Challenges for new coaches in Western Conference

Monday August 12th, 2013

Doc Rivers is front and center in the Clippers' plans to contend for a championship this season.
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

The NBA's coaching carousel nearly spun off its axle this offseason. A record 13 teams changed coaches, including the 76ers, who hired Spurs assistant Brett Brown on Monday to fill the NBA's last remaining vacancy.

Of the 13 departed coaches, seven led their teams to the playoffs last season, two produced the best regular seasons in franchise history and one was the NBA's Coach of the Year.

As you can tell, it doesn't take much for a team to decide that it needs a new voice in the locker room. Twenty-six of the league's 30 teams have hired a new coach since 2010. The offseason turnover has created opportunities for several new faces: Nine first-time NBA head coaches have been hired since the season ended.

To get familiar with all of the new faces, let's break down each hire. We'll focus on the Western Conference here and examine the Eastern Conference later this week.

Brian Shaw spent the last two seasons as the Pacers' associate head coach.
Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Brian Shaw, Denver Nuggets

How he got here: The position unexpectedly opened up after the Nuggets fired Coach of the Year George Karl after nine years instead of extending his contract as he entered the final year of his deal. (General manager Masai Ujiri, the Executive of the Year, also left, accepting the same position with Toronto.) Shaw, an assistant coach for eight seasons, had interviewed for several head-coaching jobs over the last two years before receiving a three-year deal from a Denver team that won 57 games in 2012-13 and extended its playoff streak to 10, nine of which have ended with first-round losses.

Coaching background: Despite being only 47, Shaw is one of the more experienced coaches hired this offseason. He played 14 years in the NBA and learned from some of the best as an assistant, working six years under Phil Jackson with the Lakers and the last two under Frank Vogel with the Pacers.

Biggest challenge for 2013-14: Get the most out of JaVale McGee. The Nuggets were reportedly unhappy that Karl didn't give more playing time to McGee, who signed a four-year, $44 million contract last offseason. McGee averaged 18.1 minutes as a backup center last season, but the Nuggets created a greater opportunity for the enigmatic 25-year-old by trading starting center Kosta Koufos to Memphis for power forward Darrell Arthur in June. Consistency has never been McGee's hallmark. Can Shaw -- who is known for his player-development skills, particularly his work with budding Pacers star Paul George -- help turn him into a reliable, big-minutes contributor?

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Biggest long-term challenge: Make the Nuggets a consistently strong defensive team. Shaw orchestrated one of the stingiest defenses in the league the last two years in Indiana, but now he takes over a team that has finished in the top half in points allowed per possession only once in the last four years. (Denver, which was known for its up-tempo offense under Karl, was a respectable 11th in defensive efficiency last season.) Upgrading the defense will be a difficult task in the short term after perimeter stopper Andre Iguodala's free-agent departure, but in the big picture, Shaw will look to put his stamp on the defensive end.

Bottom line: It will be interesting to see how much the Nuggets run under Shaw after playing at the NBA's second-fastest pace last season. Either way, Denver is counting on Shaw to connect with young, developing players such as McGee, point guard Ty Lawson and power forward Kenneth Faried.

Doc Rivers, Los Angeles Clippers

How he got here: Unlike any other head coach this offseason -- via trade. After cutting ties with Vinny Del Negro in the wake of a franchise-record 56-win season and first-round playoff loss, the Clippers sent a 2015 first-round pick to the Celtics for Rivers, a potential bargain for one of the top five coaches in the league.

Coaching background: Rivers, 51, spent four-plus seasons as Magic coach, but he's best known for his nine-year tenure in Boston, where he broke the Celtics' 22-year title drought in 2008, made the Finals again in 2010 and won at least 50 games four times. He has experience coaching some of the biggest stars in the league and is accustomed to juggling egos. Rivers is regarded as a strong two-way coach (though the Celtics struggled on offense the last few years) and an even stronger leader, something for which Del Negro was not known.

Biggest challenge for 2013-14: Be the best in the West. Will Rivers, coupled with a few key offseason additions (including shooting guard J.J. Redick and small forward Jared Dudley), be enough for L.A. to reach the Finals? The Clippers are among the NBA's most talented teams, and Rivers will be tasked with putting the pieces in the right place and squeezing the most out of a somewhat thin front line.

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Biggest long-term challenge: Molding Blake Griffin into Kevin Garnett. The two are far from mirror images, but Rivers will need Griffin to play the role of KG for the Clippers to become a perennial contender. That means emerging as an elite two-way player capable of making a consistent impact on defense and continuing to diversify his offense beyond dominating at the rim. As good as Chris Paul is, he needs Griffin to win a championship.

Bottom line: This is one of those matches that sounded so good you never thought it would actually happen. Rivers takes over just as the Clippers should be ready to take the next step after making the playoffs the last two seasons. Expectations will be high right from the start.

David Joerger spent six seasons as a Grizzlies assistant before being promoted to head coach.
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David Joerger, Memphis Grizzlies

How he got here: The Grizzlies did not offer Lionel Hollins a new contract even though he led Memphis to a franchise-record 56 victories and a trip to the Western Conference finals last season. In promoting Joerger, the Grizzlies get a new voice while maintaining the same culture and cohesion.

Coaching background: Joerger, 39, already has five championships, with the minor notation that they came in the International Basketball League, Continental Basketball Association and D-League. After the last of those titles, in 2007, Joerger spent six seasons as a Grizzlies assistant, working under Marc Iavaroni and Hollins. Joerger essentially served as the team's defensive coordinator the past three years, helping Memphis rank in the top 10 in points allowed per possession each season. The Grizzlies was second in 2012-13.

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Biggest challenge for 2013-14: Milking more offense from a defensive-oriented team. The Grizzlies haven't changed the core of a team that finished 19th in points per possession last season, though swingman Mike Miller should help space the floor around power forward Zach Randolph and center Marc Gasol, and guard Nick Calathes is coming off a good run in Russia. Joerger burnished his defensive reputation as an assistant, and now he'll look to show that he can have a positive effect on the offense. No one is expecting the Grizzlies to be an offensive powerhouse, but becoming a more balanced team will enable Memphis to remain a threat in the strong West.

Biggest long-term challenge: Mesh with the Grizzlies' management team. Hollins criticized last season's Rudy Gay trade. He also said relying too much on statistics has become "a bad trait all over the league," even as he worked for a front office committed to analytics. Hollins and the Grizzlies reportedly had "philosophical differences" that led to his departure and opened the door for Joerger.

Bottom line: With so many players back from one of the league's best teams, Joerger will be on the spot from Day One. This isn't a team in the throes of rebuilding; the Grizzlies are expecting a fourth consecutive playoff appearance and hopefully another deep postseason run.

Jeff Hornacek takes over a rebuilding Suns team that finished with the second-worst record in team history last season.
Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Jeff Hornacek, Phoenix Suns

How he got here: The Suns cut ties with interim coach Lindsey Hunter after finishing last in the Western Conference at 25-57, the second-worst record in franchise history. Hornacek, who starred in Phoenix as a player and nearly landed the Suns' coaching job in 2008, was hired less than three weeks after 33-year-old Ryan McDonough was named general manager.

Coaching background: The former sharpshooter served as the Jazz's shooting coach in 2007 before being promoted to a full-time assistant position in 2011. The son of a high school coach, Hornacek played for Cotton Fitzsimmons in Phoenix and Jerry Sloan in Utah. "Hopefully, I can take Jerry's toughness, Cotton's enthusiasm and confidence-building and blend them together," Hornacek said at his introductory news conference. Despite his lack of bench experience, Hornacek drew interest from Charlotte and Philadelphia for their head-coaching positions this offseason, and he was considered for the Celtics' vacancy nine years ago before they hired Rivers.

Biggest challenge for 2013-14: Establishing an identity. Hornacek said recently that he hopes the Suns can average at least 103 points per game, nearly eight more than Phoenix averaged last season and a mark only four teams reached. Hornacek's goal suggests that he'll want the Suns to run a lot, a style that should suit newly acquired guard Eric Bledsoe.

Biggest long-term challenge: Developing the youngsters. With Phoenix in the midst of a full-scale rebuilding job, Hornacek will be tasked with bringing along the likes of the 23-year-old Bledsoe, 2013 first-round picks Alex Len and Archie Goodwin and center Miles Plumlee, the 26th pick in the 2012 draft, who was part of the trade that sent Luis Scola to Indiana. And more young players could be on the way, as the Suns have three first-round picks in what is expected to be a deep 2014 draft.

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Bottom line: Hornacek's lack of coaching experience makes him a bold choice, but what do the Suns have to lose? Hornacek can grow on the job without immediate pressure to make the playoffs.

Michael Malone has been a highly regarded assistant for a number of years.
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Michael Malone, Sacramento Kings

How he got here: When former Warriors minority owner Vivek Ranadive bought the Kings in May, he fired Keith Smart and hired Malone away from Golden State. Malone, named the NBA's top assistant coach in a survey of general managers in 2011, was credited with helping first-time head coach Mark Jackson on the X's-and-O's side during their two years together with the Warriors.

Coaching background: Malone 42, whose father, Brendan, was the Raptors' first head coach, has been groomed for this role. (Mike hired Brendan as one of his assistant for this season.) He broke through as an assistant with the Knicks in 2001 and had stints with the Cavaliers (2005-10) and Hornets (2010-11).

Biggest challenge for 2013-14: Click with DeMarcus Cousins. The talented center has been very productive in three NBA seasons, but he's also clashed with everyone from coaches to teammates to opposing players to referees to broadcasters to USA Basketball leadership. Getting Cousins to buy in to the new program will be important for Malone, as will the coach's work in helping the big man become a better defender and more efficient offensive player.

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Biggest long-term challenge: Change the culture. The Kings have been rudderless over the last seven seasons, running through five coaches, making a series of questionable personnel moves and dealing with an uncertain ownership situation while going 187-371 (.335). Malone and Ranadive offer hope of a fresh start for a franchise that needs to get back on track.

Bottom line: Malone has the pedigree to be a great NBA coach, but he couldn't have picked a tougher proving ground than Sacramento. Ranadive is saying all of the right things and appears motivated to revive the team, but the combination of the Kings' roster and culture of losing makes this turnaround job as difficult as any in the league.

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