Emerging trend: Coaches given president's title in NBA
A day after Stan Van Gundy's first game as president of basketball operations for the Detroit Pistons last season, he was asked to give an assessment of the coach in the 89-79 loss to the Denver Nuggets.
''My front office was not very happy with the coach last night,'' Van Gundy quipped. ''He admonished the coach.''
The name of the coach: Stan Van Gundy.
Over the last four seasons, a mini-trend has developed in the hiring practices of NBA teams. Several owners have decided to give their coaches the additional title of team president, bestowing final decision-making authority on their shoulders.
The Pistons, Los Angeles Clippers (Doc Rivers) and Atlanta Hawks (Mike Budenholzer) all have coaches in dual roles. The Spurs fall into that category as well, though coach Gregg Popovich and GM R.C. Buford basically share the decision-making in San Antonio.
All four of those teams made the playoffs this season.
Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor was initially resistant to that setup, but has now elected to go with it two times in a row. Flip Saunders convinced Taylor to give him both roles before he tragically passed away after a battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma in October. After a season in flux, Taylor decided to give Tom Thibodeau both titles last week to try to expedite the development of his young core.
''You only get this unique opportunity for the top every once in a while in your lifetime,'' Taylor said Tuesday.
Proponents of the structure say having a coach as the team president reduces the potential for conflicts between the front office and the coaching staff, which became a problem for Thibodeau at the end of his run in Chicago.
But some league observers see the situation as a collision of church and state. The front office's main goal is ensuring that the success the organization has can be sustained over the long haul while the coach's main goal is to do what he can to win that night.
So holding both positions can at times pull one person in two different directions.
''I guess that's the challenge for me or anybody else in this position,'' Budenholzer said. ''We have to balance those things and understand the importance of both. We can't sacrifice one for the other. We have to understand how and why we make a decision.''
Another minefield to navigate comes during contract negotiations. In a traditional arrangement with a separate coach and GM, the coach can often play the role of the good cop, telling the player to keep his focus on workouts and on the court and not to let any acrimony with the general manager deter him from improving his game.
The line between good cop and bad is much thinner for the coach/president. Saunders, who was a master of the political games that needed to be played, discovered that while negotiating Rubio's contract extension during training camp two years ago.
''Dealing with the GM is always tough, but if you only see him in the office, that's good,'' Rubio said. ''But then when you have to see him in a practice, it's a little tougher. But I think Flip handled it very well. He was different. When we were out on the court we were only talking about basketball.''
Rivers has long been considered one of the best coaches in the game, but his record as an executive hasn't been as sterling. He took over a Clippers team that already had Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan on the roster, and many of his acquisitions, including Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith this season, have not panned out.
''When I was coaching only I was still involved in doing the same work,'' Rivers said. ''The difference is you have people working for you. It's not that big of a difference in a lot of ways.
''There are some differences. There is some more work and there are some decisions not related to basketball that you'd probably rather not have to make. Other than that, it's work as usual.''
All of the coaches have leaned heavily on experienced GMs to help them with the intricacies of the salary cap, the scouting of college players during the NBA season and connecting with agents to comb for potential deals.
Van Gundy has Jeff Bower, Budenholzer works with Wes Wilcox and Thibodeau has old friend Scott Layden, a former GM with the Knicks and Jazz, by his side.
''He really does so much,'' Budenholzer said of Wilcox. ''He knows what we're looking for, he knows how we want to build our program. I don't think it could be done without someone like him in that position.''
What they all agree on is there is a motivation to prove that this arrangement can work and give owners another avenue to consider when looking for new leadership.
''I don't know about pressure,'' Van Gundy said, ''but you certainly feel a responsibility to do well and to show that coaches can do these things.''