Sunday Musings: Ranking Kings' three coaching finalists

How do Mike Brown, Steve Clifford and Mark Jackson stack up?

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The Kings Beat confirmed on Saturday afternoon that the coaching search has been narrowed to just three men. 

Gone from the list is veteran Mike D’Antoni. Gone from the list are young up-and-comers in Darvin Ham, Charles Lee and Will Hardy. Gone from the list are the hopes and dreams of a huge group of Kings fans.

The fan voice shouldn’t exactly be the deciding factor, but there is a reason for some of the outrage. While teams like the Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Pelicans and Minnesota Timberwolves have found young coaching options to build around, the Kings, led by general manager Monte McNair, are mulling over a list that, for the most part, is underwhelming.

If you polled the audience when the Kings’ original list dropped nearly 10 days ago, the trio of Mike Brown, Steve Clifford and Mark Jackson would not have been the group that most would have banked on moving forward. 

One of these names in the top three? Sure, but not all of them. 

The Kings have prioritized defense and to some extent, coaching experience. Through that lens, it makes sense that offensive guru D’Antoni would be one of the first names out. Ham, Lee and Hardy could all be spectacular defensive coaches, but the fact that they have never led a team, makes it hard to really know. 

Handicapping this race would only be guess work at this point, but that doesn’t mean that we can't rank the remaining candidates. 

1. Mike Brown

Age: 52

Record: 347-216 (.616)

Playoff Appearances: 6

If we are looking at this objectively, Brown is probably the best candidate out of all of the seven original candidates. He’s spent seven seasons working his way up as an assistant with stops in Washington, San Antonio and Indiana. When he finally received the call up to manage his own team, Brown excelled in Cleveland from 2005-2010.

Brown couldn’t get the LeBron James led Cavs over the hump, although he did take the team all the way to the finals in 2006-07. In Brown’s second coaching job, he led the Lakers to a 41-25 record and a second round playoff appearance. He was fired five games into the next season and never really had a chance to show that he was the long term answer.

Following his flameout with the Lakers, Brown made the poor decision to go back to Cleveland and take on a Cavs team that was still reeling from the departure of James. He posted a 33-49 record with the team in 2013-14 and was let go at the end of the season.

Known as a defensive-minded coach, Brown’s Cavs teams ranked 14th, 4th, 11th, 3rd and 7th in defensive rating in his first stint. His Lakers team ranked 13th in defensive rating and even the poorly constructed Cavs team he returned to finished 19th. 

Since leaving the head coaching ranks, Brown has spent the last six seasons as a lead assistant on Steve Kerr’s bench in Golden State. During his six seasons with the Warriors, they have finished outside of the top 13 in defensive rating just once and finished in the top five three times.

Brown is widely respected around the league. He’s known for his attention to detail and has been described as OCD. He’s the youngest of the remaining candidates and clearly the most successful. 

Lastly, when Brown lost his job in Cleveland, he didn’t go away from the game. Instead, he joined one of the best franchises in the NBA and continued his education. He helped lead the Warriors to three trips to the finals and he has two championship rings to show for it.  

If the Kings can talk Brown into leaving the Warriors staff, it would be a coup. Out of the original seven names, he is the most qualified and the safest pick. 

2. Steve Clifford

Age: 60

Record: 292-345 (.458)

Playoff Appearances: 4

Clifford didn’t have the benefit of coaching the league’s greatest player, like Brown, but he made plenty of headway with the talent he was given.

After spending 13 seasons as an assistant, mostly under brothers Jeff and Stan Van Gundy, Clifford finally got the call to lead the Charlotte Bobcats for the 2013-14 season. In his five seasons in Charlotte, Clifford led his team to the playoffs twice, including a 48-34 record in the 2015-16 season.

Clifford was relieved of his duties in Charlotte following back-to-back 36 win seasons in 2018. He had no trouble landing in Orlando for the 2018-19 season where he led the Magic to the playoffs in his first two years at the helm. 

In year three, the Magic decided to shift gears to a youth movement, posting just 21 wins while trading away Nikola Vuvevic, Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon. Clifford wasn’t looking to usher the team through a rebuild and the two sides agreed to mutually part ways in the summer of 2021. 

“This was not some disjointed departure where we didn’t like each other,” Clifford told the Orlando Sentinal. “I got along well with Jeff and John. I feel very comfortable in saying Jeff (Weltman), John (Hammond) and I worked well together and that we had a good relationship. This was more of what Jeff said when he talked about ‘alignment.’ That’s what it was about. Our goals did not align. I just didn’t want to spend another year …”

This season Clifford worked as a consultant for the Brooklyn Nets, but he’s clearly looking to get back in the head coaching game. 

Like Brown, he’s known for his defensive acumen. In his five seasons in Charlotte, Clifford’s teams finished 5th, 9th, 8th, 14th and 16th in defensive rating. At the same time, his offensive numbers weren’t great. The Bobcats/Hornets ran offensive ratings of 24th, 28th, 9th, 14th and 13th. 

Kings owner and chairman Vivek Ranadivé once told me what he was looking for in a head coach:

“Defense is great, but we need defense and offense,” said Ranadivé. “We need to go from a rules-based organization, which was important when you had chaos, to a values-based organization. From kind of a programmatic offense, to a read-and-respond, free-flowing offense. I like to use a music metaphor. We had a Sousa marching band, which was needed when there was chaos, but now we need to shift to a jazz band, where people can be individually showcased and improvised. What we need is a jazz director. I think that’s the kind of leadership moving forward.”

No offense to Clifford, but he’s a Sousa marching band leader, not a Jazz director. He’s also a coach who has a career win percentage of .458 and a 5-16 record in the playoffs. He’s never taken a team past the first round or showed that he was building something that was sustainable in his two stops as a head coach.

3. Mark Jackson

Age: 57

Record: 121-109 (.526)

Playoff Appearances: 2

This might be the most difficult coach to judge. Of all seven candidates, Jackson is the least experienced. Lee has been an assistant for nine seasons. Ham has been an assistant for 11 seasons after working three years in the D League. Hardy has six seasons as an assistant and another six working through the Spurs organization. He also works on the Team USA staff.

Jackson had a three year run as the head coach of the Warriors from 2012-14. He was successful, leading the team to 23, 47 and 51 wins. Outside of those three years, Jackson spent 17 years as a player in the league, but has zero additional experience. He’s never been an assistant coach. He hasn’t worked in the league since 2014, outside of sitting on the sidelines calling games for major television networks. 

Has the league changed since 2014? Absolutely. Has Jackson changed since 2014? Probably not. 

There is a reason that Jackson only coached three years in the league, despite his success. When he was fired by the Warriors, owner Joe Lacob actually went on record to say this about his head coach:

"Part of it was that he couldn't get along with anybody else in the organization," Lacob said. "And look, he did a great job, and I'll always compliment him in many respects, but you can't have 200 people in the organization not like you."

The list of issues with Jackson’s time in Golden State is long and sordid. There is an entire thread on Twitter with links to articles from highly respected journalists, if you want to educate yourself. 

Most of the issues were off the court in nature, but there were situations with assistant coaches, NBA legend Jerry West and even a moment where Jackson completely alienated one of his own players.

Jackson sat down with NFL legend Shannon Sharpe to discuss why he hasn’t been given a second chance in the league over the last eight years. His response is telling:

“The things that have been reported are absolutely not true,” Jackson tells Sharpe. “And I will sit here any day of the week, make time for anybody that’s willing to sit here, because ‘so-and-so’ said it, because it’s always so-and-so -- do me a favor and get so-and-so in front of me. Because I’ll meet em’ and we can have a discussion.”

The argument could be made that Jackson deserves a second chance. He was successful the first time. His teams improved from 27th, to 14th to 4th in defensive rating over his three seasons, although lead assistant Michael Malone played a big part in that. 

Are the Sacramento Kings the team that should roll the dice with a coach who has plenty of baggage and who has three years experience from eight years ago? 

Giving Jackson an interview was fair. A second interview or hiring him? It could work out, but that’s a risk that a franchise like the Kings would be crazy to take. He is clearly the least qualified candidate and to call him a polarizing figure would suggest that there is some sort of split on whether it would be a good idea. 

Conclusion

This is probably the biggest hire in the Sacramento era of Kings basketball. 16 years of futility is one thing, but this is the moment when stability means everything.

Brown, if he will truly consider the job, is a candidate that checks all of the boxes. He’s had more success than any of the other options on the list and when he had a setback in his career, he put in the work to continue his education and earn another opportunity.

Clifford is a safe choice if you are looking for more of the same. He hasn’t had the type of success that warrants giving him another head coaching opportunity, be it in Sacramento or elsewhere. 

The Kings clearly want a defensive voice and a coach with experience. It is surprising that they didn’t allow at least one of the first time coaches to make it to the second round and further understand their vision, but not nearly as surprising as Jackson being considered. 

Jackson might deserve a second chance, but the Kings are in no position to take that risk and that is before considering the validity of any of the baggage that Jackson brings to the table. 

McNair can’t afford to miss. His list of seven was intriguing. The list of three, not so much. With in person interviews on the horizon, the Kings could have a new head coach as early as the end of this week. Hopefully they get this one right. 

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