Ask Sam Mailbag: NBA Coaching Changes and Possible Bulls Candidates

It's all about coaching in this edition of Ask Sam.
by Sam Smith
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Adam Phillips:

As everything seems to be about the draft or coaching, I'm curious if you think that the Bulls will settle on their new coach before or after the draft. Will the coaching decision depend on who they draft or vice versa? Or will it just be made when it's made?

My feeling this year is that although a big deal will be made about the draft pick, the coach is the more important decision. We have to get winning again, and players that regressed the last couple years need to rebound. For me, the talent is there so it's about coaching. Having a game plan beyond "get open and shoot a 3." People need to know where to go on the floor, what they should be expecting, what to do in this and that situation, how to adapt to who they are playing against, etc. The coach has to teach them how to do that, especially guys that only played in 3 college games in their lives. Run around until you get open is what you do in 20 min elementary school recess. Can't even talk about defense.

I think either an experienced coach is needed, or an ex-player with assistant coach experience who themselves played for a great coach. Maybe Tim Duncan if he's looking. Or Jeff Van Gundy (those Bulls-Knicks rivalries seem like yesterday but actually were long ago and none of the players probably even know about it, unless they watched some Last Dance). He's annoying, but was a pretty good coach and not a bad analyst. Becky Hammon would also be nice. I know it's unlikely, but it would be nice for the Bulls to be the first team to pull the trigger and hire a woman coach. I think she has enough experience to get the bulls turned around.

Sam Smith:

I don't put as much value in the coaching as many do, though there is a difference when the coach is very good or very bad, your Phil Jackson versus Tim Floyd, for example. Most are similar in that they rise and fall with the level of talent. The problem is it's very difficult to identify just who will have so much impact. It's nice to hire a pioneer, but for now you'd have to consider Hammon in that core of assistants about whom you can't know until you see them with a team. So I don't claim to know, either. Sometimes I know with an assistant whom I've watched a long time, like Thibodeau. I haven't as much lately with so many going with the Church of the Three Ball, which isn't a denomination for me.

Van Gundy has loads of experience and obviously is smart and generous in the community. But other than inheriting a tough Knicks team, he's got some worrisome warts, having walked away from the Knicks 20 games into a season apparently burned out and then with the Rockets seeing his team knocked out every season they made the playoffs in the first round, losing a seventh game at home and a seventh game on the road by 40 points. Same basically first round and out thing with Billy Donovan. Rumors have the Rockets again interested in Jeff, who lives in Houston and I think actually would be a good fit for someone to talk some fundamental sense into James Harden.

The Bulls have begun to prepare for their two weeks of training camp like activities to somewhat assuage the NBA's guilt for diminishing the franchise among the eight not invited to Orlando. Doesn't seem like they'll have the coach for that. Are the Bulls waiting for Denver to be eliminated for former Nuggets executive Arturas Karnisovas to reach into familiar territory? It seems for now Jim Boylen's top assistant, Chris Fleming, will run the camp, which apparently will have some intrasquad scrimmages next week. Fleming also is a Bulls candidate and is close to Karnisovas, having been a successful international coach and recruited to Denver by Karnisovas. By the way, I know Duncan hates cold weather. I got Thibodeau right when I advocated for him. Didn't do as well with Bill Cartwright.

Selecting the right coach is a lot more difficult than the right player. Take the last five COY winners. Nurse this year after replacing Dwane Casey the year he won COY? Who saw that one? Mike Budenholzer in 2019 and then two playoff debacles with the MVP and winningest team. Before him Casey, whom Toronto didn't see as a B to C guy after a 59-win season. Last season his Pistons were a half game from the East's worst record. The winner prior to Casey was leave-before-being fired Mike D'Antoni and Steve Kerr, the latter who hadn't even coached his kids' teams. It's a tough call. I don't envy Karnisovas except probably for his accent and that he speaks six languages better than I do, including English.


Mike D'Antoni

Jay Hearfield:

How do you feel about D'Antoni as a candidate for the Bulls position? They certainly have the pieces (at least in the starting lineup) to play his style.

Sam Smith:

I don't know if there's still an issue with the Bulls because as I recall there was a falling out when D'Antoni suddenly left for the Knicks job in the midst of his series of interviews that eventually led to the Vinny Del Negro hiring. I do like Mike and could hire him. I know Mike gets criticized for his teams' lack of defense and the "you can't win playing that style" refrain. Well, that style did win in 2007 when Robert Horry made the biggest shot of his career. No, not against the Kings or Pistons but taking out Steve Nash and causing the resulting suspension of Amar'e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw as the Suns were taking control of the playoff series against the Spurs. San Antonio went on to the championship as the NBA held fast to its leaving-the-bench suspension rules. Which is like spotting a terrorist and saying you couldn't help because you were at a red light.

Mike has been mentioned with the Pacers and 76ers, who are much closer to serious contention. And while the Rockets crashed, it wasn't really Mike's system. That was the Steve Nash-led Phoenix Suns, who revolutionized the game. Mike's system relies on guard movement and not Harden dribbling 30 times. Harden's tough to reason with. And then fantasy league Daryl Money stuck D'Antoni with Westbrook, about as anti-Dantoni as anyone could be. But Mike adjusted to the talent, which good coaches do. And their defensive efficiently last season actually was top half of the NBA without any size.

I know everyone talks about defense, but also I get the sense Karnisovas wants to emphasize offense as his former Denver team has along with the rest of the NBA. Plus players love playing for Mike because he gets them paid with his faster paced, higher scoring system. Shawn Marion, Leandro Barbosa, Quentin Richardson, Stoudemire and Diaw, Raja Bell and, of course, two-time MVP Nash all had their career years playing for D'Antoni. Coincidence? And how about those Harden scoring numbers and an MVP, by the way. This underachieving young Bulls team primarily has offensive talent: LaVine, White, Markkanen, Porter, Hutchison. The best defenders are Carter and Dunn, the latter who could leave as a free agent. The current draft seems partial to offensive players. Isn't coaching about adjusting to your talent? Or forcing it to become what you need? I still suspect the Bulls with their young team go young, but I don't see the 69-year-old D'Antoni as too old.


Steve Nash

Phil Bloss:

Why didn't Brooklyn hire Nash to take over for Jacque Vaughn as lead assistant and take the interim tag off Vaughn instead? What's the difference, as both will have strong voices with the team anyway? Your narrative could have been rewarding a deserving, qualified black coach when everyone is demanding more and taking a gamble on a potentially great find who you can groom behind the scenes in whatever timeline you feel is best? Instead you demote your current lead voice and pray that your no-coaching-experience cherry pick is a natural for a team with a somewhat short championship window? We both know why -- Durant and Irving calling their shots -- but don't you think in retrospect this would have worked better?

Sam Smith:

It's a star-driven league, correct? When you commit your franchise's immediate future to star players like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, then you commit to their desires. It's how it works when you have that guy, like LeBron. Durant's in that team picture. Even though they weren't playing, most believe Durant and Irving wanted a change from Kenny Atkinson, who also supposedly is on that Bulls list.

Vaughn did well with the Nets after a star crossed debut with the Magic a few years back. But going with a Hall of Famer like Nash is understandable. Even though he never was a coach doesn't mean he can't be. Nash was known as one of the game's most cerebral players. And no coaching experience hasn't held back Steve Kerr or years back Doc Rivers. It's not unusual anymore with stars like Jason Kidd, Larry Bird and perhaps soon Chauncey Billups, the latter said to be high on the Pacers list. And Tyronn Lue was a relatively junior assistant before he became LeBron's title coach. And now should have a job soon. New Orleans?

You want the best for the job in what is generally a very subjective choice. There's no coaching school just like there's no GM school. An apprenticeship doesn't mean you becomes a master craftsman. You have to have it in you and you really never know until you see it come out of them. It's obvious Durant, who worked closely with Nash in Golden State when Nash was an advisor there, and Irving signed off on Nash. I know there was commentary on race, but Durant and Irving obviously had a lot of input. Vaughn is said to be now the league's highest paid assistant coach.


Billy Donovan

Art Alenik:

You may be right that many fans overvalue the coach's contribution. At the same time, I think you tend to undervalue it a bit. In the end, it's probably somewhere in between. Talent is prerequisite to winning, no doubt. A clever coach can get you open, but you still have to nail the shot. If your guys can't match up, no coach can help. It's when you have teams of relatively equal talent that coaching makes the biggest difference. It's not just superior X's & O's or better substitutions. It also shows up in fundamentals and cohesive team play resulting from good direction & productive practices.

Coaching has the most impact in the playoffs. Not only are the talent disparities smaller, but you see the same team for at last 4 games running. That's where coaching become a little more of a chess match, with moves, counter-moves and those infamous adjustments. You can't just ‘run your system' because the other guy knows how to stop it. You'd better have a Plan B.

Well, Do the Bulls have interest in Billy Donovan? He has a 61% win record in OKC, albeit with some very good talent onboard. On the plus side, he's been very consistent with changing rosters and stars. But he's seldom gone far in the playoffs, even with some great players. I'm really not sure how I'd rank him. My problem with Donovan is that he's had great players and not done all that well with them. To be fair, he didn't have Harden. But that 3-game meltdown vs. Golden State is still telling. I agree that he's competent, but nothing special.

I think coaching success is an elusive entity. It depends on the coach's skills, on his personality, on the roster... and the synergy of how those things fit together. The great coaches are those who find that synergy year after year, under different circumstances, with different players. COY? It often means somebody got lucky with a team that shouldn't have done so well. In a year or two, they ‘regress to the mean' of their talent and bye-bye coach. More likely, the award should go to a coach whose good team had a great season. Do you think it'd be any better if the coaches voted instead of sportswriters? The Coaches Association vote was a tie between Donovan & Budenholzer.

Sam Smith:

One who left insulted after an offer of a two-year extension, that being Donovan, and the other under scrutiny for a second consecutive playoff collapse. The media certainly could do as badly. Heck, that Coaches Association must have been awfully resentful of Nurse. It shouldn't even have been close with that Raptors roster. Though I will say I do like Budenholzer.

I understand your point about the playoff difference and that he's failed there, as has Donovan. Though as Jeff Van Gundy likes to point out in blaming management for every coach fired, at least Donovan's teams were generally underdogs. Of course they often should not have been with Westbrook and George and earlier Durant and Westbrook. I got this betting list from one of the Vegas sites this week about one of the open jobs:

Tyronn Lue +300 (3/1)
Sam Cassell +400 (4/1)
Jeff Van Gundy +500 (5/1)
Nate McMillan +500 (5/1)
Stan Van Gundy +500 (5/1)
Brett Brown +600 (6/1)
Kenny Atkinson +800 (8/1)
Jason Kidd +900 (9/1)
Chauncey Billups +1000 (10/1)
Ime Udoka +1200 (12/1)
Billy Donovan +1400 (14/1)
Wes Unseld Jr. +1600 (16/1)
Becky Hammon +1800 (18/1)
Darwin Ham +2000 (20/1)

Of course, Steve Nash wasn't on anyone list. These things are more the Usual Suspects thing. My Bulls guess for now without any inside knowledge is it will be from among Udoka, Unseld and Ham from that lot. Oh yeah, and maybe Stephen Silas and Jamahl Mosley. That's right, I really have no idea. Veterans I like who aren't mentioned much anymore, by the way, include Lionel Hollins and Brian Shaw. Anyone seen Larry Brown? Have at it.

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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