Challenges await NBA's first-year head coaches
Jason Kidd's path from future Hall of Fame point guard to unproven coach of the Brooklyn Nets didn't begin with his 10 All-Star appearances or his 2011 title with the Mavericks. It started with a notebook.
"It was something I started during my second time in Dallas," said Kidd, who played for the Mavericks from 1994-96 and 2008-12. "After a game, I would write about different situations and how different coaches handled things. Our coach at the time was Rick Carlisle, and the notebook [which later morphed into a smart phone] was about what kinds of things he did that I agreed with, disagreed with, and what worked for him and what didn't. It also detailed what our opponent's coach might be doing. So I took notes with the idea of, If I was ever in that situation how would I handle it? What would I do?
"There was one game at Golden State where we were on a 20-0 run and they took a timeout. They come out and go on a 4-0 run, and our coach calls a timeout. You could feel the air come out of us; you could feel the momentum swinging toward them because of the timeout. The game became kind of close, but we finally won in the end. So the question in the notebook was: Is this a good time to take a timeout? Was it necessary? Could we have gone on and ended the game earlier than we did?"
Those are the types of questions that await Kidd in his first season as an NBA coach. The former All-Star is one of a record nine rookie head coaches this year. Gone are familiar names such as George Karl, Doug Collins and Lionel Hollins. In are Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta, Michael Malone in Sacramento, Dave Joerger in Memphis, Brian Shaw in Denver, Brett Brown in Philadelphia, Jeff Hornacek in Phoenix, Steve Clifford in Charlotte and Brad Stevens in Boston. While the nine coaches come from an assortment of backgrounds, they all face the same daunting challenge: taking over a team and becoming the lead voice in a huddle and to the public for the first time.
|NBA's first-year head coaches|
NBA job security belongs to players, not coaches. Guaranteed contracts and the league's emphasis on individual standouts prompt even successful leaders such as San Antonio's Gregg Popovich to proclaim that his stars "allow" him to coach them. That task is even harder when you can't flash four title rings.
"Coaches have a saying: Players don't care how much you know until they know how much you care," the Kings' Malone said. "Once they get that sense and they know that you are not only competent in what you're doing and you know your stuff, but that you also care about them and are sincere about them, that's where the buy-in takes place."
In his favor, Malone is a familiar face to NBA players, thanks to a 12-year career as an assistant with New York, Cleveland, New Orleans and Golden State. Still, in the offseason he invited players to meet him at the Las Vegas Summer League, had lunch with DeMarcus Cousins at his family home in Alabama and encouraged his team to arrive in Sacramento a month early -- all in an effort to acclimate his roster to him and his staff as well as the defensive principles he will stress.
Similarly, Joerger traveled to Spain to meet with Marc Gasol after taking over the Grizzlies. He also spent time with Mike Conley and kept in regular contact with his team, even though he had been an assistant in Memphis for the past six seasons.
Budenholzer, who spent the last 17 years as Popovich's assistant before accepting the Hawks' head-coaching position, came to value the importance of player-coach relationships more than San Antonio's voluminous playbook after watching his mentor build meaningful bonds with his stars over the years.
"[The psychological aspect] is the most important thing in coaching," Budenholzer said. "Watching those interpersonal relationships during my time with Pop, it's so obvious how important it is. It starts with having a genuine concern for players, not just on the court. Then you've got to follow that up with being direct and honest and having some humility. You've got to learn to laugh at yourself but also be willing to push them. Sometimes it's putting your foot on their throat and kicking them in the butt; sometimes it's putting your arm around them. Knowing when and how to do that hopefully comes naturally."
Navigating how a promotion to head coach can change a relationship with players can be tricky. An assistant nurtures talent and consoles bruised egos; as the leader, a coach expects that talent to perform and is the one bruising those egos. Kidd learned that lesson quickly at the start of training camp when Kevin Garnett publicly bristled at the coach's plans for his playing time. While headlines like Garnett's sometime suggest trouble to fans and media, the dialogue it opens can also help develop a team's level of trust, according to Warriors coach Mark Jackson.
"It's not me vs. them," said Jackson, who took over the Warriors in 2011 with no coaching experience and led them to 47 victories and the second round of the playoffs in his second year. "I'm in this thing with them. And we're all grown men. I've got players with kids, with wives, with families, so you treat them the way they're supposed to be treated and you get results. That said, by no means do I compromise, by no means do I not hold them accountable, by no means do I not discipline them.
"It's the same thing at home. I have four kids and they're my friends. But I'm still daddy and I still punish them and chastise them and correct them and nurture them and love them. But I've never cussed them out, and I can [still] get results from my kids. You don't have to do that with players, either. I've always believed if a coach can cuss you out, then why are you out of line when you cuss a coach out? That's been my mindset from Day 1, and when you do that, it's much more enjoyable to come to work. It is a business, but they know I love them."
Getting that love in return takes time, even with familiarity. Former Lakers forward Kurt Rambis recalled that Pat Riley won over his players' hearts by meeting them out at a bar after games following his promotion from assistant to replace Paul Westhead as head coach in 1981. But Riley didn't fully win over their minds until he convinced them that his detailed preparation would help them win.
"Players will see right through you if you don't know what you're talking about," said Rambis, a former NBA head coach and now a Lakers assistant. "Young coaches have to be secure in what they're trying to do, because if they're telling players things that don't make sense or don't have answers to questions when players come to them, it tears down the fabric of their credibility.
"Say you're talking about how you're going to defend a wing screen-and-roll against a big man, but then it's Dirk Nowitzki setting the pick, and the players ask if they should defend it the same way. If you say, 'That's a really good question; let me think about it,' the players might think you haven't thought this through. You've got to have your philosophy down, your practice plans down, your training camp plans down, or the team will lose confidence in you."
Equally important, players have to understand the plans. In assessing whether Joerger could lead a team on which he had already been an assistant, Grizzlies CEO Jason Levien turned to his players, who stressed Joerger's ability to articulate his game plans clearly while also being able to handle players at challenging moments.
"A lot of times in this profession, you might not communicate enough," said Kidd, who played for eight coaches in his 19-year career. "There's nothing wrong with over-communicating. Even if it's something a guy doesn't want to hear, as long as he knows where he stands, you're doing the right thing."
The Grizzlies won a franchise-record 56 games last season and made the Western Conference finals for the first time. But they parted ways with Hollins less than three weeks after San Antonio swept them, and Joerger was hired following a brief search. Joerger's combined five championships as coach in the IBA, CBA and D-League impressed Memphis' front office, which was equally sold on the 39-year-old's demeanor.
"The key for us was making sure that the organization was going to have leadership that was going to work together and collaborate," Levien said. "We want an atmosphere where there isn't a downstairs and an upstairs in terms of the coaches and the front office, but one in which we feel like we're in it together and we all feel like we're rolling in the same direction.
"We want people who have strong opinions that are based on a lot of thought and we want them to give those opinions when we get in a room privately with our coaches and our front office and hash out the direction of the team, whether it's trading a key player, how we want to play, all those things. Once those decisions are made, we want to rally around each other and not have the public and the media pulling out, 'Well, this coach said this,' or, 'This front office member said that.' Everyone should know we are a united front."
That same mantra is being echoed across other revamped organizations. In Sacramento, Malone and new general manager Pete D'Alessandro placed their offices next to each other in an effort to foster constant communication. With the Nets, Kidd's tenure with the team during their Finals runs in 2002 and '03 offered him a comfort level with the organization so strong that he moved from player to coach despite his feeling that he still could play. In Atlanta, GM Danny Ferry reached into the same Spurs organization that he had worked and played for to hire a familiar face in Budenholzer.
But no matter the interaction, no matter the familiarity, NBA coaches and their GMs have historically differed in some respects. Coaches tend to be focused on winning now and preserving their jobs, while executives keep their vision on more long-term goals, even if that means sacrificing a season (or a coach) along the way. But Ferry, for instance, is trying to blend those competing interests by following the lead of his former employers in San Antonio, where he and Budenholzer were tutored in the value of collective team building.
"Pop and [GM] R.C. [Buford] create a very inclusive and collaborative environment that allows anyone from the front office and coaching staff to truly look under the hood and understand why decisions are made," Ferry said. "Mike's been a part of that, and that's an environment I want in Atlanta. It's really hard to find a first-time head coach, or any coach, who has the understanding of the process of building a team long-term and short-term and also has a system-based approach as to how he wants a team to play. Along with having a clear vision of how he wants a team to play, Mike has a very strong understanding of the CBA and player development and all the facets that make up big-picture thinking for a team."
Budenholzer admitted that the Hawks' sets will have a decidedly Spurs-like feel. But in suggesting that his game plans will branch away from the Popovich playbook, he added, "I have to be true to myself."
Coaching, in many ways, is an act of flattery, a reflection of the lessons learned from opponents or previous bosses. It's also an act of subtle defiance, a belief that one's schemes are better than those of the guy at the other end of the court and, perhaps, a step forward from his predecessor's.
"I would compare it to a funnel," Malone said. "You're always going to take certain things from certain coaches, and you may not agree with certain things they do. But as you get older, you start to funnel things away and establish what you really believe in as a coach. And that's what your team is going to represent because that's what you're going to stress every day in practice."
Finding someone who has been influenced by top coaches but also maintains an independent streak drives the search for new coaching talent.
"The guys I like are not trying to get their face on camera; they're working and taking notes and coming up with independent thoughts," said D'Alessandro, the Kings' GM. "You're always trying to identify those with their own perspective on talent."
Malone's path to Sacramento came not through D'Alessandro, who was Denver's assistant GM through the end of the playoffs, but by way of new owner Vivek Ranadive, who scouted Malone in person when both were with the Warriors the previous two seasons. The then-minority Golden State owner watched Malone interact with players in practice and with Mark Jackson in huddles. Once Ranadive completed the deal for the Kings, Malone was hired even before D'Alessandro was named the new GM two weeks later.
Despite his relatively late arrival, D'Alessandro never questioned the move for Malone.
"If you watched him as an assistant at the various places he worked, you could see the input he had and the strength of his message," D'Alessandro said. "And that's hard to do as an assistant."
Taking over a team's bench sheds the anonymity many assistants treasure and tears open the cocoon of stardom former players once enjoyed. Budenholzer's profile no longer is limited to a third of a page in San Antonio's media guide. As the Hawks' coach, Budenholzer's arrest for an alleged DUI over the summer became a national story. Kidd cannot just slip on the headphones as he preps for a game, but has to broker peace with Garnett after his expression of frustration to the media.
"As an assistant, you're working with players and telling them how good they are and how much better they're getting and keeping their confidence up," said Rambis, who coached the Timberwolves from 2009-11. "Then you become the head coach and you can't spend as much individual time because of the time commitments you have. And now you're the decision-maker. You're the one responsible for that guy not playing. And then his agent is calling you and asking why his client isn't playing. You've got to decide how to deal with that."
New coaches say the toughest adjustment is growing accustomed to the idea that basketball is no longer the sole focus, but one of a lengthy list of tasks to accomplish.
"I thought coaching was just 'Let's draw some plays, let's organize what we're doing, let's practice and get ready for the game,' " Jackson said. "It wasn't even close. You're making all the decisions -- what hotels we're staying in, when we're leaving, what time the bus [to and from the game] is, when we eat, where we eat. Every single decision along those lines is the responsibility of the coach. And you don't just do it once; you've got to do it every single trip, every single game."
A host of people also need attention before a single play is drawn on a white board in the locker room. The media, the general manager, assistant coaches, secretaries -- all have questions and all need answers every day. So, too, do those marketing the team who need the use of one of the organization's most recognizable faces.
"You have to be involved with the business side of things as well," Malone said. "Also, there are appearances and helping with season-ticket sales and being active in the community. You commit to all these things, but as the season approaches, you want to put your blinders on and get into that bunker mentality of getting together with your staff and your players and putting together your offensive and defensive checklists."
Even if a new head coach can win the ear of his players, work well with his front office and charm the media and fans, his future is not entirely his own to craft. First-year coaches' livelihoods depend on expectations. For Kidd, an early playoff exit may not placate an owner spending more than $100 million in salary this season. Malone, on the other hand, may struggle to transform the Kings into the stout defensive unit he helped mold for the LeBron James-era Cavaliers, but as long as Sacramento is headed in the right direction and the players improve, he will have done his job in D'Alessandro's eyes.
Experience offers a known quantity, a safer chance that expectations will be met. But it also can offer limits, evident in a coach's track record with other teams and his system. A rookie, though, brings the potential of the unknown, for good and for bad. And potential sells in the NBA, whether it is the upside of a project in the draft or that of a coach who has never faced the responsibility of guiding a team through an NBA season.
"There's a risk involved in a decision like this," Levien said of the Grizzlies' move from Hollins to Joerger. "But we believe it's a calculated risk on our part. I believe our team has a lower floor than it had if we hadn't changed leadership, and also a higher ceiling."