No one is making the argument the 2018-19 season was a success for the Phoenix Suns, not even coach Igor Kokoskov, who had to fear for his job after coaching the Suns to just 19 wins in a season where the franchise expected to flip the switch to competitiveness.
Asked about his job security the day after the regular season closed for the Suns, Kokoskov chuckled and said he had not given it a second thought in the few hours since arriving back in Phoenix after a season-ending loss to the Mavericks. A couple weeks after the hiring of Jeff Bower as Senior Vice President of Basketball Operations and installation of James Jones as full-time general manager, no word has been given on Kokoskov’s future, which has to be considered a good thing for Kokoskov — who has two years remaining on his current contract — at the moment.
No word from the Suns means Kokoskov’s job is safe for now.
Things can change on a dime in Phoenix, but if we can assume Kokoskov will survive long enough to at least start the 2019-20 season as coach of the Suns, the next place to look is his bench.
It is assumed that Kokoskov did not handpick his assistants. Not one came with an obvious built-in relationship with the first-time head coach outside of Corliss Williamson, who once played on a Pistons team where Kokoskov was an assistant. Williamson oversaw the development and strategy for the big men.
This is reasonable. Few first-time coaches receive the sort of leverage or trust from the organization to put their own staff together, and someone like interim Bucks coach Joe Prunty had clear value to the franchise as a veteran in the room to support Kokoskov.
If Kokoskov does stick around, we may see more than the typical carousel of guys around the league that happens every summer. The next step to giving Kokoskov the means to put his imprint on the team is — in addition to finding a lead playmaker — allowing him to hire familiar faces to his staff.
can’t can repeat the past
The most recent and prolific stop on Kokoskov’s path to becoming a head coach was his time as the lead assistant in Utah, but the staff there gives us few connections from which to draw in imagining Kokoskov’s ideal coaching team.
Jazz coach Quin Snyder constructed a group that has been there Snyder’s entire tenure and are likely tied to him.
However, the coach who helped replace Kokoskov on Utah’s staff gives us a blueprint for what to look for if Kokoskov looks overseas for help. Fotis Katsikaris is a 51-year-old Greek former pro player who was an assistant for Amar’e Stoudmire’s Hapoel Jerusalem before coming to the Jazz. He competed against Kokoskov in EuroBasket competition over the years as the head coach for Russia and Greece.
Another name to consider even closer to home for the Serbian Kokoskov is Sarunas Jasikevicius, the EuroLeague Hall of Famer currently coaching Zalgiris in Lithuania, his home country. Toronto interviewed Jasikevicius last summer for its head coaching job, a move that was seen as somewhat of a favor by the franchise to Jasikevicius as he looks to make the leap into NBA coaching.
Hiring Jasikevicius would probably signal extreme autonomy on the part of Kokoskov, but if Jones, Bower and managing partner Robert Sarver buy in, Jasikevicius’ name is probably at the top of the list of international coaches.
Different than some summers, many NBA teams with a coaching vacancy are cellar-dwellers looking for the next great assistant. The Suns got ahead of the spree last summer but should keep their eye on the intriguing names. Perhaps a promotion to top assistant with the Suns could be the type of leap a hotshot coach needs to take the next step in their career.
One such example is Jamahl Mosley, the Dallas assistant who recently was reported to be on Cleveland’s short list for its vacancy. Mosley was on the Cavaliers’ staff with Kokoskov during the 2013-14 season, which probably played a role in the Cavs’ interest in him but could also give Phoenix a leg up on other suitors to lure Mosley to its staff.
Mosley hails from California and was a four-year player at Colorado before going into coaching in 2006 with the Nuggets.
Another name from Kokoskov’s pre-Jazz days is Noel Gillespie, whom Suns fans will remember as an assistant with the franchise from 2010-13. Gillespie has since moved on to a head coaching position with the G League’s Erie Bayhawks, giving him the background of someone who might be ready to step into a lead assistant’s role back with the Suns.
Should they stay or should they go?
This should not be taken as a jab at the Suns’ current staff. Williamson and player development guru Cody Toppert in particular seemed to have a real impact in year one based on their relationships with individual players (Williamson with Deandre Ayton and Richaun Holmes, Topper with Devin Booker). It’s also extremely difficult to assign blame or credit to one assistant or another.
That leaves Jamele McMillan, Jason Staudt and Prunty from the Suns’ assistant staff as well as Devin Smith from the player development crew. Phoenix could also bring back Bret Burchard, who was surreptitiously moved to Northern Arizona just before the start of the season.
This is not the space to say who should be fired or retained. However, one way to further empower Kokoskov and maximize his comfort and confidence is to give him more control over his coaching staff, and his vast experience in the NBA provides a nice herd of candidates from which to pull for next season’s staff.