Job security is a touchy subject in a league where coaches and executives are hired to be fired and the average player’s career is less than five years. But the dismissal of nearly half the NBA's head coaches last season was enough to send a shock wave through the league. A luminary like George Karl or a 56-game winner like Lionel Hollins could be cut loose in exchange for a younger, less expensive option. If guys like Karl and Hollins weren't safe, what did it mean for the future of the profession?
Denver and Memphis were just two of nine teams that started the 2013-14 season with first-time NBA head coaches. The composition of the Class of 2013 was diverse. There was a lifer assistant, a player who had been in uniform just weeks prior, another former player who had spent a couple of seasons as an assistant, the first big-name college coach to take an NBA gig in years, a winner of five minor league championships as a head coach, a couple of Spurs U. alums, a fiery defensive specialist and a Phil Jackson acolyte.
This season, the coaching search has already officially begun for three teams -- the New York Knicks, Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz. That list probably includes the Detroit Pistons and will likely grow longer as we move closer to the summer.
Several themes surfaced in conversations with team execs, coaches and league insiders about how teams size up a candidate who has never previously served as an NBA head coach:
Fewer obvious names
Those asked to reel off names who excited them struggled to come up with more than a couple. The same question last spring found no such hesitation. “The pond is a little bit fished out,” says one NBA general manager. “There aren't as many logical hires like there have been. Everybody’s more of a reach.”
Tell me who my owner is
League execs insist there is no consideration more important in hiring a head coach than whether he conforms to the sensibility of ownership -- not personal background, whiteboard skills, media relations, city or even pedigree. “If you’re asking me to put together a list [of head-coach candidates], first you have to tell me what the owner’s business philosophy is," a longtime NBA executive says. General managers have come to realize that the only thing worse than not getting their preferred choice installed as head coach is spending the season apologizing to their owner for that choice.
Will salaries bounce back?
There's a fair amount of debate about whether the trend toward smaller paychecks for head coaches has real staying power. Some believe that, with a few notable exceptions, the $5 million per season deal is an endangered species. “If you’re not close to a title, why pay?" says one general manager. Others feel that the new breed of NBA owner is easily lured by celebrity. The thinking goes that nobody buys an NBA team to hang out and share a bottle of wine with a low-cost alternative. The owner wants to be regaled with tales of the NBA by a name-brand legend -- and that costs money.
A call from Gregg Popovich to a team in the market for a head coach can be a decisive factor in a search. "Pop will reach out at the drop of a hat,” a league insider says. “But it’s not the call that does it. He speaks in a voice that a lot of people don’t always hear. He doesn't just praise them for their work, but who they are as people." The Spurs have always had credibility as an incubator of executive and sideline talent, but people around the league say the influence has grown even greater in the past year. “It’s gotten cult-like. ... Not that they don’t deserve it,” says a team executive.
So who’s ready to be a first-time coach?
We performed the exercise about a year ago, when Miami assistant David Fizdale and Memphis assistant Dave Joerger topped the list. Joerger is now coaching the Grizzlies in the first round of the 2014 postseason, while Fizdale continues to be mentioned as among the sharpest assistants in the league, one who will interview again this summer if he chooses to. TNT analyst Steve Kerr has been cited as a head coach in the making, possibly in New York. Though he was effectively ruled out by Flip Saunders on Wednesday for the Minnesota job, Iowa State coach and former Timberwolves player and executive Fred Hoiberg has become a popular name.
In addition to Fizdale, Hoiberg and Kerr -- each named frequently again this spring -- here are seven candidates who are viewed as capable successful NBA head coaches. These aren't necessarily those most likely to get an opportunity, just the guys who have the capacity to make it work if they do:
Ed Pinckney, Chicago Bulls assistant coach
Though they’d deign to admit it, some former players feel head coaches can farm out much of the grind that accompanies the position in the NBA. That wouldn't be the case for Pinckney, who has quickly established a reputation as an inexhaustible worker bee.
As an assistant for Tom Thibodeau, Pinckney has flourished under a serious coach who fetishizes preparation. At the same time, Pinckney has friends all over the game from a lifetime of building up goodwill in basketball as a pro's pro and a teacher.
“Guys would love to play for him,” an assistant NBA coach says. “Anyone who has been around him knows how hard he works and how much he cares. His players would go through walls for him and have a good time doing it.”
The Grizzlies brass was deeply impressed by Pinckney when it invited him in twice last summer during a search that ended with longtime assistant Joerger being elevated to the first chair. With his fluency in Thibodeau's defense, pleasant disposition and intuitive understanding of what it means to be a big man in the NBA, Pinckney is a smart bet to see the inside of a conference room again this summer.
Quin Snyder, Atlanta Hawks assistant coach
It seems like eons ago, but there was a time when Snyder was basketball’s boy king. After appearing in two back-to-back Final Fours as Duke’s starting point guard, Snyder earned a JD/MBA from Duke, served as an NBA assistant to Larry Brown and was named associate head coach for the Blue Devils by Mike Krzyzewski -- all by the age of 31.
Snyder fell from grace after nearly seven tumultuous seasons at Missouri, marred by rumors, allegations and investigations. The experience humbled Snyder, who went from being the most impressive basketball mind of his generation to a cautionary tale. One year after Mizzou, Snyder landed with the Austin Toros before the D-League (then still the NBDL) had any cachet.
“He was basketball royalty on the fast track,” says a front-office executive. “The next thing you know, he’s in the bus leagues.”
Snyder’s supporters and critics both speak of a man with an incomparable general and basketball intellect. By all accounts, Snyder has applied his intelligence to rebuild himself as a coach over the past eight years. He stayed in Austin for three seasons, gaining exposure to the Spurs’ organizational culture. He accepted a role as a player development director in Philadelphia and found a mentor in Ettore Messina, who opened up new windows to the game in Europe. Alongside Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta, Snyder continues to expand his knowledge base with a coach who’s particularly good at conveying ideas to players.
The sense around the league is that if handed a roster of seasoned, cerebral ballplayers who could relate to his analytical instincts, Snyder could thrive as an NBA coach.
Adrian Griffin, Chicago Bulls assistant coach
Odd as it seems to pair a couple of Thibodeau bench assistants on a diverse list of seven prospective head coaches, Pinckney and Griffin both attracted heavy mention, usually independent of each other.
Griffin is not yet 40 -- 39 until July, he's more than 11 years younger than Pinckney -- which means there are a bunch of people in the game who have watched him grow up from youth camps to his stint now as a lead assistant to Thibodeau. Those who have say that, since high school, Griffin has displayed a polished maturity that screams NBA head coach.
He had barely filed his retirement papers in 2008 when Scott Skiles and the Milwaukee Bucks offered him a job as an assistant. After two seasons with the Bucks, Griffin joined Thibodeau, with whom he’s developed a close relationship. After coaching the Bulls’ summer-league squad, Griffin stuck around Las Vegas to pitch in at Team USA’s minicamp.
“You combine that kind of professionalism with that kind of mentorship and you’re going to have a good chance to succeed,” a general manager says.
The result is a coaching prospect who was characterized by one league insider as “a player-friendly Tom Thibodeau.”
Kevin Ollie, University of Connecticut head coach
With a few waivers granted for region or diploma, much of the NBA was rooting for UConn the night of the 2014 NCAA title game.
Ollie was one of the league’s citizen leaders during his 13 seasons as a player, a remarkable length of time for someone with such marginal talent. He was the guy a team keeps around as a graduate assistant and a calming force in the locker room. Now Ollie is a head basketball coach with an NCAA championship to his credit and is a legitimate candidate for openings this spring and summer.
In a league populated by some real sourpusses, there's surprisingly little debate over Ollie's readiness. To the extent there is skepticism of Ollie, it resides in a predisposition against college basketball as good terroir for NBA head coaches.
“He’s gotten along with guys at every level -- college, pro, players, coaches,” says an NBA general manager. “He has high character, knows his stuff, and he’s actually won. Does that mean he’ll succeed in the league? Maybe, maybe not. But what more do you need to see?”
A page at Basketball-Reference may not have as much currency as it used to for head-coaching candidates, but a playing career and a proven track record as a coach is a pretty potent combination.
Tony Bennett, University of Virginia head coach
Brad Stevens maintains a high approval rating around the NBA, but the league wants to see a few more case studies before it designates college basketball as safe for fishing. Wherever one may fall on the question of how translatable college coaching is to the pro game, there’s near unanimity that part of the problem has been the NBA’s attraction to NCAA cults of personality.
“We’re not going to see the sociopathic, I’m-in-charge control freaks,” a team executive says of the next wave of NCAA coaches in the NBA. “It’s going to be the guy who doesn't make it about him, understands basketball philosophy and understands how to build a basketball culture.”
A profile of Bennett fits this general description. At Virginia, Bennett has built a defense-oriented program that wins with less superstar talent than its counterparts in the ACC. He’s a composed sideline presence who looks the part and during the '90s had a sufficient-sized cup of coffee in the NBA. Though some worry that Bennett's half-court style defies current trends in the NBA, there's little doubt he has the acumen to pull it off.
“He loves the craft of coaching as a discipline,” the exec says. “And like Brad, he knows it’s about the players.”
Many around the league like Billy Donovan and Hoiberg as the next two NCAA coaches off the board. If the next college hire goes well and Stevens maintains a positive culture in Boston, then expect to start hearing more about Bennett.
David Vanterpool, Portland Trail Blazers assistant coach
It’s rare in the NBA for someone on the fast track toward management to get off and join a much longer line to become an NBA coach. Yet that’s what Vanterpool did when he left the Thunder front office to join Terry Stotts’ staff in Portland.
Vanterpool was a quick study and likely a future executive in the league, but it tormented him to know there was high-grade basketball development going on in his midst, only it wasn't happening in his department.
“He has a way with players,” a front-office executive says. “He was a tough overseas player who worked at his game.”
Vanterpool both played and coached for Messina in Moscow, an affiliation that means something in an increasingly international league. The two-year stint in the Oklahoma City front office is also the kind of interdisciplinary experience valued by shops like San Antonio. Add to all that a penchant for independent thought, a willingness to admit what you don’t know and a reputation as a solid, agreeable person and a young team could have a head coach to grow up with.
Jim Boylen, San Antonio Spurs assistant coach
Thanks to the success of Steve Clifford in Charlotte, the nomadic, 50-ish, affable, well-respected grinder has come into fashion. And if you’re looking for a prototype, Boylen might be it.
Boylen, not to be confused with former Bulls and Bucks head coach Jim Boylan, sat alongside Rudy Tomjanovich for over a decade and was a lead assistant to Tom Izzo. After four rough seasons at the University of Utah -- “The guy hates recruiting, what can you say?” says a Boylen sympathizer -- he landed with Frank Vogel in Indiana, where he restored his rep as a guy who truly loves to get on the floor and work with players and isn't afraid to get his hands dirty with game preparation.
“He’s been the best guy on almost every staff he’s ever been on,” an NBA general manager says last week prior to Ty Corbin’s departure from Utah. “And the fact that Pop hired him gives him the ultimate stamp of approval.”
An owner looking for sex appeal won’t want to see a glossy image of Boylen on the cover of a season-ticket appeal packet. But there’s a strong consensus that Boylen is an extremely capable lifer who rarely has trouble connecting with players or peers.