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The Coach Search - What Will the Clippers Do?

I haven't said much about the Clippers coaching search so far, primarily because there's not a lot to say right now.  Piecing together the information that's out there, the Clippers would appear to be targeting a handful of top assistants, and of course there's the required Mark Jackson possibility.  Big name former head coaches, guys like Jeff Van Gundy, Avery Johnson and Byron Scott, don't really seem to be in the mix.  Is that because they are too expensive, or because the Clippers think they're wrong for the job?  I honestly don't know at this point.  (For what it's worth, it seems that Van Gundy is not considering a return to coaching at this time.)

The question of prior head coaching experience (or in the case of Jackson, prior coaching experience) is a valid one.  Is it better to seek out a coach who has been in the first chair before because he knows what to expect and presumably will have learned from the experience, or to find a rising star from the ranks of assistant coaches?  Let's face it, the reason that the vast majority of former head coaches are on the job market is because they were fired from their previous job, so almost by definition you'd be hiring someone who failed the last time they had the job (at least at some level) when you hire a former head coach.

Former coaches like Jeff Van Gundy and Byron Scott and Avery Johnson (and other guys in the booth like Doug Collins and Mike Fratello) are well known - but it may surprise you how many candidates with NBA head coaching experience are out there.  I was able to list 60 some without breaking a sweat.  That's only counting guys who have coached within the last decade - so for instance, I didn't include Paul Westhead on the list.  So there's no dearth of candidates with at least some experience.  Of course, one name that seems to be at or near the top of the Clippers' list (and a few others' for that matter) falls into the former head coach category - current Dallas assistant Dwane Casey.

It's also worth noting that this year's NBA playoffs have offered at least some evidence that coaches do indeed matter.  Scott Brooks was part of a 27 game improvement in his first full season in Oklahoma City and won Coach of the Year.  Scott Skiles took a Bucks team that no one thought would be any good, playing without $27M worth of injured players, and led them into the playoffs and almost to a first round upset in his second season in Milwaukee.  Meanwhile, the Nuggets experienced a significant decline when George Karl left the bench, and it doesn't feel like a coincidence that Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich and Jerry Sloan are among the names still coaching this season.

Jackson, Popovich and Sloan are definitely the anomalies in the coaching world - coaches that have been able to sustain success over time.  Skiles is a great example of the counterpoint.  His record would suggest that he gets results early, but that his style wears thin, either with players or with management.  He won 51 games in Phoenix in 2001 - and was fired during the following season with a losing record.  He won 49 games in Chicago in 2007 - and was fired during the following season with a losing record.  The question with Skiles in Milwaukee may be one of shelf life - how long can he sustain success this time?

At any rate, coaches do matter, at least some, and the Clippers have an opportunity to make a fresh start this summer - so this decision matters. 

There are a lot of things to consider, and I'm just going to throw some of them out there for now.  Something tells me there's going to be plenty of time to discuss these and other issues.

Supply and Demand - As I've noted, there's plenty of supply of potential head coaches.  The quality of the candidates is another question.  On the demand side, there are currently job openings in Chicago, Philadelphia, New Jersey and New Orleans, in addition to the Clippers.  Some of those jobs are more attractive than others, and four of the teams are in the lottery so they could get more attractive based on the results there.  Philadelphia has been the most aggressive in the job search so far, having already interviewed Doug Collins for the job.  I'd put the Clippers job in the attractive category from a basketball standpoint (if only for the chance to coach Blake Griffin), but the unattractive category from an ownership standpoint.

In addition to the five teams with openings already, there are a Homer Simpson handful of others where the situation remains nebulous.  There is of course the George Karl situation in Denver; it remains to be seen if Karl's health will allow him to return to the Nuggets bench next season.  Mike Woodson does not yet have an extension in Atlanta, and while the Hawks' 53 win season looks good, their 40 point loss in Game 1 against the Magic looks really, really bad. 

Jeannie Buss muddied the waters a bit concerning Phil Jackson and the Lakers last week, saying she thought he'd coach next year, but wasn't sure where, which spawned some idle speculation of PJ and LeBron joining forces on the Clippers (yeah, right).  But Phil told Ramona Shelburne yesterday that he's about 90% certain he'll coach the Lakers next season. 

Even if Jackson isn't a realistic option for the Clippers (it's hard to imagine a coach who recently took an unsolicited pot shot at Donald Sterling being the LAC coach, from either man's perspective), his status may have an impact on the coaching search.  For instance, Byron Scott is widely considered interested in the Lakers job, and would likely await a resolution there before committing to any team.  But I'm going to trust PJ on this one - 90% sounds pretty convincing to me - he'll coach the Lakers again.

Also on the list of 'Hall of Fame coaches who have been linked to the Clippers" is Larry Brown.  Brown just led the Bobcats to their first-ever playoff appearance, but his well-earned reputation as a vagabond, along with the previously uncertain ownership situation in Charlotte, has fueled speculation that he might move on this summer.  There were rumors that he'd reached out to the Clippers a few months ago, but those seem to have been unfounded.  Brown himself has said that he might leave Charlotte - for the purpose of spending more time with his family in Philadelphia.  He has also said that he will not coach for anyone other than Michael Jordan next season.  So while Charlotte could conceivably be in the market for a coach, Larry Brown is not a candidate for any of the head coaching jobs out there.

Timing - Generally speaking, I'd say it's better to move quickly on filling a coaching vacancy, for several reasons.  For one thing, it's hard work coaching an NBA team, and there's plenty to do during the off-season, especially for a team with only five players under contract.  The coach will have a style, which will dictate personnel moves to a large extent.  There's also the draft to consider - it would seem that you'd want the head coach's input on the 8th pick (it's a little less crucial if you're picking first or second, I suppose). 

Of course, ever since the Clippers traded Al Thornton and Sebastian Telfair to clear maximum cap space, there have been rumblngs that the team would let LeBron James pick the coach if he were interested.  Frankly, I've never really understood the logic there.  I mean, it's funny and all, and it conveys a message about how badly they want the guy.  But realistically, what does it mean?  Are there really any coaches out there that LeBron is going to feel that strongly about?  I mean, does LeBron have a preference in the great Dwane Casey or Elston Turner debate?  The speculation about a hall of fame coach (i.e. Larry Brown or Phil Jackson) hooking up with the two time MVP to make the Clippers world champs is just that - speculation.  It ain't happening.  So the reality is that to have LeBron (or any other star) involved in the decision, you'd be waiting until July when negotiations can start with free agents, for input of a very limited nature.

So from my perspective, waiting makes no sense.  The lottery is coming up in less than two weeks on May 18.  There's a very slim chance that the Clippers will move up in the draft, which will make the job that much more attractive.  So waiting to know what happens there might make sense.  But I'd make it a priority to get a coach in place as soon as possible between the lottery and the draft on June 24th - the very real benefits of having your head coach involved in draft scouting far outweigh the theoretical benefit of allowing LeBron James to 'pick' his coach.

As I mentioned, Philadelphia is already out there interviewing candidates.  The longer the Clippers wait, the more likely it is that leading candidates will be off the market.  Dwane Casey was a top candidate for the Sixers in the past, and will certainly be on their short list this summer as well.  Collins and Avery Johnson have already interviewed in Philly, and Tom Thibodeau and Mark Jackson are also considered candidates.  In other words, the Sixers are talking to many of the same names supposedly on the Clippers' short list, and they have a head start.

Coaching Style - First of all, it's clear that the perfect coaching candidate would be a genius on both offense and defense.  Turns out, there don't seem to be a lot of those guys out there.  It should also be noted that it's not always clear, especially with an assistant coach, exactly what his strengths might lie.  But these guys do have reputations, and we can guess where they might fall on a continuum from offensive to defensive-minded, from 'player's coach' to disciplinarian, etc.

The Clippers have asked permission to speak with Boston assistant coach Tom Thibodeau.  Thibodeau is Boston's 'Defensive Coordinator' and was widely credited with coming up with the schemes that helped the Celtics have the best defense in the league two seasons ago, which led to an NBA championship.  Of course, adding Kevin Garnett to the roster probably helped the defense a smidge also. 

Casey is another who falls on the defensive end of the spectrum.  During his head coaching stint in Minnesota, the Wolves (also with Garnett) were a top 10 defensive team, an improvement over Flip Saunders' the season before, and significantly better than Randy Wittman did with the same personnel after Casey was fired.  Casey was considered the top defensive assistant to George Karl when he and Nate McMillan were both assistants in Seattle.

If you're looking for a run-and-gun candidate, it's a little less clear.  Marc Iavaroni was Mike D'Antoni's top assistant in Phoenix for several seven seconds or less seasons and was considered a hot head coaching prospect at one point.  He got his chance in Memphis, and quickly became a not very hot head coaching prospect.  He lasted 121 games with the Grizzlies, winning fewer than 30% of them.  He's now an assistant in Toronto, where the Raptors had the worst defense in the league this season.

Bill Cartwright is a current assistant in Phoenix, who also happens to have 151 games of head coaching experience with the Bulls a few years back.  His record as a head coach was 51-100.

Keith Smart is a long time assistant to Don Nelson in Golden State, who has 40 games of head coaching experience mopping up for John Lucas in Cleveland in the pre-LeBron season.  Smart also gets to sit in the first chair in Oakland from time to time, where the ever innovative Nelson sometimes let's him run the show.

Few if any of the higher profile candidates have reputations as offensive-minded head coaches.  Eddie Jordan  used an open, ball movement offense in Sacramento and Washington, but his reputation is more than a little sullied at this point after a disastrous season in Philadelphia.  JVG, Avery Johnson and Byron Scott all have reputations as defense first coaches - not to mention as hard-asses.  It's difficult to see Baron Davis happily coexisting with any of those guys, particulary Scott with whom he previously clashed in New Orleans. 

This question of style is problematic for the Clippers.  Teams like the Thunder and the Bucks have gone from the lottery to the playoffs by becoming significantly better defensive teams.  It's a cliche, especially at this time of year, but defense does win championships.  Now, I firmly believe that offense and defense feed each other - getting stops leads to easier scoring opportunities, and efficient offense limits easy opportunities for the opponent.  But defense first seems to be the best recipe for signficant improvement.  If the Clippers are feeling like they have to cater to a run and fun style to appease Baron Davis it could be a significant tactical error.  At the same time, there's no question that getting Baron's buy in is going to be important with three seasons left on his contract.  It's a dilemma.

Coaching Experience - I'm going to use this category as a little rant directed at Mark Jackson.  First of all, I'm not convinced that head coaching experience is a prerequisite for success.  There are of course exceptions to any rule, but Scott Brooks is a recent example of a coach who did well in his first head coaching job.  As I've pointed out, there are in fact a plethora of available candidates with at least some head coaching experience, but the fact that they're available usually indicates a problem of some sort. 

But while head coaching experience may be overrated, it seems to be that SOME coaching experience would be highly preferable.  Mark Jackson has been working as an analyst for several season, and has made it known that he wants a head coaching job.  He and his agent have done a good job of getting him on the radar.  He was a serious candidate for the Knicks job two summers ago (they hired D'Antoni) and a finalist for the Minnesota job last year (they hired Kurt Rambis).  But what happened to paying dues and learning the ropes?  If he really wants to be an NBA head coach, let him at least serve an apprenticeship somewhere.

A recent New York Daily News article on Jackson's quest to become a head coach listed Vinny Del Negro, Doc Rivers and Pat Riley as examples of successful NBA head coaches who had no prior coaching experience.  Really?  That's the list?  Color me unimpressed.  As I said, there are exceptions to every rule, and we're looking hard to find them in this case, going back almost 30 years to Riley.  Meanwhile Del Negro could hardly be considered a success story - at any rate, he doesn't seem like much of a success to John Paxson.

It doesn't help that I find Jackson's work as a TV commentator to be banal.  I'd feel a little better about him as a coaching candidate if I'd ever heard him say anything remotely insightful during a basketball game.  As Tom Ziller quipped the other day on FanHouse, "one can reasonably expect that players on a Jackson-led team will be reassured frequently that they are 'better than that.'"


In the end, I don't have a lot more on this subject than my opinion, and I wouldn't characterize it as particularly informed.  I'm not a big fan of Jackson, obviously.  I think Dwane Casey is an interesting candidate who clearly did not get a fair shake in Minnesota.  And I think current assistant John Lucas, with significant head coaching experience and a relationship with the returning players, deserves consideration as well.  For now we'll just have to wait and see.  Let's hope we don't have to wait too long.