Suns’ coaching search long on names, short on experience

We’re less than a week into the Ryan McDonough Experience, and the hullabaloo generated when the Phoenix Suns’ new general manager arrived has surrendered to the cacophony of crickets.

With the coaching search now in the crosshairs of McDonough and his new bosses, there has been little speculation – local, regional or national – regarding names on a favorites list. That doesn’t mean the Suns aren’t working feverishly to find the right guy; they’re just keeping it relatively quiet.

A week ago, the Suns’ alleged short roster of candidates, according to various repots, included the names Kelvin Sampson, Quin Snyder, Mike Budenholzer, Jeff Hornacek and Brian Shaw.

Not one guy with NBA head coaching experience in that lineup. How should we know which of these sharpies – all of whom have been mentioned as candidates for other league vacancies – would be the best fit without a track record? We’ll get back to that.

First, where has this presumably exhaustive search gone in the last few days? Well, unlike in the general-manager derby, no one has emerged as a reported frontrunner.

“We have an initial list,” McDonough said during his introductory press conference, “and have received a good amount of interest from people all over the basketball world who want to be part of this storied franchise and see a great opportunity here.

“My first order of business as the general manager is to get the best guy for that job.”

McDonough ticked off some crucial characteristics that define what the Suns are looking for. If you’re not a leader, fail to command respect of those around you and are less than stellar at teaching, look somewhere else.

“The list that Lon (Babby, president of basketball operations), Robert (Sarver, the Suns’ owner) and I have compiled – all the guys on that list have those characteristics,” McDonough said.

He also said the Suns’ list is a bit more extensive than any we’ve heard or read. And the only name confirmed by Babby and McDonough was that of interim coach Lindsey Hunter.

We can add some popular names of suspects around the league, but they’ve also been associated with other teams looking to fill their own coaching positions. Before doing that, however, let’s check with another league GM on the challenge of identifying which candidates are capable of moving from trusted assistant into the big chair.

We need to do this because it’s also speculated that the Suns want a bright, rising coaching prospect to dovetail nicely with the hiring of their bright, rising general manager.

So … how can you tell that someone who’s never been a head coach at the NBA (or any) level is capable of excelling in that job at the NBA level?

“It’s tricky,” one GM said anonymously, “because we can never be 100 percent certain in this type of evaluation. It can be a leap-of-faith type of thing. I hate to say that, but talking with previous coaches that a candidate may have worked for or players who have played for them can only take you so far.

“Without being in the room for coaches’ meetings or in their practices or on the bench during an in-game crisis, it’s tough. It may be even harder to do than judging which players can translate from college or overseas to the NBA. There’s no exact science, nothing to tell you, ‘Do it this way.'”

Right, if that existed, there probably wouldn’t be so many coaching vacancies every year.

OK, so who are the hot names around the league?

Well, established (and out of work) NBA head coaches include Phil “I’m Not Interested in Coaching” Jackson, the Van Gundy brothers, Jerry Sloan, Nate McMillan and Byron Scott. But none of these names has been associated with Phoenix in published, broadcast or posted reports.

The list of suspects/prospects with head coaching experience in college includes the once-exiled Sampson (Washington State, Oklahoma and Indiana), currently a Houston Rockets assistant who ran into trouble for phone-call-related recruiting violations at his last two schools, and CSKA Moscow assistant Snyder (Missouri).

Hornacek (Utah Jazz) and Shaw (Indiana Pacers) are NBA assistants linked to the Suns – perhaps more by assumption than fact, perhaps not – who also have played in the NBA.

Shaw, who worked as an assistant to Jackson with the Los Angeles Lakers, currently sits next to Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel. Like Sampson and Snyder, Shaw has been attached to multiple coaching vacancies; these openings include the Pistons’ job in Detroit, where Jackson has been called upon by the franchise owner to provide insight on this hire.

With rookie center Andre Drummond on the roster with Greg Monroe and second-year point guard Brandon Knight, the Pistons’ job seems more interesting/enticing – from a talent standpoint – than the Suns’ gig.

Although Phoenix is a wonderful place to live during hoops season and the franchise has a history of success, the Suns still have less young talent than any team in the league. Ah, but they do have first-round picks aplenty in the next three drafts and cap flexibility.

Although most players still profess a higher comfort level playing for coaches who also played in the NBA, the prevailing trend is young sharpies whose tactical shifts are more profound than were their crossover dribbles.

That list features San Antonio Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer, who was recruited by Gregg Popovich when the feature Hall of Fame coach was working at Division III Pomona-Pitzer. Budenholzer, an Arizona native who’s from Holbrook, went from the Spurs’ video room in 1994 to assistant coach in ‘96 and became Pop’s lead assistant in 2007. He was also a candidate to coach the Suns in a previous search but was passed over in favor of Terry Porter.

The lineup of hot coaching candidates who didn’t play in the NBA also includes Mike Malone (Golden State), Dave Joerger (Memphis), Steve Clifford (L.A. Lakers), Nate Tibbetts (Cleveland), David Fizdale (Miami) and J.B. Bickerstaff (Houston).

None of these names has been attached to the Suns’ opening in reports, though — not yet. Fizdale, a Southern California guy, is saying he’ll remain with the Heat until something really swell comes up.

We’re not sure how many of these candidates believe Phoenix belongs in that category.