The 2018-19 campaign was filled with peaks and valleys for rookie head coach Igor Kokoskov.
In his return to Phoenix after once being an assistant under Alvin Gentry, immediate results weren’t seen in the win-loss column. Instead, it was a two-game regression from last year when Jay Triano had a 79-game stint as interim coach.
Outside of two separate occasions where the Suns had mini streaks of success (going 5-2 in late December and 6-4 through mid-March when everyone was healthy), the rest of the year was filled with plenty of ugly losses and an 8-57 record. Not great, not at all, but when you don’t have a starting-caliber point guard for most of those games and have a roster filled to the brim with young players who need further development it’s probably pretty tough.
From the very beginning, the Suns’ front office hamstrung Kokoskov by never filling the hole left by trading Brandon Knight, six weeks after he said in Summer League practice he was going to start alongside Devin Booker. It wasn’t until February that James Jones swung a savvy one-for-one swap sending out Ryan Anderson to Miami for Tyler Johnson.
Adding in the failed offseason moves of Anderson and Trevor Ariza, two players who were supposed to fill the biggest leadership voids in their locker room but failed to do so, led to stagnation rather than progress early on.
However, once the All-Star break swung around with Kelly Oubre Jr. and Johnson comfortable within their new system, the Suns had a breakthrough. And it wasn’t against a cupcake schedule like some pundits could say for the east coast road swing around Christmas.
From Feb. 25 - Mar. 16, a 10-game sample size featuring some legitimate competition along the way, the Suns were in a position you could label as ‘league average’ and not ‘terrible’. Finishing with a 6-4 record with wins over with Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks, Golden State Warriors and New Orleans Pelicans, Phoenix’s advanced metrics were 15th in offensive rating (109.5) and 16th in defensive rating (109.5) over that span. Outside of the tanking Knicks and a limited workload for Anthony Davis with New Orleans, those other four victories were against teams at the top of the conference or in the thick of playoff races.
That period of the season was what Kokoskov could sell as a preview for the Suns under his tutelage in 2019-20, a period defined by health and a competent rotation still playing half the time with 22 and unders. Booker, Ayton, Oubre and others mentioned at the exit interviews that the culture has changed. If that’s the case, a true turnaround should be on the horizon.
One aspect that might be overlooked within a 19-win season is player development. The last two years have been about that first and foremost. Under Watson and Triano, progress wasn’t happening. With Kokoskov and his staff, the opposite can be said.
All of the following players on the Suns’ roster saw growth with the help of Kokoskov and his staff: Josh Jackson - shot mechanics, Dragan Bender - confidence and finishing high around the rim, Mikal Bridges - aggressiveness and play-making, and Deandre Ayton - defense. All four saw rapid development in each of these categories from Game 1 to Game 82. And even more members of the roster saw progressions, albeit on a more gradual path.
“He’s been great, obviously a guy who speaks my language,” Bender said of Kokoskov last week. “It’s huge to have him around, just from a mental standpoint. ... He’s a great guy.”
Continuity is desperately needed for this franchise right now. The last coach under Robert Sarver’s leadership to last at least three full seasons was Gentry almost a decade ago. Their 22-year-old star, who is entering his 5-year, $158 million max contract on July 1, is already up to his fourth head coach through his rookie-scale deal. Not only does Booker need stability around him moving forward, but so does the rest of the Suns’ young core.
Even though immediate results of progress didn’t appear on the surface, if you look deeper there actually was.
“I really liked Igor,” Johnson said. “I was with Goran (Dragic), who was coached by Igor, so he was letting me know beforehand how he was as a coach and when I got here he definitely didn’t disappoint. There’s a lot of variables that go into the success of a team that I thought he did excellent, as far as taking the time to get guys to really understand their roles and what it meant to be a professional.”
Kokoskov was lauded for his player development skills throughout his 18-year run as an assistant under the likes of D’Antoni, Larry Brown, Mike Brown and Quin Snyder. Most recently with Utah, Kokoskov worked closely with the guards and helped Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell to career-altering years. Rubio mentioned before how Kokoskov would stick with him after practices and work diligently on his three-point shot. It led to a career-high in three-point percentage.
That image about a coach doesn’t just pop up overnight, but rather from years of experience and repetition with players who could see the results on the court. Do you know who else was given a similar endorsement as Kokoskov a few years ago? Kenny Atkinson, one of the leading candidates for Coach of the Year after two painstaking campaigns before finally turning the corner.
Development should be viewed as a long-term play more than a short-term fix. When you see other coaches recently over the years who had this background in their resume, that switch didn’t just magically flip. With Kokoskov under contract for two more years, I think that’s a fair amount of time to give him unless no real progress is seen again on the court next season.
Records in first three years as coach:
- Quin Snyder - Jazz: 38-44, 40-42, 51-31
- Kenny Atkinson - Nets: 20-62, 28-54, 42-40
- Dave Joerger - Kings: 32-50, 27-55, 39-43* (* = fired)
The Suns have a record of 40-124 the last two years — and it might be fair to say coming close to that mark will be the best way for Kokoskov to earn more job security. James Jones committed to him through the rest of the season on 98.7 FM when rumors were running rampant in February, but no update since then and we also learned that the restructured front office now featuring Jeff Bower won’t be speaking to the local media anytime soon.
With a very low bar to clear of 19 wins, realistic expectations with Phoenix for 2019-20 should be improving by 15-20 wins. If the Suns are unable to reach the mid 30s, or even get to 30 in the first place, Kokoskov might be gone.
In the meantime, though, he’s earned that right to continue leading this team forward.