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.