There are three NBA teams with new coaches for the start of the 2012-13 season, and no one is expecting any of them to work miracles.
In fact, ownership and management appear to be expecting just the opposite. The Charlotte Bobcats and Orlando Magic both are undergoing massive rebuilding projects and don’t seem overly concerned with winning.
Both teams have hired inexperienced coaches with strong backgrounds in player development, which means they also have strong backgrounds in patience. It remains to be seen whether their bosses have similarly strong backgrounds in that latter category.
This isn’t high school or even college basketball, where coaching can make a dramatic difference in a team’s fortunes. The NBA has always been a players’ league, where the talent on the court almost always determines the outcome.
On Tuesday, we will take a look at a different trio of coaches who were hired during last season and will be running their first training camps with their respective teams. Below, we have an in-depth look at the three men who have more thorough introductions to make when camps open next week.
MIKE DUNLAP, CHARLOTTE: There were more than a few folks whose response was “Who?” when owner Michael Jordan and GM Rich Cho decided to hire Dunlap ahead of more established names such as Jerry Sloan and Nate McMillan or a long-time assistant such as Brian Shaw. But none of those bigger names appeared totally committed to the huge climb back to respectability that Charlotte is facing. The Bobcats were a laughingstock last season (let’s not forget they are beginning this season with a 23-game losing streak and have a roster with plenty of promise but no idea how to win.
Maybe that makes Dunlap a good choice for this group, which has eight players 26 or younger. Virtually all of his background is in the college game, save for a two-year stint as a player development assistant with Denver from 2006-08. And his only Division I experience as a head coach came last year, when he replaced cancer-stricken Steve Lavin at St. John’s midway through the season.
Dunlap has an older hand on his staff in Brian Winters, who has been an NBA head coach with Vancouver and Golden State and a WNBA head coach with Indiana. He has been scouting the last four years. The rest of the staff is younger assistants Rick Brunson and Stephen Silas and Dan Leibovitz, a long-time college coach who is at the NBA level for the first time.
IMMEDIATE GOAL: Nov. 2 vs. Indiana, Nov. 3 at Dallas, Nov. 7 vs. Phoenix, Nov. 9 at New Orleans. Those are the first four games for the Bobcats, who have to win one of the above games to avoid breaking the record for the longest losing streak in NBA history. (Cleveland lost 26 straight in the 2010-11 season.) Dunlap will repeatedly say last season is last season, when Charlotte finished 7-59, the worst winning percentage ever. But the losing streak will be a constant reminder of last season — until it ends.
LONG-TERM GOAL: Dunlap needs to prove he is an NBA head coach – for his sake and for Jordan’s, who has the awful Leonard Hamilton hiring on his record and will be similarly raked over the coals if this one turns out badly. After that, it’s development, development, development. Over the next two years, Gerald Henderson, Bismack Biyombo, Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Jeffery Taylor have to play until they foul out or drop from exhaustion. The Bobcats have three first-round picks in the next two years and get huge cap relief in the summer of 2014. If Dunlap can have Charlotte up to 30 wins by then, the plan will be working.
TERRY STOTTS, PORTLAND: Smart hire or retread? Stotts has a fantastic resume as an assistant, riding shotgun on George Karl’s strong squads in Seattle and Milwaukee and Rick Carlisle’s championship in Dallas. But when given the reins in Atlanta and Milwaukee, he hasn’t fared well (115-168). It seems like he’s been around forever, but at 54 he is actually younger than Dunlap.
Late in the interview process, Stotts was brought in by new GM Neil Olshey. Stotts was chosen over interim Kaleb Canales, who appeared to be the favorite at that point. He certainly was the favorite of owner Paul Allen and alpha dog LaMarcus Aldridge, and keeping Canales as part of Stotts’ staff (along with Jay Triano, Kim Hughes and David Vanterpool) may have been done to appease Allen and Aldridge while maintaining some continuity.
IMMEDIATE GOAL: Here’s why Stotts is a better choice than Canales. The Blazers don’t have a single player over 30 and five rookies on their roster, which has very limited postseason experience. This team needs to learn how to win and took a step back last season, missing the playoffs after three straight appearances. Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard are rookies who likely will be starting at the two most important positions. Stotts has been around the block and should provide some emotional stability to a potentially excitable group.
LONG-TERM GOAL: This one’s tricky, because Stotts has to find the balance between player development and staying competitive enough to keep himself employed and to keep Aldridge in Portland. Aldridge is his seventh season, and he still has three years left on his deal. But he has labored in a level of obscurity and has yet to get out of the first round while the team is being retooled around him. Stotts has to have Portland back in the postseason no later than 2014.
JACQUE VAUGHN, ORLANDO: Vaughn spent 12 years as a backup point guard, a position that often provides a direct path into coaching. He played for NBA Finals teams in Utah and San Antonio. Some of the guys he played behind include John Stockton, Jason Kidd and Tony Parker. Some of the coaches he played for include Jerry Sloan, Doc Rivers and Gregg Popovich. He spent three seasons as a player and two as an assistant in San Antonio, where his approach left an impression on Rob Hennigan, then a member of the Spurs’ front office and now the Magic’s GM.
As a player, Vaughn was a consummate professional. As an assistant, he was said to be very detail-oriented and committed to player development, a quality the Magic will need greatly over the next couple of years.
Vaughn outlasted fellow finalists Michael Curry and Lindsey Hunter in an exhaustive multi-interview process that was not completed until free agency was well under way. He actually was hired while Dwight Howard was still on the roster, but his hiring was clearly a move toward a future without the superstar. This is Vaughn’s his first head coaching job, and he is making somewhat of a leap as he was several rungs down on Popovich’s staff, behind Mike Budenholzer and Don Newman.
IMMEDIATE GOAL: Vaughn shouldn’t have any problems getting the roster’s attention; eight players have been around long enough to have actually played against him – and therein lies the problem. The Magic clearly have started rebuilding. However, they do not have the ideal roster for a rebuild as there are a handful of veterans who are expecting to play. Vaughn has to figure out what his rotation is, likely with some input from Hennigan.
For example, how much does Al Harrington play ahead of rookie Moe Harkless? Right now, the question is moot as both forwards are expected to miss training camp due to injuries – Harrington with a knee and Harkless with a sports hernia. Other youngsters who could have their playing time and learning curves compromised are rookie Andrew Nicholson (by Glen Davis), youngster E’Twaun Moore (by Arron Afflalo and J.J. Redick) and point guard Ish Smith (by Jameer Nelson).
Vaughn’s ability to effectively game-plan, work matchups and draw up late-game plays also will be under scrutiny as he has never done this before. There will be times where he will have to rely on his youngish staff of Wes Unseld Jr., James Borrego and Brett Gunning. The Magic might have been better served with one older, experienced assistant.
LONG-TERM GOAL: Expectations aren’t very high for the Magic this season – or next season, because the extra first-round picks acquired for Howard don’t start showing up until 2014. Vaughn needs to capitalize on those low expectations and use every available moment to develop a new team identity in the post-Dwight Howard Era, one that demands a no-nonsense approach, attention to detail and patience.
TOMORROW: Coaches conducting their first training camps with their teams.
Chris Bernucca is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Wednesday and Sunday during the season. You can follow him on Twitter.