Why the NBA executive/coach doesn't work, but won't go away

ByBrian Windhorst ESPN logo
Wednesday, January 9, 2019

IT'S TEMPTING TO look at the Minnesota Timberwolves' firing of Tom Thibodeau and come to the conclusion that the era of the dual coach/president is at an end.

In 2016 there were five in the league -- Thibodeau, Stan Van Gundy with the Detroit Pistons, Mike Budenholzer with the Atlanta Hawks, Doc Rivers with the LA Clippers and Gregg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs -- and now only Popovich remains. It feels like a neatly wrapped trend that can be written off as folly.

But nothing in the NBA is that simple, and the league's history typically repeats itself. So, of course, it will happen again. A team desperate to attract a desired coach and a powerful free-agent coach with leverage and the desire to be his own boss will enter into marriage again even with these recent failings in this structure. It's only a matter of time.

In reality, the only two men who were hired into coach/president jobs were Van Gundy and Thibodeau. The others, and we will include the late Flip Saunders in this discussion because he had both roles in Minnesota before his untimely death in 2015, had one job and inherited the other through circumstance.

There was the Donald Sterling saga and ownership change that got Rivers the promotion, there was a front office shake-up and ownership change in Atlanta that led Budenholzer to get both titles, and Saunders got the coach title only after Rick Adelman retired.

The Pistons, coming off six straight losing seasons and five coaches in seven years, were the desperate team in 2014 when they landed Van Gundy by dangling both jobs. It was enough to get Van Gundy to pass on a chance to coach the Golden State Warriors. (The job went to Steve Kerr.)

The Wolves, coming off 12 straight seasons out of the playoffs and reeling from the death of Saunders, were the desperate team in 2016 when they landed Thibodeau by dangling both jobs. It was enough to get Thibodeau to not pursue a possible chance to coach the Los Angeles Lakers, among others.

This sort of scenario is almost guaranteed to happen again. The competition for proven coaches, even when they don't work out, will most certainly create it.

In the meantime, at some point, Erik Spoelstra is a likely candidate to get some or all of Pat Riley's powers as Miami Heat president when Riley decides to retire. If for some reason he doesn't, some team will probably be interested in hiring him for both jobs elsewhere to get him away from the Heat. So it goes in the NBA.

To the larger point, why hasn't it worked out with these fine coach/presidents in recent years? All of the scenarios are different, but it's safe to say that in 2019, the time demands on coach and president/GM are massive and probably not functional in a dual role. This is just not Red Auerbach's prime here.

Popovich has succeeded at it for more than 20 years, but he has a Hall of Fame GM in R.C. Buford. He also has been fortunate to have several incredible players who have made sure the team kept winning -- some who Buford found in Europe and other far-flung places while Popovich was coaching the team.

The failed Jimmy Butler experiment and the sub-.500 record probably did in Thibodeau. But, according to multiple reports, he was also done in by a rocky relationship with the business operations side of the Wolves franchise. The fact is, keeping the CEOs happy is an important part of a modern-day basketball executive's workload.

One person knowing pick-and-roll tendencies so he can draw up a game-winning play, keeping a working relationship with agents on multiple continents, attending draft workouts and satisfying corporate partners all at the same time is a ridiculous set of responsibilities. Even if you find a reliable subordinate to handle trade calls and manage the budget for training equipment, just handling the big picture is a juggling act.

But even if you set that aside, there's this undeniable truth: When there is only one person as the face of the franchise, he gets all the arrows. Miss on a draft pick, trade or free-agent signing, you get the negative headlines. Don't see eye-to-eye with a star player, mess up a substitution rotation or have your team slip in the defensive rankings, you get the negative headlines.

Unless you're really successful -- and so few can meet that standard because of all the variables in this complicated game -- it's a hard position to survive in very long.

On the bright side, they all got very rich trying.

HERALDED OREGON FRESHMAN Bol Bol, son of the late Manute Bol, had surgery last week that included putting screws and a bone graft into the navicular bone in his left foot. The 7-foot-2 center was having a great season for the Ducks, averaging 21 points, 9 rebounds and 3 blocks and shooting an eye-popping 52 percent on 3-pointers.

This was a serious procedure that you'd think would scare a lot of NBA teams. Big men with foot injuries is an unsettling scenario. But Bol and the support system he has in place have dealt with this as best as you can imagine.

First, he was able to have Dr. Martin O'Malley, one of the leading orthopedic surgeons in the country, do the operation at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. Then he had one of L.A.'s most respected attorneys, Bryan J. Freedman, put out a statement detailing the procedure, establishing a time frame and expressing confidence in recovery.

How well this works won't be known for a while, but in canvassing the league over the past few days, teams remain very high on Bol. While they all have to wait for the medical exams in the spring, a handful of executives said they could still see him going in the top 10 in June. Some of it, a few general managers admitted, is the upcoming draft is so top-heavy that a talent like Bol just won't fall that much.

In his latest mock draft, ESPN's draft expert Jonathan Givony had Bol projected at the 15th pick.

THE WIZARDS HAVE been one of the NBA's leading franchises in looking for ways to leverage gambling opportunities. If everything goes to plan, they hope to establish the standard for teams who are looking to cash in on law changes regarding gambling.

Eventually, the leadership of Monumental Sports (which also owns the Washington Capitals) envisions a multilevel sportsbook that would be housed within Capital One Arena offering betting around games. As the arena sits in the middle of a trendy district in the heart of a large city, is built on top of a subway station and has retail space right on street level, Monumental is uniquely positioned to make this happen in the future.

Sports gambling is expected to be up and running in D.C. by the spring. Though it might be a few years before such a project like Monumental's could be undertaken.

"We want to try to give the arena life outside the game window," said Zach Leonsis, Monumental's senior vice president of strategic initiatives. "As soon as the game ends, we push 20,000 people out of the arena. For years the Capitals have played a home game on Super Bowl Sunday. Now the game ends and everyone leaves to watch the Super Bowl. Why wouldn't we encourage them to go watch it in a spectacular sportsbook?"

Or to watch and bet on West Coast games after the end of a Wizards or Capitals game. The Wizards would have to be landlords to a sports betting operation; they can't run their own casino under current league rules. In the meantime, though, the Wizards are experimenting with other ventures.

This week they announced they would air eight gambling-focused telecasts of Wizards games on NBC Sports Washington between now and the end of the season. It is a pilot program to try to test the public's appetite for a broadcast that focuses on gaming, shifting lines and prop bet opportunities.

"It will give our viewers and fans a choice. On one channel we'll have the normal Wizards broadcast. One channel up, we have a brand-new alternate feed," Leonsis said. "We want to see what the engagement is and what it looks like. We want to optimize the broadcast experience."

It's all part of a long-term play. Team owner Ted Leonsis, who is Zach's father, has been investing in gambling-related companies and already owns stakes in sports data giant Sportradar, DraftKings and a digital media gambling company called WinView.

Get used to it. This is all going to be part of the future of the NBA.

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