For the last week or so, Kings fans have been able to chew on a more refined version of the preliminary list of names that could potentially fill in the head coaching vacancy: Mike Brown, Mike D’Antoni, Mark Jackson, Steve Clifford, Darvin Ham, Charles Lee, and Will Hardy.
ESPN’s Bobby Marks, who puts together offseason guides for all 30 NBA teams, declared what is commonly accepted as fact in Sacramento: that the magnitude of this coaching hire is of monumental proportion for Monte McNair and the whole organization.
As Marks expressed and as the fanbase knows, the offseason will obviously provide the possibility of drafting another nice product and some valuable additions in free agency, but it’s the decision who to hire as head coach that will be “the single most important transaction in Sacramento Kings history.”
Being his first opportunity to hire a head coach, the decision will be the biggest move in Monte McNair’s time as General Manager, but more than that, it will play a crucial role in dictating which direction this franchise goes. The right candidate and the best fit will take this team to the next level, but the wrong coach, as Jason Anderson noted, “could set the franchise back four more years, perpetuating a cycle of hirings and firings and bringing on another rebuild in a market where fans have lost patience after 16 consecutive losing seasons.”
With all the promise of how the season ended—in spite of missing the playoffs and directly due to the acquisitions made at the deadline—the actual transformation into a winner will require an unyielding effort. There are no short cuts, no breaks to be had, no opportunities to simply ride out the momentum. Once the season is underway, there’s not going to be any slack provided to a losing team that is merely better than last year. It’s now or never for this franchise that has a playoff drought old enough to drive.
The list offers a positive outlook, though, because all seven of those names have their own appeal. While that may be the case, they’re all very different, with their own perspectives and strengths. What draws a line between the diverse group, though, is the split in NBA head coaching experience. Brown, D’Antoni, Jackson, and Clifford all have previous head coaching experience while, on the other hand, Ham, Lee, and Hardy have never been anything more than an assistant in this league.
Much can and has been said about the initial four candidates with experience, but the other three, despite the lack of it, are no less in the running for the job.
“I think there’s a lot of characteristics that coaches will bring to the table,” McNair remarked a few weeks ago following a question pertaining to the experience of the incoming hire. “We’ve seen successful coaches from many different backgrounds, so again, we’re not going to put any specifics or priorities on that.”
While fans have plenty to digest regarding the long, well-recorded, and detailed chronicles of some of these former head coaches, there is more to be said about the others with less experience at the helm.
So who are Darvin Ham, Charles Lee, and Will Hardy?
To be honest, it’s not entirely fair to say Darvin Ham lacks experience compared to the other two on this list. Ham has been around the league since 1996 when he signed with the Nuggets as an undrafted free agent. He would go on to play 14 years of professional basketball, 9 of them in the NBA, and win a championship in 2004 with the Pistons.
After his playing career came to an end, he became an assistant coach for the Albuquerque Thunderbirds of the D-League for two seasons before becoming the head coach and GM.
Following two years of that, he was invited to Los Angeles to be an assistant under Mike Brown, who was in Denver’s basketball operations department when Ham signed there in 1996. That Lakers staff also notably included Steve Clifford and Ham served out two full seasons there, even after Brown was let go and D’Antoni, another Kings candidate, took over the team.
Then began Ham’s nine year (and counting) run alongside Mike Budenholzer of the Greg Popovich coaching tree, first in Atlanta, where the franchise turned around completely, and even won 60 games in 2014-15, and then in Milwaukee for the last four, which included another taste of championship glory.
Back in January when Budenholzer entered health and safety protocol, Ham assumed acting head coaching duties for a game, the second instance in his career. Prior to the contest, he was asked about the opportunity for assistants with all the games coaches were missing at that time.
“I’m not looking to make a big splash and prove to the world I can really coach,” Ham said in reply. “I know that already.”
It’s not just his NBA experience alone that backs up that sentiment, but where the bulk of that experience comes from. He’s spent nearly a decade learning from a guy who was a student of Popovich as a San Antonio assistant for 17 years, starting in 1996. That background is what generates Ham’s appeal.
The Bucks pulled out a victory in that early January game, and following his first win as a head coach, Ham acknowledged what he’s learned from Budenholzer.
“Learning from him these nine years, learning how to command the team, learning how to be efficient with your energy, pick and choosing your moments, how to… simplify and emphasize what really needs to be done in order to be successful on both sides of the ball,” Ham reflected. “I thank him for just teaching me helping me and trusting allowing me to grow under his tutelage.”
Likewise, Budenholzer has said that it is “hard to put into words everything” Ham offers to the Bucks’ success.
“We want to be tough and there’s nobody tougher than Darvin,” Budenholzer admitted. “He just brings a toughness, a realness, and honesty. The players respect him, his player development with bigs and really everybody. He’s just got a great feel for the sport. He’s special.”
As his boss noted, Ham values honesty, just like someone else.
At a 2016 coaching symposium, Greg Popovich expressed what may be the most important component to the Spurs’ endurably successful philosophy.
“I think you have to have accountability,” Coach Pop imparted to those in attendance. “For us, the thing that works best is total, brutal, between-the-eyes honesty.”
Understanding the importance of reciprocal authenticity between coaches and players is well engrained in Ham’s basketball DNA.
“You got to be a bottom line guy,” Ham said. “There’s a lot of gray areas in basketball, but as a coach sometimes you got to speak in terms of black and white. … And if you’re wrong, you have to be able to listen, too. I feel like you don’t serve your coach in a proper way if you’re not honest with him.”
Another quality characteristic of his, Ham has never stepped beyond his bounds. Again, he’s confident in his ability and with the fact that he’s, as one unnamed Eastern Conference scout said, “almost overqualified” to be a head coach, but he is prepared, with his position under Budenholzer, to wait for the right opportunity.
“I’ve learned in the NBA that patience is vital,” Ham said. “Of course, I’d love to be a head coach in the NBA, but I’m learning every day as an assistant. You can’t be frantic. I’m still learning.”
His name’s been tossed around for consideration since 2018 for good reason, but it will be up to McNair to decide whether he is the guy for the Kings.
Even with no NBA head coaching experience, Darvin Ham is respected around the league, he’s an honest, positive culture guy, and he understands success. It’s hard to say he wasn’t deserving of a virtual interview.
At 37 years-old, Charles Lee has worked as an assistant for Mike Budenholzer for eight seasons, one less than Ham. Without NBA playing experience, the only reason he’s coaching in this league is arguably because Coach Bud believed in him, which says a lot.
After co-captaining the basketball team at Bucknell, Lee played for the Spurs in the summer league and was invited to training camp. In that time, Lee was exposed, briefly yet directly, to the storied franchise, including assistant coach Budenholzer.
Lee was unable to make the cut for an NBA roster and embarked on a basketball career overseas. However, since international leagues are a difficult road for young players to go down, and with all the things that pop up in life, Lee’s playing career came to a swift end. What followed was two years on Wall Street.
Either Wall Street is a nightmare or basketball is simply too beautiful to stay away from—and it’s probably a good bit of both—because Lee was looking to get back into the thing he loved. So he called around, trying to see if he could get a job on a college coaching staff. Among those he called was Budenholzer. While he didn’t have any connections, he undoubtedly made mental note of Lee’s ambitions.
Lee eventually got a job as an assistant for his alma mater, and after two years of that, he heard back from Budenholzer, who brought him onto his staff for his second year in Atlanta, the year the Hawks won 60 games.
While Lee is not a renowned name, many feel he has undeniable promise. The Athletic included him on their “NBA 40 Under 40” list, and an Eastern Conference scout raved about how Lee has “a very good presence about him.”
This promise made him a candidate for the Pelicans head coaching job the previous two offseasons. Following the first occurrence of interest, New Orleans hired Stan Van Gundy, who wanted to steal Lee away for his own staff. Good on Lee to stick with Budenholzer, though, as Van Gundy’s ship sailed for just a year, unable to move the team out of the swamps of sub-.500.
The common consensus regarding Lee’s best quality is his communication, which aids his player development skills and his ability to lead. A 2020 ESPN article on the “hottest names” on the coaching market described Lee as a “five-tool coach” who is equally comfortable talking to a role player as he is the owner.
“Those who have worked with him say he has an intuitive sense of how to inspire improvement from players but also understands high-level strategy and the preparation required to implement it,” the article elaborated. “He is, in the words of one peer, someone who is ‘categorically going to be an NBA head coach.'”
A German basketball publication made note of Lee’s former teammate Jamar Wilson saying that he is equipped with “a special way of connecting with anyone from any background,” and how that ability explains why Lee is credited with several players’ development, including Dennis Schröder’s.
It’s these reasons—his presence, his communication—that Budenholzer saw promise in him, why he likely has a future that holds a head coaching opportunity.
Will it be this year, though, and with the Kings?
Again, that’s McNair’s choice. Still, despite not being a star at any level of basketball, never having played in the NBA, and not being a recognizable name, it says a lot of Lee that he’s among these seven candidates.
Here’s the most interesting of the three, and maybe of all seven names on Sacramento’s list.
At 34 years-old, Will Hardy is among the riskiest options for this franchise, but at the same time, he probably has one of the highest ceilings. That’s because—amid all these connections between some of these candidates and the Popovich coaching tree—Hardy comes straight from the source.
Hardy’s journey has started completely from scratch. After graduating from Williams College, where he played basketball and won two Division III titles, he was brought into the Spurs organization as a basketball operations intern, which was not guaranteed to last more than a year.
Ahead of this year, he joined Ime Udoka’s staff in Boston, who was on the Spurs staff until 2019 and who served on Team USA’s staff at the FIBA World Cup that same year.
“What helped me… was access, transparency,” Hardy said of his time and opportunity in San Antonio. “They let me be in film sessions. There’s pretty much an open door policy with the assistants that you work with.”
The openness of Popovich’s operation allowed Hardy to learn from it, and the fact he is where he is today illustrates his promise.
Having moved up organically, Hardy understands the process of a good organization, how it progresses, how it breeds success. “You guys want to move up? Train your replacement,” Hardy stated plainly at a coaching symposium a few years ago. He went on to express how important it is to not just capitalize in ways that work for yourself—i.e. to move up—but rather to capitalize in a way that makes everything work better for everyone.
Selflessness is a key component to culture in the eyes of Hardy, and that knowledge was directly passed down from Popovich.
“Coach Pop says all the time, ‘Get over yourself. It ain’t about you,'” Hardy observed. “No one person is bigger than this, and that goes from him all the way down.”
Despite being so young, he still has six years of experience as an assistant, three years of head coaching in the summer league, and has been considered for head coaching positions for the last two years, mainly the Knicks in the aftermath of the short-lived David Fizdale era.
The question has to be whether or not the Kings—who do feel optimistic about their pivot to next season—want to get behind such a big question mark with a sparse amount of proven experience.
All things considered, though, the fact remains that Hardy comes straight from the source of the fountain of NBA success and culture that is the San Antonio Spurs. Hardy was practically bathing, marinating in the nectar of the basketball gods, just like Mike Budenholzer, Ime Udoka, and others.
He’s a tempting option.
A Trio of Gambles or a Prophecy?
The Kings are resting on a threshold where things can either roar forward or fall back and shatter into pieces, and it’s the decision who to bring in as head coach that will play the heaviest hand in which direction things ultimately move for this organization.
With that said, it would be hard to say that any of these three candidates that lack previous head coaching experience are not a gamble. They most certainly are.
At the same time, it is reasonable to envision each of these three finding success as a head coach, particularly with the experience of Darvin Ham and the upside of Will Hardy.
In fact, considering the world is pervaded with uncertainty, it’s just as easy to say that it would be prophetic to hire one of these guys.
If that is indeed the angle to take—to look into the crystal ball—then it’s hard to not go all-in with Hardy, who is coming straight from the source of success.
However, doubt creeps in again. Hardy’s 34 years-old, and likely has a bright future as a head coach, but there is no guarantee that happens in his first try. Forty, fifty years from now, Hardy could very well be a hall of fame coach who started out his head coaching career in Sacramento, but that wouldn’t necessarily translate to him having success in Sacramento. And if he comes to Sac and it doesn’t work out, it could spoil all the promise that was brewed in the final stretch of the season.
Considering where this franchise is at, these three guys with less experience are really going to have to make their case to Monte McNair and assistant GM Wes Wilcox if they want to stand out and get the job because there is so much riding on this hire.
While that will not be easy, it’s nevertheless possible and there’s no definitive reason to say otherwise. So fans will just have to wait and see if any of them make it to the next round of consideration.