The NBA has always been quick to dismiss head coaches and spin its wheels while bringing faces both new and old into whatever top gigs exist. During this offseason, more openings than usual popped up, which meant the league (save for the re-hiring of Mike Brown in Cleveland) had to dig down to replenish its ranks.
Here is a quick look at the some of the more recent hires.
Atlanta Hawks: Mike Budenholzer
As the most visible assistant sitting next to Gregg Popovich, who is considered by many to be the best head coach in the game, it boggles the mind that Mike Budenholzer wasn’t given an opportunity to be a head man years ago. This is a guy whose mug went deep into the NBA’s national TV season four different times during title runs under Popovich, and in a league that tends to latch onto The Guy Next To The Guy, one gets the feeling that only Budenholzer’s own value system kept him from grabbing a top gig from just any desperate team. He apparently was waiting for the perfect situation.
The Hawks aren’t desperate, but are they the perfect situation? Atlanta general manager Danny Ferry probably doesn’t even know at this point, what with Josh Smith’s impending free agency and Dwight Howard’s impending wishy-washy Dwight-ness still a month away from officially needing consideration. In the meantime, Ferry let former Hawks coach Larry Drew (still under contract with the team, for another month) seek out his own fortune in the coaching carousel, and went with the first available Spur he could find – even if the Spurs themselves won’t be available for much of anything until June’s NBA Finals end.
Ferry has done this before, hiring Mike Brown in 2005 after his Cleveland Cavaliers briefly flirted with bringing Larry Brown in to guide LeBron James’ early years. Brown ended up winning the Coach of the Year in 2009, but he never really got through to James in the way that Erik Spoelstra ended up getting to LBJ – and that was some 20 months into their partnership. With the Hawks’ roster in flux, Budenholzer doesn’t know who he’ll be attempting to get to, which makes him a perfect hire considering the relationship he and Ferry already have.
Outlook: Professional. We have no idea how Budenholzer’s assistant talents will cross over to the top spot, or if the Hawks can utilize all that free-agent cash they have stashed, but Ferry regards the San Antonio lifer as an asset worth building around. Budenholzer’s pedigree lends us to give Danny the benefit of what few doubts we have.
Charlotte Bobcats: Steve Clifford
The Bobcats tried their hand at hiring a Tom Thibodeau-type last summer, going for former college assistant and interim coach Mike Dunlap, and the results weren’t pretty. It’s true that Dunlap led the Bobcats to exactly the amount of wins a roster like that should expect to put together (Charlotte went 21-61), but the team still didn’t like what it saw in Dunlap in terms of player development and play-calling priorities.
Now they’re trying their hand at an NBA version of the Thibodeau-mold. And to hear any Van Gundy tell it, because they would know, Clifford is the right Thibs man for the job. Clifford’s rank on Mike D’Antoni’s staff in Los Angeles this past season was questionable. We don’t know how much influence he had over that mess, but by all accounts the man knows as much stuff as a lead assistant should, and he’ll come well-prepared.
Outlook: Less than promising. If Clifford’s voice and patience translate to the top spot, he’ll be just fine. Actually, he’ll be damn good. We don’t even mind the comparison to Thibodeau, who may be the league’s best coach once you take away the mitigating factors surrounding his overuse of players.
The problem is that the Bobcats don’t have any players to overuse, because while Kemba Walker improved and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is to be admired, the team has little to show and build around, and only the third pick in a very poor draft next June. It’s not about Clifford. It’s about Charlotte.
Phoenix Suns: Jeff Hornacek
Given the NBA’s love of hiring visible ex-players as quick-hit head coaches, it’s surprising that it took Hornacek this long to ascend in ranks some 13 years after his last game, and two years after becoming a full-time assistant coach with the Utah Jazz. Reportedly, Hornacek put off full-time duties in the years before (he’s been a Jazz employee since 2007) in order to spend more time with his growing family.
The Jazz in the post-Deron Williams era were a strange, mismatched team full of talented big men with disparate and at times ill-fitting talents. Current head coach Ty Corbin has his faults and detractors, and from the outside it’s hard to tell just how much Hornacek either worked against Corbin’s influence, or fed it. What we do know is that Jeff’s initial coaching record is going to be less than pristine, because the Suns are an absolute mess right now.
Former Suns GM Lance Blanks salted the earth in a disastrous run as personnel boss, littering the team’s roster with names that don’t belong on any rebuilding team, which means new GM Ryan McDonough is going to have to dig extra deep and into the ranks of the awful for a few seasons just to attempt to make up for Blanks’ (and owner Richard Sarver’s) attempt at saving face.
Outlook: Solid. Even if Hornacek is a relative neophyte that still needs time to acclimate, he’ll get plenty of reps away from the glare of the national media, as the Suns try to restart a rebuilding phase that should have taken place long ago.
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