The Lakers’ hiring of Darvin Ham gives the NBA 15 African-American head coaches in a league that’s roughly 70 percent African-American. These coaches have unquestionably been hired because of their basketball acumen and ability to uplift the franchise, much like the Celtics’ Ime Udoka.
The recent hirings of Ham, Udoka, Wes Unseld Jr., Jamahl Mosley, Chauncey Billups, Mike Brown, Stephen Silas, and Jason Kidd have greatly aided the NBA’s quest toward diversity in coaching staffs and front offices.
There was a perception over the past decade that former players and longtime assistants were being passed over for coaches with more analytical backgrounds, or wunderkinds such as Brad Stevens.
That is no longer the case. Former players are becoming the popular choice for teams, considering the success of Udoka and Kidd this season.
Commissioner Adam Silver is now pleased to field questions and address the league’s diversity surge, because it’s been an issue for years.
“One of the things we’ve done, and this isn’t unique to the NBA and I’ve learned this from other businesses, is that you have to talk about these issues all the time,” he said Thursday prior to Game 1 of the Finals between the Celtics and Warriors. “If you care about diversity and inclusion in your workplace, you’ve got to look at the data. You’ve got to constantly present it to your colleagues, to your department heads, to your teams, and it has to become a focus. It’s my job in part to say that’s a priority for this organization.”
It’s not that those coaches who took an unconventional route — college, through the analytics circles or low-level organization jobs — have been dissuaded from applying for jobs, it’s that younger NBA players, including Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, have said they prefer to be coached by someone who has played the game. There is generally a bond there.
“While I’m particularly proud of those numbers, and roughly 50 percent of our head coaches are Black now, the goal is that that’s not newsworthy, and that when people are hired, their first reaction isn’t the color of their skin,” Silver said. “I don’t want to be naïve, either, though, because I know that what we do in this league is important symbolically, not just for sports but for other industries, and people watch us all around the world.
“I’m also putting aside the color of the skin of those coaches. What we’re also seeing, and this is something we very much focused on, is the emergence of a whole new class of former players who have moved into head coaching positions.”
Silver said the league was made more aware of some coaching prospects who accused general managers and team presidents of hiring candidates they were already familiar with. The league had to revamp its coaching networks, develop better training programs for aspiring coaches, and increase the communication networks between candidates and teams.
“I remember Rick Carlisle came to us as head of the Coaches Association in the league a few years ago, said we all collectively need to do a better job,” Silver said. “One of the ways we decided is again, technology helps, having a better database, so that head coaches who are looking for assistants or team governors who are looking for coaches have a database, which they could quickly see who is available, who is interested in coaching, how much experience they have. These changes come only incrementally. It doesn’t help just to bang the pulpit and say, go do this. You have to work with people and you have to understand what the obstacles are.”
Silver promised the improvement will funnel into more front office positions.
“I’m proud of the job we have done in the league office,” he said. “We are making a lot of progress in terms of general managers, team presidents, both on the basketball side and the business side, but more work to be done.”
There had been speculation that the NBA had decided to expand to 32 teams with new clubs in Seattle and Las Vegas. Officials in Seattle, which has a new arena that hosts the NHL’s Kraken and WNBA’s Storm, are apparently getting positive feedback about a team in the next decade.
But Silver again dispelled rumors about an NBA return to Seattle, at least in the next few years. The league is going to eventually expand, but there are no immediate plans.
“That talk is not true. At least maybe there are people talking who are not at the league office about us potentially expanding after the 2024 season,” Silver said. “We are not discussing that at this time. At some point this league invariably will expand, but it’s not at this moment that we are discussing it. But one of the factors in expanding is the potential dilution of talent.”
Silver questioned whether adding 30 more jobs would dilute a talent base that may already be thinned because of early-entry mistakes, lack of player development, and overseas leagues that pay more for lower-level players.
“I find it remarkable that when you have the second-most-played sport in the world after soccer, tens of millions — now just talking on the NBA side — of young men playing in this game, and then you have the 450 best in the world in this league, that there’s a few of them who separate themselves even among those 450 as the very best of the best, but there is then a drop-off in talent,” Silver said. “So expansion does create a certain amount of dilution. And even sort of adding another 30 players or so that are roughly comparable, there still are only so many of the truly top-tier super talents to go around. That is something on the mind of the other teams as we think about expansion.
“But those are wonderful markets. We were in Seattle. I’m sorry we are no longer there. We’ll be looking at it at some point, but there’s no specific timeline”
And Silver dashed any hopes for those pining for the return of the 2-3-2 Finals format after the league returned to 2-2-1-1-1 in 2014. The 2-2-1-1-1 format is going to stay, even though it potentially adds an additional cross-country trip for each team.
“That’s one of the first things I changed when I became commissioner, was moving back to this 2-2-1-1-1 model,” Silver said. “It just feels, as long as the flight is, we just feel it’s better from a competitive standpoint. It always felt to me in all my years in the league before we switched back to this format that, first of all, the players are used to, on their bodies, the 2-2-1-1-1 format from the earlier rounds. And it just always felt that three in that second city felt long and arduous.”
Thompson knows the Celtics well
Warriors guard Klay Thompson is the son of longtime NBA player Mychal Thompson and has cherished memories of attending games as a child. One of the more notable games he attended was when Klay was a sophomore at Washington State, and he and his father went to Game 7 of the 2010 Finals between the Celtics and Lakers.
“I would say my rookie year, just playing that team of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and [Kevin Garnett]. That was like a ‘welcome to the NBA’ moment for me because just a couple years before I was watching them battle Kobe [Bryant] and Pau [Gasol] in the Finals, and I was just mesmerized by how great those teams were, both the Lakers and the Celtics,” Thompson said. “So life comes full circle, now being able to play [the Celtics] in the Finals. I was watching them in college, Game 7, at Staples, with my dad, and now it’s 12 years later, and I get to play the team that I was rooting against. It’s amazing.”
Being a lifelong Lakers fan, Thompson said he did not know much about the Warriors when he was drafted 11th overall in 2011. The Warriors had won a combined 62 games in the two seasons before he arrived.
“I remember watching the ‘We Believe’ team [of 2006-07]. They were a gritty team of guys who might have been outcasts to other organizations but created such a fun brand of basketball, upsetting a 1 seed.
The Bay Area has always been considered an exceptional basketball market because of its local talent and support for the Warriors, even in difficult times.
“I remember how crazy the fans were during that run and how great Bay Area basketball fans were. I grew up in a Laker household, so we didn’t have many Warriors games on. But I always knew that basketball was just a beloved sport in the Bay. That’s obvious, just the amount of talent that has come out of this area. They have had so many players out of Oakland that for such a small city, you knew they live and breathe basketball.”
Heat have work in the offseason
The Heat had every intention of reaching the Finals with their offseason decisions. They executed a sign-and-trade for Kyle Lowry, added rugged forward P.J. Tucker, and allowed Victor Oladipo to get healthy during the season with the hopes of a deep playoff run.
That run ended in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Celtics. The Heat were never truly healthy. Sixth Man of the Year Tyler Herro suffered a groin injury. Butler and Tucker battled knee issues and Lowry a hamstring injury. The Heat struggled to score and relied heavily on undrafted players such as Max Strus and Gabe Vincent.
The Heat have some issues to address in the offseason. Oladipo is a free agent, and Duncan Robinson has four years left on his contract and barely played in the postseason.
“It’s probably tough for me to answer that right now because of all of the emotions,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of the team’s needs. “When it ends like this, it ends with a thud. You’re not ever contemplating that I would be speaking in front of you guys talking about the offseason. It just was not even a thought with anybody in the locker room. That’s part of the makeup that I love about this group.
“So I say, exceeded expectations, how do I say that without being disrespectful? No, it feels heartbreaking. We just wanted a crack at it. A crack at Golden State, and just find out, you know, as competitors.”
The Heat have some weaknesses. Jimmy Butler has a lot of miles on him after 11 seasons. Center Bam Adebayo is special defensively, but as he showed in the Celtics series, he is hesitant on offense. Lowry and Tucker are 36 and 37, respectively. The team’s window is closing and injuries played a major role this season.
“I love this group,” Spoelstra said. “This team was here to compete for a title. In that regard, I think we lived up to those expectations. But we fell short. We’ll never know, and that’s the part that we’ll have to live with.
“These last two series, it was a daily meeting with the training staff to get an inventory of where guys were. But these guys were so committed to the challenge that they are willing to do whatever it took to get themselves out there and really compete at a high level physically. It just shows you the mental toughness of the guys in the locker room.”
Lowry signed with the hopes of winning another championship. His previous team, the Raptors, moved him because they were retooling. Lowry has two years left on his contract totaling $59 million, meaning he’ll be difficult to move because of his age.
“It’s been a wild season for me,” he said. “But I’m given an opportunity to play basketball, and any time I get a chance to play, I’m really happy to do it. I will never make an excuse about injuries, never. I was out there. Jimmy was hurt. Tyler was hurt. Tuck was hurt. They had guys hurt. I wish I would have been able to play a little bit better, at a higher level, but I didn’t. It just adds fuel. You don’t know how many more opportunities you will have to get back to this, so for me, honestly, it was a waste of a year. I only play to win championships.”
The Heat are not likely to be favored to win the East next season barring major offseason moves. More likely, Miami is going to have to stick with its veteran crew and hope it works. Robinson could be a trade chip to get a more impactful player.
“It was fun, and I appreciate the guys, my teammates, and I appreciate the opportunity, but for me it’s a waste of a year,” Lowry said. “You’re not playing for a championship, you’re not winning a championship.
“I think [a second year] helps. I think everything helps, having some continuity with the team and understanding who you’re going to be there with and tendencies and understand the offense, terminologies, defensive schemes, offensive schemes, emotions, personalities. It definitely helps. We look forward to the opportunity of getting better over the summer and getting back to this opportunity next year.”
College players are beginning to embrace staying in school and are using the draft evaluation for honest advice. Players such as Gonzaga’s Drew Timme, Miami’s Isaiah Wong, and LSU’s Shareef O’Neal (son of Shaquille O’Neal) were among 112 candidates who decided to bypass the draft and return to school. The NLI (name, image, likeness) opportunities are having an impact, but it appears college prospects are also making sounder decisions and would rather have another year in school than being undrafted and going the G-League route. It’s good for the NBA and for college basketball … The Lakers’ Darvin Ham took a similar road to an NBA head coaching job as Ime Udoka, a veteran player and then a longtime assistant who didn’t carry the allure or big name but was considered a rising star in coaching circles. The Lakers took a chance on Ham over retreads Kenny Atkinson and Terry Stotts, and drew raves around the league for their decision. Ham, because of his pristine reputation around the league, especially as the backbone for the Bucks’ 2021 championship, had negotiating power. Ham was assured that former Laker Kurt Rambis, who has become notorious for meddling in organization affairs and helping making roster and personnel decisions, would not have further influence on those calls. Former coach Frank Vogel had to deal with Rambis and others in the organization during his tenure, all of whom had an opinion on how the Lakers should be run. Ham was assured he won’t have to deal with so many voices … The Hornets are the last team without a head coach and the job appears down to Atkinson and longtime coach Mike D’Antoni. The question for owner Michael Jordan comes down to which coach can bring the best out of All-Star LaMelo Ball, who struggled at times with former coach James Borrego, who hesitated to discipline or bench Ball for his lackadaisical stretches because of organization and fan backlash. The one thing a new coach needs in Charlotte is the authority to make strong decisions without concern of repercussions. Borrego did a solid job but never carried the big name or the high level of respect. D’Antoni, especially, would carry that respect if he gets the job.