Examining the best fits for the remaining head coaching vacancies
Although evidence suggests that hiring a head coach with previous experience over a first-time alternative is of marginal benefit at best, many of the NBA’s current coaching vacancies will still be filled by known quantities rather than newcomers. This is understandable in an industry of conservative decision-makers, as retreads embody both risk aversion and the safe appeal of the devil you know.
In that spirit, we’ll dabble in some matchmaking for the teams with openings — a place for every retread and every retread in his place. The focus on coaching veterans should provide a better understanding of the nature of each opening and the appeal of the most notable candidates.
With vacancies in Atlanta (Mike Budenholzer), Milwaukee (Larry Drew), Phoenix (Jeff Hornacek), Cleveland (Mike Brown), Sacramento (Mike Malone) and Charlotte (Steve Clifford) already filled and Detroit (Mo Cheeks) reportedly soon to follow, that leaves us with five potential slots and plenty of retreads to chose from.
Memphis Grizzlies: Nate McMillan
Grizzlies assistant Dave Joerger would make for a sound pick if (or when?) Lionel Hollins moves on, but Nate McMillan might also work out well should Memphis opt for a more experienced head coach. Philosophically, McMillan wouldn’t be much of a departure from what the Grizzlies are used to. Though less abrasive than Hollins, McMillan seems to be a stylistically similar motivator who would continue to hold Memphis’ players accountable for their execution. That in itself makes McMillan far more favorable than former Nuggets head coach George Karl, who has been linked to the Grizz despite a horrible misfit in style. Memphis, after all, isn’t in need of some massive offensive overhaul; after a trip to the Western Conference finals they just need subtle improvement and a chance for continuity. McMillan, much more than Karl, would give the Grizzlies just that.
Yet in terms of his coaching emphasis and track record, McMillan may well be Hollins’ converse. Over the past three seasons, the Hollins-coached Grizzlies have won by way of binding defensive execution, rebounding dominance and plodding post play. It’s an arduous style, but one that largely succeeds in stifling opponents. McMillan’s Blazers teams, on the other hand, executed at a similar pace albeit with a scoring slant. They were often mistaken for defensive stalwarts due to the prevalence of misleading points-per-game stats, but in truth it was a high level of offensive efficiency that propelled Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Co. through their fairly successful run in the late 2000s. In three straight seasons, McMillan’s Blazers were a top-10 offensive team despite ranking dead last in pace — a combination of scoring success and deliberate play that should hold obvious appeal to a team like Memphis that ranked second-to-last in pace in 2012-13.
What’s even better: The crux of McMillan’s offensive system is so simple and pragmatic that it should port over to the Grizzlies’ roster rather easily. Its most basic tenet lies in maximizing the number and quality of touches for the team’s top shot creator, which in Portland was Brandon Roy and for Memphis would be Marc Gasol. As different as the two are in terms of skillset, they actually operate from similar spaces on the floor and possess an altruistic style conducive to supporting an offense. Some modification would be necessary in order to account for the Grizzlies’ specific personnel, but overall McMillan could be just the coach to coax a more stable half-court offense out of an elite defensive team.
Brooklyn Nets: Lionel Hollins
It seems increasingly likely that Hollins and the Grizzlies will go their separate ways this summer, and if that’s the case, the Nets would be wise to snatch him up. Brooklyn has the talent to be a solid team, and with the right direction could grow into something more. Hollins, in theory, could provide just that direction. He did a fantastic job in Memphis of getting talented players to buy into a particular culture — one built of his own basketball ideals and indirectly championed by Tony Allen’s now-infamous “All heart, grit, grind” recitation. It takes real coaching talent to collect disparate parts and channel their strengths so neatly into a collective identity, but Hollins helped cultivate a sense of purpose unique to these players and their personalities.
That’s an important detail to remember. Hollins didn’t instill the Grizzlies with anything that wasn’t there before; he only organized and propagated that which was already present. If he should take the job in Brooklyn, he would need to do the same. Brooklyn doesn’t have a Tony Allen or a Zach Randolph or a Marc Gasol. But it has other pieces capable of inspiring a very different basketball personality. How that personality might take shape remains to be seen, but I’d be very much interested to see Hollins help the Nets better establish who they are as a basketball team.
Los Angeles Clippers: Jeff Van Gundy
There’s a world of defensive potential lurking in the Clippers’ frontline that can only be accessed through experience and instruction. The former might take care of itself (though DeAndre Jordan’s 24.5 minutes per game under Vinny Del Negro last season implie otherwise), but the latter needs to come from a bright and particular defensive engineer. Van Gundy fits that bill perfectly, and would have an opportunity to mold two standout athletes into altogether superior help defenders if he took a job with the Clippers.
Consider this: Van Gundy has coached nine complete NBA seasons in his career, and in those nine season his teams have never once ranked outside the top six in defensive efficiency. He had plenty of help from Patrick Ewing and Yao Ming, but Van Gundy utilized their talents effectively by way of his defensive designs. Griffin and Jordan could benefit similarly from working with Van Gundy, as he would find the most effective ways to leverage the commanding advantage in athleticism that both players hold over most opponents.
And though Van Gundy was never the most inventive offensive coach, his teams employed the kind of simple, functional playcalling that should mesh well with Chris Paul’s orchestration. Del Negro may have done the Clippers a great disservice by giving Paul too much responsibility, but L.A. needs to be careful of swinging too far to the opposite extreme. What this team needs isn’t some offense genius as its new head coach, but a tactician who can complement Paul’s brilliance with some basic structure. Van Gundy should be able to accomplish that much, all while better harnessing the natural talents of the Clipper bigs.
Karl was also linked to this opening and could make for a decent alternative should Van Gundy pass up a chance to jump back into the coaching ranks. Karl’s appeal would be drastically different from Van Gundy’s, and predicated largely on finding the balance between freedom and structure on offense. Karl’s teams now have a reputation for playing fast and loose, but his offenses tend to have the creative flourishes that allow a creator like Paul the necessary latitude to flourish. Karl wouldn’t simply put the ball in Paul’s hands, but create the systemic tools necessary to make the players around CP3 more helpful.
Denver Nuggets: ???
The news of George Karl’s firing is shocking for many reasons, among them the fact that few available coaches make sense with such a strange collection of players. Nothing about this Nuggets roster is stock or typical, nor does the talent in Denver appeal to the sensibilities of just any coach. But it worked for Karl, who saw an opportunity to amp up his team’s fast-breaking tendencies and build off of consecutive dribble-drives when things slowed down in the half court. He didn’t have many perimeter shooters to speak of and was faced with a group of bigs who could not be paired together in a way that could sustain a successful team defense. But Karl twisted his rotation and approach as necessary to best fit the talent available, and led the Nuggets to 57 regular-season wins by way of that design.
He was outcoached by Mark Jackson in the first round of the playoffs, but consider this: In addition to the above factors, let’s also remember that Golden State reinvented itself overnight in the midst of a playoff series. Following David Lee’s injury, the Warriors changed the entire execution of their offense, and by extension empowered Stephen Curry to take full advantage of his talents as a pull-up shooter and off-the-dribble creator.
That Karl wasn’t able to bend his limited roster — operating without Danilo Gallinari and with a limited Kenneth Faried — to respond isn’t totally absolvable, but rather understandable. Take away some of their transition opportunities, and naturally the Nuggets’ offense would suffer. Remove a tenacious, versatile defender from the rotation, and it makes sense that the defense would be compromised. Put a team with so few three-point shooters in the context of a playoff series, and of course an opponent will harp on that weakness. The Nuggets squirmed and shifted to try to find footing in that series, and that they ultimately couldn’t can fairly be pinned to Karl.
But there’s a world of difference between holding a head coach accountable and dismissing him so quickly, even with the final, lame-duck year of Karl’s contract further complicating matters. I’m just not sure which available veterean coach can do (or would have done) more with such an odd mix of players.
Philadelphia 76ers: Jerry Sloan
If the Sixers opt not to continue their relationship with Andrew Bynum (or try and fail to re-sign him in free agency), they might be best served by turning to a coach who can make effective use of the glut of cutters and passers on the roster.
And who better than Jerry Sloan? His version of the flex offense would help make use of some of the overlap between Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner, as both would be essential in feeding cutters and executing quick pick-and-roll action. Spencer Hawes, too, would actually seem an interesting fit under those circumstances. Though lacking in many regards, Hawes does a good job of making basic feeds to teammates on the move, and could thus prove to be a pretty functional big in a system with so much movement. Thaddeus Young would benefit from a system designed specifically to reward his dashes through the paint as well.
Plus, Sloan’s later Utah teams were able to build off of said movement without marginalizing a talented point guard. If anything, running the flex helped Deron Williams — a terrific, if grumpy, instrument of the flex — to more fully access every dimension of his game. The same could be true for Holiday if he were coached by Sloan, as his off-ball instincts, perimeter shooting and improved vision would blend beautifully within the flex’s network of constant activity.