In need of NBA coach? Try unconventional candidates

Last June, the Bobcats broke out of the conventional NBA mold for hiring a new coach. Instead of interviewing the typical coaching free agent, a recently fired but industry-respected, recycled 60-something, Charlotte went into the realm of college and pulled out a relative unknown.

Its selection was Mike Dunlap, an assistant at St. John’s who was touted at the time for his skills in player development and for being respected both at the college and the NBA levels. Dunlap’s NBA experience was limited to two seasons as a Nuggets assistant five years before, with the bulk of his career spent as a college assistant or head coach at tiny schools like Metro State. His name was chosen from among the usual suspects – Jerry Sloan, who pulled out of the race, Brian Shaw and Quin Snyder – and yet Dunlap, the unusual choice, was chosen.

The Bobcats had just finished the 2011-12 season with a .106 winning percentage, the worst in NBA history, and so it seemed smart for them to go in a different direction. It seemed brave. It seemed like it could only get better.

And it did, relatively speaking. Dunlap’s team, with a dearth of talent and a maligned owner in Michael Jordan, finished this season with a 21-61 record. That’s a .256 winning percentage, more than double the previous season’s. It was still miserable, but it was an improved kind of miserable, if such a thing exists.

Dunlap was out the door not one week after Charlotte’s season came to an end.

Forget for a second what this says about the Bobcats. (That they’re impatient, imprudent, rash … you get the picture.) Think instead about what this might say about the NBA, that the riskiest and least-traditional hire in recent memory lasted exactly 10 months, won exactly 21 games, and barely got a chance to even think about doing anything meaningful.

It hardly makes a guy who might want to follow in Dunlap’s footsteps excited, hardly makes other teams clamor to go a new route in whom they’re looking for. It pretty much makes one think that hiring coaches in the NBA might continue to plod along the same predictable path.

You know, that path that led the Lakers to hire Mike D’Antoni because he’s Mike D’Antoni and had coached Phoenix and New York to some success. It’s the path that makes Phil Jackson’s name the first suggestion for every team with an opening, even if the entire world is thinking “Phil Jackson in Toronto, that seems utterly nonsensical,” the path that forces the Clippers to dial his number and put forth their offer now that Vinny Del Negro is gone, even as they’re just waiting for the Zen Master to say no.

That’s the state of the NBA, a league in which 13 of the 24 active coaches (there are six vacancies as of May 22) have prior head coaching experience in the league, an average of 3.2 stints between them. It’s a league in which the other 11 coaches, the first-timers, come from appallingly similar backgrounds as NBA assistants who did their time with multiple teams before getting their promotions. (One note: The term first-timers, in one case, seems wildly inappropriate. Gregg Popovich is among those 11, because even after 17 seasons and four championships, he’s still in his first gig.)

Only one head coach, in fact, is with his first team as such and doesn’t have any prior experience as an assistant: the Warriors’ Mark Jackson. Jackson, of course, was one of the hottest names of the postseason, as his team exceeded expectations and he became known for his at once corny and inspiring mic’ed up speeches during timeouts. Granted, I’m not in the “Mark Jackson is a coaching god and can do no wrong” camp – the guy is flawed, and his in-game management isn’t perfect – but he was a somewhat unconventional hire that fit the Warriors and at least in part led to their turnaround this season.

What’s more frustrating than the formulaic path it often takes to get that first gig – many first-timers, like Tom Thibodeau and Frank Vogel, are doing wonderful jobs – is to look at the list of recycled coaches, the guys who are on their third or fourth jobs. Plenty, of course, deserve to bounce around the league and have been coaching for so long that the vast majority of their tenures have been lengthy and successful. (See: George Karl, Rick Adelman, Rick Carlisle.) But there are some names on that list that are utterly mystifying. What did Keith Smart do in two short stints in Cleveland and Golden State to warrant the Kings job? Same goes for Randy Wittman and Dwane Casey, for Avery Johnson until he was canned in December, even for Mike Brown, according to some. It’s as if no matter how epically a coach fails or how maligned he is in his previous job, he gets another chance, and maybe two, by virtue of the fact that someone gave him a chance before, and maybe this time he’ll do better.

Last Friday, Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Hawks, whose coach, Larry Drew, is still under contract but who are conducting something of a coaching search anyways, interviewed CKSA Moscow’s Italian-born coach, Ettore Messina. Hiring Messina would make history; he’d be the first European-born head coach in the NBA. If he were hired, it would be big news, a sign that perhaps the old boys’ club of NBA coaching is moving in the same direction as the game.

The story made a splash, which is hardly a surprise, but a glance at Messina’s resume shows two things: One, he’s qualified, and two, he’s not that different. Messina spent a season on Mike Brown’s staff in Los Angeles, and the teams he’s coached have been among the best in Europe and thus have close ties to the NBA.

That said, though, a coach like Messina could be the right amount of different. There’s some NBA experience, though not much, but an obvious level of familiarity. There’s respect among NBA coaches and front office members. It’s unconventional, but not too unconventional, and in that, such a coach would hardly be a crazy hire.

That’s not to say every hire should be such. The Timberwolves bringing in Adelman two years ago was a great decision. Same goes for the Nuggets and Karl, the Mavericks and Carlisle, the Celtics and Doc Rivers. Sometimes it’s simply time for a change of scenery, and the way the NBA works, that’s possible for coaches.

But sometimes it just gets tired. Sometimes, it’s as if the second a coaching vacancy opens, it’s the same list of candidates, over and over: Jackson, Sloan, Nate McMillan, Scott Skiles. Throw in a handful of successful assistants like Shaw or Steve Clifford, and there’s the Clippers’ potential calling list – and the Pistons’, and the 76ers’, and the Bobcats’. Sloan and Jackson will say no, and then it’s down to the out-of-work and the assistants.

It’s formulaic, and sometimes it works. Other times, not so much, and so why not get creative? Why not make a strange phone call or two, do a bit more research, think a bit further outside of the box. Sure, hiring an unconventional candidate might take more effort and screening, and it certainly involves more risk, but for every one of us who wants to throw our computers against the wall every time we see another Phil Jackson rumor, try it.

It doesn’t have to end like it did for Mike Dunlap.