NBA Head Coaching Carousel: Houston Rockets Update

Scott Halleran

As Houston Rockets fans continue to analyze the prospect of landing this summer's big name free agents, the talk has revolved heavily around the people that Houston can add, but not who they may be at risk of losing.

This article hopes to re-focus our attention on one of the wildest markets for NBA coaches that the league has ever seen and parse through the prospect of losing segments of a coaching staff that has been a structural foundation of the Rockets success this year. We'll take a look at league-wide developments before getting into this year's coaching carousel for Houston assistants who gotten attention this season Kelvin Sampson, J.B. Bickerstaff, and Chris Finch.

(I am operating under the assumption that Kevin McHale will be returning as head coach next season and, as such, will refrain from any wild speculation on that front)

Turnover of Historic Proportions

The NBA head coaching gig has become such dangerous employment territory even for teams that not only made it to the post-season, but advanced to the conference finals. We saw coaching changes in Brooklyn, Denver, LA (Clippers), Atlanta, Milwaukee, and (now confirmed) in Memphis.

Over the course of the season to date, 11 NBA franchises have removed their current head coach. According to Steve Kauffman, a sports agent who runs Kauffman Sports Management Group, over the past 20 years the average number of coaching changes per season is 6.5.

This year is record-tying in that respect, but it is a trend that you can see by just looking at the start date for the current crop of NBA coaches. Out of all 30 teams, there are only 5 head coaches that can say that they have held their job since before the turn of the decade. Doc Rivers (2004), Rick Carlisle (2008), Erik Spoelstra (2008), Scott Brooks (2008), and Gregg Popovich (1996...wow). You would think that the 22 year age difference between Popovich and Spoelstra in the finals (biggest gap in finals history, mind you) would be the quintessential 'old guy v young gun' matchup. In reality, they are both, in a relative sense, part of the 'old guard' together.

When such a high rate of coaching turnover occurs, the question several GM's have been forced to ask has been this: Do you go with the hot young name or the established coaching veteran?

There are widely varying opinions on this subject. Larry Brown and many others think hiring young coaches is totally backwards and bad for developing coaches. The numbers on the matter though, tell a different story. This Grantland piece breaks down the winning percentages of various coaches with various levels of experience. The article illuminates something that seems fairly elementary. While retread coaches come out of the gate better than first year coaches, newbies improve much quicker and have better win percentages over their tenure than re-hired hands. In the first year, experienced head coaches beat first timers in win percentage 44.1% to 41.6%. Looking at win percentage over those coaches tenure, first timers edge out old veterans 51.7% to 49.5%. Either way, the differences are pretty marginal by either measure.

Taking a risk on a younger gun, or an assistant coach who has never gotten a shot at a head coaching position, is becoming much more commonplace than in the past. Front offices seem more willing to try to sell these moves to their season ticket holders by pointing to recent examples like Mark Jackson, Tom Thibodeau, and Frank Vogel who have all had quite a bit of success despite their relatively new scenery.

With the division between head coach candidate and assistant coach candidate continues to blur, the coaching carousel for NBA teams may start spinning faster as each new ‘hot' assistant coaching name becomes a flight risk for teams.

Enter, the Rockets

This league-wide trend has Houston potentially caught in the cross-fire. As we all should be aware, Kelvin Sampson, J.B. Bickerstaff, and even Chris Finch have been tapped by various organizations for their head coaching interview processes despite their lack of head coaching experience. Dean Cooper is the only assistant coach not to receive a lot of attention from other organizations.

We will fill you in on every teams coaching vacancy to date and analyze its potential impact on the retention of our coaching staff.

Teams that have expressed interest in our assistants so far include:

Milwaukee Bucks

Early on they were a contender to snag one of our assistants. They had given interviews to both Bickerstaff and Sampson. Sampson even made it to the final round of their interviews along with Steve Clifford and Larry Drew. Less than two weeks ago, the Bucks put themselves out of contention to get a Rocket on their sideline when they inked Larry Drew to a 4 year, 10 million dollar deal at the end of May that includes a team option in the 4th year.

This situation was not looking all too promising at first, at least to me. Sampson used to be an assistant coach there, had a very close relationship to Brandon Jennings, and has made it very clear to the Houston front office and even Kevin McHale that a head coaching position is his ultimate goal and will not hesitate to take a good offer. After Clifford dipped out of the race, the Bucks were close to offering Sampson the job but decided on Drew, prospectively because of his tenure of head coaching in Atlanta. Drew also has some family ties in the area as well.

Charlotte Bobcats

The Bobcats were interested in Sampson and interviewed him in mid-May and was reportedly pretty deep into their process. He was regarded as a top candidate for the position throughout. Sampson is originally from North Carolina, making the destination a logical option for him if offered the position.

However, the aforementioned Steve Clifford got the nod for this gig on a 2 year deal worth 6 million dollars with a team option on a third year. He agreed to the position just days before the Bucks made their decision to sign Larry Drew

In addition, they have just hired Patrick Ewing to serve as the "associate head coach" according to sources in contact with ESPN. Bismack Biyombo may have hope.

Phoenix Suns

Yet another team that was in the running early and made their decision recently. With several former Rockets on their roster (Goran Dragic, Marcus Morris [TWINS!!], and Luis Scola), it would not be an unreasonable destination for any Rockets assistant coach. Initially, Phoenix interviewed both J.B. and Kelvin.

Their coaching search came on the heels of a front office change that that saw Ryan McDonough, longtime fixture in the Celtics FO with Danny Ainge, installed to right the ship. They ended up hiring former Utah Jazz great Jeff Hornacek. Our friends at Bright Side of the Sun report that McDonough had his eyes on Hornacek through the whole process, making me believe that the prospects for either J.B. or Kelvin getting the final call for this position a long shot from the get go.

Detroit Pistons

It was not all that long ago that Kelvin Sampson finished second to Lawrence Frank in the Piston head coach selection process in the last go around. Both he and J.B. received interviews. Less than 48 hours ago, however, it was confirmed that the Detroit Pistons will be hiring OKC Thunder assistant coach and former head coach, Maurice Cheeks.

Interestingly, Phil Jackson (yes, THE Phil Jackson) was hired by ownership to help consult on the head coach selection process. Although there was reportedly significant friction between the parties, the first names that were thrown out there after the meeting of the minds were Brian Shaw, who was a Phil Jackson under-study in LA (more on him later) and, oddly, the Rockets one and only J.B. Bickerstaff.

Dumars favored Maurice Cheeks and Nate McMillan, two veteran coaches with a lot of experience under their belt. When Detroit's owner announced that Jackson was coming in for the short-term to consult the team, there were many who viewed this to have all of the makings of a power struggle. If that line of thinking is correct, score one for Joe Dumars.

Either way, the supposed power struggle kept Rockets assistants out of the crossfire in the end.

Philadelphia 76ers

Philly likely poses the most serious threat to nab our assistant coaches out from under us in their search to fill their head coaching vacancy. As most Rockets fans remember, the 76ers nabbed Sam Hinkie from the Houston front office. The level of familiarity that Kelvin, J.B., and Finch have with Hinkie will likely loom large in a search for a head coach that seems likely to extend past draft day.

Although early on, it was easy to conjure the image of one of the coaches leaving for the position, there have been some new names thrown into the mix recently may dilute the chances we will lose one.

Mark Stein of ESPN is reporting that the 76ers have heavy interest in Heat assistant coach David Fizdale (whose interviews will have to wait until the finals is over), Nuggets assistant coach Melvin Hunt, and Memphis Grizzlies assistant Dave Joerger. While all three will likely be pursued by other teams (including their own, in Memphis' case at least).

Hinkie and company are moving very judiciously in this coaching search; reportedly, they are waiting until after the draft is over to make a final decision

Other Possibilities

Despite a lot of early reports of Rockets assistant coaches being very hot commodities for coaching vacancies league-wide, a lot of that has fizzled as nearly every team who has formally interviewed Houston's assistants has made their decision to move in a different direction.

But, just as a Rockets assistant can make splashes early and fade from the conversation as new names come up, those same assistants could be a part of several other organization's second wave of head coaching interviews.

Several of the spots have been filled already, however. Atlanta hired Mike Budenholzer, a former Spurs assistant, and Sacramento opted to go with Mike Malone, a former assistant coach for the Golden State Warriors under Mark Jackson.

Still, there are several organizations that do still have vacancies but have not reached out to Rockets assistants. Now we will go through each to evaluate the likelihood that a Rocket falls onto their sideline next season.

LA Clippers

Since Vinny Del Negro was let go by the organization, interviews have been offered to 4 different coaches: Brian Shaw, Byron Scott, Nate McMillan, and Lionel Hollins. The front-runners appear to by Byron Scott, who used to coach Chris Paul in New Orleans, and Brian Shaw, who has had his fair share of games coached in the Staples Center in his time.

There is a clear leaning towards more veteran coaches in this list of candidates, which leads me to believe that there is little to no chance of a Rockets assistant being tapped by the Clippers organization. Even the candidates that the Clippers have simply contacts, not interviewed, include such veteran names as: George Karl, Jeff Van Gundy, Alvin Gentry, and earlier on, Jerry Sloan.

The front office clearly has an idea of what they are looking for and it appears to be a former head coaching pedigree that Houston assistants currently lack. I think it's safe to say we should not be worried about the Clippers on this issue.

Brooklyn Nets

This head coaching race appears to be coming down to an unexpected set of finalists. It has been known for quite a while that the Nets owner was interested in Brian Shaw's services. Everyone and their mother apparently is these days. The Nets were reportedly one of the first franchises to get in contact with Shaw after the Pacers were eliminated from playoff contention.

The real twist to the story in Brooklyn is that Jason Kidd has suddenly shown up on the front office's radar as a strong candidate.

The franchise has been looking for a "fresh face" and the thinking is that Kidd provides a level of name recognition and organizational familiarity that would set them on the right path. Even Woj of Yahoo Sports is reporting that Kidd may have the gig in the bag by the end of the week. With Shaw being shopped around in several places, it would appear that Kidd is likely topping Brooklyn's coaching wish list. Based on my read on how big of splashes Mikhail Prokhorov like to make when he makes NBA moves, the star power of Kidd would edge out any possibility of a Rockets assistant pushing him off of his pedestal at this point. While the organization is clearly after a new face over a retreaded coach, the Houston assistants likely don't have any sort of inside track in this coaching vacancy.

Denver Nuggets

R.I.P. George Karl in Denver - it was fun while it lasted.

To replace the 2013 coach of the year, the Nuggets are reportedly looking in-house at Melvin Hunt who spent 5 years in the Rockets organization (1999-2004) in roles ranging from video coordinator/scout to assistant coach. He has also spent time as an assistant coach for the Lakers as well as working on Cleveland's coaching staff. Although he has been linked to the 76ers as well, he appears to be primed for a promotion within his current organization.

The Nuggets are also seeking out (surprise!) Brian Shaw as well as Lionel Hollins. Sam Amick of USA Today reports that "there are indications that Shaw is leading that race" with his reputation of being a "rising star". There is also serious interest in Miami Heat assistant David Fizdale,

There is little to no indication of even an interest in the Rockets assistant coaches as they hope to surround their budding talent with a more consistent and/or experience staff. Our friend over at Denver Stiffs have this to say about their coaching search

Memphis Grizzlies

The Grizzlies find themselves in a somewhat similar situation to Denver. They just fired a wonderfully successful coach who got them to the playoffs (in this case, the western conference finals, no less).

Lionel Hollins clashed with their front office this season, most notably over the Rudy Gay trade which Hollins publicly criticized. Hollins also clashed with the managements statistically focused approach and, more specifically, had clashes with the one and only John Hollinger during playoff practices.

The front office wants a head coach whose values are congruent with their own and the coaching change was necessary from their point of view. A promotion from within makes total sense in this context. Marc Stein reports that several sources have been saying all along that current assistant Dave Joerger is the "overwhelming favorite" to replace Hollins. He has been the Grizzlies lead assistant since 2011 and is in charge of the team's defense. Picking him is the safest move at this point as it maintains some level of stability within the current coaching ranks and assures a head coach that has a vision in line with the organization as a whole

The Grizzlies are also eyeing George Karl as a replacement, which would be an interesting change of scenery from his typically fast paced teams in Denver. Memphis was in contact with Karl "almost immediately after he was let go" according to Sam Amick.

From this side of the fence, it does not appear as though J.B. or Kelvin is going to weasel their way into this race either. Experience and familiarity appear to be the hallmarks of this head coaching search, which leaves the Houston assistants on the outside looking in on this head coaching opportunity.

Final Outlook

It is my opinion that our current assistant coaching staff will be kept intact going into next season.

I think that the only true head coaching prospects we could offer to other teams would be Sampson and Bickerstaff. Finch, while certainly being groomed, is likely not ready to compete in an offseason market as crazy as this one. Even Kelvin and J.B. would be longshots from a resume standpoint in comparison to their competition. The most worried we should have gotten was over was the Milwaukee opening and the Bobcats opening. We dodged both of those bullets in rapid succession.

Though the 76ers are still a risk, every other organization seems to have their sights set on either a different philosophical direction (retread coaches) or wants a "fresh face" that they are more familiar with themselves. This makes the likelihood of late pushes to steal any of our coaches quite low. As I mentioned above, momentum seems to be swinging towards non-Rockets names in the Philly selection process at this point. They are the team to watch on this front, however.

Why This Matters

As the Rockets make the transition from the instability of a team in full re-build mode to a more stable environment with less roster turnover, building team chemistry will be put at a premium over the next several years.

Team chemistry is composed of far more than simply the players on the roster. Players likely interact more with the 4 assistant coaches on our staff combined more than they interact with Kevin McHale himself. The more consistent contact those coaches have with our players, the quicker we can hope to see our development begin to grow by leaps and bounds and not inch by inch.

If you watch the post-game and post-practice interviews of the players and coaches (Kelvin's interviews when he took over when McHale was on leave are particularly interesting) it is very clear that the bond between these young players and their staff is very meaningful.

Sideline consistency is the best way to keep the players comfortable when they are on the court, making the plays they need to make to win games.

If we did end up losing someone on staff, it would certainly not be the end of the world. If this article has shown anything, it is that the number of qualified coaching candidates in the pool is quite high, even if you're just searching for a replacement at the assistant level. I am a big fan of coaching consistency through as it relates to the speed of progression in young talent, though.

As the dust settles in late October as the 2013-14 season takes off, the Rockets look to be one of very few organizations that will be able to boast a lack of coaching staff turnover in an era where it seems to have become par for the course.

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Now, back to your regularly scheduled deluge of Dwight Howard related free agency articles, which is a whole other "coaching staff turnover" series in and of itself.

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