- NBA writer for ESPN.com since 2008
- Former contributor and editor at NPR
FORTUNATELY FOR THE NBA’s head coaches, 2021-22 was a season of relative contentment. The league has seen just two firings, Frank Vogel by the Los Angeles Lakers and James Borrego by the Charlotte Hornets, while the Sacramento Kings parted ways with interim head coach Alvin Gentry on April 11. The teams at the bottom of the standings have adopted patience, and the successful teams are, well, successful.
Hiring a coach is still a task that many lead front office executives consider their most important decision. Each season we talk to dozens of league insiders — current head coaches and assistant coaches, front office executives, current and former players, as well as agents who represent coaches. We ask them about the state of the head-coaching profession, and who might be some candidates — both well-known and under the radar — who have the attributes to handle the job.
In past years, we’ve identified some first-time prospects early: Steve Kerr in 2013; Quin Snyder in 2014; Ty Lue and Ime Udoka in 2015; Nick Nurse, Chris Finch and Stephen Silas in 2016; Taylor Jenkins in 2018; Wes Unseld Jr., Mark Daigneault and Jamahl Mosley in 2020; and Willie Green and Chauncey Billups last year.
The nature of the job is ever-changing, as are the trends that inform those hires. Of the eight head coaches hired since the end of last season (including Nate McMillan, who had his interim status converted to long term), six played in the NBA. The other two are Wes Unseld Jr. (son of a Hall of Fame player and coach) and Jamahl Mosley (collegiate player who hooped professionally overseas). Front offices increasingly believe relatability is a necessary ingredient. A former player who holds the command and respect of players and who didn’t toil in the video room for five seasons can always, if need be, draw on the counsel of a tactician on his staff for creative new ways to defend the pick-and-roll.
Several coaches also mentioned that the dynamic among coaches on their staff is a key to success. With the head coach saddled with more and more managerial responsibilities, much of the day-to-day work of coaching falls to assistants. Whether they’re coordinating the offense and defense, working and communicating with players, and effectively running player development programs, roles must be delineated. Much of that solidarity is achieved through interactions with families and time spent discussing life outside of basketball. The job is a grind — the more it can be infused with a human touch, the better the time spent. A dictum originating with the San Antonio Spurs years ago — “breaking bread”– is now known throughout the league as a vital team-building exercise when players, coaches and staff gather to share.
The most predominant trend of late — and the word you’ll hear exponentially more than you heard 5-10 years ago — is “alignment.” As one head of basketball operations for an NBA team puts it, the head coach is the most important person in his life apart from spouse and children. It’s not a coincidence the Phoenix Suns, Memphis Grizzlies and Miami Heat each feature a front office and head coach who are smoothly aligned in approach. Organizational success has most often been found when those upstairs at the training facility connect with those on the practice court.
It’s not always easy. A general manager might want the young 12th man to gain the experiences that will enable him to contribute when the team expects to contend in three years, while a head coach might not find that player useful in his rotation. When things get bumpy, self-preservation can rear its ugly head, with coach and exec each implicating the other for the team’s failures. No front office and bench share an identical vision, but good organizations find a common path.
Agents and executives say that when teams compose their initial list of candidates for a vacancy, there’s another consideration — they want assistant coaches who work for winning organizations and elite head coaches. Memphis Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins and Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka are both alums of Spurs U, and Jenkins also has absorbed the teachings of the Milwaukee Bucks’ Mike Budenholzer. New Orleans Pelicans coach Willie Green has been on the bench for four of the past five Finals.
Here are the coaches — some well known, some under-the-radar — whom NBA front offices are keeping close tabs on as they look for future hires.
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