The NBA coaching carousel is in full revolution this summer. Three teams already named new full-time head coaches, and at least five more franchises are weighing options after the Pistons and Stan Van Gundy parted ways.
As analysts commend hires and talk up certain candidates, it’s worth acknowledging just how little we know about identifying a good NBA head coach.
The Grizzlies’ decision to stick with J.B. Bickerstaff, who had served much of the past season as the interim head coach, was not well-reviewed. But a number of scribes and talking heads lauded the Knicks’ hiring of David Fizdale, the coach Bickerstaff replaced. The Suns won high marks for hiring Igor Kokoskov, even though he may have been Phoenix’s third choice behind Mike Budenholzer and Fizdale.
Why do any of us think we know anything about how coaches are going to perform, especially for those getting their first NBA head coaching opportunity?
Mind you, I have been as guilty of this as anyone over the years. I once rooted for a disastrous franchise that cycled through head coaches like they were toothbrushes. As such, I paid especially close attention to the assistant coaches, college coaches, and newly retired players who became the annual Next Big Things in the common consensus.
I remember falling in love with the prospect of Budenholzer as a head coach, knowing only that he’d worked beside Gregg Popovich for 15 years. I remember thinking Marc Iavaroni had the right resumé to do great things. I thought Brian Shaw had the juice. I thought Terry Porter would win accolades. I was convinced of every good thing everyone said about Eddie Jordan and Mike Malone.
Why do we do this? Why do we think we know?
There are three main categories of head coach hires these days: former NBA head coaches (like Fizdale), longtime NBA assistant coaches (like Kokoskov and Bickerstaff), and recently retired NBA players (many of whom do pick up a few years as an assistant).
Former NBA head coaches at least come with track records, but even that prior information depends so much on context. How well, for instance, can you judge Fizdale’s offensive chops given his leadership of a defense-first team? It’s so hard for us to grade coaching performance in the moment, so using that history o make hiring decisions isn’t as clean as it would be for, say, chasing free agent players.
It’s even harder when looking at assistant coaches, who have that whole other level of context. Kokoskov has a reputation developing younger players. How do you grade his impact on Rudy Gobert or Donovan Mitchell? How can you? There’s really no hard data when looking at assistant coaches, even if they are “in charge” of offense or defense.
Retired players don’t bring any extra data, but they usually have more well-known reputations. Jerry Stackhouse has been in the coaching world for a few years, and has even been a successful head coach in the developmental league. But a huge portion of the common perception of him stems from his playing style and personality. As with the assistants, there’s no data on his NBA coaching ability, not like there was on his shooting ability when he played in the league.
It’s all a black box on input, and then heaped with mounds of context based on the team the coach is hired to lead. We have no idea what candidates will turn into good coaches, and which will not. We aren’t even certain how a coach ranks once he has a couple seasons under the belt in the lead role. It’s a mystery.
All of that makes it pretty weird that there are so many strong opinions about coaching candidates.
In some cases, strong opinions are totally understandable.
Consider Mark Jackson. From one perspective, Jackson led the Warriors’ rise from laughingstock to tough playoff team. He built their early defensive mindset that was further refined and exploited for good.
From another perspective, the Warriors were on the verge of breaking through due to extraordinary team-building. Jackson took them as far as he could, but alienated too many people in the organization and didn’t embrace the future enough.
Take all that, and add in the very strong opinions people have about Jackson’s commentary for ESPN and ABC, and you see why some Knicks fans were all in on his candidacy for the head coach job and some were promising revolt. Alas, we were robbed of the opportunity to find out which viewpoint was closer to the truth. But at least now we’ll have a better sense of Fizdale’s ability, provided nothing too weird happens with the Knicks. (When has anything weird ever happened with the Knicks?)
As a result of all the mystery embedded in the process, candidates become stand-ins for our own (often invisible) biases. Becky Hammon, a WNBA legend who has spent a few years on Gregg Popovich’s bench, is a cause celebre because of what a woman running an NBA team from the sidelines would mean for the sport. Also, she’s a really cool person and seems to have universal respect. But no one actually has any clue whether she’d be an effective coach.
Fizdale had a big fanbase in part because of his candid nature and excellent quotability. The media, who has a role in boosting and deflating candidacies, LOVES a candid nature and quotability. Fizdale’s still consider a players’ coach ... even though he was, by all indications, fired by Memphis because of a falling out with Marc Gasol.
Kokoskov, like Hammon, brings a little history with him as the first true European (whatever that means) to become an NBA head coach. That’s cool, but does that have anything to do with his coaching ability?
And there’s the matter of access. Assistant coaches and their agents are often key sources for members of the basketball media. Sources become sources through some level of friendship.
This extends to the decision-makers, too: Steve Kerr was golf buddies with a Warriors partner before he was hired. Bobcats franchisee Michael Jordan famously skews toward hiring friends. The Lakers seem intent on hiring only those with deep extant Lakers ties.
All these ingredients add up to one helluva convoluted process.
Perhaps the safest way to annotate the NBA coaching carousel is to note history when it happens, share stories of the processes when available, note the good qualities and question marks of the candidates, and shrug.
(Perhaps that’s the safest way to annotate the NBA in general: just shrug.)