How teams with new coaches retooled for 2020-21 season
Breaking down the challenges ahead for 9 teams with new coaches this season.
Cramming an NBA offseason into slightly more than two months has been wild, kinda giddy and challenging for all the players, coaches and front offices involved. But none more so than the nine teams with new head coaches for 2020-21.
Nearly a third of the league’s teams will have new faces, which means new philosophies, new tactics and new relationships. They range from known quantities such as Doc Rivers in Philadelphia and Stan Van Gundy in New Orleans to newbies getting big opportunities, like Houston’s Stephen Silas, Indiana’s Nate Bjorkgren, and Oklahoma City’s Mark Daigneault.
There’s even an enshrined Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer, about to work with two current stars still working to put up numbers and accolades worthy of Springfield.
The “new nine” are eager to get going, to speed up their various learning curves in this ready-or-not ramp-up to Opening Night Dec. 22. Here are rundowns on each team and the biggest challenges they face:
Steve Nash, Brooklyn
Last season: 35-37, 7th in the East. Swept in first round by Toronto.
This season: The roster is set and stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are said to be healthy, so Nash’s two biggest tasks in his new gig as an NBA head coach are a) determining the style of play that best suits these Nets and b) nurturing a chemistry around some strong personalities, facing high expectations, in heavy media glare. The staff Nash has assembled should help him on both fronts, with big-brain and/or big-rep folks such as Mike D’Antoni, Jacques Vaughn, Ime Udoka and Amar’e Stoudemire not necessarily pushing the “seven seconds or less” style in which the new coach thrived in Phoenix. Durant and Irving might realize their reputations and legacies are very much in play, highly dependent on the success of this Brooklyn experiment.
Billy Donovan, Chicago
Last season: 22-43, 11th in the East.
This season: Donovan is a huge upgrade in credibility for the Bulls, not just because of his coaching resume but because he was the first big move by the front office newcomers who’ve been flipped the keys by ownership: VP of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas and GM Marc Eversley. Much of last season’s underperforming roster is intact, which sets the Bulls up as something of an IROC auto racing experiment. That’s the series in which identical cars were lined up, allowing the drivers’ skills to separate winners from losers. Chicago fans have had this young core sold to them for a while now, so compared to the most recent washout season under Donovan’s predecessor Jim Boylen, it at least will be interesting to see what a different cook can do with nearly identical groceries (Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter, Coby White). Bonus task: Demonstrating why a player who never started a game in college, Florida State’s Patrick Williams, wound up as the No. 4 pick in the Draft.
Stephen Silas, Houston
Last season: 44-28, 4th in the West. Lost in conference semifinals, 4-1, to the Lakers.
This season: Silas has the backing of multitudes inside and outside the Rockets organization, which serves as a reminder that this is no quick-turnaround situation. Oh, there’s still significant talent. But part of Silas’ and new GM Rafael Stone’s agenda involves walking back Houston’s small-ball style. Additions of bigs such as DeMarcus Cousins and Christian Wood make it clear the front office wants Silas to have a more complete toolbox. Shifting gears for that, while adding some actions in what largely had been a free-style offense, will take familiarity and time. This is a job Silas has been prepping for his whole life – growing up as Paul Silas’ son assured that – and having John Lucas at his side adds heft.
Nate Bjorkgren, Indiana
Last season: 45-28, 4th in the East. Swept in the first round by Miami.
This season: Bjorkgren’s career arc resembles that of his former boss in Toronto, Nick Nurse, which is good. One big difference is that his rookie season in the top job won’t include an acquisition anywhere close to Kawhi Leonard, the way Nurse’s did. That’s not so good. Bjorkgren inherits Indiana’s best player, Victor Oladipo, in a down cycle – his game still stunted by his quadriceps tear and year layoff. One of them, coach or player, fully getting on the other’s page is essential. In sheer Xs & Os, Bjorkgren has marching orders to modernize the team’s style at both ends from Nate McMillan’s tried-and-true approach. That means picking up the pace, shooting more 3-pointers (dead last in 2019-20) and getting more creative with zone and switching defenses.
Tyronn Lue, LA Clippers
Last season: 49-23, 2nd in the West. Lost in the conference semifinals to Denver, 4-3.
This season: As one of two new coaches to get promoted from within (OKC’s Mark Daigneault is the other), Lue allegedly has the advantages and the disadvantages of moving one seat over on his team’s bench. He was on the inside to see what worked and what did not. Then again, in theory he emptied his tank suggesting ways to improve the outcome in real time and thus has little new to offer. How will Lue be less like Doc Rivers? That’s not an easy question to answer productively. But what worked for him in Cleveland when he took over midway through 2015-16 for David Blatt was he sharply defined everyone’s role and even challenged stars LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in specific ways to earn locker-room respect. Given the leadership and chemistry issues that got the Clippers sideways, demanding more and better from Kawhi Leonard and Paul George will certainly be on Lue’s punch list. The whole squad needs to play 2020-21 with the bitter taste in its mouth of that blown 3-1 lead to the Nuggets.
Stan Van Gundy, New Orleans
Last season: 30-42, 13th in the West.
This season: Van Gundy was considered a popular choice by Pelicans fans, because he’s a familiar name and because things soured for Alvin Gentry when the team went 2-6 in the bubble restart and missed the playoffs. There are three primary to-do items for the veteran coach. One is on him – show he can coach a faster-paced offense than his team historically have run, fully tapping into the skills of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. One is on the players – hitch up their pants and play the tenacious defense for which Van Gundy’s teams typically have been known (the arrival of center Steven Adams should help here). Then there’s No. 3, probably the task on which Van Gundy ultimately will be judged: Nurture and challenge Williamson to be the most versatile, freak-of-nature performer he can be, which means better ball skills and a full repertoire of offensive moves.
Tom Thibodeau, New York
Last season: 21-45, 12th in the East.
This season: As the initial smoke of free agency cleared, the Knicks had shown a sober approach. No style-over-substance marketing ploy like bringing back Carmelo Anthony, no spending of outrageous sums just because they were there. That means new bench boss Thibodeau will roll up his sleeves for some roster development whether he likes it or not. At his previous stops in Chicago (Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng), Thibs had stars hitting their prime or obviously on the way up. Ditto in Minnesota with Jimmy Butler and No. 1 overall picks Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. The Knicks at this stage have a roster full of role players. Aside from draft picks Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley, the newcomers are journeymen such as Alec Burks, Austin Rivers, Nerlens Noel and returnee Elfrid Payton. They all will be entrusted with mentoring, maybe challenging, younger counterparts. Can Thibs’ molars survive a gap year? That might be the No. 1 question.
Mark Daigneault, Oklahoma City
Last season: 44-28, 5th in the West. Lost in the first round to Houston, 4-3.
This season: Coaches love it when their teams have a bunch of high draft picks, players with demonstrated potential and in some cases a glimmer of stardom waiting to be tapped. Coaches don’t love it when those high draft picks are sitting behind glass, unpicked, awaiting a future that might not arrive in time to boost a fella’s W-L record. But Daigneault is a team player, with seven years in the Thunder organization and now the first NBA G League coach to ascend to that job with the parent NBA team. At 35, he’s considered bright and “modern,” perfect to be tabbed by GM Sam Presti as the Thunder’s fourth coach. Mostly, that means ready and willing to take on the losses inevitable in OKC’s rebuild. If Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, Steven Adams and Danilo Gallinari still were around, we’d learn more about Daigneault’s coaching chops. Then again, he wouldn’t have the job.
Doc Rivers, Philadelphia
Last season: 43-30, sixth in the East. Swept out of the first round by Boston.
This season: Rivers didn’t wait long after his dismissal by the Clippers, landing in Philadelphia within a week. That might raise some eyebrows among the team’s diehard fans, because it didn’t allow for much of a vetting process of last season’s issues in Clippersland. Leadership and chemistry were in question as that team collapsed in the West semis vs. Denver, not unlike issues that have dogged Philadelphia the past couple seasons. Maybe Rivers’ upbeat demeanor will resonate on fresh ears and he’ll get the buy-in this operation needs from stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. With shooters like Seth Curry and Danny Green around — definitely Daryl Morey moves, to open space for Joel Embiid and maybe to inspire Ben Simmons — Rivers and his high-powered staff should be able to goose Philadelphia’s middling offense from 2019-20.
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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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