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Breaking Loose From The NBA’s Coaching Carousel

A few NBA teams are beginning to break the mold when it comes to head coaching hires, writes David Yapkowitz.

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It seems like when it comes to head coaches in basketball, be it at the college level or the NBA, there is a tendency for teams to revert back to what they know. Instead of perhaps thinking outside the box and taking a chance on something new, we see a lot of the same names mentioned time and time again.

Take my alma mater, for example, California State University, Northridge. The school fired Reggie Theus, a former NBA All-Star, as head coach of the men’s basketball team back in March. Just a few days later, Mark Gottfried was hired as his replacement.

Gottfried is well-known in NCAA circles, he certainly has name recognition. He’s been a longtime coach who’s had some success in college, but the end of his tenures at Alabama and NC State weren’t all that smooth. He’s also been mentioned as part of an FBI probe into college basketball.

This isn’t to say that Gottfried shouldn’t have been under consideration, nor that he isn’t qualified. It’s just that sometimes you might need some new blood to breathe life into a program. There were just as qualified candidates, such as former UCLA assistant David Grace and current USC assistant Jason Hart. Both coaches are major recruiting forces in Southern California who are hungry for an opportunity to lead a team.

Taking a look at the NBA, there’s been no shortage of coaching vacancies so far. And again, we’ve seen some of the same names circulated over and over. Jeff Van Gundy is seemingly mentioned anytime a head coaching position opens up. Same with Mark Jackson. Mike Woodson and Mike Brown were both interviewed by the New York Knicks.

Maybe that’s why it’s a bit refreshing to see the direction that the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, and Phoenix Suns have decided to take. All three teams will have first-time head coaches when the 2018-19 NBA season begins in October.

The Hawks will feature Lloyd Pierce at the helm. Pierce has been an assistant coach in the NBA for 11 years with stops in Cleveland, Golden State, Memphis and Philadelphia. He was a big part of “Trusting The Process.” He was college teammate of Steve Nash at Santa Clara and had a brief professional playing career.

The Hornets are bringing on James Borrego to lead the way. Aside from making history as the first full-time Hispanic head coach in the NBA (Kaleb Canales finished out the 2011-12 season in Portland as interim head coach), he comes from the Gregg Popovich coaching tree. He also brings with him 15 years of experience in the league as an assistant coach.

And the Suns will hand their team over to Igor Kokoskov. He also made some history by becoming the first foreign-born head coach in the NBA. He has even more experience as an assistant, with 18 years on NBA sidelines. He’s been a part of some good teams such as the 2004 champion Detroit Pistons and the 2010 Phoenix Suns that made it to the Western Conference Finals.

All three men are well deserving of their new positions. It will be interesting to see how they all fare in their first year. Both Phoenix and Atlanta are firmly entrenched down the rebuilding path. With speculation that the Hornets could possibly move Kemba Walker, they might find themselves in a similar situation. While these teams are going to be doing a lot of growing up over the next few years, it’s good to have a head coach who is going to be doing the same. They will be able to learn and grow together.

There are four coaching vacancies remaining: Detroit, Milwaukee, Orlando and Toronto. One name that has circulated for a couple of those openings is Jerry Stackhouse. A former All-Star, Stackhouse has done a tremendous job with the Raptors G-League team. He may not have as much experience as some of these other assistant coaches, but he’s developing a reputation as someone who knows what he’s doing. He’s a perfect candidate for a team needing a new direction.

Perhaps it’s not just with basketball, but with life in general. We as human beings like to stick with what we know, with what makes us comfortable. Sometimes change is necessary, change is good. Even someone like Popovich had to begin somewhere.

Instead of seeing the same recycled names over and over, it’s time for NBA teams to start branching out and taking more chances. For the remaining teams looking for a new head coach, take a page from the Hawks, Suns and Hornets.

It’s obviously a bit of a different situation for teams like the Pistons, Bucks and Raptors who have veteran rosters looking to win now. They might shy away from someone who doesn’t have previous head coaching experience. Although both Stackhouse and Nick Nurse have been mentioned in Toronto. Becky Hammon was interviewed by Milwaukee. At the end of the day, you never know unless you try. And for NBA teams, the time to try is now.

David Yapkowitz has been a staff writer for Basketball Insiders since 2017. Based in Los Angeles, he focuses on the Pacific Division as well as the NBA at large.

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