Igor Kokoskov: Building a Brighter Future (Hopefully)
The beginning of this offseason has already been a tumultuous one for the Suns (like season, like offseason as they say). The Suns had two of the top coaching candidates in Mike Budenholzer and David Fizdale turn them down. And they even got the collective heart rate of Suns fans up by being linked to the likes of Jason Kidd and Vinny del Negro. But after the thorough search that was promised by Ryan McDonough, the Suns finally have their coach. And I’m not trying to brag (says everyone right before they’re about to brag), but it ended up being the guy I had number two on my list just under Jay Wright (he was never going to happen). All things considered, I think Igor Kokoskov is a great hire for the Suns.
The biggest knock I hear about Kokoskov is his lack of NBA head coaching experience. Well he has plenty of experience as a head coach and in the NBA, so I’m not too worried. He was the head coach for the Georgian national team for seven years (oh, you don’t remember?) However, he’s most known for his run as the head coach of the Slovenian national team. That team went 15-0 last year capturing their first EuroCup in the nation’s history behind the play of Goran Dragic and Luka Doncic. Perhaps he can end another championship drought here in the Valley.
He’s also been an assistant in the NBA for 18 years for many teams including Phoenix, Cleveland, Utah, Detroit. That’s a diverse wealth of experience to draw from in a variety of systems. An underrated aspect of hiring a new head coach is the staff that he can put together especially for an NBA rookie coach. With 18 years in the league, Kokoskov is bound to have a vast rolodex of names to pull from in order to put together a solid staff. Although he doesn’t have a hunchback, he’s been the literal Igor to plenty of successful NBA Dr. Frankensteins (Quin Snyder, Larry Brown, Alvin Gentry just to name a few). If he can build a coaching style that combines the best parts of his mentors, we could have a real monster on our hands.
Kokoskov’s M.O. around the league has been his player development abilities. Goran Dragic credits him for helping him become the player he is today. He also taught Ricky Rubio how to shoot. I repeat, he taught RICKY RUBIO how to shoot. (If he thought that was a challenge, wait until he sees Josh Jackson’s jumper.) Devin Booker and Josh Jackson are going to reap huge dividends under Kokoskov’s tutelage. More importantly, it’s sink or swim time for both Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss. Neither have instilled much confidence in becoming the Suns 8th man of the future, let alone their starting PF of the future. They’re going into their third year with a player development coach who will have clear roles for them in a real system (not that high school offense that Earl Watson was running.) No more excuses.
It’s tough to know exactly what kind of system Kokoskov will implement since he’s coached in so many different ones. I’m confident that he can use his experience to create a system for the Suns that maximizes the strength of the roster. Most likely, he’ll have the Suns run something similar to what the Slovenian team ran last summer. Even with two primary ball handlers in Doncic and Dragic, they blitzed teams in the EuroCup with an offense predicated on cutting and ball movement. I can see Booker and Jackson (or Doncic!!!) filling similar roles. None of them are great at breaking down people off the dribble one on one. But all of them are more than capable of creating off the bounce against a defense that’s constantly recovering from a barrage of off-ball movement and passes.
Even though Kokoskov is known more as an offensive minded coach, he has been on the staff of a couple of elite defensive teams, most notably the current Jazz and the 2004 NBA Champion Pistons. Defense is all about accountability, and I’m confident that Kokoskov can coach the Suns up into at least a passable defensive squad (as opposed to the high school defense that allowed roughly 150 points per game this year). If the Suns do get the first pick, many people assume that they’ll take Doncic. However, Ayton is still a tantalizing possibility especially if Kokoskov can instill some of the same defensive instincts that has made Rudy Gobert such a terror at that end. Either way, Kokoskov’s extensive knowledge of Doncic will allow the Suns to make the most informed decision when it comes to their potential draft pick.
I’ve heard from some fellow Suns fans that Kokoskov isn’t a sexy or exciting hire. Those fans are probably just xenophobes. He’s the first European-born coach to be hired as a head coach in the NBA (he was also the first non-American assistant coach in the NCAA and NBA). He’s a trailblazer (not a Trail Blazer, back off Portland). He’s got familiarity with a franchise whose fan base has an unhealthy obsession with nostalgia (half the people I know wanted Steve Nash or Dan Majerle to be the coach…but why?) What’s not to be excited about? Outside of Budenholzer, who was going to be an exciting hire? Fizdale? Clifford? You know what you’re getting with those guys (maybe an 8 seed in 2-3 years.)
On the other hand, Igor Kokoskov is a mystery. We don’t know how he’s going to fare which can be exciting. What we do know is that the man has paid his dues. He’s well respected across the league. He’s got a track record of success. His ascension into NBA head coaching ranks is probably long overdue. His most important quality, though, is that he WANTS to come to Phoenix. He’s worked with Robert Sarver and isn’t scared off by him. That’s like finding a woman that is willing to look past your massive debt and snoring problem. You need to put a ring on that as soon as possible. Hopefully, Kokoskov will be able to make that a championship ring one of these days.