If the success of Boston’s Ime Udoka and New Orleans’ Willie Green has taught NBA ownership anything, when it comes to hiring coaches, it should be out with the old, in with the new. These two rising coaching stars stepped into dysfunctional messes, with Udoka trying to bring together a team that was fractured under Brad Stevens. At the same time, Green was tasked with coaching a Pelicans team whose superstar, Zion Williamson, was out for many reasons.
Both made cases for the Coach of the Year award. But they also made a case for a reformation that should have happened decades ago. NBA franchises need to stop hiring the same failed veteran coaches to lead their franchises and instead put their trust in former players who have paid their dues as assistant coaches.
This could be taken a step forward, by balancing out the racial discrepancy keeping Black coaches from head role opportunities. This imbalance has lasted for decades. As evidence that it’s still alive and well, Steve Nash was given the Brooklyn Nets head coaching gig with zero coaching experience on his resume to lead a disjointed Nets team to a first-round sweep and embarrassing overall effort. Nash was handed Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and later James Harden gift-wrapped as a first-time coach, just to bomb it away with one of the worst coaching debuts in recent memory.
Furthermore, coaches with outdated methods and bum-ass records like Stan Van Gundy and Mike D’Antoni, are constantly floated around every time a coach of a playoff team is outed in underachieving fashion. How about elevating the more-than-likely Black lead assistant instead?
Like last year when Nate McMillian was handed the reins after the Atlanta Hawks dismissed Lloyd Pierce, only to take the Hawks to the Eastern Conference Finals; or when Doc Rivers was replaced with Ty Lue last season with the Clippers while taking them to the Western Conference Finals. Those were only two examples of Black assistants taking their teams to further heights than their Black predecessors. Precisely the kind of pedigree and trust the NBA should have more of. In the last two decades, when a Black head coach is dismissed, he is almost always replaced with a white counterpart. Think of Avery Johnson in Dallas, Lionel Hollins in Memphis, Doc Rivers in Boston, Mark Jackson in Golden State, Dwayne Casey in Toronto.
Some franchises haven’t hired a Black head coach in the last 20 years, such as the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, Minnesota Timberwolves, Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Utah Jazz.
Other coaching success stories this season include Cleveland’s J. B. Bickerstaff, Dallas’ Jason Kidd, Minnesota’s Chris Finch, and Memphis’ Taylor Jenkins, all young, whip-smart coaches who have proven that the NBA is in good hands with the next generation of basketball minds.
Some efforts have been made to rectify this injustice. This past summer, seven out of the eight head coaching vacancies were filled by black candidates. At the end of this season, 14 out of the 30 coaching gigs are filled by Black professionals. The only other time the NBA had this many black head coaches was during the 2012-13 season when it also had 14. Half of the final eight teams left in the playoff hunt were led by Black coaches.
But it’s not just about giving Black coaches handouts. Two of the best this season, Willie Green and Ime Udoka, earned their coaching gigs as successful and beloved assistants, Green under Monty Williams with the Suns and Udoka under Greg Popovich with the Spurs. These two men are excellent examples of prodigies who came from legacy coaching trees.
But the coaching problem goes beyond race. Some of the worst, most overrated coaches are also Black. Doc Rivers has under-achieved in every stop he’s been given. Since initially taking over the Paul Pierce-led Boston Celtics in 2004, he’s had All-Star laden teams he has never pulled the potential out of. He is still given opportunities to coach some of the best teams in the NBA based on the single NBA championship he won with Kevin Garnett, Pierce, and Ray Allen in 2007. Kind of like D’Antoni, who has never left the NBA coaching rumor mill based on his success almost 20 years ago with the Phoenix Suns (2003-08), only to tank with the New York Knicks (2008-12), Los Angeles Lakers (2012-14), and under-achieving with the Houston Rockets (2016-20). D’Antoni has been linked as the potential next head coach for the Charlotte Hornets.
One just has to look at the Sacramento Kings’ recent coaching conundrum, the hapless franchise chose between Mike Brown and Mark Jackson, two of the worst coaches in recent memory. With the Warriors, Brown has been sitting in for Steve Kerr, who was out due to health and safety protocols. After Golden State’s Game 5 performance, where the Warriors lost by 39, it’s a wonder Sacramento didn’t rescind its offer. Did no one in the Kings’ front office remember his last two head stops in Los Angeles and Cleveland?
Jackson, on the other hand stained his coaching legacy as a motivator who built up the early stages of the Warriors’ eventual dynasty with a history of shenanigans beefing with the team’s front office, spending too much time at the church where he pastored during the season and pushing his religious agenda into the locker room. Jackson has been seemingly blackballed from the NBA as much for these antics as he was for his unimaginative offensive schemes as the Warriors coach.
Perhaps the message here is to stop recycling the same tired and trite head coaches who have proven to be losers and give vacancy opportunities to young, bright assistants and former players who have put in the sweat equity. Relatability has never been more critical than today when trying to reach young players. Last year’s Coach of the Year, Tom Thibodeau, already burned out his team’s potential as his screaming and arrogant roster management has worn out its welcome in NYC. On the flip side, Jason Kidd’s coaching flexibility and positional experience at point guard have unlocked another level in Luka Dončić, Jalen Brunson, and the rest of the Mavs. Something Rick Carlisle couldn’t accomplish, as his old-school approach hit a wall last season, despite his brilliance and championship acumen.
The generational gap was one of the reasons Van Gundy burned out within a year in New Orleans. Today’s players seek a level of empathy and relatability, unlike older generations. Former players, those who played during the late 90’s and mid 2000’s are positioned to be the next wave of brilliant NBA minds. This group includes Green, Udoka, Kidd, Lue, Chauncey Billups in Portland. These guys played during the last decade and were part of the transition towards the current space and pace era. They understand the emphasis on positionless basketball and guard-centric offenses.
With openings in Charlotte and Los Angeles, and potentially Philadelphia and Utah as well, NBA front offices need to look around the NBA, to see the success of young coaches, specifically former players, with small market franchises. As the on-court product evolves, so too does the sideline schematics and sensibilities. Executives can tackle both the age and race discrepancies at once, by investing in the experience of former players who have learned from the best minds in the league.