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Three different reporters, three different stories: Suns may or may not have coaching finalists

Could the best candidate be right under the Suns’ noses?

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Brooklyn Nets v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

The Phoenix Suns head coaching search appears to be entering its final stages, according to two reports. But then again, a third national reporter has intel that the Suns are still widening the search.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported four names. The Athletic’s Shams Charania definitively added a fifth. Then Chris Haynes later said the Suns are not done looking yet, and added two more candidates. None of them are corroborating the other, then or later.

If you want to call it breaking news, the Suns appear to be setting interviews later this week between President of Basketball Ops James Jones, owner Mat Ishbia and the eclectic list of candidates.

When we asked last week who you Suns fans want as the next Phoenix Suns coach, you overwhelmingly wanted a coach with recent championship experience, with ‘up and coming assistant’ in a distant second.

Well, the most recent list of candidates has a little of both:

  • former Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, who won the title with the Raptors in 2019
  • former Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers, who won a title with the Celtics in 2008
  • Phoenix Suns associate head coach Kevin Young
  • Sacramento Kings associate head coach Jordi Fernandez

Charania added former Los Angeles Lakers head coach Frank Vogel (who won a title with the Lakers in 2020) to the list.

Both Shams and Woj say their list is final.

Yet Chris Haynes landed a haymaker later on, saying the Suns coaching is not in fact final at all, and that they would also be trying to interview:

  • Milwaukee associate head coach Charles Lee
  • Golden State assistant Kenny Atkinson

Lee fits the ‘up and coming mold’, while Atkinson doesn’t appear to fit either.

What’s most weird about the Atkinson inclusion is that he was a hot young coach of the upstart Nets, but was fired within a year after they signed Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving because he wasn’t the right fit with their personalities.

“When it comes to players with power, your front office has to be really strong and your culture has to be strong to weather disgruntled players,” another coach David Fizdale said at the time, of the situation. “And you have to have a certain amount of support for your coach when things get turbulent.”

Atkinson last coached the Nets during the 2019-20 season to a 28-34 record despite missing Kyrie for half the season and Durant for the whole thing. He has since been a lead assistant in Golden State next to Steve Kerr, and last year turned down a head coaching opportunity (Charlotte Hornets) to stay with the Warriors after their championship run.

If you’re counting, that’s three former title-winning head coaches, one highly respected former head coach and three lead assistants.

Putting myself in the shoes of Ishbia and Jones, one prerequisite any candidate has to meet before being offered the job is the seal of approval from Devin Booker and Kevin Durant. As the centerpieces of the team and its future, they deserve a say in their leader, especially since they may end up being the only carry-overs from the previous era.

That’s especially true with Nurse, who’s my top candidate without the benefit of the interviews that Ishbia and Jones are privy to. Reports out of Toronto indicated an unwillingness on both Nurse and Pascal Siakam to speak to each other at all, similar to how things seemed at times in the Valley between Monty Williams and Deandre Ayton.

All that said, Nurse is one of the best schematic minds in the game, and would be a great hire if the player personnel aspect can be worked around, or if it’s just not a problem with Booker and Durant, two of the purest hoopers the game has seen, who likely just want a great basketball situation more than anything else.

Despite their lack of head coaching experience, I’d put both Young and Fernandez ahead of Vogel and Rivers due to the energy and vigor they can bring.

Young is obviously already embedded in Phoenix, serving on staff since just a couple months after the bubble in 2020. His tenure includes his fair share of praise from Suns players as well as confrontations with the opposition (he even confronted now-Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman during a D-League game), plus a 2-2 record over a four-game stretch as acting head coach with Williams in health and safety protocols.

Fernandez comes from a Sacramento organization that set a new standard for offensive efficiency this season, playing behind Domantas Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox. Prior to joining the Mike Brown’s staff with the Kings, Fernandez spent six years coaching Nikola Jokic on Michael Malone’s staff, so a vote for Fernandez could signal one last effort to help Deandre Ayton reach his potential.

When it comes to Vogel and even moreso Rivers, it just feels like a re-tread of something that didn’t work for another team (and another team and another team, in both cases). “Arrested Development” watchers may be thinking of the classic exchange:

The disappointing albeit expected aspect of all this to me is the exclusion of Ty Lue among these finalists. Can’t stress enough that he’s under contract with possibly the richest of 30 owners, so it makes sense that Phoenix wouldn’t be able to finagle their way into landing the master tactician, but it still is a little lame considering the circumstances.

Charles Lee falls into a category similar to Young, supporting Mike Budenholzer since way back in the Atlanta days in 2014. Atkinson, meanwhile, has some head coaching experience and has worked with Durant as he rehabbed a knee injury in Brooklyn during Atkinson’s final season at the helm there.

All in all, it’s a wide range of candidates.

Suns have a good opportunity to take the next step forward towards a championship, but they also have a chance — if they’re not careful — to take one huge step back. It’s yet another big test early in the Ishbia era. Will he pass?

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