The NBA’s off-the-court youth movement
While a wealth of talented basketball players compete for an excruciatingly finite number of NBA roster spots, an even more competitive crunch exists just off the hardwood floor. A 15-man roster might be limiting, but the even slighter size of an NBA coaching staff or front office can prove especially brutal. The opportunities to actually lead under those conditions — as either a head coach or head of basketball operations — are even harder to come by, the most difficult positions to attain in an already hyper-competitive field.
And, fascinatingly, the demographics of those positions are changing. For much of the modern era, landing a job as a head coach or general manager held very particular prerequisites. Many were former players themselves, ushered into positions of power as an extension of their playing careers. Others were sons, friends, or connections of those with greater authority. There were coaching and scouting lifers in the mix, too, but they were outnumbered by those with established names and networks, watering down the pool of candidates from which every team seemed to draw.
The nature of those prerequisites naturally skewed toward a specific type of candidate — an older one, in many cases, with either prior, specific experience in the exact role in question or decades spent paying dues. That hiring model appears to have gone by the wayside; where coaches and GMs once rotated around the league as if on a carousel, it’s become increasingly prevalent to see teams take chances on bright, young basketball minds, both as assistant coaches taking a spot at the head of the bench and front office support staff promoted to run basketball ops. To put that change in perspective: Jason Kidd could not have transitioned more quickly from player to coach, and yet he’ll begin his stint on Brooklyn’s bench as merely the fifth-youngest of the leagues head coaches.
So begins a youth movement. The NBA’s five youngest general managers and five of the league’s six youngest head coaches have all been hired (or promoted) since 2012. Some are former players, but that in itself isn’t a problem; what matters most is that teams are no longer drawing from any one well so exclusively. Those hired of late come from a wide variety of backgrounds with the only common thread between them being success in their previous endeavors. Some came up in the league through the dark of the film room, some through long scouting trips, and a few made the quick jump from playing NBA basketball into their second careers. But in all, candidates of their age and ilk are getting an unprecedented amount of consideration for the top jobs in basketball coaching and management — a shift that bodes well for the league at large. Younger isn’t necessarily better, but the fact that teams are making open-minded personnel decisions grants them more of an opportunity to find what might be.
The right man for a particular job could be a proven head coach with years of experience in that position. But for other teams, the right candidate might be a bright basketball mind waiting for the right opportunity. Indiana’s Frank Vogel — the fourth-youngest head coach in the league — is just one such example. In another era, Vogel might have served his term as an interim head coach only to be later replaced, as he was nudged back in line and urged to wait his turn. Yet in 2011, Indiana fully committed to a head coach who was younger than a handful of active players. What’s more: Vogel wasn’t entrusted to groom and grow a team of long-term prospects, but fully expected to compete immediately by winning over a group of veterans. He’s thrived in that capacity, and most recently taken that Pacers team to within a single game of the NBA Finals, downed by another talented team led by another young head coach.
Vogel may not be a pioneer, but his success undoubtedly plays into the current trend toward hiring younger head coaches. One can see clear similarities between Vogel’s track and that of Memphis’ Dave Joerger, Atlanta’s Mike Budenholzer, and Sacramento’s Mike Malone, all valued assistants turned first-time head coaches in their late 30s or early 40s. Each also brings more perspective than pedigree, with coaching careers born on the long, countless nights editing game film.
The same could easily be said of the league’s newest general managers — a crop that recently has skewed even younger. There are currently six heads of basketball operations (Sam Presti, Rob Hennigan, Tim Connelly, Ryan McDonough, Bob Myers, and Sam Hinkie) under 40, to just three head coaches (Joerger, Jacque Vaughn, and Brad Stevens). Credit the rise of analytics as a component of that shift, but behind the number-crunching is the kind of wide-ranging analysis representative of a contemporary basketball outlook. McDonough, who at 33 is the league’s youngest GM, summed up that perspective nicely in a must-read profile by SB Nation’s Paul Flannery:
“Whether it’s your visual observations, statistical analysis, information you gather on background and personality, if you’re not using all that information you’re at a disadvantage,” McDonough says. “The trick is how do you weigh all of that? More importantly where is that information coming from? Over time you figure out individually what’s most important to you as an evaluator and everybody does that differently.”
Talent evaluators have long looked at a variety of criteria, but those up-and-comers on the management track have had the full benefit of cutting their teeth in the NBA’s information age. The data available now is more comprehensive than ever before, and — just as importantly — is filtered and weighted in increasingly helpful ways. That approach isn’t at all exclusive to the new jacks, but those younger candidates hired into prime management positions proved their worth by bringing micro-level nuance to an all-encompassing perspective. They may be young, but they’ve spent years honing the way they approach the game and marry the ability to digest information with a sense of personal industry.
It’s early yet, but this does not have the makings of some fleeting fad. There will inevitably be pushback, as certain teams revert to — or continue to — prioritize those worn, familiar candidates who have been there before. There will also be those of this current generation of hires who fail in their respective roles, leading critics to point to the follies of youth and inexperience. But what we’re ultimately seeing on a large scale is the culmination of a change that’s been a long time coming. The door is open, and NBA teams on the whole have taken a turn for the progressive.