By James Herbert
(CBS Sports)- Last summer was an aberration in the NBA coaching world, as zero — ZERO! — teams made a change. It turned out that this did not reflect the profession getting less volatile, as three coaches — Earl Watson in Phoenix, David Fizdale in Memphis and Jason Kidd in Milwaukee — were fired midseason. Three more — Jeff Hornacek in New York, Steve Clifford in Charlotte and Frank Vogel in Orlando — have been dismissed since the end of the regular season, and it is possible there are more shakeups to come.
As several teams conduct their coaching searches, here is an ideal candidate to fill each opening:
Knicks: David Fizdale
Fizdale and Villanova coach Jay Wright are my, but since there is no indication that Wright and the Knicks will actually have a conversation, let’s go with what appears to be the more realistic choice. New York’s top executives have said they are looking for someone who (among other things) knows the modern game, can inspire players to play hard on defense and will be able to deal with the media spotlight that comes with being in a massive market. Fizdale fits the bill in these areas, and while he isn’t the splashiest possible hire, he is definitely not an unknown, either.
Given the Knicks’ recent track record of cycling through coaches and the fact that Fizdale will likely have more than one option to choose from, they might need to offer him a long-term, big-money deal. This isn’t necessarily a negative — whoever gets this job will be Kristaps Porzingis‘ fourth coach in four years, and the organization needs to make a strong commitment to somebody. New York’s lack of stability is a problem not just in terms of player development, but in terms of its reputation around the league. If Fizdale and the front office are aligned in terms of how the Knicks should play and when they should be competitive again, this could be a perfect fit.
Suns: Mike Budenholzer
It is clear that Phoenix wants a coach with experience. Budenholzer, who reportedly met with the front office and ownership on Monday and Tuesday, has no shortage of that, having spent 19 seasons with the San Antonio Spurs before getting his first head-coaching job with the Atlanta Hawks in 2013. His track record since then is impeccable, and it is not just because he wrung 60 wins out of a team that had no traditional franchise player (but four All-Stars) in 2013. Budenholzer’s best attribute is that he knows exactly how he wants to play, and he can develop players so they fit into his system. For a team that is devoid of an identity, hiring him would make a lot of sense.
Budenholzer gives his players freedom on offense, preferring to run offense that empowers them to make reads rather than scripting plays. He is a perfectionist when it comes to spacing and he does not want the ball to stick in anyone’s hands for too long. As we’ve seen this year in Atlanta, all of that fun stuff does not translate to wins without talent. It matters, though, in terms of showing a young player like Devin Booker that the Suns have a real road map. One major question: Would general manager Ryan McDonough allow Budenholzer to have a say in personnel decisions? Budenholzer’s system is not for everybody.
Hawks: Jarron Collins
If Budenholzer goes to Phoenix (or elsewhere), there will be a hole to fill in Atlanta, where general manager Travis Schlenk is quietly executing a rebuild centered around Taurean Prince, John Collins and whoever the Hawks select in this June’s draft. (They have three picks in the first round, including the one they earned by going 24-58 this season, the worst mark in the East.) Teams in this stage usually don’t go after big-name candidates, so I’m throwing Collins’ name out there as a representative of all the up-and-coming assistant coaches hoping to get their first shot at running their own team.
Collins has a history with Schlenk, having spent the last four years working under Steve Kerr for the Golden State Warriors. (Schlenk was the Warriors’ assistant general manager before the Hawks hired him a year ago.) His playing experience is an asset, but the same could be said for some other assistant coaches who have spent even longer on the sideline, including Hawks assistant coach Darvin Ham.
Hornets: Jerry Stackhouse
It is hard to read the Hornets, who have reportedly been given permission to interview 58-year-old Spurs assistant coach Ettore Messina. Stackhouse and Messina’s resumes couldn’t be more different, but they both have connections to new general manager Mitch Kupchak — Stackhouse through the University of North Carolina and Messina through his season as an assistant coach under Mike Brown with the Los Angeles Lakers.
I’d love to see Messina run his own team, but I’m just not sure that Charlotte is the right fit. Is Kupchak going to overhaul the team this summer? Is his goal to make the playoffs next season or in three-to-four years? The Hornets are firmly aboard the treadmill of mediocrity, and they need to get on a path that leads somewhere sustainable. In this situation, it is easy to sell the hiring of a young coach with potential, such as Stackhouse. If he is hired, he will win the press conference by talking about defense, toughness and player development. What comes after that? It depends almost entirely on what Kupchak does with the roster.
Bucks: Jeff Bzdelik
The league has completely changed since Bzdelik was last a head coach (in 2004 with the Denver Nuggets), but he has very clearly evolved with the times. The mastermind behind the Houston Rockets‘ switch-heavy defense, it is easy to imagine him reshaping the Bucks into an absolute force on that end of the floor. Milwaukee should be looking for someone who is in tune with the modern NBA and can help them both win now and lay a foundation for the future. This Houston season suggests he deserves another shot.
(I was tempted to go with Jeff Van Gundy here. He has been selective about interviewing for coaching jobs over the past few years, but he did pursue the Pelicans‘ and Wolves’ openings because of the opportunity to coach young superstars. It follows, then, that Giannis Antetokounmpo would presumably appeal to him. I’m just not sure I can choose Van Gundy over Bzdelik, given that it’s impossible to know how the former would adapt to the pace-and-space era. This is really a toss-up.)
Magic: Nick Nurse
Nurse isn’t a flashy name, but that shouldn’t matter much to Orlando. Team president Jeff Weltman worked with him in Toronto and knows just how important he has been to that organization. As is the case with Bzdelik, the 2017-18 season has basically served as an advertisement for Nurse’s coaching acumen, though it’s all about offense, not defense. The Raptors have this year by implementing a system that Nurse first pitched in the summer of 2013, and the results have been spectacular.
Also worth noting: While you might have never even heard of Nurse, people in the league respect his vast and varied experience. He spent 12 years coaching in Europe and had an extremely successful run in what was then known as the D-League before the Raptors hired him. This would not be his first head-coaching job, just his first in the NBA.
Grizzlies: To be determined
I am genuinely at a loss here. Are the Grizzlies on the verge of blowing everything up, or are they going to give it another go with Mike Conley and Marc Gasol? We don’t know where their lottery pick will land, we don’t know what they think about interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff and we don’t know if they are ever going to be willing to pay top dollar for a head coach. Their future seems extremely up in the air, and even their recent past is confusing — I am still trying to figure out how they bungled the Tyreke Evans situation so badly at the trade deadline.
There have been no reports of an actual coaching search in Memphis yet. The same is true of Milwaukee, but that team’s season isn’t over yet. Without having a clue about the direction the team is about to take, I can’t in good conscience offer any suggestions.