Learning on the fly: Top challenges facing NBA's rookie head coaches
Steve Kerr, Warriors
Kerr enters the NBA coaching ranks under curious circumstances, taking the helm of a team fully formed. Rarely are newcomers trusted in this way. Yet in this case Kerr comes to power on the basis of being the kind of personality Mark Jackson is not and having the kinds of relationships that Jackson couldn't sustain. There were basketball reasons to be underwhelmed by Jackson's work in recent years, though fundamentally he did a fine job of elevating the Warriors to the defensive elite, pushing the team to its first 50-win season in 20 years and taking the higher-seeded Clippers to seven games.
This is both a luxury for Kerr and the source of a natural tension. First-year head coaches so often fall victim to their own ambitions, sometimes by implementing changes as to make their value more apparent. Kerr, to his credit, understands that these Warriors do not need an overhaul and has stated as such. Still, his first year with the team will be a balancing act between the new and the old -- the tenets of Kerr's own preferred style and the remnants of Jackson's tenure. Within that delicate balance is the freedom to move forward without surrendering the established potency of one of the West's better teams.
It helps that there is already a dividing line within the Warriors' operations. Much of what transpired on the defensive side of the ball under Jackson was aces: Golden State trailed only Indiana and Chicago in defensive efficiency last season thanks to a schematic adjustment that favored the Warriors players. Andrew Bogut was allowed to hang back in the paint on pick-and-rolls to defend angles and space rather than draw out to the uncomfortable perimeter. Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson were used to hound opposing ball handlers, be they wings or point guards. Draymond Green made for a perfect utility type, playing bigs or small forwards as the situation demanded. There are natural limitations that come in playing David Lee and Stephen Curry for heavy minutes, yet a stout defensive roster empowered by Jackson's principles held firm in spite of them. This is a collection of players capable of managing its weaknesses to play championship-level basketball.
Kerr would be wise to adjust the defense lightly while focusing his attentions elsewhere. Golden State's pace and perimeter shooting gave it the air of a run-and-gun team last season without the output that makes such teams effective. The fault for that rests with Jackson by default. He had two of the league's best shooters at his disposal, flanked by quality cutters and serviceable post options. His starting lineup featured four players who pass incredibly well for their positions, accompanied by one of the most deadly off-ball threats in the league in Klay Thompson. Such a collection of players could do so much better than the stodgy sequences that Jackson insisted upon. If preseason buzzwords offer any indication, Kerr has singled out those faults and aims to address them through better balance. Doing so could elevate Golden State to a different level of title contention, provided that only modest adjustments leave one of the best defenses in the league intact.
Quin Snyder, Jazz
On the other end of team-building spectrum is Snyder, whose inherited squad finished with the worst record in the Western Conference last season. His primary task is simple in concept if complicated in approach: Build. Under Ty Corbin, the Jazz never progressed much further than spinning their wheels. Teams buoyed by Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap never much threatened to challenge the conference's finest, with their finest achievement being a cameo sweep in the 2012 playoffs. Last season's team hit rock bottom without much sense of internal order. There were individual pieces in Utah all developing in their own way at their own pace. Absent was a broader sense of what that development might eventually yield -- a clearer picture as to what the Jazz would someday become.
That isn't solely the fault of Corbin, who was given a roster of decent young players absent a central superstar prospect. Yet in lieu of that foundational talent, Snyder must find a way to give this current roster a workable structure. Utah clearly has some freedom to rebuild patiently and organically. Yet with important decisions coming soon with regard to the futures of Alec Burks and Enes Kanter, the Jazz need to establish quickly just what kind of team they aim to be. This is a time for development, to be sure, but also for establishing a culture, for instilling a defining ethic and for fostering the kind of system that encourages a core of players to grow together. We're now entering the fourth season of Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Burks and Kanter as Jazz, with so little to show for it in the way of continuity.
David Blatt, Cavaliers
Blatt, like Snyder, is an experienced basketball coach merely making his introduction to the NBA world. He'll do so under high scrutiny as the leader of a startling contender -- one anchored by homecoming king LeBron James, the improbably acquired Kevin Love and resident star-in-waiting Kyrie Irving. Those three will make life easy for Blatt in so many regards, and it's through the natural mesh of their impressive skill sets that the Cavs should soon stand as one of the best offenses in the league.
Defensive success won't come so simply. From the first of the season the Cavs will be in scramble mode, compensating for a lack of interior defense through whatever means possible. None of Love, Tristan Thompson or Anderson Varejao is a rim protector. For that matter, the former two have had their troubles in contributing positively to a team defense in any regard: Thompson's pick-and-roll missteps surrender favorable angles to the rim and Love's reluctance to contest shots (and emphasis on securing rebounds) has hurt his previous teams' overall defense. Varejao, who is by far the best defensive option of the three, has slowed with age and injury and played in just 47 percent of Cavs games over the past four seasons. There is no clear path toward defensive solvency, thus presenting Blatt -- a sharp tactical coach -- with a puzzle amidst his team's immediate title contention.
Derek Fisher, Knicks
Fisher's greatest challenge is the very same that will test the entirety of the Knicks organization, from James Dolan to Phil Jackson on down. This is a job that requires the utmost patience. The same could be said of any long-game restructuring of any NBA front office, though the Knicks represent a singular case due to their institutional history of myopic decision making. For many years this franchise has actively stood in the way of its own success. Now, with a team president of considerable influence and his hand-picked head coach, it needs to stand by as the future of the team comes to form.
That won't be easy. The earliest days of the triangle offense are likely to oscillate between sloppy and robotic, only occasionally hitting the sweet spots of spacing and fluid ball movement that brought the system to prominence. Carmelo Anthony's five-year, $124 million dollar deal adds another party which the Knicks must appease in some respects, even while undertaking a schematic rebuild that could make New York less competitive in the interim. With every day will come new questions regarding the team's progress, many of which will likely miss the point. The Knicks will not be fixed this season. There is no way to the promised land with this roster, no twisting of variables that would make New York a contender. All that is exists is the slow, progressive work of making the Knicks into a triangle team, which Fisher and Jackson believe to be the best course back to lasting quality.