While San Antonio Spurs Assistant Coaches Ime Udoka and Ettore Messina have been receiving interview requests for head coaching positions, the buzz around Becky Hammon has been minimal. Could that be a blessing in disguise?
The end of the regular season illustrates a clear demarcation in the NBA: 16 teams were consistently strong enough to secure a playoff berth, including the San Antonio Spurs, while 14 other franchises began their offseason early to start examining what went wrong during the 82-game season.
One of the most popular courses of action for those lottery teams is a coaching change.
This year’s 2018-19 NBA season is just the latest ride on the annual coaching carousel with seven teams firing their head coach during the middle of the season or just shortly after.
Currently, three* NBA teams, excluding teams still competing in the playoffs, have a head coaching vacancy: the Memphis Grizzlies, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Los Angeles Lakers. (*This also excludes the Minnesota Timberwolves who are progressing toward a deal to transition Ryan Saunders from interim to full-time head coach.)
It’s the worst kept secret in the league that the San Antonio Spurs have produced some excellent coaching talent over the last 20-plus years, all stemming from the mighty oak tree that is Gregg Popovich. Mike Budenholzer, Brett Brown and Mike Brown are just a few names that have sprouted from this coaching tree and have made names for themselves in their own right.
As such, Spurs assistants have been viewed as coveted assets who can potentially bring some of that championship-caliber coaching prowess to a new franchise.
After the 2017-18 season, all three of the Spurs’ top assistant coaches: Ime Udoka, Ettore Messina, and James Borrego, received a bevy of interview requests from various teams. Ultimately, Borrego was the only assistant to accept a full-time offer to coach the Charlotte Hornets.
With the departure of Borrego, Becky Hammon, WNBA legend and NBA trailblazer, was promoted to the first row of the bench as one of Pop’s top assistants. This offseason, Udoka and Messina have already interviewed for the head coaching position with the Cavaliers. However, Hammon’s name has been conspicuously left out of discussions for several of these openings.
The latest omission comes in the aftermath of what occurred recently in Los Angeles. After weeks of what seemed to be a done deal, former Laker and Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue shocked everyone when he announced that he was withdrawing his name from candidacy for the position due to contract disputes.
This was just the most recent, and somehow not the craziest, chapter in what has been an utterly disappointing and bizarre saga for the Los Angeles Lakers franchise during the 2018-19 season. After that fallout, the Lakers scrambled to put out their new list of potential replacements. That initial list consisted of Frank Vogel, Lionel Hollins and Mark Woodson.
The team would later announce they would also bring in former Grizzlies coach J.B. Bickerstaff for consideration. For many, this group of coaches seems underwhelming, unoriginal and a tad stale. Yes, all of them have been head coaches at some point in time, but it just feels like an unfortunate continuation of the trend of rummaging through the same bin of recycled coaches.
More and more people, not just of the Silver and Black contingent, have begun noticing and wondering: why hasn’t Becky Hammon been getting any head coaching calls?
First, let’s take a step back and tell the tale of how Hammon got to the precipice of making history (again) in the world of sports. Hammon spent 15 years playing in the WNBA, starting off with the New York Liberty, before ending her playing career with the San Antonio Silver Stars in 2014.
Unfortunately, Hammon tore her ACL during the 2013 WNBA season, ending her year prematurely. However, that injury would serve as a blessing in disguise. While spending the following year rehabbing her knee, Coach Pop invited Hammon to sit in on Spurs’ practices, coaches meetings, and games, and she was frequently asked to voice her opinion and provide feedback.
And then, on August 5, 2014, the San Antonio Spurs and Hammon made history.
Hammon was named as a full-time assistant coach, becoming the first female in that role in any of the four major American professional sports leagues. She continued to make headlines and cement her legacy when she accepted the role of head coach for the Spurs’ Summer League team, leading the squad to a championship in Las Vegas in 2015.
After that performance in Vegas, many media pundits were ready to anoint Hammon as the next big thing, calling for her to get a head coaching position in the league. While I do anticipate that Hammon will ultimately be the first to break that barrier as the first female head coach, I don’t believe it should have happened in 2015. And, I don’t think it should happen in 2019 either.
With the unexpected passing of Coach Pop’s wife during the first round of the playoffs last year, there was a strong belief that Pop’s time at the helm would be coming to an end. However, after the Spurs were bested in seven games to the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs this year, there was a much different mood with regard to Pop’s future.
Just days after their playoff exit, the Spurs and Pop were in negotiations to extend the five-time NBA championship coach, finally agreeing on a three-year extension that would keep Pop in the Alamo City until the end of the 2020-21 season.
Now, this is just one of several reasons why Hammon should stay put in San Antonio. Last offseason was the perfect example. Borrego landed the Hornets gig, allowing Hammon to transition to a more prominent and active role on the team.
Based on the level of interest Udoka and Messina have been receiving over the last few years, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that one or even both of them could accept head coaching positions with other teams prior to the expiration of Pop’s new deal. Again, Hammon would be the primary beneficiary of those departures, inching closer and closer to becoming Pop’s right-hand woman and potential heir apparent.
In addition, Pop turned 70 in January. By the end of his deal he’ll be 73 years old. While I’m sure all Spurs fans would want to see Pop on the sidelines until he literally keels over from old age, there’s a strong chance that he might not even finish that contract in its entirety. So, if you’re Hammon, why jump ship now?
Much of this is a moot point, considering Hammon hasn’t even been extended an interview, let alone an official offer for a head coaching role. But she’s already expressed her desire to coach in the NBA ranks, turning down a number of men’s and women’s head coaching positions at the collegiate level.
Despite my desire to see Hammon make that eventual leap, I would caution Spurs fans and others who are eager for her to claim one of those positions and add another section to her already lengthy and historic resume.
For the sake of argument, let’s say Hammon got one of jobs with either the Lakers, Grizzlies or Cavaliers. Is she really going to be put in the best position to succeed?
The Los Angeles Lakers have been a circus for the last year, between the Anthony Davis trade rumors that created a fissure in the locker room, the spontaneous and still mysterious resignation of Magic Johnson, and the latest chapter regarding Tyronn Lue, which has illuminated just how dysfunctional this organization has been. Oh, and they just missed the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season.
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Memphis hasn’t necessarily been the beacon of consistency either. The Grizz fired current New York Knicks head coach David Fizdale after just one season and a handful of games after reports of internal strife. His replacement, J.B. Bickerstaff, was subsequently ousted after roughly two seasons in town. Does it sound like Hammon would get a fair shake there?
And finally, the Cleveland Cavaliers, who haven’t succeeded without LeBron James in a very long time. Now, after four straight years of going to the NBA Finals, the Cavs were back at the bottom of the league this season and are projected to have a top-three pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.
All of this is to say while I would agree that Becky Hammon totally deserves to be in these conversations for head coaching positions, is the grass necessarily greener on the other side?
My biggest fear would be for Hammon to end up on a mediocre team with poor management or an unstable front office and be jettisoned after two or maybe three years of underperforming.
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For her, I believe the long-play is the best course of action. So, as simple as is sounds, here’s what Becky Hammon should do: stay in San Antonio.
Continue learning from one of the greatest basketball minds the game has ever seen, keep fostering connections with the players who universally love and respect her, and remain in a stable and progressive environment where she would be in position to take over one of the storied franchises in NBA history.
Don’t worry Coach Hammon, your time will come soon enough.