stars, whether it be with a borrowed crossover move or something more.
Most of the big prospects in Las Vegas will change and develop into their own identities over time, but here are the players they remind us of for now:
D’Angelo Russell reminds me of ... James Harden in first gear
Russell seems to be the most polarizing prospect in Las Vegas, and the reasons for that are eerily similar to the ones Harden encountered when he entered the league.
The primary concern is that Russell may not have the athleticism and explosiveness to be a big-time scorer or a competent wing defender. The 19-year-old point guard hasn’t done much to dissuade anyone from believing that, as he has played almost exclusively at a turtle’s pace so far, rarely showing the type of burst that seems effortless among elite guards.
It is important to recognize, however, that Russell just isn’t a straight-line attacker off the bounce. He prefers to attack horizontally and zigzaggedly so he can create angles and keep the rim protector guessing and on his heels.
In that sense, Russell is quite a bit like Harden. Both are 6-foot-5 lefties who are “lead guards” more than anything else, but they’re also terrors for pick-and-roll defenders. Russell’s vision lends perfectly for that style, too, because he’s capable of exploiting scrambling defenses from the middle of the floor. Some of his turnovers in Vegas have been fantastic ideas, which is hard for some to reconcile, but risk-taking rookies often develop into the league’s very best players.
What might be the key for Russell, as it has become for Harden, is the ability to draw fouls. Harden may be the best guard we’ve ever seen at that, but his changes of pace also plays a big factor in that equation. Russell already moves like Harden and gets similar shots, but he’ll need to speed himself up as the game slows down for him.
Jahlil Okafor reminds me of ... Al Jefferson
This is another comparison that has made the rounds, but it’s pretty hard to unsee. Okafor’s post game is unusually polished, and he already has a stable of reliable moves when he catches it on the block. Chief among them is a nifty little baseline spin, which is something Jefferson has mastered against defenders who overplay his jump hook across the middle.
Jefferson is a relic from an NBA that’s long gone, but he’s so good at what he does that he manages to remain incredibly productive. Philadelphia will certainly hope that Okafor is of the same ilk, and the polish and smoothness he has displayed at 19 years old is certainly a good sign. It often takes a while for centers to figure things out, especially defensively, but Okafor’s size and skill on the block is a ready-made weapon.
When Okafor palms the ball with his giant mitts and surveys the defense in Jefferson’s old No. 8, it’s hard to shake the parallels. The main difference, however, is that Okafor seems to be a much more willing passer, hanging tough against double-teams instead of turning away from them. The best players in the NBA make you pick your poison nearly every time down the floor, and Okafor’s passing will be central to him developing into that kind of player and expanding into a better playmaker out of the pick-and-roll.
While Okafor has a lot of the same moves as Jefferson, the face-up threat isn’t nearly as deadly. Jefferson’s multiple pump fakes may be what he’s most known for, and smart defenders will just stay down on Okafor until he proves that’s a reliable weapon.
It’s not easy being an under-the-rim scorer, but Okafor could be a handful once he better learns to carve out deep post positioning and make clever little duck-ins. There’s so much nuance and skill already present, but when that’s your primary calling card, the details can’t be fussed over.
Karl-Anthony Towns reminds me of ... Al Horford
It’s difficult to describe what makes Towns such an exciting prospect, isn’t it? He may not be elite in any one area, but by no means does that dampen his potential. Horford, his former teammate on the Dominican Republic national team, is one of only a few players in the league with no real holes in their games. Towns is on track to becoming one of them.
Maybe the most impressive aspect of Towns’ summer league performance has been his play as a pick-and-pop big man around the elbows. The way Towns has knocked down that no-elevation 18-footer looks just like Horford when the Hawks big man goes to his bread-and-butter move.
Horford, of course, can do much more than that. He has recently brought the ball up the floor after a missed bucket, which Towns has done a few times for Minnesota already. He’s a skilled high-low passer and has a knack for finding cutters from the middle of the floor, and Towns has similarly shown flashes there as well.
Floors aren’t often this high for 19-year-old big men. Towns may never be the athletic freak Anthony Davis is, but what does a bigger, longer version of Horford with 3-point range look like in a league that’s championing versatility at all five spots? It’s scary to think about.
Jerian Grant reminds me of ... Jrue Holiday
Grant and Holiday ended up falling outside of the lottery after their collegiate careers, but it's not hard to envision a scenario where Grant is an immediate contributor like Holiday was as a rookie.
The two point guards are more similar in their skills than their style, but both are capable distributors out of the pick-and-roll and particularly adept at finding the balance between probing a defense and not getting stuck in the trees. Both are a little shy of 6-foot-5, and the height clearly helps with their court vision.
The outside shooting touch is almost as important, especially since Grant will be spending time in the triangle offense, which de-emphasizes dribbling. Holiday has made a seamless transition to being a spot-up threat next to a high-usage player like Anthony Davis, and Grant will need to do the same with Carmelo Anthony hogging possessions.
There might not be superstar potential present, but Grant’s nearly identical skill-set to Holiday should enable him to become a solid point guard who doesn’t take anything off the table.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson reminds me of ... Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Hyphenated and overcaffeinated, Hollis-Jefferson will face a similar plight to Kidd-Gilchrist, albeit under a smaller microscope. The question is a familiar one: Can you really thrive as a wing in today’s NBA without an even somewhat reliable jumper?
For MKG, a former No. 2 overall pick, a complete teardown of his shooting form was required. He essentially had to start from scratch, and only now are the benefits beginning to bubble up. The overhaul of Hollis-Jefferson’s jumper might not be so complete, but there’s no question it will require work. Lots of it.
For some guys, the jumper just never comes. Tony Allen has managed to have a nice long career without one, but only because he’s an elite defender. MKG seems to be heading down the same path. With his crazy athleticism, 7-foot-2 wingspan and hustle, RHJ could be a very similar type of specialist who will be tough to pull off the floor, despite all his warts offensively.
Kristaps Porzingis reminds me of ... a unicorn
There’s no one even remotely similar to Porzingis. The description of his game almost sounds like make-believe.
The Knicks rookie is 7-foot-2, but he’s capable of running off screens to fire up quick-release jumpers immediately after the catch. By way of his length, he’ll also protect the rim just by being there. It's a combination we’ve really never seen.
Many will say he resembles Dirk Nowitzki, or Andrea Bargnani, depending on what side of the fence they’re on when it comes to Porzingis, but those comparisons for the Latvian big man are far off. Nowitzki posts up and hits impossible off-balance fadeaways, but Porzingis looks more like a giant J.J. Redick, flashing to open areas, staying square and releasing a buttery jumper with near-perfect form.
Porzingis seriously lacks strength and will definitely get pushed around, but he’ll also outrun opposing big men and stress out the types who like to hang back in the paint and protect the rim. Nowitzki survived defensively by becoming great at stripping the ball from opponents, but Porzingis can have a much more substantial impact when it comes to altering shots. He’s a different animal.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have already agreed to pay more than $200 million in future salary (including player options) to re-sign LeBron James, Kevin Love and Iman Shumpert and bring back former Cav Mo Williams this offseason, but their four remaining decisions will shape how their roster looks and whether their luxury-tax payout will reach historic levels. Those decisions focus on free agents Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith and Matthew Dellavedova as well as the contract of Brendan Haywood.
How much will Thompson cost?
Thompson shares an agent with James, who has already said Thompson should "be a Cavalier for his whole career." Considering Thompson is a restricted free agent, which means the Cavs can match any offer he receives, it seems to be more a question of when and how much rather than if Thompson returns to Cleveland.
Back on July 1, Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst reported that the sides were nearing agreement on a five-year deal worth more than $80 million, but such a deal has yet to be consummated.
The Cavs have extended a $6.8 million qualifying offer to Thompson, which he could accept and then become an unrestricted free agent next summer. However, it's rare for a player to choose this route because of all the guaranteed money he would forgo. But Greg Monroe did just that last year before leaving the Detroit Pistons to sign a three-year deal worth more than $51 million this offseason with the Milwaukee Bucks.
A team with cap space, such as Portland, could extend a maximum offer of four years and $70 million to Thompson, which the Cavaliers could match as the Oklahoma City Thunder just did to the Blazers' offer to Enes Kanter. Thompson could also re-sign with Cleveland for up to five years and $94 million.
Considering the Cavs have re-signed Love to a long-term deal for $113 million, they could be looking at a summer of spending nearly $200 million just to lock up the power forward position if Thompson accepts a five-year deal in the neighborhood of the original $80 million report.
The Haywood trade chip
Brendan Haywood averaged 1.6 points and 1.3 rebounds in 22 regular-season games, then played all of two minutes in the playoffs. Still, his contract makes him a valuable potential trade chip for the Cavs to continue to restock their roster.
That's because Haywood's $10.5 million expiring contract for 2015-16 is nonguaranteed before Aug. 1, so it offers a great opportunity for another team to acquire Haywood and immediately waive him to reduce its luxury-tax commitment.
The Cavs, meanwhile, can add another quality player in return for that salary relief. Because the Cavs pay a tax, they can take back a player making up to just more than $13 million in return for Haywood based on NBA salary rules in a trade for just the center.
Cleveland could also trade Haywood to a team with cap space (such as the 76ers) and receive a $10.5 million trade exception (the value of Haywood's contract). It could then use the trade exception to acquire a $10.5 million player later in the season or just take advantage of the cap savings by waiving Haywood itself.
Playoff standouts Smith and Delly
Smith declined a $6.4 million player option for 2015-16 but has yet to find an offer to his liking in free agency, and Dellavedova is a restricted free agent after the Cavs extended him a $1.15 million qualifying offer.
Because the Cavs are over the cap, one of the best ways for them to build their roster is simply to use Bird rights to re-sign a player like Smith, despite being over the salary cap. LeBron is in favor of bringing Smith back: As he said earlier this week, "Hopefully we can bring back J.R."
As for Delly, the Cavs own his early Bird rights because he has been with the Cavs for two seasons, thus allowing them to start his salary at about $5.7 million next season.
Major luxury-tax implications
The NBA luxury tax was set at $84.7 million for 2015-16. The Cavs have already surpassed that total with their nine players with guaranteed contracts for next season, not including Thompson, Dellavedova, Smith or Haywood.
But if the Cavs bring back the former three players and trade Haywood for another lucrative contract, they will pay one of the highest tax bills since the luxury tax was instituted in 2001-02.
Every $5 million above the luxury tax is taxed at an increasing rate. For example, the first $5 million is taxed at $1.50 for every dollar, the next $5 million is taxed at $1.75 per dollar and the $5 million after that at a rate of $2.50 per dollar, as can be seen below:
If Thompson signs a five-year, $80 million deal, Smith comes back for $6 million, Dellavedova signs for $5 million and the Cavs do not take the Haywood cap savings for themselves but instead trade his deal for another $10.5M player, the team's payroll would swell to about $124 million. By virtue of being almost $40 million over the tax line, the Cavs would pay a tax over $131 million for a total expenditure of $255 million of Dan Gilbert's hard-earned dollars.
Therefore, it's unlikely the Cavs bring back all three players and acquire additional payroll for Haywood's contract. Under the aforementioned projection, if the Cavs re-signed Thompson, Smith and Dellavedova and just waived Haywood's nonguaranteed contract, they would save over $51 million in taxes and almost $62 million total due to the increasing nature of the tax, resulting in a total tax of $80 million and a total expenditure around $193 million.
Especially once Thompson is presumably re-signed, the additional pieces of the Cavs' roster will be taxed very heavily because the tax is progressive.
But while Gilbert will be spending to break Cleveland's title curse, paying the tax historically has not meant title contention. Of the six teams to pay a tax over $30 million, only the 2013-14 Nets won a playoff round, and the Knicks paid a tax that high three times for a nonplayoff team. Those 2013-14 Nets hold the tax record of $90.6 million, but the Cavs may have that record in their sights.