“Here,” meaning without a coach and without an immediate plan for succession.
With Mike D’Antoni’s departure, the Suns are back on the coaching carousel.
In fact, the last time it happened for the Suns was in 1988, when the team looked outside the confines of the immediate organization and called on Cotton Fitzsimmons to run the bench and help rebuild the roster. And Cotton was an old pal, having coached the team for two years in the franchise’s early seasons.
Every time there’s been a coaching change in Phoenix since then, the new team leader has come from inside the organization, generally from the ranks of assistant coaches such as Paul Westphal, Danny Ainge, Frank Johnson, Scott Skiles…and Mike D’Antoni. That’s led to great continuity and organizational stability over the last twenty years. With a coach in place, the team has generally had an idea where they were going next, should the coach be fired, retire, or move on to greener pastures.
That’s not really the case, this time. New ownership, new style, new rules. And the team’s likely soon to be heading in a somewhat different direction than the one they’ve been traveling the past couple years.
I’ll miss Mike D’Antoni. We all will. He brought a lot of success and excitement to the Valley. The team was perfectly molded, for several years, to his style and preferences. And, very simply put, the pairing of D’Antoni with Steve Nash was the greatest teaming of coach and point guard since Magic Johnson and Pat Riley (sorry, Sloan and Stockton fans, but I give our guys the slight edge).
I’ll also be surprised if any of D’Antoni’s assistants stay behind to be cherry-picked for the Suns head-coaching job. I’ll miss them, too, if they go. Everyone played a role on the staff, and played it very well. But my sense is that, from a coaching standpoint, the Suns are looking for it to be “clean slate time.” Since player contracts are such right now that meaningful personnel change can’t happen, the rebuilding will start in the coach’s office – new philosophies and, to an extent, a new style.
Already, the newspapers and websites are filling up with names and speculation. Some of the names intrigue me, some don’t inspire me, others frighten me. So I thought I’d make my own list, in ascending order, of who I’d like to see in the head coach’s comfy, but slippery, chair:
3. Paul Silas. Here’s what he has going for him: He’s been with the organization as a player and as an assistant coach, successfully both times. He has championship experience as a player. He gets along extremely well with veterans who have strong personalities, as he demonstrated with Charles Barkley when Silas was an assistant here. He has head coaching experience in the league. He’s tough, and his coaching style reflects that toughness – His players won’t play matador defense because he won’t allow it. Here’s what he has going against him: As a head coach, he hasn’t been super-successful, with a career record forty-five games below .500. But let’s not forget, before being installed as head coach of the Suns, Mike D’Antoni had a career coach’s winning percentage of .280 in a single half-season with the Nuggets.
2. Tom Thibodeau. He’s the hot name among assistant coaches right now, and for good reason. The Suns wanted him last year to replace Marc Iavaroni as the defensive guru of the coaching staff. Instead, he went to Boston and turned them into one of the best defensive teams in the league. He’s proven he can work with, and gain the respect of, veterans like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, while also helping develop young players like Rajon Rondo. He’s never been an NBA head coach before, but if you want to start truly fresh, that’s the way to do it. Besides, Paul Westphal had never been an NBA head coach before he stepped into the job for the Suns, and he turned out okay.
1. Here’s a name I haven’t heard mentioned at all in speculation, and it stuns me: Marc Iavaroni. He’s a former Suns assistant who worked with many of the players on the current roster. He was well-respected and well-liked here. He has championship experience as a player (on a team where he played alongside a dominant, if not exactly fleet, center in Moses Malone). His coaching forte´ is defense. And while it wouldn’t be a hire from within the organization, a strategy that’s always worked pretty well for the Suns, it’d be the next best thing. I know Coach I just split to coach Memphis a year ago, but coaches leave contracts all the time (see D’Antoni, Mike). And wouldn’t you rather coach the Suns than the Grizzlies?
So that’s my list. Obviously, Steve Kerr and Robert Sarver have their own lists, and they know the candidates and their qualifications far better than I do. Whoever the Suns bring in, I hope it’s someone who shares the vision of team management, and that together they can create a vision of the franchise’s future that extends into the long term, while keeping the team competitive in the short term. I hope it’s a coach who’s going to be here a while and develop an identity as a “Suns Coach,” the way MacLeod and Fitzsimmons did, and then be someone who, when he leaves, passes the torch on to someone who worked under him, developing a new chain of continuity that lasts for decades.
Because the alternative is the carousel, and I’d much rather see the team advance forward along the links of a chain than go round and round like so many other franchises have.