Making a case for Kings to hire a first-time head coach

Ham, Lee and Hardy should get a long look in Sacramento

Just a reminder that Off the Record with The Kings Beat Virtual Happy Hour Part 5: "The Return" is scheduled for Thursday, April 28, from 5:30-7:30 (PST). This event is reserved for premium subscribers of The Kings Beat, but there is still time to upgrade and join the festivities!

Look at how we have evolved. The age of covid has forced us all to accept Zoom as a reality in everyday life. 

Here at The Kings Beat, we hold virtual Happy Hours, which has become a tremendous way to connect with the readers and listeners. 

My wife has commuted to the office just once or twice in two years, as opposed to spending an hour driving each way, five days a week.

The Sacramento Kings regularly hold media sessions via video conference and now they are beginning their coaching search through the modern day version of Wonkavision.

Round one of interviews should wrap up at any moment and according to a league source, the list of seven names will get whittled down to 2-4. Round two will be in-person interviews with the process hopefully wrapped up by the first or second week of May. 

Kings general manager Monte McNair's list of potential coaching candidates is broken into two distinct groups, those with head coaching experience, like Mike D’Antoni, Mike Brown, Mark Jackson and Steve Clifford, and those who are looking for their first shot at running a team in Darvin Ham, Charles Lee and Will Hardy.

During Tuesday’s podcast, Brenden Nunes and I dug deep into the young guys on the list. On Thursday, we will crack into the four distinguished gentlemen who have already cracked the code and earned a win/loss record. 

Who will make the cut and who won’t could be extremely telling. This is a huge hire for the Kings and there is a certain amount of risk involved with every candidate. After getting it wrong so many times, the Kings need more than just a coach, they need a franchise altering culture builder who can capture the imagination of everyone from the players to the owner to the fans.

We’ll get to the veteran coaches down the road, but there is a common thread with Ham, Lee and Hardy. They are branches of the deeply rooted and sprawling Gregg Popovich coaching tree. 

Six degrees of Popovich

Small market teams are up against it. They don’t have full access to the three arms of roster improvement - draft, trades and free agency. Small market teams need to draft well, they need to make savvy trades, but when it comes to free agency, they have to Moneyball their way to the top, because LeBron James isn’t walking through that door (unless you draft his son in two years.)

For the last 25 years, Pop has managed the Spurs to five rings, 1344 regular season wins (an NBA record) and 170 postseason victories. He accomplished all of that with superstars like David Robinson and Tim Duncan, but his system also helped create a Hall of Famer in Manu Ginobili and a sure-fire Hall of Famer in Tony Parker.

Player success is only part of Pop’s legacy. He has filled the league with coaches, some of whom have developed their own coaching tree.  

Mike Budenholzer spent 17 seasons learning every aspect of the game on Popovich’s staff. He’s taken that knowledge and found great personal success, but also passed the knowledge to others. 

Quin Snyder, Taylor Jenkins and Kenny Atkinson have already earned head coaching jobs and had varying degrees of success. As current Bucks assistants under Budenholzer, Ham and Lee have interviewed for head coaching jobs over the last few summers and are considered some of the best first time candidates in the league. 

While Budenholzer is one of the strongest branches of the Pop coaching tree, there are others. Lots of others.

Hardy spent 11 seasons in San Antonio working his way up from an intern to the film room to Popovich’s lead assistant. During his time with the Spurs, he worked with Budenholzer, Brett Brown, James Borrego, Jacque Vaughn, Jim Boylen and Ime Udoka, all of whom went on to become head coaches in the league. 

You can add European coach Ettore Messina and soon-to-be WNBA head coach Becky Hammon to that list as well. 

Five championship rings is incredible, but Popovich’s legacy goes well beyond his accomplishments on the sidelines. He has changed the game by creating culture changers who continue to create culture changers. Whether directly or indirectly, the trio of Ham, Lee and Hardy are all part of this legacy.

Early success, a trend

There is a growing trend of bringing in first time head coaches in the NBA. It was just four seasons ago that Nick Nurse took over the Toronto Raptors and led them to a ring in year one. 

Nurse dropped into a dream situation, but he is really the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the recent influx of first timers.

Since leaving Budenholzer’s staff in Milwaukee, Taylor Jenkins has taken a young Memphis team from a cellar dweller to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference in three seasons. 

Chris Finch has the Timberwolves in the playoffs after just a season and a half on the job. Before his arrival, Minnesota had just one postseason appearance in the previous 17 seasons. 

After a rocky start to the season, Willie Green has his Pelicans in a battle with the Suns in round 1 of the playoffs. New Orleans has just three postseason appearances in the last 11 seasons and despite their sub-par regular season record, they are playing well late in the year.

Like Green, Udoka had a tough start in his first season in Boston. That is no longer the case. The Celtics are rolling in the Eastern Conference playoffs and gone from a group of underachievers to a title contender in the span of a few months under their rookie coach.

Mark Daigneault in OKC, Stephen Silas in Houston, Jahmal Mosley in Orlando, Wes Unseld in Washington and Chancey Billups in Portland have had less of an impact in year one, but each of them are in very specific situations with either teams in rebuild mode or complete tear downs, except for the Wizards, who are perennial underachievers and lost Bradley Beal for half of the season. 

There is enough evidence to make a case that a first time head coach has just as much of a chance as a retread of making a difference. D’Antoni, Brown, Clifford and Jackson all have positive moments in their careers, but each of them have failures as well. 

Sacramento has tried the safe approach, turning to one veteran coach after another over the last decade, plus. The job has sawed through Paul Westphal, Keith Smart, Michael Malone, Tyrone Corbin, George Karl, Dave Joerger, Luke Walton and Alvin Gentry over the last twelve seasons. 

Malone was the only first year coach of that group and his 314-241 record with four playoff appearances with the Denver Nuggets following his departure from Sacramento leads you to believe that the Kings weren’t patient enough. 

The case for Ham, Lee and Hardy

Ham played in the league for eight seasons, worked his way up through the D League and has spent the last 11 seasons as an assistant, including the last nine with Budenholzer. He has a championship ring, both as a player and a coach and he’s put in the time to earn an opportunity.

Lee played in Europe and broke into the league as an assistant after a couple of seasons coaching at the college level at Bucknell. He’s spent the last eight years with Ham on Budenholzer’s staff in both Atlanta and Milwaukee.

Hardy spent over a decade with Popovich soaking in the culture in San Antonio. He’s worked every job under the sun and after missing out on head coaching jobs last summer, he joined Udoka in Boston as a lead assistant. 

If the Kings are going to dip their toes into the unproven talent pool of first time coaches, this group is at the top of the list. Not only do they have the prerequisite experience to step in and lead a team, but they all come from winning cultures led by some of the best in the business. All three are considered top tier assistants and whether it is in Sacramento or elsewhere, they should get a shot in the near future to run their own team.

Hey everybody, I’m looking to learn more about who reads, listens, and follows The Kings Beat. If you wouldn’t mind, please take this survey that takes less than 5 minutes to complete to help us out. Thanks!

Subscribe to The Kings Beat with James Ham

Sacramento Kings coverage with a personal touch.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.