Set for the sidelines: NBA executives weigh in on next generation of head coaches

Steve Clifford understands the grind. Before becoming Charlotte’s head coach in 2013, Clifford’s NBA journey included four assistant-coaching stops, a decade-plus run that was preceded by college assistant-coaching gigs in Fairfield, Connecticut; East Carolina and Goffstown, New Hampshire. Without an NBA coaching background or a top college job on his résumé, Clifford struggled to earn recognition as a high-level coaching candidate.

“It’s always going to depend on management,” Clifford told Yahoo Sports. “We talked about that this year in the head coaches meeting. There are more people within management now. There are more people involved. Some with analytic backgrounds, some without a basketball or coaching backgrounds. That changes things.”

Portland coach Terry Stotts gets it, too. Stotts’ coaching career began in the CBA, where he developed a strong working relationship with George Karl that continued at Karl’s NBA stops in Seattle and Milwaukee. The Sonics and Bucks enjoyed successful runs with Stotts on staff, but it wasn’t until 2002, in Atlanta, that Stotts got his first head-coaching shot — and that was only after the Hawks fired Lon Kruger at midseason.

(From left to right) David Vanterpool, Jay Larranaga, Jerry Stackhouse, Ryan Saunders and Adrian Griffin could be next in line for NBA head-coaching jobs. (Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(From left to right) David Vanterpool, Jay Larranaga, Jerry Stackhouse, Ryan Saunders and Adrian Griffin could be next in line for NBA head-coaching jobs. (Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

“There’s frustration when a job doesn’t come right away,” Stotts, who took over the Blazers in 2012, told Yahoo Sports. “But I believe that if you keep doing your job well, people will take notice.”

In the NBA, coaching hires are trendy. In the late ’90s/early 2000s, hiring high-profile college coaches (Kruger, Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Mike Montgomery, etc.) was en vogue. Former NBA head coaches with established track records have always been a safe hire.

In recent years, veteran assistant coaches have been getting opportunities — and succeeding. Clifford has established himself in Charlotte. The Nets are happy with Kenny Atkinson in Brooklyn. Brett Brown battled through four rebuilding years to become a Coach of the Year candidate in Philadelphia.

In the coming weeks, there could be as many as 11 head-coaching openings, and veteran assistants will get long looks. Who are they? On the condition of anonymity, Yahoo Sports asked more than three dozen high-ranking team executives to name two assistants whom they see as the top head-coaching prospects. The only criteria: Execs could not name assistants from their own staffs, and assistants could not have any NBA or major-college head-coaching experience.

Toronto assistant Nick Nurse’s star is rising. (AP)
Toronto assistant Nick Nurse’s star is rising. (AP)

Nick Nurse, Toronto: 16 Votes

Nurse, 50, is well-traveled: He was a player-coach in the British Basketball League in his early 20s, moved to the D-League in 2007 — where he became the first head coach in league history to lead two different teams to championships — before joining Dwane Casey’s staff in Toronto in 2013.

A respected offensive mind, Nurse is credited with leading the overhaul of Toronto’s offense this season, which has seen the Raptors evolve from an isolation-heavy, 3-point averse offense into a free-flowing one that fires up the third-most threes per game (32.9) in the NBA.

David Vanterpool, Portland: 13 Votes

Vanterpool, 45, has risen rapidly. He joined the Blazers’ bench in 2012 with Stotts after two seasons as a pro scout in Oklahoma City. In Portland, Vanterpool has worked closely with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum – “He has done a remarkable job with our guards,” Stotts told Yahoo Sports – and is the de facto defensive coordinator on Stotts’ staff, leading a defense that ranks in the top 10 this season. Said Stotts: “He really thinks the game like a head coach.”

Igor Kokoškov, Utah: 10 votes

Kokoškov’s résumé is impressive: An assistant for six teams in 17 seasons — including a spot on Detroit’s title-winning staff in 2004 — and the distinction of being the first European coach to hold a full-time position with an NCAA Division I school, working for Jazz coach Quin Snyder at Missouri. Several executives cited Kokoškov’s performance last summer, when he coached Slovenia to a championship at the FIBA EuroBasket tournament.

Kokoškov’s English, once halting, has improved significantly since he came to the NBA in 2000 — he coached the Slovenian team entirely in English. Snyder told Yahoo Sports that Kokoškov, 46, has no issues communicating with players and regularly runs practices.

Stephen Silas, Charlotte: 7 votes

Silas, 44, is a basketball blue blood. His father, Paul, is a three-time NBA champion who spent nine seasons in the league as a head coach. While Silas got his first coaching opportunity under his father in Charlotte, he quickly established himself as a sharp basketball mind. He worked closely with Stephen Curry during a four-year stint as an assistant in Golden State from 2006-10 and was elevated to associate head coach in Charlotte before the start of this season.

Silas was a finalist for the Houston head-coaching job in ’16 and interviewed to be Warriors coach Steve Kerr’s top assistant the same year. The six weeks Silas spent filling in for Clifford this season provided invaluable experience — perhaps making Silas the most head-coaching ready of the bunch.

Adrian Griffin, Oklahoma City: 5 votes

A nine-year NBA veteran, Griffin has quickly become a sought-after assistant coach. He spent five seasons in Chicago, where he was credited with developing Jimmy Butler into one of the league’s best two-way players. Said Butler, “I think he has a lot to do with who I am.” Griffin, 43, spent one season as an assistant coach in Orlando before joining Billy Donovan’s staff in Oklahoma City.

(From left to right) David Vanterpool, Terry Stotts and Nate Tibbets keep a close eye on the Blazers during an October game. (AP)
(From left to right) David Vanterpool, Terry Stotts and Nate Tibbets keep a close eye on the Blazers during an October game. (AP)

Nate Tibbetts, Portland: 4 votes

That’s a pretty good staff up in Portland. Tibbetts is a grinder, his pro coaching career beginning as an assistant with the D-League’s Sioux Falls SkyForce, continuing as the head coach of the Tulsa 66ers before landing an NBA job, as an assistant with Cleveland, in 2011. He joined Stotts’ staff in ’13 and immediately established himself as a tireless worker, while charged with overseeing the Blazers’ offense.

Chris Finch, New Orleans: 4 votes

After barnstorming through Europe, Finch landed in the D-League in 2009, where the Rockets began grooming him for an eventual move to the NBA bench. Widely regarded as a keen offensive mind, Finch helped juice up Denver’s offense in his one season on Mike Malone’s staff in ’16-17 and has been a valued member of the Pelicans’ staff that has made significant offensive improvements this season. Finch shares Pels head coach Alvin Gentry’s offensive vision: play up-tempo, don’t call many plays, give players freedom, try to be an unpredictable offensive team.

Jerry Stackhouse, Raptors 905 head coach: 3 votes

Stackhouse, 43, retired in 2013 and has quickly established himself as a strong head-coaching candidate. Toronto tapped Stackhouse to coach its D-League affiliate in 2016 after just one season on the Raptors’ bench. Stackhouse responded by coaching Raptors 905 to the D-League championship and was named Coach of the Year that season.

Executives eyeing Stackhouse have been impressed by his defense-first coaching mentality, as well as his aptitude on the sideline.

Ryan Saunders, Minnesota: 3 votes

At 31, Saunders is the youngest assistant on this list, but his work ethic has impressed execs monitoring the assistant ranks. Saunders — the son of the late former NBA coach Flip Saunders — worked under his father in Washington and Minnesota, and was retained when Tom Thibodeau was hired to coach the ’Wolves in 2016. Saunders has become a valued assistant on Thibodeau’s staff (he has coached Minnesota’s summer-league entry the past two years) and has drawn praise from Timberwolves officials for his work with young players.

Jay Larranaga, Boston: 3 votes

Larranaga, 43, has been Brad Stevens’ lead assistant since 2014 and has drawn attention from several teams in recent years. He has interviewed for head-coaching jobs in Philadelphia and Memphis, and was a candidate for the Celtics’ job before Boston hired Stevens. Larranaga is another assistant who has built a strong reputation for player development — Marcus Smart, a tough, two-way combo guard is a player Larranaga has worked with closely — while apprenticing under Stevens, one of the brightest minds in the NBA.

Others receiving votes: Rex Kalamian, Toronto; Jarron Collins, Golden State; James Borrego, San Antonio; Juwan Howard, Miami; Jim Boylen, Chicago.

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