Nine New Coaches, Re-Treads and Neophytes, to Start NBA Season

As the 2014-2015 NBA regular season is due to start next week, it will mark the debut of nine, count them, NINE new coaches, including several with no prior NBA coaching experience, and some with no coaching experience at all. Also, several retreads will begin a tour of duty with a new team. Hiring a retread is a fairly safe way to go, but ex-coaches with track records of real success are few and far between. Rather, the majority of retreads were fired from their last job, or last several jobs, for obvious reasons. Hiring a coach with no prior coaching experience, or even no prior NBA experience, would seem to be an even bigger gamble, but four teams have gone that route for the upcoming season.

At the top of the list of teams gambling on neophytes are two who legitimate title aspirations who have hired coaches who have never coached in the league before, one of who has never been a coach at any level.

The talent-laden Golden State Warriors who had made the post season in only one of their previous 17 seasons hired Mark Jackson to his first coaching job prior to the 2011-2012 season, and while the team had another predictable, poor first season, winning only 23 of the 66 games of the lock-out shortened season, fortunes turned the following
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year, and the Warriors became a wining team, with consecutive second place finishes in the Pacific Division. The season ended with an opening round playoff loss, and Jackson, amid turmoil on several fronts, was relieved of duty, to be replaced by another ex-player with zero coaching experience, Steve Kerr. Kerr is really on the hot seat in Northern Cal, as the Warriors look to be an immensely talented team, with one of the leagues best in Stephen Curry, another budding superstar in Klay Thompson, and solid talent and depth at every position. Can lightening strike twice? WIll a second inexperienced coach succeed, perhaps surpassing the record of the first?

In Cleveland, the big story is the return of LeBron James, and the second big story is the acquisition of Kevin Love, but equally as vital to their future success is the new coach, David Blatt, who has prior coaching experience, and success, but all in international basketball, and none in the USA, let alone the NBA. The Princeton English Lit major moved to Israel after college, first as a player and then as a coach, becoming the head coach at one time or another of several teams throughout Europe, included teams in Israel, Russia, Greece, and Turkey, and at various times was head coach of the Israeli and Russian National teams, and he won the world championship while coaching the Russian team. But, coaching the Cavs will be his first NBA experience and his first US basketball exposure since he last played for Princeton in 1981.

Quin Snyder was also hired with no prior NBA coaching experience, but he besides being an NBA assistant for a couple of teams, he was previously the head coach with the University of Missouri for seven seasons, and in the NBA's Development league. So, it's not that big a gamble for the Utah Jazz to hire him, especially with far less
expectations in Salt Lake than in Cleveland or San Francisco/Oakland.

In New York, Phil Jackson took over, presumably, the full load of basketball operations, and he plucked from the league’s active rosters one of his favorite players, Derek Fisher, to go from the court to the sideline, with no coaching experience of any kind. It’s a morass in Manhattan, and you can just see James Dolan sticking his hand into Phil’s work, but for now, Fisher has to deal with Phil telling him what to do, while he tries to manage a team of personalities and questionable talent to some semblance of respectability. Leaning pains on top of the drama and nastiness of the past few years may not play too well for too long in New York.

Five other teams have hired re-tread coaches, some with better records than others, but all with one serious question mark or another. In Minnesota, after years of unrealized hope piled on the shoulders of Kevin Love, he’s gone, and the team has its new savior in Andrew Wiggins, and the return of Flip Saunders as head coach, a job he held for a decade, a decade ago. Saunders led the ‘Wolves to eight playoff appearances, and won one playoff series, never advancing beyond the conference finals. Afterwards, with Detroit, his teams lost three straight conference finals. After that, he never got close to the playoffs while coaching in Washington. Minnesota fired him once before, as did both Detroit and Washington. Would a fourth time be a charm? Doubtful, very doubtful.

A year ago, Jason Kidd was attempting the Derek Fisher route, going from active player to head coach, and he got off to a horrendous start in Brooklyn, with a team that had high ambitions for 2013-2014. Kidd appeared to all the world to be a coaching disaster, and they his time was numbered. However, injured players returned, the team picked up, and Kidd survived the season and even managed to record a winning record. But, the handwriting was all over the wall, the ceiling, the furniture, and the players, and after the season, and in the second deal of its kind in two years, Kidd was traded to Milwaukee for two draft choices. The second half success of last season’s Nets aside, I still have little regard for Kidd as a coach, and despite the presence of Jabari Parker, the draft’s second overall pick, the Bucks do not figure to improve much over last year when they compiled the NBA’s worst record, winning only 15 of the 82 games.

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Lionel Hollis actually did a real apprenticeship prior to taking a head coaching position, for a couple of seasons at Arizona St., and then for several years with the Phoenix Suns. Even then, he was unprepared, and his first head job, an interim position with Vancouver in 1999-2000, ended with an 18-42 record. After the Grizzlies moved to Memphis, he had a brief and unsuccessful second
interim gig, with the team going 0-4. He took over the Grizzlies for real for the 2008-2009 season, and over five years built the team into a winner, advancing as far as the conference finals in his last season, 2012-2013. Despite his apparent success, personalities and dissatisfaction prevailed, and he and the team parted ways after that playoff loss. Now, the Brooklyn Nets, after trading away Kidd, have given Hollis a second chance, and a four-year contract.

And then there is the most interesting case of Stan Van Gundy, who after failing to reach .500 in any of his last four seasons as a college head coach, spent several seasons as both a college and then NBA assistant, before getting the head job with the Heat. After some short-lived success, he was then the victim of Pat Riley’s power grab, resigning as coach during the 2005 season. A couple of years later, he took over the head coaching spot at Orlando, and his team lost in the 2008-2009 Finals to the Lakers. They never got past the first round after that, and Van Gundy was fired after the 2011-2012 season. If any of the re-treads has a decent track record, it’s Van Gundy, and if they can acquire some talent in Detroit, he might have a fighting chance to succeed.

Finally, the last re-tread is the Lakers' new head guy, Byron Scott, whose qualifications for the job are bound up in his friendship with Kobe Bryant, Scott, who over 12-plus seasons as an NBA head coach has compiled a 416-521 record, and who was fired from all three of his prior teams, will oversee
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a couple of bad teams and bad years, and likely unceremoniously be cut loose in two years at the end of Kobe’s contract.

This is how I rate the nine, best to worst:

  • 1. Stan Van Gundy
  • 2. Lionel Hollins
  • 3. David Blatt
  • 4. Steve Kerr
  • 5. Flip Saunders
  • 6. Derek Fisher
  • 7. Quin Snyder
  • 8. Byron Scott
  • 9. Jason Kidd

So, just what is the average tenure of an NBA coach with one team? Take out San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich who has been there forever, and it’s less than two seasons. Odds are that of the above nine new hires, at least six of them will be gone after the end of the season after this one.

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