Nets Coaching List Revealed: What Does It Tell Us

Thursday night may have been dominated by the NFL Draft.

But Thursday afternoon? The Brooklyn Nets seized the day.

According to Marc Stein of the New York Times, “Tyronn Lue, Jason Kidd, Mark Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy and the incumbent interim coach Jacque Vaughn are among the names on the Nets’ developing list of coaching candidates.” In subsequent tweets, Stein lists Mike Brown as a name to monitor, notes that the Nets’ process has not yet hit “top speed,” and notes that Tom Thibodeau is not a candidate for the Nets head coaching job.

Before diving into my takeaways on what the Nets are thinking here, the way I rank these candidates, is as follows: Lue; Kidd; Jackson; Vaughn. Van Gundy has not coached in thirteen years, making it too difficult to project how he would coach in the modern game.  I prefer Lue strongly over the other candidates, all of whom I have no interest in seeing coach the Nets.

However, what I think is not necessarily what the Nets think, and the list gives us a window into the Nets thinking in three aspects. They are threefold.  First, subject to the rest of the candidate list and hiring result, it appears possible that Marks has ceded some organizational control to KD and Kyrie, and that is a good thing. Second, it appears there is smoke behind Lue’s candidacy.  Third, it appears Kidd is a strong candidate for the job, and that the Nets have begun a PR campaign to push his candidacy, in an effort to sway fans whom feel jaded by how Kidd ended his first coaching stint with the team.

Let’s dive into the how and why, as I see it.

 

Organizational control to KD and Kyrie: The Stein lists tends to show that Marks has ceded some organizational control to KD and Kyrie, and that is just fine for the Nets.

From the moment the Nets hired Sean Marks (and shortly after, Kenny Atkinson), the Nets’ commitment to analytics has been steadfast, in their offensive and defensive systems, how they allocate minutes, their roster moves, and in their hires. In this good article by Bryan Fonseca on Netsdaily, Fonseca provides excellent insights into the Nets’ analytics philosophy and how it helped spearhead the Nets’ rebuild. In this good Ringer article by Kevin O’Connor from earlier in the Nets rebuild, he delves into similar details. As the articles and hires detail, the Nets’ commitment to analytics originates with Marks, not Kenny Atkinson, and has been a staple of the Marks regime.

The commitment to analytics is seen on the court, too. A significant analytics tenet is to take as many layups and threes as possible. The Nets offense and defense under Atkinson? It was designed to maximize the amount of threes and layups the Nets shoot, while forcing opponents to shoot as few layups and threes as possible. Another significant analytics and modern organizational tenet? Minutes and load management.  The Nets? This regime has committed to limiting minutes, even for its best players, in the interests of load management.

Marks’ dedication to analytics simply does not line up with the beliefs of Kevin Durant on the subject, who has expressednumerous times, his disdain for analytics as they pertain to, for example, the value of midrange jumpers. Whether it is condescension about graphs in basketball (read: an way to share analytics), or his belief in going to his “middy” (a term of endearment for a midrange jumper, much unlike how analytics folks see the midrange), Durant is just not a believer. Kyrie Irving? Not exactly an analytics guy, either.

Which brings us to the Nets’ list of coaches.  The list is not congruent with an organization that is committed to analytics; the list is congruent with someone who does not value analytics. The list, as a result, tends to show that Durant and Irving, not Marks, are pulling the strings in this coaching search. We cannot finalize any conclusions until we see the full list and who the Nets hire, but that is where the results trend at the moment.  Just look at the names.  Jason Kidd? His systems in Milwaukee, replete with midrangers and a pressure based defense that surrendered corner threes by design (read: anti analytics). When Mike Budenholzer replaced him, the team, modernized its principles on both ends (read: embraced analytics).  Mark Jackson? The same issue but to an even further extreme.  When replaced by Steve Kerr, Kerr basically stripped away Jackson’s anti analytics, post the mistmatch offense, with a modern offense built around generating threes. Jeff Van Gundy? He is known for using commentating as a soapbox to bemoan the sport’s recent commitment to analytics and load management.

That is a Durant-Irving list of names.  A major former player in Kidd whom they respect for his talent. A figure in Jackson who, for some folks less inclined toward analytics, is perceived as not getting enough credit for the growth of the Warriors. A glamour name in Van Gundy who stars recognize.

As this all reflects, Marks appears to have ceded control to KD and Kyrie.  Which, for the record, is more than fine.  Durant and Irving know what coach will make them tick, inspire them to play their best, and get the Nets over the top.  They know Atkinson is not that coach, and they think the names on this list — all of them — might be.  GM’s may make all the decisions with no player input when they have a roster of role players and non star starters. But GM’s don’t dictate to stars — they partner with them.  And in the Nets handing out Jordan’s contract, starting Jordan, firing Kenny, and creating this list of coaches, we are witnessing that partnership unfold.

Stars having power is not scandalous, but it is reality. NBA stars have more impact on winning than the stars in any other sport. Titles and deep playoff appearances are driven almost entirely by where the NBA’s fifteen or so best players play. This gives stars major leverage and, yes, personnel power, because they use their leverage to obtain the ability to both choose where to play, and choose how that team operates.

This all begs the question: why are teams, and players, so reluctant to admit, either in leaks or their own voices, that stars have personnel power? The answer is in the optics. NBA fans are often fans of other sports, where superstars have less impact and thus you do not see stars with power, or see it much less. It feels, to some, like overstepping, and it is inconsistent with cultural norms about franchise power coming from the organization instead of the player (did you see any reports that NFL teams were drafting who their stars demanded, or hiring the coach their star wanted?).  As a result, an absurdity develops — both teams and stars have a vested interest in presenting a fictional reality that teams have autonomy and stars lack power.  We saw this in Cleveland and LA, where LeBron camp has regularly denied assertions of his power over both franchises. Players do not want to turn off fans who see players with power as entitled, spoiled, or whatever other bad adjective.  And teams know that they must convince fans to believe in them in a way that survives the star leaving the franchise.  It is harder to do that if the star gets credit for bringing in other good players and the head coach.

Really, we should move past this. The premise that KD and Kyrie have power with the Nets is an expression of the reality of the NBA. It is not an accusation directed at them, or at the Nets.  The large DeAndre Jordan contract, the coaching list, Jordan starting over Allen, and arguably the firing of Kenny itself, are all demonstrations of KD and Kyrie’s power with the Nets. And that is ok.

 

The Smoke behind Lue: Per Vince Goodwill of Yahoo!, Irving wants Lue to be the next Nets coach.  While Kyrie’s camp denied it, he knows Vaughn is the coach and, as described above, wants to avoid the appearance of power — as such, his denial is basically worthless. Per Stefan Bondy of the Daily News, Lue would like to coach Kyrie.  Per Joe Vardon (who knows Kyrie better than any reporter) of The Athletic, any prior issues between Irving and Lue are more or less water under the bridge. Per Richard Jefferson (who works for YES, which, as the Nets’ broadcasting partner, does PR and marketing for the franchise like any other broadcasting partner), Lue is a great candidate. None of this goes as far as to say Lue is a frontrunner, but there is certainly smoke there. Often, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

PR push behind Kidd: Five days ago Anthony Puccio of Netsdaily advocated for some sort of embrace for the point guard from his former team , in an article that focused on embracing the franchise’s NJ roots.  To be noted, the article did not mention Kidd with respect to the Nets’ coaching search.  Two days ago, Kidd appeared on an interview on YES as part of the network’s “We Are Here” segments, essentially reminiscing about his good times with the franchise.  Subsequently, Kidd was on the Nets’ list of coaches, and Netsdaily tweeted, “no real surprise he’s on list. He’d be on any smart team’s list of head coaching candidates.”  This all feels a little too coincidental. The Nets know that there are bitter feelings within the fanbase about Kidd’s power play in 2014. Were they to hire him as head coach, they would, naturally, want to convince fans that, despite what happened in 2014, this is a good hire.  The Nets having him on YES to effectively smooth over hurt feelings and remind people of the good times, right when he appears on their list, is quite the coincidence. There is smoke here, as well.

Bonus: A note on Jacque Vaughn: It is true that Marks has been complementary of Vaughn since dismissing Atkinson.  However, I would not read into it for a few reasons. First, as was mentioned by John Hollinger on the Glue Guys podcast and was said in other places, the Nets are looking for a big name – Vaughn, unlike the others, is not a big name. Second, in theory the best case Vaughn could have made for the job was coaching well during the close to the season.  While I will not speculate on the coronavirus, it is fair to say that it is far from certain that the 2019-2020 season will ever resume.  Third, there are optics: when Steve Stoute of the Knicks mentioned that the team would be hiring a new coach after this season, Stefan Bondy tweeted as follows: “Mike Miller and his staff understand the situation but it’s unfair and ridiculous to hear from Steve Stoute on ESPN that they’re not returning. They’ve grinded with this team for two seasons.”  Bondy said that because it is disrespectful for an organization, when a coach (or any employee) is under contract, to openly discuss the job as being vacant. The classy thing to do — the right thing to do — is to publicly sing the praises of the incumbent.  You still conduct a clandestine search because this is a business.  As a result, Marks’ public comments concerning Vaughn are not significant in terms of what Marks actually believes.

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