The Phoenix Suns made a widely-lauded decision to hire Igor Kokoskov last week as their next head coach.
Kokoskov is the first European-born head coach in the NBA after having previously been a pioneer on the NCAA and NBA assistant coaching levels for the same reason.
To their credit, the Suns thought way outside the box for this hire. I spent a few minutes talking about the recruitment process with no-longer-a-rookie Vice President James Jones, who described his role as a “fly on the wall, but with a voice”.
He talked about how the Suns interviewed as many as 20 different coaches between March and May.
“Some we had interest in, some we didn’t,” Jones said. “Some for background, for context, perspective. But we had a large cross-section of coaches.”
The coaching interview list ranged from experienced head coaches like Mike Budenholzer, Steve Clifford and Jason Kidd to assistants like James Borrego and Igor to development coaches like Rex Kalamian and Nick Nurse. And that’s just a few of the coaches they spoke to.
“In going into the process,” Jones explained, “we were always looking to see if someone would be a good fit as the head coach, as an assistant coach. Some of the conversations started out not even primarily for the head coaching job. It was, are you willing to be a coach for the Phoenix Suns.”
Ryan McDonough predicted last week that Igor would likely hire a long-time head coach to be his top assistant, and that his coaching staff would likely include at least a couple of former players from Igor’s stints in various cities.
Yesterday, news surfaced that the Suns are close to doing exactly that.
Former head coach (Atlanta, New York) Mike Woodson — most recently Doc Rivers’ top assistant in LA — is close to signing for the same role in Phoenix. The news was first reported by ArizonaSports radio host John Gambadoro.
May 22, 2018
Former player Corliss Williamson — played for Igor in Detroit, most recently assistant coach for the Kings and Magic — has been hired as an assistant as well (first reported by Scott Bordow of azcentral.com and the Arizona Republic).
Breaking Suns' news: Phoenix has hired Corlis Williamson as assistant coach. Meanwhile, Mike Woodson interviewed today but has yet to be hired— scott bordow (@sbordow) May 23, 2018
Williamson, 44 years old, has been an NBA assistant for the past five years after coaching at the college level from 2007-2013 after retiring from a 12-year NBA career.
Expect one or two more former players to be added either to the primary coaching staff or to player-development roles.
Tony Jones, who covers the Jazz, recently tweeted that it didn’t look like any of the current Jazz assistants would be leaving the Jazz for the Suns.
Tribune sources: In a bit of a surprise, Utah Jazz bench to stay intact in wake of Igor Kokoskov leaving for the Phoenix Suns...for now, all Jazz assistants staying put— Tony Jones (@tribjazz) May 17, 2018
When the Suns were done with their first round of coaching interviews, they knew that Igor was a clear finalist.
I asked James Jones whether his designation as “the first European-born NBA head coach” had any influence on the decision, public-relations wise.
“Zero.” Jones says his birthplace never even came up. “Do we say the head coach is from Texas? Do we say he’s from Serbia? We just say he’s the head coach of the Phoenix Suns.”
It was Igor’s experience on the international level as a coach, rather than his nationality, that had a big influence on the Suns.
“The game is global,” Jones said. “We just want the best basketball coach, regardless of nationality.”
As we talked about coaching candidates, I noticed that the name of Becky Hammon did not come up among the long list of coaches interviewed for the Suns job.
The Suns organization has a long-standing reputation for inclusivity, often taking bold stances on immigration and LGBQT issues over the years. For everything you might say about owner Robert Sarver’s basketball acumen, you have to give him huge credit for being open-minded and decisive on social issues.
So I wondered what the Suns thought about women coaching at the NBA level, in general.
“I love it,” James Jones said. “I’ve always been a fan of women coaching, regardless of the league. And that’s from personal experience. My mom was my coach. As a single mother, she was the one that took me to the basketball court and taught me the fundamentals and coached me through my most challenging years.
“I don’t think gender has any impact on someone’s ability to read the game, teach the game, to live the game. And so I’m a big proponent because I have a great respect for basketball minds.”
Did they consider interviewing Becky Hammon for the Suns head coaching job?
“We went down the list of every single coach in the NBA,” Jones said. “We gave it consideration. But ultimately we settled on, for our team, candidates that we thought were best suited. That would entail having head coaching experience at some point, on some level, and that’s how we got to the list that we had.”
Becky Hammon has been an assistant on Gregg Popovich’s Spurs team for the past few years, but has never been a head coach on any level.
While it would be great to help Hammon grow her career, maybe the Suns should look in-house for that kind of move.
I’d love to see the Mercury’s Diana Taurasi’s transition into retirement by offering her a coaching job with the Suns or Mercury whenever she’s ready to hang up the uniform. Her wife Penny Taylor (married in 2017) recently retired from playing and now has a front office/player development position with the Mercury. They recently added a baby boy to their young family. They’ve both played and lived most of the last two decades in Phoenix. Taurasi is set to play for the Mercury at least this season, through the summer, so don’t expect any news on that front until closer to Suns training at the earliest, but more likely in a year or two.
For Igor’s staff right now, let’s see how he fills out the rest. He needs to hire not only another primary assistant or two, but also a half-dozen or so player development and support staffers.
Suns assistant coaches Ty Ellis and Brett Burchard — who were promoted to the Suns from the G-league NAZ in the wake of Earl Watson’s firing — attended Igor’s introductory press conference along with several dozen other Suns staffers. Their contracts expire at the end of June unless they are extended by Igor.
The other coaches on Jay Triano’s staff (namely Ty Corbin) have been let go already. Triano was named earlier this week as the top assistant to James Borrego in Charlotte. Borrego, most recently from the Spurs bench, interviewed for the Suns job along with Triano before they both headed to Charlotte to succeed Steve Clifford (who also interviewed with the Suns).