They used to call it “The Coaching Carousel,” because every summer a third of the league’s head coaches would get fired, and then calliope music plays while all those eligible job-seekers basically swapped spots and found new NBA head coaching jobs all over again. Teams wanted head coaches with NBA head coaching experience, and it was seldom that any organization thought outside the box beyond just promoting a lead assistant once the former big fish retired.
Today, though, organizations scour the planet for good head coaches. Be it an international coaching sensation, a respected NCAA guy, a long-time assistant ready for his first shot at the big show or even a former player only months removed from wearing an actual uniform, teams are willing to try anything short of a “Survivor”-style reality show to find the next big thing in coaching.
The good news is that they—both the teams searching and the coaches they’re ultimately finding—are succeeding, as the following list shows. These five gentlemen all have a year or fewer experience as an NBA head coach, but all of them show how promising the future will be for their new employers.
Here’s a look at five coaches on the rise:
Mike Budenhozler, Atlanta Hawks – A former assistant to Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, Budenholzer got off to a respectable start in his first season in Atlanta, making the playoffs despite losing Al Horford for the year early in the season. Under Budenholzer, the Hawks showed how good they can be offensively, finishing in the top half of the league in scoring (101 PPG) even without their best player. Getting Horford back and adding rookie Adriaen Payne will make them even better offensively, and in a weak Eastern Conference, there’s no reason they shouldn’t contend for a home court advantage for at least the next few years under Budenholzer.
Steve Clifford, Charlotte Hornets – Just a year ago, the then-Charlotte Bobcats were coming off a really bad season, even by their standards, which left quite a lot for former Lakers assistant Steve Clifford to deal with in his first season as head coach. Landing free agent big man Al Jefferson helped, but Clifford completely changed the culture of that team, especially defensively. Charlotte was, in fact, one of the league’s better defensive teams last year, to the surprise of many. Adding Lance Stephenson, Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston in the offseason certainly won’t do anything to stifle that success, and with a playoff series win in 2015, Clifford could conceivably vaunt himself into the league’s coaching elite.
Dave Joerger, Memphis Grizzlies – When Joerger was first promoted from assistant to head coach following the end of Lionel Hollins’ tenure in Memphis, nobody really expected much out of him, but what we saw last year, even in the wake of losing Marc Gasol for a big chunk of the season, was that the Grizzlies looked pretty much the same under their new head coach. They won 50 games again last season, and despite some clashing with owner Robert Pera, Joerger did receive a contract extension this past summer because he really is a good young coach. He probably has some more headaches ahead of him working under Pera, but he’s got a talented team that, when healthy and not throwing punches that lead to Game 7 suspensions, have a reasonable shot at making their way through the Western Conference.
David Blatt, Cleveland Cavaliers – Before Cleveland signed LeBron James, they initiated the search for a new head coach, with many fans believing the final decision on the skipper would play a huge role in convincing James to return home. Blatt may not have been a name casual fans were familiar with, but in 21 years of coaching in various professional leagues worldwide, he’s won 17 championships, including a Eurobasket title, an Olympic medal and most recently a Euroleague title, which he just won with Maccabi Tel Aviv in the spring. He’s a winner, and absolutely ready for a shot in the NBA, particularly now that he’s in charge of the greatest player alive. There are plenty of people that believe he’ll ultimately be one of the best coaches in the league.
Jeff Hornacek, Phoenix Suns – What originally seemed like one of the most underwhelming head coaching hires in recent NBA history, Hornacek superseded all expectations this last season and almost led a Suns team to the playoffs that many thought would be in the hunt for Andrew Wiggins by April. The players spent all season lauding Hornacek’s patience and cool-headedness, though Hornacek’s fast-paced mentality and player friendliness were a perfect fit for this young, athletic team. He uses his players perfectly, making us forget that he was a rookie coach last season, and based on his early results, he’ll be manning the sidelines in the NBA for a very long time.
The really amazing thing about this list is that there are more young coaches that could have equally promising futures. Jason Kidd was no slouch in Brooklyn last year once he got the hang of things, and he should do good things with a young and eager Milwaukee Bucks team. Brad Stephens is doing interesting things in Boston, if he ever gets the talent to be successful. Even Jacque Vaughn has extracted more effort out of a bad Orlando team than many coaches could have.
The crop of new coaches is as strong as it’s been in a long time, and added to respected vets like Gregg Popovich, Tom Thibodeau and Doc Rivers, we’re in for some seriously heady basketball contests this upcoming season. And that, folks, is the way we like it.