All of the head-coaching slots in the NBA are now filled, but questions remain for the new hires—even those with years of experience. Here’s what we know about the five coaches signed since the last time we checked in on the coaching carousel and what we’re curious to find out about them.
Nick Nurse, Raptors
What we know: Nurse was given much of the credit for Toronto’s new look last season. He joined Dwane Casey’s staff in 2013 after six seasons coaching in the G League, during which he became the only coach in the league’s history to win a championship with two different teams. One of those teams, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, is a Rockets affiliate. And although his time there came long before Mike D’Antoni went to Houston, Nurse ran an experimental offense that utilized a frenetic pace and a whole lot of 3-pointers.
The son of Moreyball was analytics-friendly at a time when a lot of coaching staffs were still embracing numbers-driven conclusions; it’s no surprise, then, that he helmed Toronto’s transformation out on the perimeter.
What we have to find out: There’s some obvious skepticism to Nurse’s hire. The Raptors’ front office fired the head coach who led the team to the 1-seed in the Eastern Conference and a 59-23 record only to hire his top assistant. Casey’s teams had done well in the regular season long before this one, finishing well above .500 five straight years. The issue has always lied in the playoffs—though to be fair, the Raptors made it to the 2016 Eastern Conference finals, and also had to face LeBron repeatedly in the postseason.
No one in the front office has said it, but there must be belief that Nurse is more capable in the postseason. We’ll see if that’s true; he might strike gold a year from now if LeBron heads to the Western Conference this summer. My guess is there will be a ton more 3s in the meantime.
Dwane Casey, Pistons
What we know: Reinvention is the priority in Detroit, a franchise that isn’t a lock for the playoffs next season yet is also capped out with no first-round picks in the 2018 draft. Woof. Last season, Casey renovated the same Raptors he had been coaching for years and helped lead them to a franchise-record 59 wins. Detroit’s outdated stars are in desperate need of a similar remodel. It probably wouldn’t have taken more than Casey handing Pistons executives dinner napkins in the interview with “it’s never too late to change” scribbled on them for the front office to be sold.
The Raptors were applauded for beefing up their 3-point attack and moving the ball around last season. But Casey’s calling card has always been defense. As a Dallas assistant, he memorably figured out how to stop LeBron James (who, ironically, would later stop Casey so many times in the playoffs) to help the Mavs win the 2011 championship. During this year’s Raptors-Cavaliers second-round series, James said Casey is “part of the reason I am who I am today.”
What we have to find out: Along with the Pistons roster, Casey has to reinvent his staff. It’s likely that no one from his Toronto crew will join him; most are staying put with Nurse. Nurse, who is credited with putting in a significant amount of work on the offense last offseason, will especially be missed. The challenge is more difficult in Detroit, as Casey’s tasked with modernizing a roster led by Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, and Reggie Jackson. Griffin favors the midrange, and though his deep shooting has dramatically improved the past few seasons, he shot just 34.5 percent last season. Drummond is one of the last remaining old-school bigs in the league, and Jackson (30.8 percent from 3) will always favor isolation over a dime. Shooters Reggie Bullock and Luke Kennard will help stretch the floor, and if Casey’s lucky, the front office will bring back Anthony Tolliver.
Figuring out what the offense looks like is only half the battle with Detroit. It’s hard to know what it has because of the amount of injuries the team experienced. Bullock missed the end of last season, Jackson’s been sidelined for 67 games over the past two seasons, and Griffin came out of the womb on crutches. Casey also had one of the best benches in the NBA to work with last season. Now, he’ll have far less to pull from.
Mike Budenholzer, Bucks
What we know: After five seasons with Atlanta, and 17 years as a Spurs assistant before that, Budenholzer is one of the safest choices of the 2018 coaching carousel. One of Bud’s best qualities with the Hawks was his ability to make the most of what he had available, a credit to his time under Gregg Popovich, no doubt. He was able to lead an Atlanta team full of secondary or lower options (Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver) to 60 wins. Now he’ll get a chance to coach one of the biggest superstars in the league, Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Emphasizing defense was another Popovichian staple Budenholzer carried on; the Hawks finished no lower than seventh in defensive rating in three of his five seasons. The Bucks let opponents set up picnics on the perimeter last season, but we’ll see if that’s more of a reflection on former coach Jason Kidd’s approach or the personnel.
What we have to find out: The master of role players is taking over a team where no one outside of Giannis seems to know their role. (The unicorn’s is simple: do everything.) Part of Budenholzer’s game plan for unlocking Antetokounmpo’s supporting cast will be 3-point shooting, as four of his five Hawks teams finished in the top seven in outside attempts per game. But Milwaukee’s cramped offense was quite the opposite last season. Getting Tony Snell and Malcolm Brogdon to shoot more, maximizing Khris Middleton, and finding a legitimate place for Jabari Parker (if Parker, a restricted free agent, returns) all play into the Bucks’ chances at contending in the Eastern Conference. Right now, they’re not on par with the other young, promising teams around them: the Sixers, the Celtics, or even the Pacers. That’s the appeal of someone proven like Budenholzer, who took the Hawks to the conference finals in 2014-15. Milwaukee hasn’t survived past the first round since 2001.
Lloyd Pierce, Hawks
What we know: Pierce was the defensive coordinator for the Sixers. Brett Brown gave him “full autonomy” to do what he does best, which this season led to Philadelphia having the third-best defensive rating. Pierce said he feels prepared to take on the Hawks because of the extra responsibility. Like, right now: ‘’If we weren’t doing this press conference right now,” Pierce said during his introduction, “I’d probably have these guys doing some defensive drills. That’s who I am.’’
During his five years as an assistant with the Sixers, Pierce also established himself as someone able to connect with and grow young players. He was, as they say, a part of the process. One of Philly’s star pupils, Robert Covington, showed up at Pierce’s introductory press conference in support. “He’s helped me so much in my career, it’s only right that I be here as well,” Covington told reporters.
What we have to find out: Atlanta needs a developmentally minded coach more than any franchise in the league. On top of John Collins and Taurean Prince, they own the third, 19th, 30th, and 33rd picks in this year’s loaded draft. Pierce also needs to figure out how to mesh the team’s young core of players who aren’t even old enough to drink yet (Prince, 23, excluded—sláinte!) and the veterans the Hawks have kept around, like Kent Bazemore, Dewayne Dedmon (if he opts into the last year of his contract this summer), and Dennis Schröder (who is 24 but has been in Atlanta for five seasons). It’ll be all the more crucial to maintain the dynamic when a young star (presumably the no. 3 pick) joins the team.
Steve Clifford, Magic
What we know: Orlando has a soft spot for Clifford, who was with the team for five years as an assistant during the Stan Van Gundy glory days. General manager John Hammond was also fond of Clifford pre-hire; Hammond once had Clifford as one of three finalists on for a vacant Bucks coaching position, but the coach went to Charlotte instead. What he did there off the bat—increasing the Hornets’ record by 22 wins in his first season—proved what he can do in a rebuilding situation. It’s something Orlando has been desperate for since its last trip to the playoffs in 2012, which Clifford was present for.
The franchise has a future: Along with Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon, the Magic own the sixth pick in the 2018 draft, as well as two other picks in the second round. Gordon, who enters restricted free agency this summer, made significant strides this season in shooting and rebounding.
What we have to find out: Clifford is known as one of the best defensive minds in the NBA. But during his past two seasons with the Hornets, his teams have hung in the middle of the league in defense rating, and haven’t protected the perimeter effectively. In 2016-17, Charlotte allowed the most made 3s in the league, and last season, it was tied for third worst in 3-point percentage allowed—not ideal for stopping a modern offenses. But Clifford’s team always took care of the ball, finishing with the fewest turnovers in the league every season except this last one, when they finished third. Young groups are prone to making mistakes, so Clifford’s influence should help them speed up the growing process.