Monday, August 26, 2013

School’s in Session

By Jonathan Lowe

It has been a pretty active, but somewhat quiet, offseason in the world of NBA coaching. The active part came from the fact that nearly half of the Association (13 out of 30 organizations) found themselves in a search for a new sideline captain. The quiet part of the equation factors in that all these new coaches need time to hunker down and study their new surroundings or situations.

Now, we all know that coaching changes are inevitably annual. The reason for this year being so strange was that over half of those changes came from almost half of the teams that made the playoffs. With so many new faces in new places, there are bound to be a few that NBA fans don't readily recognize.

Nine of these men will coach their very first NBA game in late October or early November. While four will try to start winning traditions (or position for the Andrew Wiggins/Jabari Parker sweepstakes), five take over organizations coming off of recent success. These guys have evaluated talent through their first summer leagues and will continue to do so over their first training camps. By the end, we'll all analyze the effectiveness of their first full year.

However, you have to set a standard to grade on. So, before the opening tip, let's find out what curve these coaches will try to master.

Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta Hawks

Budenholzer is a branch from the ever-growing Gregg Popovich coaching tree. He's served more than a decade and a half as an assistant in San Antonio. Now he gets a chance to lead a franchise that has been known largely for its underachieving disappointment. The Hawks have made the postseason the last six years, winning one round in half of those appearances.

To Get an 'A', They Must: Win the Southeast Division

It's going to be hard for this team to win the same division as the defending champion Heat. They've also lost their most athletic player, Josh Smith, to free agency. But they did re-sign shooter Kyle Korver. Now, with the additions of Paul Millsap and (to a lesser extent) Elton Brand, this team has more than enough talent and depth inside to create problems for Miami.

To Get a 'C', They Must: Hold On to the Sixth Seed

Since the days of Bob Petit in St. Louis, this organization has had flashes of glory, only to be surpassed by greatness. Dominique Wilkins couldn't get through the Celtics. Steve Smith couldn't bypass the Bulls and Knicks. Smith, Korver, and Horford can't defeat a myriad of teams (including the Heat). The job for Budenholzer will be to get this squad past the malaise of finishing just shy of the middle.

Predicted Grade: B+ (Hosting a First-Round Series)

It'll be a tight fit, with Brooklyn, New York, Chicago, and Indiana all fighting for spots 2-4 in the Eastern playoff pecking order. Putting Millsap beside Al Horford in the post gives Atlanta an edge over New York, and they should have more shooting prowess than Chicago. That should be enough to push them into the '4' slot.

David Joerger, Memphis Grizzlies

After being an assistant in the organization for the past six seasons, Joerger was promoted to lead the team after Lionel Hollins was let go. This won't be Joerger's first stint making the important decisions. He's coached in the IBA, CBA, USBL, and the D-League. But now he's matching wits with the best coaches and putting his players in position to battle the best athletes.

To Get an 'A', They Must: Reach the NBA Finals

When you fire a coach after he leads a team to the Conference Finals, a high bar is set. It'll be tough to meet those standards, but it has been done before. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers felt they peaked under Tony Dungy, replaced him with Jon Gruden, and reaped the reward of a Lombardi Trophy. Joerger has the same Grizzlies roster that made their run earlier this summer. Plus, the coach earned early success in his coaching career (winning titles in the IBA, CBA, and D-League). Sounds like a good foundation.

To Get a 'C', They Must: Lose Before Game 7 of the Conference Semis

It sounds like a step back for a team that lasted until the NBA's "Final Four," but you have to take into account all the changes around the rest of the West. The Spurs return their own nucleus. The Clippers upgraded their own coach. Golden State and Houston made moves to upgrade their own rosters. Then there's Oklahoma City, which adds a year to their experience. With all those improvements, getting back into the Playoffs will stay a challenge. Advancing in the Playoffs, well, that might be brutal.

Predicted Grade: C (Lose in Game 6 of the Conference Semis)

With the post presence staying intact, I don't see many teams staying ahead of the Grizzlies. However, we easily forget that the Conference Finals might not have happened this past June had Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook been healthy. Maybe all Memphis needs is that subtle kick in the pants to go from contender to champion. But I think it'll take a year and another piece.

Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics

To me, this is the most interesting hire of the offseason. If you aren't a fan of college basketball, you might not think that consecutive trips to the NCAA championship game were terribly impressive. Stevens is now in a new league with a different philosophy. College coaches have tried to climb this ladder to its peak. Many have fallen through the thin air and back down to ledge of amateur basketball.

To Get an 'A', They Must: Make it to the Sixth Seed in the East

The moves made by Celtics' front office (trading Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and head coach Doc Rivers) have many believing that an 'A' grade would involving tanking the season to increase their chances of drafting either Wiggins or Parker. But the Draft Lottery isn't a guarantee. Boston fans remember that all too well. With Rajon Rondo, Jeff Green, Gerald Wallace, and rookie Kelly Olynyk on the roster, this team has more than enough to make the postseason.

To Get a 'C', They Must: Finish About 8-10 Games Under

The loss of Garnett and Pierce equaled the loss of the team's heart. Now, if you're the Celtics, you don't really rebuild, you restore heritage. However, the lack of star power appears to put this franchise square at "mediocracy." An intriguing rookie class, including Olynyk, might be enough to keep them from striving for the bottom. But...

Predicted Grade: F (Fifth-Worst Record)

...I have a feeling that this might be Danny Ainge's master plan. I could be wrong. Ainge is the type of guy that makes a left turn into a square hole and confuses the hell out of everyone, except himself. I hope Stevens lets his competitive nature show. I hope that the team has a chip on their shoulder and not a deer in headlights look. Then again, I have a feeling.

Jason Kidd, Brooklyn Nets

This is the most surprising move of the summer. Kidd literally goes from the court to the bench, retiring as a player on June 3rd and becoming a head coach on June 12th. If there was a “coach-in-waiting” list of players over the last generation, he'd be right at the top of it. It also appears that he'll have the most ready-made contending roster.

To Get an 'A', They Must: Reach the NBA Finals

On paper, this roster is extremely loaded (maybe not as loaded as it would have been four years ago, but loaded still). The additions of Garnett and Pierce (plus the less ballyhooed Andrei Kirilenko) give this squad the combination of Brooklyn swagger and Boston grit. Credibility with his peers might not be an issue, so the biggest job for Kidd should be minute management. We'll see how well he learns that on the fly.

To Get a 'C', They Must: Lose in the Eastern Conference Finals (Game 6)

I believe it's their expectation, even with a rookie coach, that they're the second-best team in the East ... and they have Miami shaking in their sneakers. But did their offseason acquisitions upgrade the intangibles enough to match the talent of the other contenders?

Predicted Grade: D (Eastern Conference Semis)

Let's say they finish first or second, with the Heat grabbing the other slot. The conference semifinal matchup will likely be the Pacers or the Bulls. The Bulls actually beat Brooklyn in April. While the Nets improved the roster, the return of Derrick Rose for Chicago basically makes the transactions a wash. In the other case, I believe Indiana is higher up on the contender list than Brooklyn is. And if Danny Granger can stay healthy, that's another added piece that wasn't around for the previous postseason. With those kind of roadblocks, this Nets' season might end with more disappointed patience than they anticipate.

Brian Shaw, Denver Nuggets

He's been the most notorious bridesmaid over the last few years. Now, the former decorated assistant of the Lakers and Pacers is finally getting his shot to run a team. All he has to do is replace George Karl, a.k.a. the reigning NBA Coach of the Year. Shaw also has to figure out how to replace the production of Andre Iguodala. But, really, no pressure.

To Get an 'A', They Must: Reach the Western Conference Semis

Wouldn't it be a trip if Shaw could take this team (minus Iguodala) further than Karl could? One player that will return is Danilo Gallinari, whose torn ACL upset the apple cart in the last two weeks of the regular season. As I look at it, they may end up being the sixth-best team out West. That might be good enough to put them in the position they faced this season (becoming the 2014 version of Golden State).

To Get a 'C', They Must: Get to the Playoffs

As I've already said, except for the missing wing threat from Iguodala, this team basically comes back intact. But they also didn't bring in what could be seen as a huge upgrade. The teams on the outside of the postseason (Minnesota, Phoenix, Portland) are hungry to get back into May basketball. They may need to fend off more than push forward this time around.

Predicted Grade: B+ (Losing in Game 7 of the First Round)

Ultimately, I see the Nuggets falling on the road in a Game 7. I'll be interested to see what philosophy Shaw brings in for this high-flying personnel. Will he revert back to his tutelage in the Triangle system? Will he take some pieces from his days in Indiana? The other question ... will a go-to star emerge on the squad? If they can't answer this last question, it might be another summer of "what if?" in the thin Rockies air.

The most intriguing part about this group of rookies is that they used different schools of thought to reach this honored day. In all cases, the roads lead to "Congratulations! You've graduated to the stature of 'Head Coach'. Now let's see you put that training to good use."

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