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Head to Head: Next Great Head Coach?

Who will be the next great head coach in the NBA? Basketball Insiders’ writers discuss.

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Steve Kerr, Brad Stevens and Jason Kidd are just a few examples of recently hired coaches who have found success despite having been hired without any prior NBA head coaching experience. Hoping to find similar success with this approach, the Thunder recently hired long-time Florida Gators head coach Billy Donovan to replace Scott Brooks in Oklahoma City. So, who might be the next great coach in the NBA? Susan Bible, Alex Kennedy and Cody Taylor share their thoughts.

Ettore Messina

As certain NBA teams begin gearing up to search for their next head coach – and there are probably many in the coming offseason – they need not look any further than legendary and well-respected Italian coach, Ettore Messina. With a career spanning over 25 years of coaching basketball at a high level, he brings a serious winning pedigree to the table. After leading teams to four Euroleague championships (Virtus Bologna in 1998 and 2001 and CSKA Moscow in 2006 and 2008, plus two Coach of the Year honors) and countless other Russian and Italian league championships, Messina joined the NBA in 2011, serving as a consultant to then-head coach Mike Brown of the Los Angeles Lakers. He stayed with Los Angeles just one year (wherein he apparently had little input in Brown’s system), and then returned to Moscow and promptly made back-to-back Euroleague Final Four appearances.

In July, 2014, Messina accepted an assistant coach position to, arguably, the NBA’s best active head coach, Gregg Popovich of the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs. Messina has the distinction of being the first European to coach an NBA game when he stepped in last November while Pop was recovering from a medical procedure.

To say Messina’s many accomplishments are renowned in international basketball is a vast understatement. It would be akin to saying the Warriors’ Stephen Curry is a pretty good three-point shooter. Messina’s expertise on the court involves heavy focus on spacing, passing and balance between the inside and outside game. His views on the offensive side of the ball are rather unique by creating schemes based on the specific skills and talents of his players. Messina, a leader in every sense of the word, stresses attacking early and most importantly, he wants players to read the defensive behaviors of opponents.

The Cleveland Cavaliers took a chance last year by hiring David Blatt, the first European coach to make the jump to the NBA. There was definitely a learning curve for the new head coach and his players, but it’s paying off with the Cavs having a serious shot at a title this season. Blatt may have started a trend for other European coaches to perhaps get a chance on this side of the pond. Messina’s learning curve won’t be as pronounced due to the NBA experience he now has under his belt.

The fact Messina was willing to take an assistant coach job with the Spurs to learn the NBA ropes instead of having an NBA-head-coach-or-nothing attitude says this is a coach who sees achieving the goal as a process. His name has been attached to many coaching vacancies of late. With his stacked resume, it appears to be just a matter of time.

This season under Popovich’s tutelage is surely proving instrumental in readying Messina as a future NBA coach. A few months ago, he offered considerable insight on his blog as to what he’s learning from Pop. The decorated coach noted how the Spurs players continually work on fundamentals, including veterans Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, who blossomed under Messina’s direction in Italy in 2001. Pop makes sure the team pays attention to the smallest of details and works on communication. They argue at times, they offer praise when merited, and at all times, they respect each other. These are the some of the critical things Messina, just 55, will bring to an NBA team when he’s finally hired as a head coach.

– Susan Bible

Tyronn Lue

In recent years, former NBA point guard Tyronn Lue has become one of the most respected assistant coaches in the entire league.

Shortly after retiring, Lue started his post-playing career as the Boston Celtics’ director of basketball development and then eventually joined the team’s coaching staff under Doc Rivers. After two years as an assistant coach in Boston, he then followed Rivers to the Los Angeles Clippers in 2013.

Then, last summer, Lue became a serious candidate for the Cleveland Cavaliers’ head coaching job. The Cavaliers ultimately decided to hire first-time NBA head coach David Blatt, but offered Lue a job as his top assistant coach. Lue accepted the position and was made the highest paid assistant in the NBA.

It seems like it’s only a matter of time until Lue becomes a head coach. Lue is very respected around the NBA and has strong relationships with many players, coaches and executives.

Lue’s stints as an assistant will really help him when he does finally get a head coaching job. He has learned a lot coaching star-studded contenders like the Celtics, Clippers and Cavaliers over the years. He also has a ton of experience as a player, with 11 seasons in the NBA and two championships (as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers) on his résumé.

Don’t be surprised if Lue becomes a head coach soon and experiences success on the sidelines. He has plenty of practice, as well as the relationships to put together a solid staff of assistants. It’s no surprise that Lue nearly got a head coaching job last summer, and it seems inevitable that he’ll be coaching a team of his own in the near future.

– Alex Kennedy

David Fizdale

Skim through head coaching candidates in the NBA over the past five years and odds are you’ll find David Fizdale of the Miami HEAT on the short list for just about every open vacancy. It’s not a coincidence that Erik Spoelstra’s associate head coach is a hot name in this process.

Teams often include the best of the best in their searches and begin with the most successful teams in the league. Mike Budenholzer, Tom Thibodeau and Steve Clifford are some of the head coaches in the league that served as assistants under some of the most successful coaches around before getting their opportunity. Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers and Stan Van Gundy all played a role in helping those coaches get a chance.

Spoelstra is becoming one of the best coaches in the league and it’s just a matter of time before his top assistant gets his chance. He’s racked up a 351-207 (.629) record in seven seasons as head coach of the HEAT and has had Fizdale with him every step of the way. It seems like a safe bet that he’ll get his chance sooner rather than later.

Fizdale has been with the HEAT since 2008 and is among the group of candidates believed to be ready to make the jump to head coaching. He was part of the team’s run to two championships in four years and is a big part of their success. As an assistant for several seasons now, Fizdale would be a great fit to coach a team on the rise. The HEAT emphasize building around teamwork and understanding the basic fundamentals of basketball, which are cornerstones for building a team from the ground up.

Fizdale is also the HEAT’s Director of Player Development and has done a remarkable job of preparing his players. Due to several injuries this season, the HEAT were forced to rely on young players in Hassan Whiteside, Tyler Johnson and Henry Walker to play. Those players were able to step right in and make significant contributions and were prepared to play by Fizdale and the rest of the coaching staff. He’s worked with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh during their title runs and has earned the trust of each of those players along the way.

Fizdale began just as Spoelstra did with the HEAT by preparing game film in the video room and then had stops in Golden State and Atlanta while also coaching in college. His time serving in the HEAT organization around Spoelstra and Pat Riley has fully prepped him to be the head coach of an NBA team. The question now becomes, who will give him his first shot?

– Cody Taylor

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