Your friendly worldwide blog Bright Side of the Sun was strongly represented at Igor Kokoskov’s introductory press conference as the new head coach of the Phoenix Suns.
Evan Sidery, Brendon Kleen and yours truly were all on hand, though it looks like from Suns tweet that I was the only one in the room...
"Being the head coach of one of the most prestigious teams in the basketball world is something special."— Phoenix Šuns (@Suns) May 14, 2018
-Head Coach Igor Kokoškov pic.twitter.com/pKwcjtxkyU
Glad I got that fresh cut yesterday!
“This is our home,” new Phoenix Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov told the media as he explained why he wanted the Suns job. “Sometimes you have to leave to come back. My family always stayed here.”
Kokoskov originally joined the Suns organization in 2008 as an assistant under Terry Porter, who brought him over from the Pistons bench they shared, and he stayed on when Alvin Gentry took over the Suns (Kokoskov had previously been an assistant under Gentry in LA) and even lasted out the three months under Lindsey Hunter in 2013.
Now he’s back, five years and one more stint with Quin Snyder later.
“This is a lifetime opportunity to coach one of the best teams in the history of the league,” Kokoskov said.
When asked about being the first European-born head coach in NBA history, Kokoskov quipped that Americans call him a European coach while Europeans say after 18 years in America he’s ‘one of them’.
“Nobody wants me now,” he joked.
Of course, it’s important to him to be the first. He was the first Euro-born NCAA coach (hired by Quinn Snyder), then first full time NBA assistant (hired by Alvin Gentry) and then worked for both coaches again as his career progressed.
But he also knows that’s a major responsibility. “If this fails,” he says of every step along the way, “the American media and public will say he can’t coach, we gotta stick with our guys.”
Then he got serious, a point echoed later by VP James Jones when I spoke with him about Igor after the presser ended.
“But it’s not about being a foreign coach,” Kokoskov said. “This is my home, where I work (for 18 years). I don’t consider myself a European coach. I’m an NBA coach.”
Igor was personable and clearly knowledgable about not only the game of basketball but also the situation, the state of the Suns roster and the history of this basketball franchise that he wants to help build back up to the top.
I asked Igor what is the single most important thing about creating a winning team. He could have answered “discipline”, as in getting play calls and execution right 100% of the time. He could have answered “love”, but we all know how that turned out for a former coach. He could have answered “Rudy Gobert”, meaning it’s all about having that difference-making player.
The answer he gave was “talent”. But he went on from there, so we wouldn’t take the answer as pithy as it sounded. Of course, the roster has to have winning players on it. But also, he talked about talent on the coaching staff, and the player development staff, and the front office and training staff and so on and so forth. And he said it’s important to have a healthy environment that allows your players to focus on maximizing their basketball skills. The people around the team have to all be on the same page.
When I asked Igor about the makeup of his coaching staff, he said he hadn’t finalized anything yet and hadn’t even gotten deep into the process since Utah’s season had just ended.
All he talked about, when I asked about the skillsets and resumes of the potential staff, was that the staff has to create the right atmosphere with good people who know what they’re doing and can translate that to the players.
He said he learned a lot from Quinn Snyder, Alvin Gentry, Flip Saunders, Larry Brown and other great coaches with whom he’d worked — that you really need to have an atmosphere conducive to everyone buying into the amount of work involved in being successful.
Igor’s experience as a head coach is limited to European national teams, meaning that he’s only been the head guy over players who were in it to represent their country, and not for the money or the individual statistics. Feels like it’s easier to coach guys like that.
Now Igor needs to coach guys who are sometimes as interested in their own playing time and statistics as they are in the team’s success. So it remains to be seen, from my own point of view, whether he can survive for more than a year or two as the main guy before being eaten up and spit out. My money is on Igor surviving, hopefully better than Jeff Hornacek did in Phoenix and in New York, but I’m a terrible gambler (so the recent Supreme Court decision that effectively makes gambling legal has zero impact on me).
Igor is better equipped than Hornacek was, though, after 18 years as a full time NBA assistant (to Hornacek’s two) and 10 years as head coach each summer overseas. Igor knows HOW to run a team, and how to run it successfully. He won a gold medal with Slovenia in Eurocup last year, finding ways to get the ball in good position to his only two real NBA-level talents in Goran Dragic and Luka Doncic. They came into the competition expected to finish 9th, but no one could match Kokoskov’s schemes and his players’ execution of those schemes.
“It’s always different when you’re copilot or pilot,” Kokoskov said. “You learn from your mistakes.”
I asked Ryan McDonough about Kokoskov’s potential coaching staff, in big picture terms rather than naming names. McDonough deferred to Igor, but did say that he anticipated the staff (which always goes half-dozen deep when you include player development coaches) to be relatively young and diverse, and went on to say the staff might include at least a couple of Igor’s former players — McDonough specifically mentioned Igor’s stint in Detroit as one example — as well as one coach with significant experience as an NBA head coach. But then he said that’s only their thought process right now, rather than anything final.
I, for one, am excited about Igor’s chance to succeed in Phoenix over the long haul, not just for the honeymoon period where every gushes about “they learned more in one hour under (new coach) than they did in months/years under (just-fired head coach)!”
I expect Igor will start observing the “10 or 11” guys who are working out daily in the arena already, including the “his jump shot looks a lot better already” Josh Jackson, via Ryan McDonough, and “he’s in a lot better shape than he was last summer” Marquese Chriss, also via McDonough.
I expect Igor will be the coach of the Suns’ summer league squad, and that players and veterans alike will be encouraged to go to Vegas and either practice with the team if not play in the games.
Igor and his staff have a LOT of teaching to do if they want to get this ragtag band of too-young-to-legally-drink players into some kind of cohesive unit by late October. The sooner he starts, the better.