Reported Staff Turnover A Good First Step Toward Helping Nash Grow As Nets Coach
Turns out Brad Stevens is much better at this general manager thing than he was as the Celtics’ Head Coach for the previous eight seasons.
Despite Sunday’s 107-88 blowout loss at Golden State that evened the NBA Finals at 1-1, Stevens and his club will head back to Boston with home court advantage for the remainder of the best-of-seven series.
Much praise has been sent Stevens’ way for how he reconstituted the pieces around star wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, offloading defensively porous guards Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier (with both eventually landing on the clueless Knicks) while thinking big by adding veteran center Al Horford to form a Twin Towers starting lineup in the face of most NBA experts who were seeing a trend toward small-ball units. This team is loaded with three-point shooters who also get after it on the defensive end—they’re going to be a problem in the Eastern Conference for years.
And while Stevens has been getting huzzahs from the press for plucking Ime Udoka off the Nets’ bench last offseason to take over for him as Boston’s main man on the sidelines, not enough, in my opinion, has been mentioned about the support Stevens has given his first-time head coach. Despite such inexperience, Stevens was amenable to Udoka turning over the Celtic’s entire staff (save for Joe Mazzulla) with assistants of Udoka’s choosing and did not panic when Boston started the season with a 23-24 record on January 21. Instead, Stevens reinforced to the core that they would continue to do things Udoka’s way, with an emphasis on defense. Since that turning point, the Celtics finished the season with the league’s best defensive rating—by a mile (96.2 points allowed per 100 possessions, almost 10 points better than the second-place Thunder, per NBA.com).
Contrast that with how things are run in Brooklyn where, prior to the 2020-21 campaign, GM Sean Marks purposefully installed a first-time head coach he could control in Steve Nash, who, unlike Udoka, had never even worked as an assistant on the sidelines. Marks then saddled Nash with his own staff selections, like making Jacque Vaughn the league’s highest-paid assistant at the time (by the way, if Vaughn is so great, how come he’s almost never mentioned on lists of candidates to be interviewed for open head coach positions?), with the exception of allowing Mike D’Antoni to serve as Nash’s earpiece (D’Antoni left after one season).
D'Antoni wasn’t replaced for this past season with an assistant with whom Nash had familiarity and it showed in terms of the galling lack of variety this team exhibited on both ends. The defense was too reliant on switching every screen despite the terrible mismatches that would ensue on both sides of the switches and the offense was too reliant on the awesome but unsustainable shotmaking of superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. The Celtics executed a plan to take advantage of such limitations and the result was a four-game first-round sweep. Though every contest was within striking distance for Brooklyn heading into crunch time, they were outscored, 25-10, in the 10 minutes where the game was within a five-point margin in the final five minutes, per NBA.com.
After watching their team get badly outcoached in the series, many Nets fans wanted Marks to run Nash out of town halfway through his four-year contract. All they got was Marks rightfully proclaiming in his end-of-season press conference that the consequences from such disappointment will be that everything needs to be reevaluated, from operations to the roster. There are already reports of changes to Brooklyn’s staff for the 2022-23 season. David Vanterpool, who was a poor choice to replace Udoka as the de facto defensive coordinator, and Adam Harrington are expected to be let go while Marc Stein reported that Igor Kokoskov will jump from Dallas to join Brooklyn.
I see this as a positive development in Brooklyn, for it is Nash, not Marks, who has strong ties to Kokoskov. Nash and Kokoskov were together for Nash’s last four seasons as a player in Phoenix with Kokoskov serving as D’Antoni’s assistant.
Make no mistake, though, Marks approved the hire. Kokoskov’s extensive experience, in NBA and international arenas, likely appealed to Marks, offsetting his one rough outing as the Suns’ head coach in 2018-19. Kokoskov also is renowned for his success with player development, an area where Marks said needs to be reinvigorated in Brooklyn.
In Dallas, Kokoskov’s responsibilities were on the offensive side of the court (former Nets assistant Sean Sweeney worked wonders for former Nets Head Coach Jason Kidd with the Mavs’ defense), which would still leave Brooklyn needing an upgrade someone capable of installing defensive schemes that fit the roster.
Ironically, Marks had such a candidate on the payroll last season, but Steve Clifford’s role didn’t allow him access to Nash during games. Clifford, a knowledgeable former head coach in Charlotte and Orlando from the Jeff Van Gundy tree, was listed as a “consultant.” As such, he may have felt uncomfortable with the prospect that he could have been stepping on the toes of the full-time staff.
That was unfortunate, because Clifford’s ability to get the most out of less-talented squads, which qualified for the playoffs in four of his eight seasons at the helm, should have him at the front of the line for any head coaching gig, never mind a better seat at the Nets’ table. Well, since it doesn’t appear that he’ll be tabbed for any of the current head coaching openings, the timing for giving him a promotion for next season just might work for all parties.
Since the Nets appear to be committed to allowing Nash to continue to grow into the job, the least they could do is give him more say as to who he wants beside him for the ride.