CHICAGO – There was a little mix-up in the traffic pattern as NBA coaches made their way through a circuit of stops, from trouser fittings and photo shoots to sit-down interviews with NBA Entertainment, on the ballroom level Monday of a downtown hotel. The two-day annual coaches’ meetings were under way and Jason Kidd, the new coach of the Brooklyn Nets, was like a kid at freshman orientation, compliantly going where he was told, even if it meant jumping a line on Milwaukee’s Larry Drew.
As point guards in their respective playing careers, the pecking order would have been simple: Kidd played 19 seasons, was a 10-time All-Star and retired at age 39 this spring ranked second all-time list in assists, second in steals and third in minutes. Drew, 55, was a part-time starter for five teams who spent one of his 11 pro seasons in Italy, averaged 11.4 ppg and 5.2 rpg and logged about a third as much time on NBA courts as Kidd.
But now, in their current positions, Drew has Kidd beat 230 NBA games coached to none, with a victory edge of 128-0. So when someone noted the very-minor lapse in protocol Monday afternoon, Kidd quickly deferred. “You go ahead, coach. I’m just a rookie,” he said.
Then, while the Hall of Fame-bound player and absolute question mark of a coach waited his turn, he talked rather excitedly about his new gig.
“Oh, I’m a rookie,” Kidd said. “It’s still basketball but I am a rookie at the coaching level.”
The Chicago meetings Monday and Tuesday were merely the latest step in his run-up to working his first game as an NBA coach. There was summer league, of course, in Orlando, assorted preparation over the past two months and, last weekend, a coaches/general managers clinic in Los Angeles in which Kidd participated. He played sponge to a group that included the Clippers Doc Rivers, Indiana’s Frank Vogel, retired legend Phil Jackson and former Lakers, Knicks and Heat coach (and Heat president) Pat Riley.
“It was like going to school, like going to class, where I got to listen to the best in 24 hours,” Kidd said. “I took away their stories, them at their beginnings, not being afraid to change but having to stand for what you believe in. And the biggest thing is be yourself. Be true to yourself and stick with your principles.”
It’s a message that’s especially timely this season, with nine — count ’em, nine — men who will be working their first training camps, preseasons and regular seasons as NBA coaches in 2013-14. Besides Kidd, they are: Mike Budenholzer (Atlanta), Brad Stevens (Boston), Steve Clifford (Charlotte), Brian Shaw (Denver), Dave Joerger (Memphis), Brett Brown (Philadelphia), Jeff Hornacek (Phoenix) and Mike Malone (Sacramento).
As if that weren’t enough turnover for one offseason, four more familiar faces will be blowing whistles in new, or renewed, places: Mike Brown (Cleveland), Maurice Cheeks (Detroit), Rivers (L.A. Clippers) and Drew (Milwaukee).
It’s a dramatic upheaval. It’s also, as some see it, the NBA’s circle of life.
Change the new constant on benches
“I came into the league in 1988 as a player with the Boston Celtics,” said Shaw, who gets his shot after a long second career as an assistant coach. “At the time, everybody was accustomed to seeing Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, DJ [Dennis Johnson]. But you get to the point where they’re at the end of their careers or some changes have to be made, if you want to keep things going or you want a fresh look or voice. Change is inevitable.”
Change also might be the residue of a new collective bargaining agreement between the owners and the players that strove to reduce costs and shorten contracts. What’s good for the workers, in other words, might also be good for the middle-managers, too.
Or as one NBA coach put it this week, “Part of the lockout talk back [in 2011] was, ‘If you’re losing money, why don’t you stop paying the coaches so much?’ Some of these guys were going to require big bucks to get re-signed. If you’re a team that’s rebuilding, why pay big bucks to a coach for that?”
One example of that played out in Boston, where the Celtics’ veer away from title-contending didn’t require Rivers at $7 million annually. Another came from Memphis, where assistant coach Joerger was highly regarded and a lot cheaper than veteran coach Lionel Hollins.
One by-product is that, at the moment, your average NBA coach seems to have the career tenure of an NFL running back. Longevity has turned into short-evity.
Consider: San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich took over for Bob Hill in December 1996 and has been at the Spurs’ helm ever since, a little less than 17 years. Miami’s Erik Spoelstra and Dallas’ Rick Carlisle worked their first games for the Heat and the Mavericks, respectively, within 24 hours of each other in October 2008. Oklahoma City’s Scott Brooks slid over 13 games into that season, replacing P.J. Carlesimo in late November.
And that’s it. Every other coach — 26 of the 30 — started in his current job in October 2010 or later. Odds are good you have socks older than that.
“I don’t see it as a trend. I see it as an outlier situation,” Carlisle said Monday. “Y’know in recent years, we’ve had some of the giants of coaching decide to step away: Pat Riley, Phil Jackson, Don Nelson, Jerry Sloan. And I’m missing a couple of names — Jeff and Stan Van Gundy are two guys who are choosing not to coach, too. They’re two of the best in the world. You’re talking about guys who have been the real stability of our profession. When you lose guys like that, there are going to be times when there is some upheaval.”
Carlisle also considers the rash of job vacancies and hiring this offseason to be cyclical.
“I hope so,” said Vogel, a Pacers assistant when he took over for fired Jim O’Brien in January 2011. “It’s a little bit unsettling that I’m the third-longest tenured coach in the Eastern Conference [behind Spoelstra and Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau]. It’s pretty bizarre and not a good sign for our coaching industry. But I think you get a year like this every now and then, maybe not as bad as this, but hopefully it will stabilize.”
Patience required now more than ever
The downside of such sweeping change is the rawness, the mistakes that come from having so many teams working through their coach-player-system learning curves. Said Thibodeau, beginning his fourth season with the Bulls: “A big part of coaching is building, the progression. When you look at the model franchises — San Antonio, Utah, Miami, Boston — that’s how you build. It’s a team sport so you’d like to have continuity. But with other changes — a new owner, a general manager — usually more change follows.
“It’s easy to say you’re going to have patience. But you actually have to have it when you start something over. You can’t keep changing every year, even just changing your bench. To build a good team concept, you’d like to have a core coming back year after year.”
The upside, however, includes freshness, optimism, hope, surprise, new personalities and the fact that not one of the nine rookies has had to grind through a losing streak or even a loss. Everyone’s philosophy is unsullied, if untested, and they’ll all be on honeymoons of varying lengths before reality fully intrudes.
At that point, though, they’ll be like every other coach, old or young, former player or aspiring video coordinator, freshly hired or recently fired. They will be judged. Thibodeau’s success in Chicago might have opened the door for this summer of promoted assistants, but it’s a door that swings both ways.
“As an assistant you always want to see other assistant coaches [like Clifford and Brown] get that opportunity,” said Malone, hired by the Kings off Golden State’s bench. “They’ve paid their dues, worked their way up and now it’s their chance to make that adjustment one seat over.
“Now it’s like ‘pay it forward’ – it’s our obligation to do a good job for the next group. The NBA is very cyclical. It was former players for a while. Now it’s assistant coaches. If we do a good job, maybe it will stay that way. Because if we don’t, maybe they go to — who knows? – European coaches as the new trend.”
Actually, if the current crop gets the job done, the positions won’t come open soon, period.
Here is a sampling of the NBA’s new and returning coaches from interviews at the Chicago meetings, talking about the turnover and changes in their ranks:
NBA.com: Is there some safety in numbers or added excitement in having nine rookie coaches enter the league all at once?
Jason Kidd, Brooklyn: “It’s something that we’re all excited about, if you ask the rookie coaches. But I also think there are some great coaches out there who will get back in the league. The big thing is, I think we’re all humble, we all know we have a job to do and that’s to win. But to have these young coaches, I think it’s also exciting for the league.
Steve Clifford, Charlotte: “I don’t think there will be any new systems or styles of play. I don’t think there are many things that haven’t been tried in this league. We’ll all be a product of the people that we worked for.”
Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta: “The NBA is about the players and their abilities and what they can do. The coaches play a small role in it, but I think it’s really about them. I think the fans will still see a great product and hopefully we don’t screw ’em up.”
Brad Stevens, Boston: “My transition’s probably a little different. But one of the things you all have to discern is where your program’s at. It’s not a cookie-cutter thing, It’s going to be different for all nine of us. From our standpoint, it’s just about getting used to the players, them getting used to us and trying to get together and get something done sooner rather than later.”
NBA.com: What flag do these guys need to plant quickly as new coaches?
Frank Vogel, Indiana: “Whether you’re a rookie coach or a veteran coach with a new team, you’ve got to give that team an identity. You’ve got to put your stamp on where they’re at as a franchise. However you do that, whether you come in and say ‘We’re gonna run’ or ‘We’re gonna be a smash-mouth defensive team,’ maybe that’s your identity. Maybe you’re a loose, have-fun type of team — whatever your identity, you want to establish that as early as possible. In line with that, you want to establish your own coaching style. You may have a perception of what that’s going to look like but a lot of times, that kind of evolves over the first half of the season.”
Clifford: “It’s just study. Get to be the expert on your team, on your guys. Spend as much time as you can thinking about ways you can help them play better. Then formulate a team plan that helps your guys play to their strengths. At the same time, that has to be a plan that will equate to winning.”
Dave Joerger, Memphis: “To me, in my situation, it’s all about your best players letting you coach them. That gives you credibility. Without credibility, it can be a tough road.”
Jeff Hornacek, Phoenix: “With the team we have in Phoenix, with young guys, they had a rough year last year or last couple years, I guess. So for me the biggest thing is to be positive. Try to teach ’em as much as I can, as far as the little things. Teach ’em the work ethic, because that will obviously get these young guys better. If that’s extra film sessions or extra time on the court, everybody [on our staff] is ready to do it.
“Let’s face it, a first-time coach on the head seat, you’re going to have some lessons. Probably I’ll end up making, hopefully not many mistakes, but I’m sure I’ll make a few. So not only for our young players, but it will be a learning lesson for me, too.
NBA.com: How might all this newness show up in the product on the court? Will they be disciples of their former bosses?
Malone: “That’s the beauty of being a first-time head coach, you can take everything you’ve been around and learned. Now you can use it, you can tweak it, you can bring in your own thing. I think you’ll see a mixed bag on that. You’ll see a lot of things that we’ve seen in the NBA for years but you have a college coach in Brad Stevens coming in. He may try to do things differently, innovative, coming in from college.”
Terry Stotts, beginning his third season in Portland after two-year stints in Atlanta (2002-04) and Milwaukee (2005-07): “All the coaches that were named are quality coaches who’ve been coaching a long time. I don’t think [the newness] is going to affect them. They’re going to get their teams to play hard. Everybody is going to establish their own styles. They’ve all hired quality staffs. The rookie coaches will find their way. They’ll find what works. It’s a long season. I know they’ll all work hard to make it work.”
Hornacek: “I’ll draw from all of ’em. I’ve had all the different styles. From Johnny Orr [at Iowa State], who just said, ‘Go out there and play.’ Cotton Fitzsimmons was kind of that way. John McLeod had a lot of plays. And Jerry Sloan, obviously, everybody knows about him and his execution and the toughness that he demanded. I’ll combine ’em all.”
NBA.com: Might other teams be affected, too, learning to face these tweaked opponents with new systems?
Dwane Casey, starting his third season in Toronto: “That is huge. Before you could go, ‘George did this, Lionel did this,’ go by a track record from years. But with so many new coaches, scouting is going to be so important, in finding out what the new coaches are doing and trying to figure them out. It’s probably going to change for them, too, once they get their teams and learn what their guys can do and can’t do.”
Vogel: “It will require a little more study. Where, if you were playing Jerry Sloan’s Utah Jazz, you’d study it but you don’t really have to study it. You know exactly what they’re going to do. Now everybody’s style is going to be a little different. How they use personnel is going to be a little different. But most coaching staffs in the NBA are so thorough, they identify all that stuff whether it’s a new coach or not.”
Tom Thibodeau, Chicago: “Philosophically you know they may not run everything exactly the same. There’ll be some subtle changes. But if you look at Mike Budenholzer and Brett Brown under Pop, you have an idea, philosophically, of what they believe in. The same thing with Brian Shaw, Steve Clifford and the guys they were under.”
Rick Carlisle, Dallas: “Teams will be scouted the same way. You watch a team three or four games, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what they want to do. It’s probably not going to have as much to do with whether a guy has been there for five or six or eight years or if it’s a new guy. You still got to have a team that takes care of the ball, that guards, that rebounds, that can put it in the basket.”
NBA.com: Will there be an informal competition-within-the-competition, to gauge which of the new guys is doing best?
Kidd: “All nine situations are probably different. I can only speak on mine, and how our ownership has given me the opportunity with the talent we have to win. And not just win — to try to win the championship. I do have some talent on our roster. For us to have the process of understanding what it takes to win the championship, I can quickly turn to Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry, because they’ve all won championships. They can share their journeys with the guys. As far as the coaching staff, [former Spurs assistant] Joe Prunty has the most rings and can share with the staff and myself what it takes to win a championship.”
Tyrone Corbin, Utah Jazz: “You look at guys like Jeff [Hornacek] and Jason Kidd, Brian Shaw, guys who have played the game, they’ve been around championships or had the experiences with great teammates. They understand it. The pressure of stepping up and coaching a team won’t be as great as maybe it was in the past [for those without that playing background].”
Stevens: “Your situation is different. You’re also going to gauge progress differently. So that’s the furthest thing from my mind.”
NBA.com: These jobs traditionally are coveted but hard to get. What does a 30 percent influx of new blood and a 46.7 percent turnover rate in a single offseason say about the profession or the league?
Shaw: “I think there are some young bright coaches who are starting to get an opportunity, and that’s not to knock any of the established coaches who have been around. We have some very young players in the league that do things a different way, from a completely different culture. I personally benefited this go-around because I wanted to show I’m able to connect with them and push the right buttons. It goes through cycles and this offseason was just one of those cycles where there was a lot of movement.”
Corbin: “It’s unfortunate in the coaching business. Guys do great jobs and you think they should continue with their team. But it is where we are now, for whatever reason. I’m not sure what those reasons are. I’m sure some guys are making changes for change’s sake and I don’t know how that will work out for the better.”
Malone: “We all knows the rules getting in. It’s kind of like the Mafia, right? If you don’t like it, maybe coaching’s not the profession for you. Because it’s very insecure, a nomadic lifestyle — my oldest daughter is 8 years old and she’s moved five different times already.”
Carlisle: “Chuck Daly once said that the NBA is a business of dynamic change. You’ve got to adapt and you’ve got to roll with it. We’re at a period of time when there is more change. There seem to be more trades, there’s a lot of free agency movement. There are a lot of one-year contracts. A lot of this has come with the new collective bargaining agreement, so we’re all going to have to adjust to it.”
Mike D’Antoni, Los Angeles Lakers: “Maybe it’s a trend. Maybe it will go away, like a lot of other things. I also think it’s a big influence of analytics and a different way to look at the game. When you add that to a lot of new owners, I think it’s a natural thing that things change and there’s a different way of thinking. But I do think that once this settles in, then coaching will be more settled as well.”
Budenholzer: “Hopefully a few of us can be like Spoelstra or Scotty Brooks. I think everybody’s going to put in the time and the effort. You have to be a little bit lucky and have some good players and a good organization and have the support of ownership and the GM. I can guarantee we want to be that group that’s still here in four or five years with the same team.”
NBA.com: Some coaching fixtures — George Karl, Lionel Hollins — won’t be on the sidelines this season, at least as it looks now. Are we seeing a “changing of the guard” by generation?
Casey: “It’s a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately position. It’s not only production — you see where guys like George and Lionel who did a heckuva job are now out of jobs. It’s concerning. Winning maybe is not enough.”
D’Antoni: “Oh yeah, but I think every coach has a ‘year off’ in him. Then they’ll get back into it. Hopefully they’ll get back into it. They’re not going anywhere. They’re still out there.”
Malone: “Being the son of a coach [former Toronto and Cleveland head coach Brendan Malone], when you see guys who have had success get fired — George Karl, Vinny Del Negro, Lionel Hollins … It used to be, as a coach, you were judged on winning. And those guys have won at a high level. If you’re an owner or a general manager, you have the right to do what you want when you want. But you also feel for those [three guys] because all have done a terrific job for their respective teams. I guess it’s somewhat concerning. But on the flip side, I’m the beneficiary.”