Filling the Hot Seat: The Suns’ Coaching Search
I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Phoenix Suns have a big offseason coming up. It’s going to be so big that it’s all Suns fans have been talking about since December. That tends to happen when your team’s regular season has been so awful. It’s been such a dumpster fire that I heard the majority of Phoenix’s homeless population just hovers around Talking Stick Resort Arena for warmth nowadays. Perhaps the most important decision the team will make is who their next head coach will be.
Devin Booker recently downplayed the impact of a good coach saying “It’s a player’s league.” While I agree with him that it is a player’s league, I think his opinion is influenced by never having a good coach before. It’s appropriate that they have been tanking the past few years because they’ve been moving towards relevance at the pace of an actual tank. They need a makeover of “Pimp My Ride” proportions (Is Xzibit available for an interview?). More than anything, the Suns need a change in culture, and hiring the right coach is the best way to facilitate that change. A good coach alone can’t accelerate a rebuild, but a bad one can certainly stall it (I’m looking at you, Earl Watson).
Suns’ GM Ryan Mcdonough has promised that the Suns’ coaching search will be “thorough and pretty extensive”, so let’s take an extensive look at some of the potential candidates along with my preferred rankings.
8. Jason Kidd
My biggest fear is that Jason Kidd becomes the next coach of the Phoenix Suns. I legitimately had a nightmare about it. His interview with Howard Beck on Bleacher Report is a perfect example of why I’m so scared it could happen. Kidd seems like a guy that says all the right things, “If you want to be great, you have to work hard.” He knows how to win. He demands accountability. What GM doesn’t want to hear that out of a potential head coach?
The problem is that he doesn’t necessarily know how to convey that to his players. Then, instead of holding himself accountable, he blames his team’s struggles on youth. That’s not the type of guy you want leading a rebuild. There are also questions about his defensive system. He had a bevy super long, athletic guys to build a great defense with, but up until his firing the Bucks were one of the worst defensive teams in the league. I have no doubt that Jason Kidd knows the game of basketball, but he’s too proud and rigid to be an effective coach for a young roster like the Suns.
7. Mark Jackson
Mark Jackson’s name gets bandied about because the Suns find themselves in a similar situation as the early Steph/Klay/Draymond Warriors. He laid the groundwork for those Warriors to become THE Warriors once Steve Kerr took over. I don’t doubt that Jackson could turn the Suns into a playoff contending team, but would he stick around long enough to turn them into a contender?
Mark Jackson’s firing from the Warriors was well-publicized. He clashed with management over his assistant coaches and even with those assistant coaches. If the Suns want to take the next step as an organization, they need a singular vision between the front office, the coach, and the players. They already tried the preachy, players coach that caused a rift between the players and GM (Again, looking at you, Earl). They don’t want to go down that road again.
6. Jay Triano
Jay Triano is the only candidate that we know is for sure getting an interview. The fact that he’s not last on this list despite the season the Suns had seems like more of an indictment on the other two candidates than anything. But, I don’t think Triano has been awful. He was tasked to put out the dumpster fire equipped with a water gun filled with gasoline. The players seem to like him. Josh Jackson and to a lesser extent, Marquese Chriss have made impressive developments as the season has progressed.
Still, the Suns are headed for the worst record in the league. Even worse, the Suns have only been competitive in a handful of those games. It’s gotten to the point where opposing coaches call timeouts in disgust whenever the Suns cut the lead to under 15. I don’t think he should get the job, but I wouldn’t be opposed to Triano staying as an assistant coach just to keep some semblance of continuity.
5. Tony Bennett
Tony Bennett is one of the most well-respected college coaches in the whole country. In the ACC, which is usually dominated by blue-blood programs like Duke and UNC, Bennett consistently has Virginia competing for conference championships. His systems on offense and defense emphasize the importance of team basketball. This is what allows Virginia to compete against superior talent. He just knows how to coach.
I’m not sure if his pack line defense would translate in the NBA with superior athletes with quick release jump shots. But I’m confident that he’s smart enough to adapt his system to the NBA game. The type of swarming team defense that he employs would be necessary for a Suns team lacking great individual defenders provided that he could get them to buy in. He also did wonders with Klay Thompson at Washington State, so I’d be excited with what he could do with Devin Booker.
4. David Fizdale
James Jones is the Suns VP of Basketball Operations. He played in Miami when David Fizdale was the lead assistant, so the connection is there. After he was fired by the Grizzlies many of his former players, including LeBron James, came to Fizdale’s defense. He is one of the more respected guys in the league and probably one of the most quotable.
I do have some trepidation about his exit in Memphis. He’s supposedly a player’s coach, but he was fired, at least in part, because of a rift with Marc Gasol. I do like how he was willing to experiment with different lineups in Memphis especially after Conley went down. It seems like he’s willing to give anyone a chance and looks to hold his players accountable with playing time even his stars. I think the Suns need some of that. But at some point, the head coach has to find a way to get along with his star player, or else he’ll lose the locker room. It’s also concerning that since the All-Star Break last year, the Grizzlies were 16-27 which suggests some of his initial luster wore off. TAKE THAT FOR DATA!
3. Any Spurs assistant
Etore Messina, Becky Hammon, Ime Udoka…take your pick. Just give me a branch of that Gregg Popovich coaching tree. Popovich is like the Genghis Khan of the NBA; one in every 20 coaching/executive jobs is taken by one of his direct descendants. Of the three, Messina would be my top pick. He is more than likely slated to be Popovich’s replacement, so I don’t see him leaving San Antonio.
Becky Hammon has the least experience, but she has been given a ringing endorsement by Popovich as someone that just understands the game. Rumor has it that her alma mater, Colorado State, is considering her for the head coaching position of their men’s team. That could be a good stepping stone on her way to an NBA head coaching gig.
Ime Udoka is the most intriguing to me. He’s Popovich’s second longest tenured assistant. I also subscribe to the theory that former role players make good coaches. He’s big on building relationships, and he’s young enough where he can relate to the Suns young core. With no head coaching experience, though, he’s a bit of a wild card.
2. Igor Kokoskov
The Utah Jazz assistant has quietly been making a name for himself around the league over the years with a bevy of gigs. He has been an assistant under Larry Brown, Alvin Gentry, Mike Brown, and Quin Snyder so he has experience in a bunch of different systems. The most impressive thing about Kokoskov is his ability to develop players, especially point guards. He did wonders with Goran Dragic in his time in Phoenix. He has even helped Ricky Rubio have one of the best years of his career.
This past summer Kokoskov splashed onto the scene by leading an underdog Slovenian national team to the EuroBasket championship. He has experience leading a team and has a special relationship with Luka Doncic. Luka is the number one player on my draft board, and I salivate at the thought of him in Phoenix. If the Suns do end up drafting Doncic, I think pairing him with Kokoskov would be a great start in rebuilding the culture in Phoenix.
1. Jay Wright
I don’t think I need to say much here. Two championships in three years…yeah, that’s all I really need to say. Every team with a head coaching vacancy will be blowing up his phone. I imagine that Jay Wright is about to feel like the guys on The Bachelor, except he’s already happily married. It’s tough for me to see Jay Wright leaving his situation. He already turned the Suns down once in 2016 after his first title. If Wright is willing to listen, though, I’d hope that Sarver is willing to break the bank for him. (And he’s actually the president of a bank, so that shouldn’t be too hard.)