Besides the Phoenix Suns, there are another seven (seven!) head coaching openings this spring, And that doesn't even include Keith Smart in Sacramento who still has a job but knows a new ownership is taking over the team. Only the Cleveland Cavaliers have filled their spot with Mike Brown - formerly of the Cavs with the Los Angeles Lakers in between.
A head coach is important during the draft process to run the individual workouts with prospects and give his take on which players would be best fits for his coaching style and offensive and defensive schemes. Players and coaches have to be able to understand each other and somewhat speak the same language, or their performance on the court might suffer. Especially with rookies.
Lottery teams like the Charlotte Bobcats, Phoenix Suns, Detroit Pistons and Philadelphia 76ers all need coaches. Pseudo-lottery Milwaukee Bucks need a coach as well. Three openings exist on playoff teams: The Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Clippers came up short of expectations and decided the coach was the problem.
Why are teams waiting so long to fill their coaching position?
The delay, which could extend to late June
Because some of the best coaching prospects are still roaming the sidelines in the Conference Finals, that's why. Brian Shaw (Indiana), Mike Budenholzer (San Antonio), David Fizdale (Miami) and Lionel Hollins and Dave Joerger (Memphis) are all on the short list of favorites.
Indiana, in particular, has declined all interview requests through the end of the playoffs. Not only is Brian Shaw on a lot of teams' lists, so is GM Kevin Pritchard to take over front office openings.
The still-working coaches
Fizdale and Joerger, who have never been head coaches in the NBA, are wanted by the lottery-bound rebuilding teams.
Hollins, whose contract expires in June, is coveted by teams with big aspirations like the Clippers, Nets and maybe even the Hawks.
Shaw and Budenholzer are wanted by everyone - they are long-time #2 men ready for the #1 position. They have the perfect profile for any coaching position. They will have their pick of openings.
For established coaches, the Clippers and Nets openings are the very cream of the crop. Guys like Alvin Gentry and Nate McMillan will be hot after those positions because your first year could include a Conference Finals appearance without adding any new talent. Those teams want the best of the best, and will likely try hard to grab Lionel Hollins before anything else.
The Atlanta Hawks position is quite interesting as well: they have a GM with an open pocketbook intent on adding huge names this summer. If they land Dwight Howard and Chris Paul in a package deal, the Hawks could be playoff contenders. But if they miss on Howard (most likely to return to LA or sign with Houston if Paul doesn't come to Atlanta too) and Paul, the cupboard is bare. Josh Smith wants out, and he's the next best free agent on the market. So this position is a wildcard risk. Latest rumor has Budenholzer at the top.
The other openings all have tough days ahead. All are in the lottery or just on the cusp of it. There's an exciting challenge to taking over a non-playoff team, but also a lot of pressure to make it work quickly.
The Phoenix Suns
It's still hard to tell exactly which guy is at the top of the Suns priority list. Suns GM Ryan McDonough hinted the other night that his timeline had slowed down on the coaching front, partly because of the complexities involved in interviewing coaches still in the playoffs.
J.B. Bickerstaff (Rockets) and Steve Clifford (Lakers) formally interviewed this week for the Suns job. Lindsey Hunter interviewed last week, and Jeff Hornacek (Utah) and Kelvin Sampson (Houston) are likely coming to town very soon. So too will Quin Snyder (Russia) and maybe even Mike Malone (Golden State). McDonough said he's conducted a number of phone interviews as well.
But there is no end in sight, and McDonough is prepared to host prospects in Phoenix without a coaching staff and without even his primary player development guy still under contract (Corey Gaines, who is coaching the WNBA Mercury right now).
Without a coaching staff or a player development staff beyond Ralph Sampson, who exactly is going to conduct these player workouts? That's a big question. Bench coaches Dan Panaggio and Noel Gillespie are still available, I believe. Probably, the Suns will bring in some hired-guns to help organize and conduct the workouts.
Update: Lead Assistant Igor Kokoskov is still under contract through end of June as well, and could be tapped to lead workouts. Kokoskov coaches the Georgian team each summer, so I'm not sure when he leaves. Plus, his contract is up soon.
Expect the Suns to run a tight ship and make the player workouts as good as anyone's. Certainly, their medical evaluations, headed by Aaron Nelson, will be world class. The Suns identify good players. But it's not ideal if your entire coaching staff isn't taking part in the evaluation process.
While the Suns already have access to most of their favorites, my guess is that Shaw and Budenholzer are way up there and McDonough won't want to make a decision until he can at least talk to both of them.
Budenholzer has been made available for interviews between series, but nothing has been made public of a formal interview with the Suns.
Shaw has not. He hasn't talked to a soul. It seems he's at the top of everyone's list, though Hollins and other established coaches might get the nod in Brooklyn and LA.
McDonough hinted that his list is growing and shrinking at the same time, meaning the names are changing. It's possible he's also after Lionel Hollins himself. Hollins used to coach in Phoenix, so it wouldn't hurt to at least talk to him right?
McDonough may also want to talk to Joerger and Fizdale as well.
Regardless, don't hold your breath on a new coach yet. Just hope the Suns get the guy they really want, not the first available.