Unless you are taking over a veteran team with and All-Star or two in a core that has a playoff pedigree, history shows that it’s tough sledding to be a rookie head coach in the NBA.
We know that Jeff Hornacek had a magical season in 2013-14 as a rookie coach of a Suns team that did not have any All-Stars, but that kind of flashbang success is quite rare. And in his case, the honeymoon was short-lived.
Looking around the league this year, you can see that much of any team’s success has to do with the players on their roster. Three of the five rookie head coaches this year have at least one perennial All-Star in their lineup.
“The players have to play,” Kokoskov said earlier this season.
Certainly, Igor Kokoskov has made a lot of mistakes in his first season at the helm of the Suns. He’s kept poorly performing lineups together too long, given too much rope to his few veterans and failed to develop a reliable offensive scheme beyond “Give it to Book and pray”.
But the roster and the schedule hasn’t helped, making it almost impossible to purely grade Kokoskov’s performance this year because there’s no evidence that any other first-time head coach could have done much better in these circumstances.
Rookie Head Coaches
There are five first-time head coaches to start the NBA season, although two of them had ‘interim coach’ stints on their resume before this year. J.B. Bickerstaff had two prior interim stints (Houston, Memphis), while James Borrego led Orlando for their final 30 games in 2015.
Let’s review each of the five rookie coaches (not including interims who took over since the start of the year) so far.
- Nick Nurse, Toronto (37-15)
Best players: Kawhi Leonard (All-Star), Kyle Lowry (AS), Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka
Nurse, who had served the last five years on Toronto’s staff, had the easiest time of all the rookie coaches. He took over a team that added MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard and Spurs vet Danny Green to a Raptors core on a run of five straight playoff appearances. Four of the Raptors’ top five players are 29 or older with 6-plus years of NBA experience.
- James Borrego, Charlotte (24-25)
Best players: Kemba Walker (AS), Jeremy Lamb, Nicolas Batum
Borrego gets his first shot as a full time NBA coach, after a 10-20 stint (with Igor next to him) as the interim in Orlando in 2015. Borrego inherited All-Star Kemba Walker and a veteran Hornets team — the top six players in minutes played are 25 or older, with 4-plus years of NBA experience apiece and with years of experience playing on the same team together in Charlotte.
- J.B. Bickerstaff, Memphis (20-31)
Best players: Marc Gasol (AS), Mike Conley, Jaren Jackson Jr. (Rookie)
Bickerstaff finished last season with a 15-48 record but was cooking this season with Marc Gasol and Mike Conley back healthy with top draft pick Jaren Jackson Jr. joining the fray. They thought they’d been able to reload with only one bad season. But the wheels came off big-time. They’ve now lost 20 of their last 24 games without losing anyone to major injury. Now, back-to-back stinker seasons have them taking offers on their fading stars while they gas up the tank for real and look forward to a rebuild with Jaren Jackson Jr. as their next core piece.
- Lloyd Pierce, Atlanta (16-34)
Best players: Trae Young (R), John Collins, Kent Bazemore
Pierce, who had been on Brett Brown’s staff for four years in Philadelphia, took over Atlanta this year to replace Mike Budenholzer during their rebuild. Atlanta is just starting their rebuild in earnest, only one year removed from perennial playoff appearances and with just one high lottery pick in their rotation, Trae Young. Atlanta has played an easier schedule than the Suns (16th toughest in the league vs. the Suns’ toughest overall, per Basketball-Reference.com), with only five wins over playoff-standing teams this season compared to the Suns’ seven such wins.
- Igor Kokoskov, Phoenix (11-42)
Best players: Devin Booker, T.J. Warren, Deandre Ayton (R)
Kokoskov inherited a young team whose only experience in the NBA has been to sustain heavy losses. Like Pierce in Atlanta, Igor’s best players are his youngest and he’s got no All-Stars on whom to lean for on-court guidance. Pierce doesn’t have a top end player like Devin Booker, but he also doesn’t have four rookies in his rotation. Imagine being four solid years into a committed, draft-first rebuild and still needing to play four rookies in your regular rotation.
Crushing the Suns even further into a pulp is their schedule. While Atlanta has played a mid-pack schedule in terms of opponent winning percentage, the Suns have played the toughest.
When these two teams face off on Saturday in Phoenix, it will be the first time the Suns have played a team out of playoff contention since beating the Knicks on December 17. That was six weeks ago.
Recent Rookie Head Coaches
Now that we have established the difference between a rookie coach with All-Star(s) and veterans versus a rookie coach with a young roster, let’s take a look at recent rookie coaches who took over rebuilding teams. Maybe rookies with bad rosters fared better in prior years?
NOT included: coaches who inherited All-Stars and/or playoff teams, like Tyronn Lue (Cavaliers), Fred Hoiberg (Bulls), Steve Kerr (Warriors), and Billy Donovan (Thunder) to name a few.
You’ll see the list is short. There’s only a handful of rookie coaches the last six years who have taken over All-Star-free rosters. Let’s see how they fared in year one.
- Kenny Atkinson, Nets, 2016 — 20-62 (mostly veteran roster)
- Luke Walton, Lakers, 2016 — 26-56
- Earl Watson, Suns, 2016 — 24-58
- Quin Snyder, Jazz, 2014 — 38-44 (were 19-34 at All-Star break until swapping Enes Kanter for rookie Rudy Gobert in starting lineup)
- Jeff Hornacek, Suns, 2013 — 48-34
- Brett Brown, Sixers, 2013 — 19-63
- Mike Malone, Sacramento, 2013 — 28-54 (had Isaiah Thomas, DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay)
- Brad Stevens, Celtics, 2013 — 25-57 (mostly veteran roster)
The bottom line here is that rookie head coaches struggle, and they struggle even more when they don’t have a good rotation of players to work with. Among coaches who didn’t inherit playoff teams with All-Stars in the rotation, only a couple had memorable first seasons.
Quin Snyder worked wonders with the Jazz, though he was gifted with future All-Defensive center Rudy Gobert with the 27th pick in the 2013 Draft.
Jeff Hornacek worked some kind of magic with the Suns in 2013-14, finishing second in the Coach of the Year race, but fell on hard times after that.
But those were the outliers. In hindsight, we were foolish to think the Suns should have improved to the 30-win range given the combination of rookie coach and kid-laden roster bereft of any All-Stars or even highly functioning veterans.
Yes, Kokoskov will likely finish with the worst of those coaches’ records, and again he’s made many mistakes this year in his rotations.
But any ranking that gives Earl Watson more credit than Brett Brown is flawed. A rookie coach cannot be entirely graded on a team’s win-loss record.
The key for Phoenix will be whether they can improve over the season’s final three months to the point that Kokoskov builds a foundation that can be used for a winning organization.