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Six coaching candidates who should be on the Suns’ shortlist

We’re quickly approaching the most important decision for this era of Suns basketball: Choosing the right coach to lead this team hopefully for a decade plus. Who will it be?

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that the Suns seemed to have learned their lesson hiring Earl Watson after his interim period ended two seasons ago. This time around once they canned Watson following a historically bad three-game initial stretch, Jay Triano was tasked to put together a resume to keep his job through a 79-game rigor.

So far, Triano has done well after being thrown into the fire.

He has slowly innovated Phoenix’s system towards a blistering pace with even more ball movement. The addition of Elfrid Payton has seen the offense continue to blossom — including Josh Jackson seeing significant growth under Triano’s tutelage — but the defense seems systematically broken.

Since 2018 began, Phoenix has been rated the worst defense in terms of many advanced stats categories by a wide margin. It’s historically awful to the point that Triano’s defense has been worse than any of what Sam Hinkie’s Process 76ers rolled out during their prime tank runs in second halves.

The Suns’ defensive rating of 113.1 ties the 2009 Sacramento Kings for worst after a new year kicked off.

NBA’s advanced numbers go back 20 years, so this is definitely a recipe for helping obtain a top three pick in this year’s draft.

When surveying over this roster, what type of coach will have it all click together in rapid succession? Some core values I looked at before compiling this list, which includes circling back to Triano, revolved mainly around defense and overall accountability for one another.

For a franchise that’s seen its defense lay dormant for almost a decade, as far as consistency goes, I believe that will need to be revived in this new era of Suns basketball. And with the prospects general manager Ryan McDonough seems to be targeting as he builds out this roster, these five names stood out when trying to find the perfect match for Phoenix.

This list varies from not only current assistant coaches on the pro level, but successful college head coaches who have consistently created a winning culture.

Tony Bennett, Head Coach, Virginia

Before I dive into what Bennett has done at Virginia, lets first backtrack. Before heading to Charlottesville, Bennett was the head man over at Washington State. He has not only West Coast ties, but he helped lead a Washington State roster led by then-freshman Klay Thompson.

One funny thing with how Bennett landed Klay to Wazzu as well. He was the first Pac-10 coach to pursue Thompson and did so aggressively. Bennett saw the modern-day talent Thompson possessed although many big-time programs didn’t.

Thompson ended up going to Washington State for two seasons as Bennett instrumentally built an offense designed around Klay’s strength as a perimeter weapon. The Cougars constantly ran him off screens and allowed consistently easier looks.

Bennett, who doesn’t turn 49 until June, then headed towards the ACC in 2009 where he’s carried over success to another program where winning wasn’t usually tradition.

Check out how the Hoos did once Bennett arrived over his first nine seasons after inheriting a 10-18 team lacking conference talent: 15, 16, 22, 23, 30, 30, 29, 23, 28*

After getting his players, recruiting out his own roster usually takes three years to achieve, Bennett has not seen a team with worse than a 65% win percentage.

After acquiring the recruits to fulfill his vision he saw out with Klay initially on the other side of the country, Bennett’s system has proven to be one that’s successful at each stop but also flexible to his current talent.

There have been many rumblings about Bennett making the jump over the next few seasons as he approaches 50, but would he leave a perfect situation in Charlottesville? He’s locked in for long-term security and money, but the former NBA rotation player could get the itch to see his dream through.

Could Bennett be the next Brad Stevens? When assessing that landscape, there’s no better systematical fit from all angles than what Bennett could provide.

However, like Stevens at Butler, to pry Bennett out of UVA there will need to be significant money from Robert Sarver heading his direction alongside a long-term deal. No college coach will leave unless he has security, and I believe Bennett is a candidate well-deserving of that.

After molding Klay, he’s in the process of doing it again to one of my super sleepers in De’Andre Hunter.

For a team in need of a face who can relate to younger players while also inspiring a culture reset and mentality shift, Bennett might be exactly what the Suns are targeting.

Igor Kokoskov, Assistant Coach, Utah Jazz

Kokoskov is an unknown name to some, but he’s actually been with the Suns once before. He was an assistant in Phoenix from 2008-2013 but they let him get away alongside Dan Majerle.

A disciple of Alvin Gentry mixed with influences by Quin Snyder, Larry Brown, and Mike Brown, Kokoskov could bring a unique blend of coaching ability alongside the factor of growing with a young roster.

At only age 46, Kokoskov is the youngest candidate on my list.

Since joining Snyder’s staff in Utah, the Serbian native has earned plenty of league-wide respect. When Snyder fell ill last season, Kokoskov took over head duties leading the Jazz to a win over the Clippers.

Another interesting angle with Kokoskov revolves around his ample experience internationally. He led the Slovenian national team spearheaded by Goran Dragic and Luka Doncic to a gold medal this past summer. Kokoskov’s schemes he drew up for these guards were a beauty to watch throughout the tournament.

If the Suns landed Doncic, hiring his former national team head coach would turn some heads but also signal they have an idea of what they are doing.

Kokoskov would bring an offense very similar in ball movement, but to earn playing time with him you need to play defense. As evidence in Utah, look at how there players do as an overall unit.

If one person fails, they all do.

Accountability would be a huge factor with Kokoskov and it could pay dividends for young talent like Devin Booker, Josh Jackson, and whoever they select in this year’s draft near the top.

The more I think about it, McDonough should totally inquire on if Kokoskov is interested in a return to the Valley.

Ettore Messina, Assistant Coach, San Antonio Spurs

There’s no denying the pedigree Messina would bring to Phoenix ASAP. His track record is nothing but winning, more specifically reaching the proverbial mountaintop multiple times.

Messina has won four EuroLeague championships before joining Pop’s staff in San Antonio almost four years ago. Messina himself knows he’s been getting the tutelage under him to eventually become Europe’s first ever NBA head coach born across the pond from Italy.

Teams who have started towards the modern trend, Los Angeles (Lakers) and Houston, both interviewed Messina over the past two summers for their openings.

His days in San Antonio seem numbered as an assistant, so would Messina jump at the possibility of molding a roster around Booker and Jackson? It’s entirely possible.

Remember, the Spurs were very intrigued with the possibility of moving up to obtain Jackson by dangling LaMarcus Aldridge plus picks. Nobody bit on it, but if the Spurs (much like if Celtics general manager Danny Ainge is on the other line) are in on someone that’s when you know to hold onto them.

From an aesthetics point of view, Messina might also offer the Suns’ best basketball from a scheme standpoint. Like Bennett, Messina can innovate but has a preferred way.

He has even mentioned before how San Antonio plays a very similar style to how he did in Europe, so a Spurs-esque feel could be in store if Messina was their top choice.

Messina is only a year younger than Triano, so they would be buying in on him being the overall better fit. Right now, I would agree with that assessment.

If this happened, expect some law and order to be restored for a team that needs some tough love to grow. Messina might be the perfect candidate if McDonough sees it’s time for the EuroLeague legend to have his own team.

Jay Wright, Head Coach, Villanova

After firing Jeff Hornacek, there were some rumors flying in Phoenix about pursuing Wright after winning a national championship. Ultimately, as we all know, they stuck with Watson but if Wright said “thanks, but no thanks” to them the first time, maybe he changes his mind this time?

Even though Wright seems entrenched in Philadelphia, could the Suns sway him if they can sell a Booker-led core onto him with Sarver actually paying up? It’s entirely possible because Villanova is set up to lose the senior leaders from Wright’s last title winner. If Wright doesn’t bolt then if offered, then I doubt he ever leaves his long-time confines of Villanova but it doesn’t hurt to try.

However, let's say Wright is intrigued by the possibility of joining the Suns, then that’s when things get interesting.

At Villanova, Wright has instilled an unbreakable culture that’s thrived off consistency as an elite Big East power.

Also, take a look at the NBA talent that’s gone in and out of there. Wright’s track record from a player development point of view is nothing to sneeze at either.

I have my doubts Wright ends up jumping to the pros, but also when second chances come back that’s when someone usually re-considers it harder. Time heals all, and if the Suns plan to circle back towards pursuing Wright, I’m all for it.

When initially removing the interim tag off of Watson, they spoke glowingly on his player relationships, but Wright would bring a double-edged factor. He not only is a great coach creating schemes but a leader who develops men as they reach the pros.

As is a trend on this entire coaching list is positive defensive installations, too. Wright’s Wildcat squads have maintained consistency on that end. He expects 100% on both ends or you’re not playing.

A lot like Kokoskov, Wright could energize this young roster but also bring a familiar name from the college ranks known nationally.

David Fizdale, Former Head Coach, Memphis Grizzlies

When trying to connect the dots after Watson’s firing, I immediately circled Fizdale’s name for later. You might ask why but you should know.

James Jones and Fizdale have a history. Phoenix’s new Vice President of Basketball Operations actually played under Fizdale as they went to three consecutive NBA finals before following LeBron James back to Cleveland.

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Fizdale was their top target either because of those front office connections. If you connect the dots, Fizdale also has a positive image from players around the league. He could easily attract free agents alongside Jones and building around Booker.

When Fizdale was the second coach fired after Watson earlier this season in Memphis, many huge names came to his support. Former players he used to coach with LeBron and Dwyane Wade were most vocal, but nobody forgets the way he stood up for his Grizzlies roster last playoffs.

The “Take that for data!” meme was born after slamming the box score sheet down in frustration after getting no calls against San Antonio, but that’s what a player’s coach does. He backs them up.

Whatever led to his dismissal in Memphis — which seems to relate towards his on-off relationship with Marc Gasol — obviously would need to be thoroughly searched by Phoenix before pursuing but from what I’ve laid out all throughout this piece, Fizdale checks off all the boxes.

Compared to the other names, Fizdale would be a re-tread hire but I don’t think he deserved how his first job ended.

With the connections in Phoenix alongside a roster tailormade to Fizdale’s strengths, this should be very appealing. The question is whether Fizdale will have other teams dialing him up, which seems like a foregone conclusion.

Earlier this season, I wrote a column on why I believe Fizdale was the correct choice if they decided to an unorthodox mid-season hire.

Jay Triano, Interim Head Coach, Phoenix Suns

Now, in the end, we circle back to Triano.

As I mentioned previously, there’s no denying what impact Triano has had on some players on the roster. Booker has taken steps forward. So has Jackson and even Dragan Bender.

We saw a typical dead coach bounce as Triano began his tenure with a nice run but they fell down to Earth as they got into the league’s toughest schedule.

Right now, I would be against bringing him back when re-examining their options but if they believe Triano is the right man to see this long-term vision of a possible contender through, then they at least did their due diligence this time around.

It would be tough for any coach to be subsequently thrown to the wolves after three games as an assistant, but Triano has definitely deserved a final look after his near-full season under the interim tag.

After coaxing over my list of coaching candidates, which one makes the most sense for Phoenix? Right now, all have a different case to be made, which could sway the front office’s choice after this season ends.

From the sound of it, McDonough seems prepared to hit the ground running on a coaching search after their season finale in Dallas where claiming best odds to obtain No. 1 overall in the lottery could be on the line.

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