With news that the Phoenix Suns chose not to retain Bob Hill and Corey Gaines as part of Earl Watson's coaching staff for next season, the question naturally becomes who will sit beside Watson as he enters his first full season as an NBA head coach. While there are a number of qualified candidates for the openings, the first call that needs to be made is to former Indiana Pacers' head coach Frank Vogel.
Vogel, who was let go by the Pacers after team president Larry Bird decided not to extend him a new contract, would be an extraordinary get for a Suns team almost guaranteed to strike out with free agents this summer. He spent the past five and a half seasons as the head coach of the Pacers after taking over for Jim O'Brien in 2011 and compiled a record of 250-181 with five playoff appearances, including back-to-back trips to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2012-13 and 2013-14.
Under Vogel, the Pacers were a formidable defensive team. They ranked in the top 10 for fewest points allowed every year for the past five seasons and never worse than seventh for opponent field goal percentage over the past six seasons, which included two league-leading finishes. None of Vogel's teams were especially gifted at forcing turnovers, but they were good defensively regardless because he knew how to teach defensive principles and get his players to adhere to them — something the Suns have sorely lacked for, well, decades.
An experienced coach who can teach strong defensive principles is exactly the kind of candidate the Suns need to fill out Watson's staff. Whether Vogel would be interested in an associate coach role with the Suns is another matter. Surely there are more appealing jobs available to someone with his résumé, with the New York Knicks, Houston Rockets, and Sacramento Kings all possessing head coaching vacancies.
And then there is the issue of money. Vogel made approximately $2.5 million last season with Indiana and could easily make two to three times that as a head coach elsewhere. Meanwhile, even the $2.5 million number would be high for an assistant coach in Phoenix, considering former head coach Jeff Hornacek made about $2 million a season during his tenure. With Watson likely earning something in that same ballpark on his new deal, it wouldn't inspire confidence in the head coach to pay an assistant as much or more.
However, there is no reason the Suns shouldn't call anyway. If things don't work out for one reason or another and he remains out of a head coaching job, Vogel just might choose to come aboard. He coached Watson as an assistant during Watson's lone season in Indiana back in 2009-10, so the two are familiar with each other. Vogel could also use the position as a way to stay connected to the game until another job opens up. After all, head coaches have moved over a seat in the past, with Alvin Gentry being a recent example of a head coach who used an assistant coaching opportunity to hang around until a head coaching job became available. And since he wasn't fired, Vogel doesn't have free money coming in next season like a George Karl.
Still, Vogel is a long shot, and if he should say no to the Suns' offer, there are other candidates who should be considered.
Nate McMillan, another former head coach who moved into an assistant role under Vogel in Indiana, has coached 930 games in the NBA with the Seattle SuperSonics and Portland Trail Blazers and compiled a record of 478-452 with five playoff appearances as a head coach. He also served under Mike Krzyzewski as an assistant coach for Team USA from 2006 to 2012, where he was in charge of the defensive side of things.
McMillan is known as a no-nonsense type of coach and would seem to contrast well as the stick to Watson's carrot. Plus, his 930 games as an NBA head coach would be an ideal fit on a coaching staff woefully short on experience. McMillan is presently linked to the Kings as a candidate for their open head coaching position, but as Watson's coach his rookie season in Seattle, there is some history there that could work in Phoenix's favor.
But if the Suns choose to pursue up-and-coming coaching candidates rather than guys with years helming a team, then a name from the past might just be worth revisiting: Jarron Collins.
Collins, the former reserve center for the 2009-10 Suns team that went to the Western Conference Finals, has been an assistant coach for the last two seasons under Steve Kerr with the Golden State Warriors. He is viewed as a promising, personable coach with a talent for understanding schemes and coverages who brings to his coaching the same work ethic that served him as a player for 10 years. And according to ESPN, even though Luke Walton received much of the coaching credit, Collins was a significant factor behind the Warriors' record-setting beginning to the season while Kerr was out with a back injury.
Whatever direction the Suns go in, though, they need to move expeditiously to put the coaching staff together. Other teams have coaching vacancies they need filled as well, so the Suns can't afford to drag their feet when they will be competing for coaching talent.
It is also important to get the staff constructed as quickly as possible so Watson and his assistants can get on the same page and begin the business of summer. Watson said during his press conference after being named head coach that one of his goals was to have the organization — including the entire coaching staff — build a detailed scouting report and database on each NBA team this summer. With pre-draft workouts rapidly approaching and that summer of scouting soon to follow, the sooner the assistant coaches are in place, the better.
Currently, only Nate Bjorkgren is left among the Suns' front-row assistants from last season, and whoever Phoenix elects to fill out Watson's staff with for 2016-17, they need to be people Watson can both lean on and feel confident in. Vogel would be an incredible hire, and the Suns would be wise to throw everything but the kitchen sink at Vogel to get him on the Suns' bench. But barring that, both McMillan and Collins offer their own distinctive qualities and represent more realistic targets for additions to Watson's bench brain trust.