Originally Published: May 15, 2018 12:54 p.m.
Brad Stevens’ first opportunity to become an NBA head coach was presented to him by Boston. Same goes for Tyronn Lue, with Cleveland. Same goes for Steve Kerr, with Golden State.
Hiring rookies worked out just fine for those clubs.
Phoenix and Atlanta are now hoping to reap the same benefits as the Celtics, Cavaliers and Warriors. The Suns introduced Igor Kokoskov on Monday, the same day that the Hawks welcomed fellow first-time head coach Lloyd Pierce to their franchise.
And those moves followed Charlotte last week hiring James Borrego, whose only head-coaching experience was a 30-game interim stint.
There are plenty of established head coaches who don’t have jobs right now. But even with the market flooded with experienced coaches, the Suns, Hawks and Hornets went down roads less-traveled — and there’s still potential for more first-timers in the NBA head-coaching fraternity by the time next season opens.
“Rookie coach, international coach, foreign coach,” said Kokoskov, the first European-born coach to lead an NBA team. “It really takes courage. It puts not pressure (on me) but expectations to prove that they were right.”
San Antonio assistant Becky Hammon has been on Milwaukee’s radar, as the Bucks look for their next full-time coach. And whenever she gets hired — many around the league believe it’s a question of when, not if, Hammon gets her chance — she’ll be a first-timer in a whole new category, as the first woman to coach an NBA team.
Boston assistant Jay Larranaga was in the mix for the Charlotte job and will surely get more offers before long. Jerry Stackhouse, who has proven his mettle as the coach of Toronto’s G League club, is now a name that gets attached to just about every opening in the NBA as he waits for his first call to coach in the league where he starred as a player.
There doesn’t seem to interest in big names from the college ranks — like John Calipari or Tom Izzo. Experience still means plenty in the NBA, but timing and fit both seem far more important right now.
“I love challenges,” said Pierce, a longtime NBA assistant, most recently with Philadelphia. “I think this is going to be a fun challenge. It’s not about the difficulty of the challenge, it’s about the excitement of it and I’m looking forward to the excitement of being here.”
A few of Pierce’s new players were there Monday when he was introduced to Atlanta. So was one of his now-former ones; Philadelphia’s Robert Covington attended to show support. And one of the league’s longtime stars raved about Pierce finally getting his chance.
“ATL, y’all got it right,” Miami guard Dwyane Wade tweeted after the Hawks announced their pick.
Borrego has waited a long time to make his own name.
He also waited a long time for a certain someone to learn his name.
Borrego went 10-20 as the interim coach in Orlando after Jacque Vaughn got fired in 2015. The rest of his NBA career has been made up of assistant stints in Orlando, New Orleans and San Antonio — where when he debuted in 2003, Gregg Popovich hired someone whose name he didn’t exactly commit to memory.
“Called me Ray Romano,” Borrego said. “Everybody loves Raymond, right?”
Popovich had zero games of head-coaching experience in the NBA before he took over in San Antonio. There have been more than 240 coaching moves in the league since, but the Spurs — winners of five titles under Popovich — remain under the same leadership. Erik Spoelstra was a first-timer when he became coach in Miami; he’s got two championship rings.
Brett Brown’s only head-coaching job has been with Philadelphia, Quin Snyder’s only one has been in Utah. They both won a playoff series this season. Billy Donovan had no NBA experience when Oklahoma City hired him three years ago; he’s averaged 50 wins per year since.
Kokoskov likened the change from assistant coach to head coach to the one where co-pilot becomes pilot.
You might think you’re ready, but you never really know until you’re at the controls.
“That’s why you’re coaching,” Kokoskov said. “That’s the beauty of the job, basically waiting for this moment. You hope it’s going to happen.”
Their times have finally come.