Challenges for new coaches in Eastern Conference
Challenges for new coaches in Eastern Conference (cont.)
The NBA's coaching carousel nearly spun off its axle this offseason. A record 13 teams changed coaches, including the 76ers, who hired Spurs assistant Brett Brown on Monday to fill the NBA's last remaining vacancy.
Of the 13 departed coaches, seven led their teams to the playoffs last season, two produced the best regular seasons in franchise history and one was the NBA's Coach of the Year.
As you can tell, it doesn't take much for a team to decide that it needs a new voice in the locker room. Twenty-six of the league's 30 teams have hired a new coach since 2010. The offseason turnover has created opportunities for several new faces: Nine first-time NBA head coaches have been hired since the season ended.
To get familiar with all of the new faces, let's break down each hire. We already examined the five new coaches in the Western Conference. Now let's evaluate the eight new coaches in the East.
How he got here: After shadowing Gregg Popovich as an assistant for the last 17 years in San Antonio, Budenholzer was hired to replace Larry Drew, whose contract expired in June. Budenholzer had long been considered one of the top assistants and most qualified head-coaching candidates in the game, something Hawks general manager Danny Ferry knew quite well after playing under Budenholzer from 2000-03 with the Spurs and later working alongside him in the team's front office.
Coaching background: Budenholzer, 43, spent a total of 19 years working for Popovich in San Antonio. Popovich said his longtime aide's "basically got it all" as someone capable of handling X's and O's, implementing a system that fits the roster, cultivating relationships with players, planning practices and thinking about the big picture. In his introductory news conference, Budenholzer made it clear that he plans to emphasize defense. "We want to be good or great on both ends, and I think the defensive end will lead into our offense," he said.
Biggest challenge for 2013-14: Building around Al Horford. With Josh Smith and Joe Johnson gone, Horford is the lone holdover of Atlanta's Big Three and the clear franchise cornerstone. Horford is one of the better defensive centers in the league and can score without requiring a lot of touches (sounds a little like that guy from San Antonio), essentially giving Budenholzer a blank canvas with which to work.
Long-term challenge: Transforming the Hawks into the Spurs of the East. Atlanta, like San Antonio, is hard-pressed to lure top free agents, putting a greater importance on nailing the draft and making savvy trades. The Spurs were fortunate to draft Tim Duncan with the first pick, but they've also sustained excellence by selecting players such as Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili late in the first round or in the second round and by being bold on the trade market such as the Budenholzer-endorsed deal that sent George Hill to Indiana for Kawhi Leonard. Popovich described Budenholzer as being a trusted source on personnel decisions, an area of expertise that Ferry will likely look to exploit, too.
Bottom line: Budenholzer admits that he's not a "sexy hire" -- but he is a sound one. Not only was he one of the most accomplished candidates on the market, but he also appears to be a perfect fit for a Hawks team in search of a new identity.
How he got here: Stevens put Butler on the map, leading the Bulldogs to back-to-back national title games in 2010 and '11. The Celtics hired Stevens after releasing Doc Rivers from his contract so that he could sign with the Clippers, who sent a first-round pick to Boston as compensation.
Coaching background: Stevens, 36, spent six years as Butler's head coach and six more before that as an assistant. But there's more to Stevens than just his record as a Bulldog. His calm demeanor on the sideline, fierce preparation and fundamentals-driven style of play attracted Boston.
Biggest challenge for 2013-14: Getting along with Rajon Rondo. This is no easy task. The Celtics' star point guard -- who is recovering from an ACL tear -- has said he's coming into this season with an open mind, but he's unlikely to enjoy the type of struggles for which Boston appears destined after the departures of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Will Stevens cater to Rondo's eccentric personality? Or will he try to get the prickly Rondo to play by his rules from Day One?
Biggest long-term challenge: Growing into the job. The Celtics are clearly rebuilding, which is why GM Danny Ainge committed to Stevens with a six-year, $22 million deal. A lot can go wrong between now and 2019. Stevens will have to prove he can handle rigors of the NBA and win over a locker room full of grown men despite his lack of pro experience.
Bottom line: Stevens, by far the most surprising hire of the offseason, was a gamble worth taking. He's about as big of a contrast to NBA lifer Rivers as you can get, but the Celtics are going in a completely different direction anyway. Ainge will give Stevens time to blossom as an NBA coach while the team assembles talent over the next few years to contend again.
How he got here: The future Hall of Famer was known for his high basketball IQ during his 19-year playing career, which officially ended a mere 10 days before the Nets named him as interim coach P.J. Carlesimo's replacement with a reported three-year, $7.5 million deal with a team option in the fourth year.
Coaching background: Do summer league games count? Kidd, 40, is new to coaching, but he did play under two prestigious coaches in Rick Carlisle in Dallas and Mike Krzyzewski with Team USA. Another one of his former head coaches, Lawrence Frank, will be his top assistant with the Nets.
Biggest challenge for 2013-14: Winning a championship. That's the expectation in Brooklyn, reasonable or not, for a team with a starting lineup that has a combined 58 years of experience and 35 All-Star selections. The Nets dealt for Garnett and Pierce with one goal in mind, and Pierce didn't sell Garnett on the idea of approving a trade to Brooklyn just to make the second round of the playoffs. One key for Kidd will be to manage his veterans' minutes during the regular season so that they are as fresh as possible for the postseason.
Biggest long-term challenge: Taking Deron Williams to the next level. The three-time All-Star point guard hasn't been the same player since leaving Utah in February 2011. But he finished last season with a flourish, and playing for one of his idols could further energize the 29-year-old Williams.
Bottom line: Kidd's first-year record won't be a very good indicator of the job he's done because the Nets are bound to win regular-season games in bunches regardless of who's on the sideline. A better barometer will be how Brooklyn does against Miami, Indiana and Chicago -- the East elite, a club Brooklyn desperately wants to join.
How he got here: Charlotte fired Mike Dunlap after only one season and replaced him with Clifford, a longtime NBA assistant. The 51-year-old Clifford has been on the same staff as Tom Thibodeau and worked under Stan and Jeff Van Gundy and Mike D'Antoni, giving him a diverse wealth of knowledge.
Coaching background: Clifford's only head-coaching experience was at Adelphi from 1995-99, but he's been an assistant coach for more than two decades and spent the last 13 years in the NBA. He's worked for the Knicks, Rockets, Magic and Lakers. Clifford also interviewed for the Bucks' head-coaching vacancy this offseason. "He has got it all," Stan Van Gundy said of Clifford to SI.com's Chris Mannix. "He's a great X's and O's guy and he has got a great ability to teach and he has great relationships with players. He's very much into preparation. He won't take any shortcuts. Steve will put a great emphasis on developing players. Not just skill development, but using film, talking to guys individually, spending time with them. And on the court he will emphasize defense, ball movement and guys playing together. He will be a fabulous head coach."
Biggest challenge for 2013-14: Establishing a defensive foundation. This won't be easy, given the Bobcats' youth and the free-agent addition of offense-first big man Al Jefferson. But Clifford needs to begin turning around a defense that ranked last in points allowed per possession in each of the last two seasons.
Biggest long-term challenge: Developing the young players. The Bobcats' roster includes four lottery picks from the last three drafts -- rookie center Cody Zeller, second-year small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, third-year point guard Kemba Walker and third-year center Bismack Biyombo -- as well as swingman Jeff Taylor (No. 31 in 2012) and 25-year-old shooting guard Gerald Henderson (No. 12 in 2009). The progress of Zeller and Kidd-Gilchrist, in particular, will be priorities for Clifford.
Bottom line: The Bobcats have gone 28-120 in the last two seasons, and owner Michael Jordan surely expects to see improvement with the addition of Jefferson and Zeller and another year of seasoning for players such as Kidd-Gilchrist and Walker. Clifford's vast NBA experience should serve him well as he tries to rejuvenate the Bobcats.
How he got here: The Cavaliers wanted a veteran coach not named Byron Scott, so they rehired the veteran coach they had before him. Brown likely didn't deserve to be fired in 2010 in the first place, but when the best basketball player in the world is threatening to leave, you do what you can to try to persuade him to stay.
Coaching background: Brown, 43, led the Cavaliers to the Finals in 2007 and was named Coach of the Year in 2009; his firing came on the heels of back-to-back 60-win seasons. Brown landed with the Lakers in 2011 but was abruptly fired after a 1-4 start last season. Before becoming a head coach, Brown was a well-regarded assistant under Carlisle in Indiana and Popovich in San Antonio.
Biggest challenge for 2013-14: Getting something out of Andrew Bynum. Bynum had his best year as a pro under Brown, averaging 18.7 points and 11.8 rebounds in 60 games in 2011-12. The center, who missed last season with Philadelphia because of knee injuries, is still only 25 and will now be paired with one of the best point guards in the league (Kyrie Irving) and play next to one of the most active big men (Anderson Varejao). It's a recipe for success -- unless injuries or his interest in becoming a stretch 4 derails Bynum.
Biggest long-term challenge: Meshing with Irving. Brown and LeBron James got along well enough, but the coach was let go in hopes that the shakeup would appeal to James as he prepared to make his free-agent decision. LeBron ended up leaving for Miami anyway, and Irving, an All-Star at age 20 last season, has replaced him as Cleveland's franchise centerpiece. Brown, who has been criticized for his offense, needs to forge a strong relationship with Irving, who will be eligible for a contract extension in 2014.
Bottom line: The Cavaliers are a team on the rise and Brown could be the one to help them take the next step, particularly on the defensive end. He has experience handling a superstar, a solid relationship with the enigmatic Bynum and plenty of knowledge about the organization. The match makes so much sense, you start to wonder why they ever broke up in the first place.
How he got here: Perseverance? Cheeks has been fired twice as an NBA head coach and never been past the first round of the playoffs in six full seasons, but he's still respected around the league and regarded as a leader who commands his players' respect. That'll be tested on a daily basis with fellow newcomers Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, two talented but mercurial players.
Coaching background: The former All-Star point guard has a 284-286 record over eight seasons split between Portland (which fired him 55 games into his fourth season) and Philadelphia (which fired him 23 games into his fourth season). Cheeks worked the previous four seasons as an assistant for Oklahoma City.
Biggest challenge for 2013-14: Pulling off a difficult high-wire act. The Pistons have two of the best young big men in the league in Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, yet will be driven by a win-now mentality thanks to the additions of Smith and Jennings. Is it possible to develop Monroe and Drummond while allowing Smith and Jennings to do their thing? The two seem counterproductive.
Biggest long-term challenge: Making the frontcourt work. How will Smith fit alongside Monroe and Drummond? Barring a trade down the line, Cheeks has to find starters' minutes for all three. Playing Smith at small forward appears to be a popular solution, but it also comes with obvious concerns about floor spacing because neither Smith nor Monroe is a reliable perimeter shooter.
Bottom line: None of the Pistons' past three coaches -- Lawrence Frank, John Kuester and Michael Curry -- lasted more than two seasons. To break that trend, Cheeks likely will need to succeed immediately. Pistons president Joe Dumars, who is in the last year of his contract, is clearly intent on halting a four-year playoff drought after doling out a combined $78 million for Smith and Jennings. A failure to make the postseason would be considered a disappointment.
How he got here: Drew became available after the Hawks declined to renew his contract. The Bucks hired the 55-year-old to replace interim coach Jim Boylan, who took over in January after Milwaukee parted ways with Scott Skiles.
Coaching background: Drew, who played 10 years in the NBA, is one of the league's most experienced head coaches in a field that keeps getting younger. He was an assistant with the Lakers for most of the 1990s and served in the same role with Detroit, Washington and Atlanta before becoming the Hawks' head coach. Drew led Atlanta to the playoffs in each of his three seasons, winning one series. He went 128-102 (.557) in the regular season.
Biggest challenge for 2013-14: Sorting out the backcourt. Remember when the Bucks' biggest problem was not having enough basketballs for Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings and J.J. Redick? With all three gone, the Bucks will have a completely different look on the perimeter this season. Drew will try to find the right combinations from a group that includes O.J. Mayo, Brandon Knight, Gary Neal, Carlos Delfino and Luke Ridnour.
Biggest long-term challenge: Taking the Bucks past the first round. Only one coach has accomplished the feat since 1989: George Karl, who led the 2000-01 Bucks to the conference finals.
Bottom line: General manager John Hammond said the Bucks "really want to start focusing on the youth of this team," an approach that apparently wasn't in play when Milwaukee traded an intriguing 21-year-old prospect, Tobias Harris, for a 29-year-old impending free agent, Redick, to solidify their playoff position. In any event, the success of building a promising core begins with Drew's work with rookie forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, 18; Knight, 21; power forward John Henson, 22; and center Larry Sanders, 24.
How he got here: The Sixers went nearly four months without a coach before hiring the Spurs' assistant this week to succeed Doug Collins, who resigned in April after three seasons. Brown received a four-year deal to guide the 76ers, who are in rebuilding mode under first-year general manager Sam Hinkie.
Coaching background: The 52-year-old Brown spent the last 11 years with the Spurs, first as director of player development and later as a Popovich assistant on the bench. He also coached in the Australian National Basketball League for 14 seasons and guided Australia at the 2012 London Olympics.
Biggest challenge for 2013-14: Keeping Michael Carter-Williams on track. The good news for Carter-Williams. the 11th pick in the June draft, is that the 76ers have opened up plenty of playing time for him after trading point guard Jrue Holiday to New Orleans for No. 6 pick Nerlens Noel and a protected first-round pick in 2014. The bad news is that the 21-year-old is taking the reins of a team more focused on next year's draft than winning this season. The last thing Brown wants is for all of the losing to demoralize Carter-Williams or affect his development.
Biggest long-term challenge: Staying patient. In the last 10 years, the Sixers have averaged 38 victories, made the playoffs five times and won a single postseason series. Philadelphia is attempting to end the cycle of mediocrity by tearing down to build up. After trading a 23-year-old All-Star in Holiday for two draft picks, Hinkie said: "The ownership here and the people in this organization have a real commitment to build something lasting and something big. Sometimes that requires taking risks and often it requires doing things differently."
Bottom line: Brown was smart to push for a fourth guaranteed year on his contract; it's going to take some time for the Sixers to construct a winning roster. In the meantime, Brown can put his player-development skills to good use with Carter-Williams, Noel and potentially two lottery picks in the 2014 draft.