It was widely believed that Becky Hammon would become the first female head coach in NBA history. And it still may happen.
Yet, she felt inclined to accept the head coaching position with the Las Vegas Aces, including the highest salary offered to a WNBA coach, as a means of proving she’s capable of leading a team.
Hammon appears fully invested in bringing the Aces a championship, but it’s difficult not to believe she became discouraged with the NBA path after interviews with the Portland Trail Blazers and Orlando Magic produced little but exposure to the process.
Did these teams make mistakes by passing on Hammon? Perhaps. But eventually NBA teams are going to have to escape their comfort zone and hire a female head coach, as there is a growing number of qualified coaches ready to lead a men’s team, including Hammon and South Carolina coach Dawn Staley.
Staley was approached by the Celtics for an interview but suggested the team hire Jerome Allen, who eventually left for an assistant position with the Detroit Pistons. But Staley is reportedly interested in joining the NBA in the right situation, and there’s a number of rising female coaches at the NCAA level or who are NBA assistants that cannot be ignored.
Hammon, 44, has been packaged as the first, but she fell short. The Orlando job, which is a total rebuild and a team looking for a fresh start, may have been the perfect situation. Hammon insists she isn’t settling for Las Vegas. The WNBA is an emerging league with several high-level coaches and standout players, but the question remains whether NBA teams are ready to open their league to a female head coach.
Hammon will remain on Gregg Popovich’s staff with the San Antonio Spurs for the remainder of the season. She appeared grateful that Aces president Nikki Fargas had high regard for her coaching skills to essentially remove Bill Laimbeer and hire her for the position.
“When she first called, I had no intention of leaving the NBA at this point,” Hammon said. “I came to the conclusion this was the best spot, an opportunity for me to sit in the big chair and be a head coach in a major professional sports league. I feel like I’m ready to have my own team and this is the organization that made it very obvious they wanted me really, really bad.”
Said Fargas: “We weren’t trying to move Bill out, but Becky was the best person that we felt was capable of leading the organization. We’re recognizing talent and we are rewarding talent.”
It was disappointing that with eight NBA head coaching vacancies this past offseason that not one team hired a female coach. It’s going to eventually happen and it will be a landmark move. There have been countless failures to assume a man is always best for the job.
Hammon said she wants to prove she can run her own team, coach All-Star-caliber players, and push the Aces to a championship level. A’ja Wilson is the franchise’s premier player.
“I have a lot more to give back to the sport,” Hammon said. “I’ve sat behind arguably the best coach in basketball history and I’ve just sat in on so many meetings, so many practices, and I really tried to be a sponge. I’m here talking to you guys because I’m here, ready to be in that seat. I want to coach the highest-level basketball players.
“This is a step forward, being the head coach of the Las Vegas Aces is a step forward for myself, for women’s basketball, and I think I can’t emphasize the importance of this opportunity that I have. There’s something to being a head coach.
“I sat in a lot of head coaching interviews. Two things that people said to me is you’ve only been in San Antonio and you’ve never been a head coach.”
Hammon is still fighting the perception that women cannot be capable head coaches in men’s sports. There are no female head coaches in NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball. It’s an issue that needs to be addressed.
“There’s so many great women’s coaches out there that would be leading their own teams,” Hammon said. “We have never had these press conferences when it comes to a man leading a women’s team. We just haven’t. Representation matters. It’s important that we see leaders as leaders. Until we can start peeling back the layers of society and what is viewed as a leader. We start hiring on what people bring to the table, based on their basketball knowledge.
“There are these conversations about a woman leading a man’s team, which really hasn’t happened yet. Sandy Brondello won a WNBA championship. [Team USA coach] Cheryl Reeve, these are great coaches, period, take off the label.”
“If you are going to talk about changing minds, you have to change it generationally. I’m bubbling over to give back. It’s just time for me. Coach Pop has been pouring into me a lot of knowledge. I feel like there’s a lot I want to give back and I want to say.”
The NBA did not want to give Hammon a chance for the highest coaching position, so she accepted the WNBA’s offer, hoping to erase any other barriers for her and other women. She bonded with Celtics coach Ime Udoka during their years together in San Antonio and he believes this opportunity will enhance her NBA resumé.
“You would think. That would be the natural progression,” he said. “She did mention that something that all first-time head coaches have, is that you’ve never done it before, so that’s kind of checking off that box. She’ll get a chance to do it. Just being out there, showing that on a different stage to give her a different look to come back to the NBA possibly.”
Udoka said Hammon is capable of being an NBA head coach.
“Good to see her get that opportunity,” he said. “I’ve worked with her for several years and I know her mind and what she thinks about the game . . . She picked my brain about certain things, the head coaching interviews and the process, so it’s good to see get the opportunity.”
It was apparent Hammon was disappointed with the NBA interview process. She thought she was close to landing the Portland job, but the team hired Chauncey Billups because of his potential impact on disgruntled guard Damian Lillard.
The question remains, will Hammon become a more serious NBA coaching candidate if she flourishes in Las Vegas? Or is the NBA still years or even decades away from taking a chance on a woman?
“In some ways I feel I was very close,” she said. “This was not about the NBA or WNBA, this was about me personally ready to have a team and wanting to sit in that chair.
“NBA jobs are hard to get. In some ways I feel like the NBA is maybe close, in other ways I feel like there are a long ways off from hiring. I don’t know when it could happen.”
TOP OF THE POPS
Udoka a fan of his mentor, Popovich
The Spurs made their annual visit to Boston this past week and Gregg Popovich was matched up against former pupil Ime Udoka for the second time — and, for the second time, the Spurs prevailed.
Popovich, 72, touched on facing his former assistants and other employees who have funneled through the Spurs’ organization.
“It’s great fun for me at this stage of my career, going to different cities and seeing guys, GMs or coaches or assistant coaches. There’s a friend everywhere it seems,” he said. “It really makes the NBA journey each year a whole lot more fun. I just get a big kick out of it.”
Udoka said he and Popovich dined while the Celtics were in San Antonio in late November, but he has to treat their relationship more professionally as his tenure progresses.
“I was always there when the other coaches were [blowing up his phone],” Udoka said. “I said I wasn’t going to be that guy, so we don’t talk as much until we cross paths.”
But Udoka has a professional admiration for his mentor, who helped foster his coaching career.
“The remarkable part is that he came into a situation [with the Spurs] that wasn’t ideal in his eyes and transformed it,” Udoka said. “When you establish what he has, the consistency and the winning habits, that’s something you cherish, hold on to. Not surprised he has struck around as long as he has because of what he’s done there.
“The other part that is not surprising is his passion and love for the game. He’s went through different waves, Tim [Duncan], Manu [Ginobili], Tony [Parker], guys that were there forever and you saw the new wave come in and that excites him and challenges him, as well. He’s mentoring and helping mold young new players and that’s a different challenge.
“You can see the growth within them this year, since the last time we played them. I know he’s hands-on with that and excited to work with a different group, but to see Dejounte [Murray] grow and Derrick White and those guys with LaMarcus [Aldridge] and Rudy Gay and DeMar [DeRozan] moving on, it’s a different challenge, but it excites him and gets his juices flowing in a different way.”
One aspect of the game that Popovich hasn’t embraced fully is the league’s reliance on the 3-pointer. He has maintained teams attempt far too many 3-pointers, which has stunted offenses and adversely affected ball movement.
“You follow the crowd, you follow the fans, you follow the money and they love [the 3-pointer],” he said. “That’s probably the most logical answer. How can you argue with watching Steph Curry play? As far as basketball is concerned, that’s what I love about the Warriors: He’s doing his thing, but they also move and read defenses better than anybody in the league. They don’t stand around. It’s not totally isolation. It’s ball movement, people movement. So, I think they’re a real anomaly in that regard.
“Most of the teams, it’s, ‘Get us as many threes as you can,’ and there is no nuance to the game. That’s what I think we’re all missing, but I’m not sure that people care. They’re enjoying the up and down and the number of threes that are being shot. It’s hard to argue with.”
Celtics have let loose many helpful pieces
The Celtics’ draft issues since the 2013 Nets trade by Danny Ainge gained a war chest of picks have been well-chronicled. But there have been a series of recent mistakes and roster decisions that have also proved costly.
Let’s look back at five key players who were allowed to leave by the organization who could have served as assets:
Max Strus — Signed to a contract before the 2019-20 season, Strus was expected to make the Celtics’ roster before being bumped off by training camp-invite Javonte Green (who will be mentioned later). Strus then signed with the Bulls and bounced around before getting a two-way deal with the Heat. Strus is now a key shooter off the bench for the Heat, making 41.4 percent of his 3-point attempts. Strus has eventually become the shooter the Celtics were seeking, but it took longer than expected.
Garrison Mathews — Invited to camp this season, Mathews had previously spent time with the Wizards. Although he was considered a plus shooter, he really never had a chance to make the Celtics and was waived. Mathews was signed by the Rockets, who gave him a multiyear contract. Mathews is averaging 11.8 points and shooting 37.3 percent from the 3-point arc in nearly 29 minutes per game.
Javonte Green — Green proved to be a solid bench contributor last season but was added into the Daniel Theis deal with the Bulls to get the Celtics under the luxury tax. Green has become a defensive ace and starter for the Bulls ,and they got him for practically nothing. Green has turned into a solid 3-point shooter and energy player.
PJ Dozier — Dozier was in the Celtics’ system, playing with the team’s G League affiliate in Maine and getting into six games for the Celtics in the 2018-19 season. The organization allowed him to sign with the Nuggets where he was a key defender and energy player off the bench before tearing his ACL.
There were several disappointed Celtics fans when the team did not renew the 10-day contract of 40-year-old Joe Johnson, who scored one basket in his only appearance. The Celtics could have renewed Johnson’s 10-day contract, but they would have had to clear a roster spot. The candidates to be waived were Bruno Fernando and Jabari Parker, but coach Ime Udoka obviously felt those two players would be better options. Udoka said he believes Johnson could still play in the NBA, but would any team take a chance on the seasoned veteran with more than a 10-day contract? With the Celtics being close to healthy, they also had to let go of Al-Farouq Aminu and Norvel Pelle after their 10-day contracts expired. Parker was waived Friday before his contract became guaranteed . . . Boston wasn’t the only team to feel the roster crunch. Former lottery pick Stanley Johnson joined the Lakers for a 10-day deal and played well. However, his contract wasn’t renewed because teams are only allowed to sign players to 10-day contracts after losing players to COVID protocol, and the Lakers were starting to get players back. The Lakers were finally able to bring him back on a second 10-day deal Thursday. The Lakers have Kent Bazemore and DeAndre Jordan on their roster, and they’re not playing. The Lakers even used LeBron James at center for a few games and did not play Jordan, who at 33 has lost athleticism and his defensive prowess. The Lakers would like to create two more roster spots, one to add Johnson, but they have to clear space. The market for Jordan would be difficult because he has now been banished to the bench by the Lakers and Nets. Bazemore was a rising swingman a few years ago when he signed a four-year, $72 million contract with the Hawks, but he never lived up to that deal. Still, he’s a serviceable shooter and defender who could help a contender . . . The Lakers moved former Celtic Rajon Rondo to Cleveland for essentially nothing to clear roster space. Los Angeles thought it would have a place for Rondo as a backup point guard, but the club decided to use Talen Horton-Tucker, Austin Reaves, and Malik Monk at guard, soaking up minutes. Rondo will stabilize the point guard position after the Cavaliers lost floor leader Ricky Rubio to a torn ACL.