Diving Into Sacramento’s Head Coaching Candidates

As many expected, with the close of the season, Interim Head Coach Alvin Gentry was relieved of his duties and he is now being considered for a job in Sacramento’s front office.

Thus it began. The search for a head coach, that is—the first one Monte McNair would get to decide on for himself since becoming General Manager.

In his press conference on Tuesday, McNair described his upcoming coaching search as an open one. 

“We’re going to run a comprehensive and very process-driven coaching search and we are going to let that run its course,” he said. “We’re going to take as long as we need to find the correct person to lead this organization, the team on the floor, and I’m excited to see what — the people that we talk to — what their vision is for the team as well.”

“We want the coaching candidates that we do bring in to bring their own style, to tell us how they want to do this,” McNair added later on. “We’ll talk with them, and ultimately, we’re gonna bring in somebody who’s gonna win however they, and we, want to do that, together.”

Prior to the motion to move on from their interim coach, Marc Stein was already reporting a list of names that the Kings were eyeing, opening an interesting discussion for the future.

Since McNair is looking for a coach that he can trust to both lead this team next season and contribute to it’s developing culture, it’s important to look at each of these candidates and weigh just what they offer for the Kings as they try to make a steep leap after years of being tangled in the snare of losing.

Kenny Atkinson

Kenny Atkinson has been an assistant coach for the past two years—with the Clippers for one season before joining Steve Kerr’s staff in Golden State.

Prior to that, he was the head coach of the Brooklyn Nets from 2016-2020, and in four years amassed a .383 win percentage and a 1-4 record in the playoffs, but that doesn’t even come close to telling the whole story.

Well before joining him on the sidelines, Kerr credited Atkinson with changing the culture in Brooklyn from an early point, noting the energy the young Nets were playing with, saying he could “feel it” immediately.

The observation rang true despite the fact that the Nets were a down-on-their-luck team that had little talent and virtually no draft capital when Atkinson took over in 2016. Still, Atkinson managed to set the tone for the franchise, and in his third year, got Brooklyn into the playoffs.

The following season, the Nets loaded up with superstar talent. Kevin Durant and others cited Atkinson and the impressive atmosphere in Brooklyn as a main reason for joining the Nets.

He is known for his diverse player rotations, even using the term “equal opportunity” offense as a description of his style of coaching. Atkinson is also regarded for having his team play hard and with a fast-paced offense. Throughout his final two years in Brooklyn, the Nets played good defense. All of this points to a coach capable of locating the strengths in his team.

At the same time, it can also cause problems when your team is suddenly loaded with immense talent.

Atkinson wasn’t too popular with DeAndre Jordan after he joined the Nets because Atkinson liked his guy Jarrett Allen, which reportedly lead to souring relations with Jordan, who was brought in off the bench. With ten games left in the season, Atkinson and the Nets “mutually parted ways.” 

It’s unclear whether or not Irving and Durant played a role in the decision to move away from Atkinson, and if so, to what degree, but Atkinson’s departure was surprising to many given what he’d accomplished.

Whatever issues arose in Brooklyn around the time it’s locker room experienced a rainstorm of all-stars over night, they don’t seem likely to replicate in a place like Sacramento. In fact, the Kings foundation going into next season could really present a great collaborative opportunity for Atkinson to deliver success.

Terry Stotts

After taking this past year off, Terry Stotts will be a “coveted name” according to Marc Stein. 

Stotts was well known for coaching the Portland Trail Blazers for nine years from 2012-2021, totaling three 50-win seasons and leading his team to the playoffs in all but his first campaign there. He has a .515 career win percentage in 13 total seasons of head coaching (from 2002-2004 he also coached Atlanta, and from 2005-2007 he lead Milwaukee).

However, as many know, he has an extensively poor winning percentage of .343 in the playoffs throughout his whole coaching career. The Blazers did make the Western Conference Finals in 2019, where they were swept by Golden State, but in all, they rarely went beyond the first round under Stotts. As a whole at the helm in Portland, his postseason record was just 22-40 (.355).

If the Kings feel they are on the precipice of being a contender, the playoff record matters substantially.

Also, keep in mind what Stotts’ strengths are. While in Portland, every playoff-bound Blazers team had an above-average offense, but only twice out of those eight seasons were they in the top half of the league defensively. The Kings have to consider that because they already have an offense that “can score with the best of them,” and yet their defense could still use improvement.

Then there’s also the question of how much of Stotts’ success could be attributed to Damian Lillard, who was a rookie when Stotts came on board. While much of that is left up for speculation, it’s important to keep in mind that what often holds teams back in the postseason is a coach’s failure to make proper adjustments, meaning a great set of players can carry a coach to the postseason, but after that, it is hard—though not impossible—to go all the way without a championship-level coach.

In short, Terry Stotts is respected, well-liked, and worthy of applause for his run in Portland, but he’s an offensive coach with little postseason success, and who has his success linked to a superstar in Lillard.

Steve Clifford

Steve Clifford coached in Charlotte from 2013-2018 and in Orlando from 2018-2021. In eight seasons of coaching, he has a .458 career winning percentage, and a 5-16 record (.283) in four playoff trips (two in each stint).

As a head coach, he is known for wanting his teams to contain the paint defensively, prevent easy looks, and limit their own mistakes. His first four Charlotte teams were all in the top half of the league defensively, and his two playoff Magic teams were as well.

After Orlando traded away Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, and Evan Fournier at the deadline in his third season, Clifford was let go as the franchise sought to rebuild. In the two seasons before, Clifford had successfully gotten his team to the playoffs for the first time since Stan Van Gundy was coaching.

For the flack Stotts gets for his playoff record, get a load of Clifford. In four career playoff trips, his teams never advanced beyond the first round. Worse, Clifford is known as an over-planner, and while being thorough can be good, it does not provide a lot of interest in or ability to make those necessary adjustments in the playoffs. It’s that specific reason that is often cited for his lousy playoff history.

It can’t be taken away from him just how good of a foundation-builder and discipline-instiller he is. Even so, he doesn’t display what it takes to push a team over the hump. 

Clifford would be a decent consideration if the Kings were looking for a new head coach a year ago, but with the positive signs in Sacramento from the close of this past year, Clifford would be a better option for a rawer project.

Mark Jackson

This one is interesting.

Mark Jackson had a .526 winning percentage in three seasons with Golden State before returning to the broadcasting world, where he’s been for the last eight years after Steve Kerr was brought in as a replacement. 

Jackson was a major factor in the foundation that spawned one of the most successful sports dynasties of this generation. He instilled their defensive groundwork and took a Warriors team that nobody believed in to the postseason in just his second year there.

With a 9-10 overall record in the playoffs, Jackson’s teams were overachievers in the eyes of the league. His squad beat George Karl’s Nuggets despite David Lee getting hurt in game one and then fought hard against a Spurs team that won the Conference Finals that year. The following season, Golden State lost to a powerhouse Clippers team in a brawl of a seven game series that was a mere prelude to what was to come for the core of talent.

He’s notably a player’s coach. Jackson is most renowned for his calm on-court presence and the confidence he has in his guys. Curry, Thompson, Draymond Green, Lee, and others have expressed admiration for their former coach. 

It isn’t just from former players of his as, this week, it came out that LeBron James is reportedly “enthused” about the idea of Jackson coaching the Lakers.

To be clear, he isn’t perfect with players. His relationship with Andrew Bogut wasn’t lauded as chummy. Plus, Jackson has feuded with members of his coaching staff, too, when then-assistant coach Brian Scalabrine ran into issues with the head coach.

Of course, there’s also the disharmony with the higher-up’s, which raises questions, because we all know about the Kings’ owner. Even if Ranadive is indeed restrained from involvement in the decision-making process, the “big personality” may be enough to evoke some disapproval.

For one, Andre Iguodala famously opined that Jackson has been “blackballed” by the league for his off-court disagreements with Warriors President Rick Welts that made the relationship tense. 

In addition to that, Warriors co-owner Joe Lacob wasn’t big on him, claiming Jackson couldn’t assemble a championship coaching staff, and adding that his former coach couldn’t get along with anyone in the organization. 

Then again, Vivek Ranadive wasn’t exactly well liked among some members of the ownership in Golden State, and the feeling was apparently mutual. That was noted by Bay Area sportswriter Tim Kawakami in 2017 when the Warriors had to significantly increase their offer to Iguodala in order to retain him after the cap-rich Kings’ offer was used as leverage (the implication being that Ranadive was all-in on messing with Lacob’s team).

So if the worry is that a restrained Ranadive would still be prone to come out against Jackson due to history of having a “strong” personality, it could likewise be argued that Ranadive would want Jackson in Sacramento to somehow spite Golden State… which is exactly as thorny and fantastical as it sounds.

It’s hard to argue Jackson would be a bad pick, considering what he did for the Warriors, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense for Sacramento, and nor does it seem likely.

Mike Brown

Mike Brown is well known as being the coach of the Cavaliers from LeBron’s third season until James left for Miami, which included a trip to the 2007 Finals. 

After being fired in 2010, Brown took a year off before assuming the head coaching duties for the Lakers, where he lead the team to a 41-25 record in his first go. In his second year with Los Angeles, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash joined the squad, but Brown was let go after starting off 1-4, eventually leading to the hiring of Mike D’Antoni for the headache of a team. 

Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert said it was a mistake firing Mike Brown, and so he rehired his former coach in 2013. Though, for whatever regret Gilbert had regarding the original fire, it “didn’t stop him from doing it again,” as one report observed following Brown’s second termination from the Cavs.

Since then, he took two years off from the sideline before becoming an assistant for Steve Kerr six years ago. In a few instances, he’s assumed coaching duties when Kerr was unable to (you know, similar to an old friend named Luke Walton.)

He also coached the Nigerian National Team at the most recent summer Olympics. 

Overall as a head coach, Brown has a .616 winning percentage, and a .563 win percentage in the postseason, where his teams were never eliminated in the first round.

One of the biggest strengths of Mike Brown is his ability to turn out solid defensive teams. In each of his first five seasons in Cleveland, the Cavaliers finished in the upper half of the league defensively. Even his lone full season in Los Angeles saw the Lakers as an above-average defense.

Of course, most—if not all—of his coaching success is directly tied to LeBron James.

After six years with Golden State, however, there’s reason to believe there’s been improvement. The San Francisco Chronicle noted a few years ago how fond Brown is of Kerr’s coaching chops and how many notes he takes on him, and Kerr has remained optimistic and confident in his friend.

Brown’s most prominent characteristic among the league is that he is widely liked and respected. He’s known as “the mayor” among those in the NBA. So at some point, he’ll likely be able to demonstrate any improvement he’s made as a head coach somewhere.

Whether or not that’s with the Kings is hard to say. He’s not a terrible option, but he doesn’t pop off the page.

Mike D’Antoni

Mike D’Antoni has a .560 winning percentage in 16 total seasons as head coach, with a .491 percentage in 11 playoff trips. 

His head coaching career began with a single season in Denver in the late 1990’s. Then he coached five seasons from 2003-2008 in Phoenix where he made the playoffs in his four full seasons. 

This was followed by a job with the New York Knicks from 2008-2012 where he made the playoffs in his final full season there with the newly-acquired Carmelo Anthony before being let go midway through the next year. 

Afterwards, he spent two years with Lakers from 2012-2014 after taking over shortly after Mike Brown’s firing. He initially got the Lakers into the playoffs, but his second season didn’t go as well. With an aging Nash and a pick-and-roll inept Dwight Howard, the fit wasn’t there

Recently, while talking with J.J. Reddick about the job in Los Angeles, D’Antoni cracked that he only took the job because, among other things, he’d “just had [his] knee replaced and… was under the influence of drugs.”

For whatever major question marks that surrounded his head coaching ability, D’Antoni was able to ward many of them off with his time in Houston from 2016-2020 where he went to playoffs all four years, including the Western Conference Finals once. Other than the Warriors, D’Antoni and Harden’s Rockets were maybe the best team in the conference.

D’Antoni did not seek a contract renewal with Houston as head coach.

He then became an assistant coach for Brooklyn the following year under Steve Nash before stepping away.

Mike D’Antoni wasn’t on a sideline this past year, but he undoubtedly stands as one of the brightest offensive minds among all head coaching candidates. Almost every team he coaches is near the top of the league in offense.

The same cannot exactly be said for his defense. Only five out of sixteen D’Antoni teams were above-average defenses, and he’s never been renowned for coaching that end of the floor.

He was notably in Houston at the same time as McNair, who was VP of Basketball Operations in 2016 and made Assistant GM in 2018 prior to taking the Sacramento job in 2020, so there is a potential connection. 

At the same time, some reports have connected D’Antoni to the Sixers, where Daryl Morey has been since 2020 and where James Harden’s new home is. While those claims have been denied because Doc Rivers’ job is said to be safe, at the same time, Rivers’ name has been connected to taking over for the Lakers, so nothing is certain.

D’Antoni could probably do some things to make a Fox and Sabonis-led Kings squad one of the best offensive teams in the league, but similar to the point with Stotts, the question has to be asked: Is offense the corner the Kings need to put all their chips in?

Still, there’s no denying how fun that Sacramento offense would be, though.

Milwaukee Assistants Charles Lee and Darvin Ham

Lee and Ham have both coached with Mike Budenholzer since he took over in Atlanta in 2013. As part of that staff, they’ve taken part in the emergence of that Hawks team as well as a championship run last season with the Bucks.

Under Budenholzer, Atlanta had good defenses for the most part, and in Milwaukee, that was even more so the case.

As new coaches, Lee or Ham will be able to grow with this team trying to make their leap. Without prior experience, they’re less likely to feel constrained to follow their rigid game plan. It may be a guess, but without the potential ego of previous head coaching success, they may be more willing to make adjustments and be a little more innovative. 

That may be substantiated by lessons they learned with Milwaukee. Sure, they won the championship, but Budenholzer was actually being considered for firing as the Bucks were in the Eastern Conference Semifinals last year. This was primarily because Budenholzer had a reputation, like Clifford, of not making adjustments, which often hurt his team’s performance in playoff appearances. However, after going down 0-2 to the Nets in the Conference Semis, he made those necessary adjustments. Then they won the championship in the end, and Budenholzer’s contract was extended.

Even without head coaching experience, their time with Bud has been valuable and could pay off for a team that brings in Lee or Ham to coach.

It wouldn’t be a surprise either. They and their boss Budenholzer have a connection with Kings Assistant GM Wes Wilcox. They were together in Atlanta, where Wilcox was Assistant General Manager (2012-2015) and General Manager (2015-2017).

Given their backgrounds, it wouldn’t be a bad route to go with Lee or Ham. All they have to do is try to stand out against other bigger named candidates.

Wrapping It Up

There are a lot of options, ranging in levels of experience, styles, and specialties.

Clifford and Stotts have some promise, but each of their playoff histories are alarming. Stotts is a better fit than Clifford, mainly because Clifford’s ability to get an untalented team to play hard was already achieved by Gentry after the Sabonis trade. However, Stotts’ postseason record comes from such a substantial sample size, and if the Kings expect to compete, the playoffs would matter.

Mike Brown had some past success, is a solid defensive coach, and can contribute to a good franchise character, but his name doesn’t pop quite as much as others. 

That is to say it doesn’t have the sizzle of names like Mark Jackson or Mike D’Antoni, which are both alluring picks, but at the same time, feel like the least probable choices for Sacramento.

Charles Lee and Darvin Ham come from a good coaching background and provide fresh perspectives. Either would also be good for a “grow together” type of approach for this ostensibly ascending Kings team.

But at the end of the day Atkinson feels like the most balanced of them all with the culture-building, the experience, the energy he instills, and his pretty solid defensive track record.

Then again, it’s hard to say any of these names are downright bad. There’s reasons to maybe say some of them are underwhelming, but each have the potential to be good for the Kings in their own way. Again, Sacramento has most of the pieces in place to succeed, McNair just needs to decide which candidate is best.

While that is the case for now, it could change if, as some reports suggest, Utah’s Quin Snyder becomes available. If Utah falls short this postseason, and he becomes available, to many, he’s instantly going to stand out as the most attractive option.

In eight seasons in Utah, Snyder has a .585 winning percentage, and a .422 percentage in the playoffs. Every year, his team is an above average defense, and they’re quite often terrific in that category. He is also a communicative and constructive leader.

Word had it a few weeks ago that favored landing spots for Snyder, should he become available, would either be with the Lakers, where he was once an assistant, or in San Antonio if Greg Popovich’s uncertain future beckons retirement. 

Either way, with the Jazz trying to compete for a championship, Snyder isn’t interested in talking about it.

Fans will just have to see how it all turns out, but in the mean time, there are plenty of names to contemplate.

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