Who will be coaching the Suns in 2018?
I’m always interested in prematurely looking ahead at possible coaching changes and prospective hires, but I never expected the Phoenix Suns to act this quickly and beat me to the punch so soon. In a desperate attempt to keep up with their dysfunction, here’s my amateur opinion regarding the best candidates for their opening this summer.
Candidates considered, but not ranked
Current interim coach JAY TRIANO had a promising first game, and would absolutely merit the job if he finishes out the season with solid momentum. But presuming that doesn’t happen, let’s take a look at other roads to consider.
Suns GM Ryan McDonough may have a contract, but he’s not necessarily locked into that role. Given that, the Suns management can make bold offers to big-name coaches and allow them to handpick their own GM if they wanted. The two highest-profile coaches that may fit that bill would be JEFF VAN GUNDY and Kentucky coach JOHN CALIPARI. Coach Cal has always flirted with the idea of making a leap back to the NBA and may do so again now that Coach K at Duke has stolen his thunder and his one-and-done model. The appeal of Coach Calipari wouldn’t be his Xs-and-Os, but rather the idea that he could lure in a Kentucky star like DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis via free agency. However, spending big and making it rain doesn’t appear to be Robert Sarver’s style; he’s the only man in America who’d take a roll of pennies to a strip club. Let’s ignore the home run swings and expensive college coaches and focus on more realistic candidates for this team instead.
After the struggles of Earl Watson, I’d also rule out some promising former players turned coaches like SAM CASSELL and JERRY STACKHOUSE as well. Both have upside in coaching, but teams usually hire the opposite of their previous coach. I suspect the team will look at a “coach’s coach” for their next role.
And while I’d be hopeful that international coaches ETTORE MESSINA (SA) and even DAVID BLATT can get head coaching posts soon to prove their worth, the situation and fit will be vital to their success. I’d rather see those two get an opportunity on a squad with an international franchise player (like the Knicks) than a team that has two Americans like Devin Booker and Josh Jackson who may not be as welcoming.
There are some great assistant coaches that also missed the cut, including NICK NURSE (TOR), JAY LARRANAGA (BOS), JAMES BORREGO (SA), ALEX JENSEN (UTA), and SEAN SWEENEY (MIL). Sweeney, in particular, should be a hot commodity if the Milwaukee Bucks have a breakthrough season, but he’s only 33 years old and looks even younger than that, making his hire a tough sell to an ownership group.
So with all those names respectfully considered but passed over, let’s focus on our actual top picks.
Top five candidates
(5) Mike Brown, associate head coach, Golden State
Wait a minute, haven’t we all agreed that Mike Brown a terrible coach? Maybe you all have, but I’m not so sure. Brown obviously benefited from having LeBron James early on in Cleveland, but he still took James + some spare parts and coaxed a 66-16 record out of them in ’08-09. Superstar or not, that’s not easy to do.
His last two head coaching stints have not been as successful — fired in the middle of season two with the Lakers, and after one season with Cleveland — but the circumstances were not ideal in either stop. In fact, Brown actually went 42-29 with the Lakers, and his 33-49 record with the Cavs had been a sizable step up from the year before. In my opinion, he’s gotten a raw deal regarding his reputation.
Landing with the Golden State Warriors as an assistant has a hell of a way of changing your PR; last season, Brown started to get his due as a thoughtful and competent coach. Not many coaches deserve a fourth chance, but Brown may be one of them. If he can install defensive habits on a young Suns team that desperately needs them, then he may be a better hire than the “meh” headlines would suggest.
(4) J.B. Bickerstaff, associate head coach, Memphis
The son of a coach, the 38-year-old Bickerstaff has been around the league longer than most men his age. He also got his feet wet as an interim coach with the Houston Rockets after Kevin McHale got canned, going a respectable 37-34 in ’15-16.
Since then, he’s been David Fizdale’s right-hand man in Memphis on a staff that has their team playing hard AND smart basketball. Bickerstaff would be a good mix of experience+fresh energy for this Suns squad.
(3) Chris Finch, associate head coach, New Orleans
Chris Finch hasn’t had an NBA head coaching job yet, but he’s had plenty of experience in the role before. He won titles in England and Belgium, and then again in the D-League. As a result, he’s one of the most respected and well-compensated assistants in the league, now in his first year with the Pelicans.
To make the fit even better, Finch tends to preach a uptempo approach to the game that fits in well with the Phoenix Suns’ identity over these last few decades.
(2) Stephen Silas, lead assistant, Charlotte
Now, this isn’t copy-and-paste, because like J.B. Bickerstaff, Stephen Silas is also the son of a former coach in Paul Silas. Like Bickerstaff, he’s been around the game for a long time now, landing his first scouting job in the league in 1999.
There’s still a lot of upside with Silas that hasn’t been explored yet. An intelligent man (who went to Brown), he’s also charismatic and affable. It should only be a matter of time before he gets his first head coaching job. This young Suns team may fit him well.
(1) Nate Tibbetts, assistant, Portland
Even among NBA assistant coaches, Nate Tibbetts isn’t a high-profile name. In fact, he’s the only one on this entire list without a Wikipedia page.
That said, Tibbetts is still one of the best head coaching prospects around. He has head coaching experience in the D-League, and has translated that success to player development on NBA staffs as well. He worked on developing Kyrie Irving in Cleveland, and now with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in Portland. And while the defense of those particular players may leave something to be desired, there’s something to be said about a smart coach who can sustain a productive relationship with his star guards.
Sometimes, the best hires are the least splashy, and that may turn out to be the case in Phoenix if they end up with a man like Tibbetts in the role going forward.
Why is Nate Tibbetts #1 ahead of the others? In a way, we’re splitting hairs and engaging in guesswork here. The NBA isn’t like the NFL where you can clearly assign roles to each assistant and judge them accordingly. ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz does a good job spotlighting these assistants, but for NBA outsiders like us, we’re never going to have the access that we’d need to have strong opinions about assistant coaches. However, if I suddenly won the Phoenix Suns franchise in a poker game and needed a new coach, I’d scribble these five guys (and some of the ones mentioned above) on my short list and go from there.