With NBA coaching jobs available, these lesser-known candidates deserve attention

After no coaching changes during the entire 2016-17 season, there have already been three head coaches fired this season. And with several teams struggling or going into tank mode, there could be more openings this offseason.

With NBA coaching jobs available, these lesser-known candidates deserve attention

With NBA coaching jobs available, these lesser-known candidates deserve attention

Of course, teams could go the retread route. There's nothing wrong with wanting experience, after all. Or they can walk on the wild side and give a new head coach an opportunity.

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Fans across the league typically know that Gregg Popovich coaches the Spurs, Steve Kerr leads the Warriors and, all LeBron James jokes aside, Tyronn Lue is in charge of the Cavs. However, even the hardcore fans aren't always abreast of the men that make those jobs much easier on a day-to-day basis. These assistant coaches are often the ones who run practice, do the scouting work on opponents or develop players on the current roster.

As the coaching carousel turns, some of these lesser-known names will get opportunities to run their own NBA teams.

Sporting News spoke with players, coaches, scouts and general managers around the league to put together a list of top coaching candidates. (Only first-time coaching candidates are included, and it's more of a scan of the landscape than a hardcore ranking.) The purpose is to make fans aware of some coaches that they'll likely know in the next year or so.

We'll make an exception for interim coaches, which leads us to our first candidate...


J.B. Bickerstaff, Grizzlies interim head coach


Bickerstaff is the interim head coach of the Grizzlies, sliding into the first seat after David Fizdale was fired earlier this season. The 38-year-old started his NBA career as an assistant coach to his father, Bernie Bickerstaff, with the Charlotte Bobcats back in 2004 at only 25 years old. He spent three years there before moving on to Minnesota, then left the Timberwolves in 2011 to join the Rockets. Bickerstaff earned his first interim coaching opportunity in Houston after Kevin McHale was fired 11 games into the 2015 season.

Bickerstaff was reflective when asked what he's learned during his stints as interim head coach.

"You get better every day," Bickerstaff said. "I'm fortunate to have my father. I talk to that man every day. He watches every game and we talk. There are so many more responsibilities as head coach. It's a big move to that seat. I'm glad to get the shot, and now we have to get better as a team. It's little things like picking road practice facilities to what we eat for breakfast.

"I have a great support staff here that helps. But when the chips fall, if it goes wrong, it's on me now, and I'm okay with that."


Stephen Silas, Hornets assistant coach


Like Bickerstaff, Silas was a finalist for the Rockets job before Mike D'Antoni took over two seasons ago. The 44-year-old is seven years into his second stint in Charlotte. He became an associate head coach when Patrick Ewing left to take the job at Georgetown.

Silas is respected by players and team executives throughout the league. He worked with Stephen Curry during his early years with the Warriors, and the two-time MVP certainly holds Silas in high regard.

"Coach Silas is a big part of who I am today," Curry said. "Getting to work with him was beneficial for me. It's only a matter of time before he gets a gig. Really, he should probably already have one. Whoever gets him will be getting a winner."

Silas was also with the Cavs from 2003-05 and directly worked with a young LeBron James.

"He had better get a job," James said. "I know the family that he comes from and how much work he's put in. He's been grinding for a long time, and when he does get on, it'll be good for the league."


James Borrego and Ettore Messina, Spurs assistant coaches


Let's start with Borrego. The 40-year-old began his NBA journey with the Spurs in 2003 as an assistant video coordinator. He was part of the Spurs' staff for seven years and contributed to two NBA championship teams in 2005 and 2007. Borrego left the team to join former Spurs assistant Monty Williams in New Orleans.

After his stint with the then-Hornets, he joined Jacque Vaughn as the lead assistant for the Magic. This would lead to his brief run as interim coach in 2015. The Magic hired Frank Vogel, and that pushed Borrego back to where he started — in San Antonio, working with Popovich.

"I knew he was special when he was a video guy," Popovich said. "He worked so hard, and he also worked smart. That's a very rare combination. He played the game in college, so he can relate to players in a different way. But he also learned to coach the old-fashioned way. There are so many things he does well as a teacher. There is a reason why people around the league love him and keep trying to hire him away from me."

Another guy on Popovich's staff that people are trying to poach is Messina, the lead assistant with the Spurs. The 58-year-old is the elder statesman on the list, but if you see him work with his players, you'd think he was much younger.

"He has more energy than most of us players," Spurs guard Tony Parker said. "He knows how to engage with guys and that's very important. He is a joyful teacher."

Messina won four EuroLeague championships as a head coach and was named one of the 50 Greatest EuroLeague Contributors in 2008. He was named the Italian League's Best Coach in 1998, 2001 and 2005, as well as EuroLeague Coach of the Year in 2006 and 2008. He was inducted into the Italian Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008. In 17 seasons, his career head coaching record in the EuroLeague is 279-98 (.740 winning percentage).

He got his start in the NBA as a consultant to the Lakers in 2011. He returned to Europe, this time with CSKA Moskow from 2012-14, before flying back to the Spurs in 2014. He has been on the bench with Popovich ever since.



Igor Kokoskov, Jazz assistant coach


Kokoskov was the first non-American hired as a full-time assistant in 2001 with Clippers. In 2004, he became the first non-American assistant coach to win an NBA championship with the Pistons. Kokoskov, 46, was also the first non-American to serve on an NBA All-Star Game coaching staff. He has worked for the Clippers, Pistons, Suns, Cavs, Magic and, currently, the Jazz.

Jazz head coach Quin Snyder knows Kokoskov brings something special to his team.

"Ask around the league and people will rave about him," Snyder said. "He should be a head coach in this league, but I will keep [him] for as long as I can."

Kokoskov had his greatest achievement this past summer. He led Slovenia to a historic first-ever gold medal in EuroBasket. The team was led by All-Star point guard Goran Dragic and a bunch of guys that would make most NBA fans ask, "Uh... who?" Slovenia beat teams with fully-loaded rosters of NBA and EuroLeague stars.

"That put him on the map," one Western Conference executive said. "Oftentimes with assistant coaches, you never know how they can handle a team until they get their own. But seeing what did with that Slovenia team was telling. He beat much better teams by outcoaching them and making his players better.

"I know that there are several teams looking at him. That guy is special, and somebody will get a good coach."


Nick Nurse, Raptors assistant coach


Nurse was tasked by head coach Dwayne Casey to switch things up offensively for Toronto, a team that often sputtered and stopped in the playoffs with a reliance on isolation ball from Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Now, the Raptors are moving the ball more than ever before and hoisting 3-pointers at a top-five rate. It took a lot of faith for Casey to hand the keys to Nurse, but he earned it.

Nurse, 50, started his career coaching in Great Britain, spending 12 years across the pond. He came back to the United States in the D-League (now G League), coaching at that level from 2007-13. Casey came calling the following season, and he's been in Canada ever since.

"He absolutely without a shadow [of a doubt] is ready for a head coaching job," Casey said. "That guy does so much for our program and makes my life easier. He works hard, and it has a good impact. His mind for offensive basketball is beautiful."


Darvin Ham, Hawks assistant coach


Ham appeared in 417 career games as a player (45 starts) with the Nuggets, Pacers, Wizards, Bucks, Hawks and Pistons, averaging 2.7 points and 2.3 rebounds in 12.4 minutes per game. He also played in 55 postseason games, winning an NBA championship with the Pistons in 2004.

Ham, 44, is currently an assistant coach in Atlanta. He's credited with developing players like Tim Hardaway Jr., Taurean Prince and Dewayne Dedmon. With the Lakers, he worked with all-time greats like Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.

"When I first met him, I thought he was going to be all about dunks. Man, was I wrong," Bryant said. "He understands basketball in ways very few guys can. He can explain things like a player, but then break it down like a coach. I love talking hoops with him.

"He's gotten so much better every year. I see how guys he's worked with get better. That's what the league is about."

Ham was an assistant coach with the New Mexico Thunderbirds of the D-League from 2008-10 and later took over as head coach in 2010-11. He joined the Lakers following his D-League stint, and in 2013, new Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer came calling.

"I wanted Ham," Budenholzer said. "He had to be part of what we were doing. You never know if you're ready to make that jump until you do, but he's got all the tools."

Budenholzer would know — he's already had two coaches leave his tree for head coaching jobs. He's also part of the Popovich tree, which has taken roots all over the league.

"It's good to have assistants with aspirations," Budenholzer said. "Pop always encouraged us to have input, and it's made so many guys so much better. Now, it's my turn to do the same."

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