A new coach, a new arena, and intrigue therein

A phrase common to professional sports, and increasingly to college sports, is that a coach is hired to be fired.

What else would explain this, from Bleacher Report?

The Toronto Raptors finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference this season. Dwane Casey was named the National Basketball Coaches Association’s Coach of the Year.

That wasn’t enough to save his job.

The Raptors fired Casey after seven seasons Friday, just four days after the Raptors were swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round, according to ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Toronto went 320-238 under Casey and made five postseason appearances, but the team’s playoff struggles led to his dismissal.

“After careful consideration, I have decided this is a very difficult but necessary step the franchise must take,” Raptors president Masai Ujiri said in a statement, according to USA Today‘s Jeff Zillgitt. “As a team, we are constantly trying to grow and improve in order to get to the next level.”

After earning a conference finals berth in 2016 and coming within two games of reaching the first Finals in franchise history, the Raptors fell apart each of the last two seasons—thanks in large part to one LeBron Raymone James.

The Cavaliers swept the Raptors out of the second round in 2017 and 2018, the latter being the death knell to Casey’s tenure. Cleveland entered the series having just barely scraped by the Indiana Pacers in seven games, only to beat Toronto twice on their home floor before closing things out in Cleveland. The Cavs had no real set rotation and were still juggling around lineups due to their revamped roster, but it mattered not in the sweep. …

Moving on from the coach is the easiest deck-shuffling move they can make without tearing the team to its core. Casey will rightfully be billed as the unfair fall guy, but every NBA coach knows that comes as part of the job.

There are numerous examples in pro sports of somewhat successful teams making a coaching change for the purpose of getting to the “next level.” It almost never works.

In 1980, after three consecutive wild card playoff berths and two trips to the AFC championship game (because they kept running into the Pittsburgh Steelers), the Houston Oilers fired coach Bum Phillips. That stopped the run of playoff berths.

The Milwaukee Brewers have done that for decades. It’s unclear whether manager Harvey Kuenn was fired or resigned, but he was out the door one season after managing the Brewers to the 1982 World Series. Kuenn’s replacement, Rene Lachemann, was out the door after one disastrous season.

Kuenn is not really an example of this approach working. He was named manager in June 1982 after the Brewers fired manager Buck Rodgers, who was accused of overmanaging. The difference is that Kuenn was already a Brewers coach, so it’s not as if he represented a huge change, except in temperament. Kuenn told his players to have fun, and they had fun all the way to the 1982 World Series and were a contender throughout the 1983 season. Nor is Dale Sveum, who replaced Ned Yost as Brewers manager in mid-September 2008, and got the Brewers into the playoffs for the first time since 1982.

At any rate, Casey now becomes an obvious candidate for the Bucks’ vacant coaching job, along with several assistant coaches with connections to the San Antonio Spurs, who unlike most NBA teams actually play team basketball.

Maybe the most intriguing candidate from that group is Becky Hammon, a Spurs assistant since 2014 after her career in the Women’s National Basketball Association. Hammon was the coach of the Spurs’ summer-league team, which won the summer league title in 2015. Hammon interestingly was interviewed for the Bucks’ general manager position one year ago, but wasn’t hired.

Hammon gets a vote of confidence from one of her Spurs players, Pau Gasol:

That part is obvious: One, she was an accomplished player — with an elite point guard’s mind for the game. And two, she has been a successful assistant for arguably the greatest coach in the game. What more do you need? But like I said — I’m not here to make that argument. Arguing on Coach Hammon’s behalf would feel patronizing. To me, it would be strange if NBA teams were not interested in her as a head coach.

The argument that I see most often is thankfully the one that’s easiest to disprove: It’s this idea that, at the absolute highest level of basketball, a woman isn’t capable of coaching men. “Yeah, female coaches are fine coaching women’s college basketball, or the WNBA,” the argument goes. “But the NBA? The NBA is different.”

First, I’ve just gotta tell you: If you’re making that argument to anyone who’s actually played any high-level basketball, you’re going to seem really ignorant. But I also have a simple response to it — which is that I’ve been in the NBA for 17 years. I’ve won two championships … I’ve played with some of the best players of this generation … and I’ve played under two of the sharpest minds in the history of sports, in Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich. And I’m telling you: Becky Hammon can coach. I’m not saying she can coach pretty well. I’m not saying she can coach enough to get by. I’m not saying she can coach almost at the level of the NBA’s male coaches. I’m saying: Becky Hammon can coach NBA basketball. Period.

I’ll tell you a quick story to illustrate my point. This year, in a practice a few months back, I was drilling the pick-and-roll with Dejounte Murray. It was a standard drill, just the two of us alone at one basket: I would set the screen and either pop out for the jumper or roll to the lane. If I popped, Dejounte would hit me with a chest pass. If I rolled, a bounce pass. Like I said, a very standard drill — we’ll do this a million times.

But what I remember about this particular drill is that, at some point during it, Coach Hammon stopped us mid-motion. Coaches Hammon, Borrego and Messina walk over, and Becky says to Dejounte, “D.J., O.K. — your bounce pass? It’s too low. You’ve got to hit Pau exactly where he needs it. Run that again.” We then talk some more as a group about how I need the ball a little more precise, with a little more zip, so I could have a better chance to finish the action at the rim. And then we repeat the drill a few times, alternating from the left and right sides of court. Of course, Dejounte being Dejounte, he figures it out fast — and pretty soon we’re flying through. But something about that moment has just always stuck with me. Just, like … the level of knowledge of the game that Becky showed, you know what I mean?

She noticed a small detail out of the corner of her eye — and then instantly located both the problem and the solution. And not only that, but we were also able to communicate with each other in such a way that we got the result that we needed. It’s a good reminder, I’d say, of the importance of communication between team members — especially at the NBA level. I don’t think I caught another stray pass the rest of the season.

Another argument that I’ve seen tossed around — maybe even sillier than the previous one — is that Becky rose to her current position because having her on staff was “good p.r.” for the Spurs.

What?

Seriously: What?

No. We’re talking about the NBA here — a business where there’s a lot of money on the line, and little patience for mediocrity. Also we’re talking about the San Antonio Spurs, one of the most successful NBA franchises of this century: a system that has produced David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginóbili, Tony Parker — and that’s just the Hall of Famers. This is a team that won 50+ games for 18-straight seasons, and five championships in the last 20 years.

Would you really expect Coach Pop to develop his staff any differently than he develops his players? Of course not.

Pop’s only standard for doing anything is whether it’ll help us in just one way … and it isn’t getting good p.r.

It’s getting W’s. And getting those W’s The Spurs Way.

Teams in need of new management do best to emulate consistently successful organizations. The Packers did that by getting Ron Wolf from the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders and Mike Holmgren from the San Francisco 49ers. UW did that by getting Barry Alvarez, who coached for Hayden Fry at Iowa and Lou Holtz at Notre Dame, to coach football.

There is an additional reason the Bucks may hire Hammon. The Bucks’ owners have a new arena that opens next season. The owners, big Democratic Party donors, are reported to be bidding for the 2020 Democratic National Convention. Having the NBA’s first female head coach might be the tipping point in their favor with the party that invented identity politics.

Which is not to say that Hammon shouldn’t get the job. She appears to know the sport, and she is part of a highly successful organization. The issue that arguably applies to every candidate is their people skills, since the skill levels of the rotations of NBA teams are probably relatively equal talent-wise, at least for teams that don’t employ LeBron James or Steph Curry.

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