A list of potential Suns head coaching candidates
There is no real overstating as to how important this offseason is for the Phoenix Suns.
In an eight-year playoff drought, the team has the best odds to land the No. 1 overall pick and is going to hire a permanent head coach.
General manager Ryan McDonough has said the front office is willing to pay big for the right person as head coach, is looking to bring in five to 10 candidates and wants the coach hired before the NBA Draft Lottery on May 15.
Empire of the Suns’ Kevin Zimmerman and Kellan Olson present this list to start with.
It doesn’t necessarily mean we think all of these candidates would be good. The list includes rumored candidates for Phoenix, those linked elsewhere and coaches who might be looking for a new home. Many of these coaches might not be interested or would rather have a job in Milwaukee, New York or even Orlando.
Here is a list of potential Suns head coaches, how (and if) they’ve been linked to the Suns, a short review of their coaching experience and how their resume stacks up.
Status: According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Suns had informal conversations with Blatt and previously said the coach will meet with the New York Knicks.
Experience: Darussafaka (2016-present), Cleveland Cavaliers head coach (2014-16), European head coach (1993-94, 1995-99, 2001-03, 2004-2014), Russian national team head coach (2006-12), Israel national team head coach (2004-05)
Head coaching record: 232-137 (EuroLeague), 83-40 (NBA)
Blatt’s experience between his head coaching and assistant coaching gigs in Europe is too long to list one by one. While his NBA experience was brief and a championship with LeBron James’ Cavaliers wasn’t accomplished — they fell in the 2015 finals to the Warriors — the lens on his brief NBA stint doesn’t look so bad considering what we know of James’ highly-monitored relationships with his other head coaches.
We bring that up to say this: Blatt’s reputation probably isn’t tainted all that much seeing that he was in such a unique position.
Status: Phoenix has received permission to interview him and the New York Knicks plan to meet with him, per Wojnarowksi.
Experience: Spurs assistant coach (2015-present), Magic interim coach (2015), Magic assistant (2012-15), New Orleans Hornet assistant (2010-12), Spurs video coordinator and assistant (2003-2010), San Diego assistant coach (2001-03)
Head coaching record: 10-20
The first of a few Gregg Popovich-mentored coaches on this list, Borrego’s background began in the Spurs’ film room and led to him being named an interim head coach as a 37-year-old when the Magic fired Jacque Vaughn in 2015.
An Albuquerque native, Borrego was credited with instilling a stronger defense that jumped from 106.1 points per 100 possessions before Vaughn was fired to 103.7 after, the latter of which ranked a respectable 19th over Orlando’s final 30 games. Call him Mike Budenholzer light.
Status: The Suns had conversations with Clifford, per Wojnarowski.
Experience: Charlotte Hornets head coach (2013-2018), NBA assistant with Knicks, Rockets, Rockets, Magic and Lakers (2000-2013), Adelphi head coach (1995-1999)
Head coaching record: 196-214 (NBA), 86-36 (college)
Clifford was fired by Charlotte after a second consecutive 36-46 record that saw the Hornets fall outside the playoff picture. In his five years on the Hornets’ bench, Clifford guided the team to the playoffs, but they lost in the first round in both 2014 and 2016.
The 56-year-old also missed 21 games in the 2017-18 season while dealing with a sleep deprivation issue.
Vinny Del Negro
Status: Del Negro has spoken to the Suns, per AZCentral’s Scott Bordow and confirmed by Gambadoro.
Experience: Los Angeles Clippers head coach (2010-13), Chicago Bulls (2008-10), NBA player (1988-2001)
Head coaching record: 210-184
Del Negro knows Phoenix well having played part of his final NBA season in the Valley in 2001 and then serving as a color analyst for the Suns.
He took 41-win teams led by a developing Derrick Rose to two playoff berths before he moved west, where he coached a young Blake Griffin with the Los Angeles Clippers. Los Angeles won 32 and then 40 games Del Negro’s first two seasons, making the second round of the playoffs in 2012, before they jumped to 56 victories in 2012-13. The arrival of talented point guard Chris Paul, however, led to Del Negro’s dismissal — then owner Donald Sterling essentially admitted he chose player over coach.
Status: Fizdale met with the Suns about the vacancy, per the New York Times’ Marc Stein. Wojnarowski also named Fizdale among the candidates the Knicks and Hornets are expected to consider.
Experience: Memphis Grizzlies head coach (2016-18), NBA assistant (2003-2016), college assistant (1998-2004)
Head coaching record: 50-51
One of the most respected young coaches in the NBA, Fizdale lost a battle with Memphis Grizzlies star Marc Gasol and was fired in November.
An offensive-minded coach who earns the respect of players by how hard he is on them, Fizdale looks like one of the better matches when it comes to the Suns’ roster and youth.
He also has a connection to James Jones, the Suns’ vice president of basketball operations, who was on the Miami Heat with Fizdale as an assistant from 2008-2014, in which Miami won two titles behind leaders LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Status: Gambadoro confirmed that the Suns have been in contact with Kidd, who is certainly interested in the position the coach told Burns & Gambo on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.
Experience: Milwaukee Bucks head coach (2014-18), Brooklyn Nets coach (2013-14), NBA player (1994-2013)
Head coaching record: 183-190
Kidd forced his way out of Brooklyn after reportedly requesting he be given more executive powers with the Nets; during that time, he received permission to interview for the Milwaukee head coaching job that was still held by Larry Drew. Kidd had his ups and downs once Milwaukee hired him.
He is known for constantly changing his mind about players, having some fall out of favor so severely and quickly they don’t even understand what went wrong. In general, he’s rubbed people the wrong way over the course of his career — there’s a reason there’s an ESPN article titled “History of Jason Kidd’s past incidents.”
Kidd, who recently bought a home in Phoenix, put together audacious defensive schemes that did not end up succeeding in Milwaukee. It should be noted the Bucks’ best player, Giannis Antetokounmpo, pleaded with the team to retain their head coach.
And despite all that, you won’t find many around the NBA who doubt that Kidd can be a good NBA coach. Perhaps the Suns’ current situation and Kidd’s previous links to the team are the perfect match for him to neutralize his flaws and become one of the better coaches in the league.
Igor Kokoskov, Utah Jazz
Status: 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station’s John Gambadoro reported Kokoskov would interview with the Suns and 98.7 FM’s Craig Grialou reports an interview took place over the phone in-between games two and three of the Jazz’s first-round playoff matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Experience: Utah Jazz assistant (2015-present), Slovenia national team head coach (2016-17), NBA assistant (2000-present), Georgia national team head coach (2008-15), Serbia and Montenegro assistant (2004-05), Missouri assistant coach (1999-2000)
Head coaching record (Georgia and Slovenia national teams): 34-20
An assistant with the Suns from 2008-13 under head coach Alvin Gentry, Kokoskov took on a bigger role when Phoenix infamously replaced the fired head man with former player development coach Lindsey Hunter — it was Kokoskov who was often running huddles.
Since, he jumped from the staffs in Cleveland to Orlando, and most recently has seen success as Quin Snyder’s go-to assistant in Utah.
Most notably, Kokoskov coached and led Slovenia to a EuroBasket championship last summer. Why, yes, that team did have potential No. 1 draft pick Luka Doncic on it.
Kokoskov showed he could make two primary ball-handlers work with Doncic and Goran Dragic, and the Suns could see the promise in a similar system built around Devin Booker and Josh Jackson — or Booker, Jackson and Doncic.
Status: Gambadoro confirms that McHale is a candidate following the news of Budenholzer’s withdrawal as a candidate.
Experience: Houston Rockets head coach (2011-15), Minnesota Timberwolves head coach (2005, 2008-09), T-Wolves VP of basketball ops (1995-2008), Hall of Fame player, seven-time All-Star, three-time NBA champion with Boston Celtics
Head coaching record: 232-185
One would think the Boston-bred McDonough thinks quite highly of the Celtics great, who after his playing career arguably has more experience as a front office executive than he does as a coach.
Most of McHale’s success as a coach came with James Harden-led Rockets teams, who went to the playoffs three years in a row from 2013-15, the last year falling to Golden State in the Western Conference Finals. He was fired after a 4-7 start the following season.
All of McHale’s teams finished their regular seasons with top-10 offensive squads and middle-rung defensive teams.
His resume certainly would carry a lot of weight in a locker room with players young and old.
Jay Triano, Phoenix Suns
Status: Triano interviewed with Phoenix.
Experience: Suns interim coach (2017-18), Canadian national team head coach (1999-2004, 2012-present), Suns associate head coach (2016-17), Portland Trail Blazers assistant coach (2012-16), Toronto Raptors head coach (2008-11), Raptors assistant (2002-08), Simon Fraser University head coach (1988-1995)
Head coaching record (NBA only): 108-200
While the record doesn’t speak to it, Triano did a fine job with the Suns as an interim head coach.
He did what Earl Watson could not by implementing a system on both ends and holding young players accountable.
Triano is not the big, shiny and expensive head coaching hire you imagine for the Suns, but there are worse names for Phoenix to consider. However, he would have to pitch a much-upgraded staff — and likely a highly-regarded defensive assistant — to round out the team next to his offensive background.
Triano had his interview with the Suns on Thursday, per Gambadoro.
Status: The Suns have been in contact with Vogel.
Experience: Orlando Magic head coach (2016-18), Indiana Pacers head coach (2011-16), assistant for Celtics, Sixers and Pacers (2001-2011)
Head coaching record (NBA only): 304-291
Fired after a 25-57 season with the Magic, Vogel does have a track record of success with Indiana. The Pacers made the postseason in five of six seasons under Vogel’s leadership and twice went to the conference finals where they fell to LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
While those Pacers teams were defense-first and led by gritty Danny Ganger, David West and Paul George, Vogel was set up to succeed. He doesn’t have a resume of developing young players, so the Suns would need to put solid veterans in place, as they’ve said they want to do.
Not linked to the Suns
Jerry Stackhouse, Raptors 905
Experience: Raptors 905 (G League) head coach (2016-present), Toronto Raptors assistant (2015-16), NBA player (1995-2013)
Head coaching record: 70-30
At the moment, Stackhouse is the one former player with the most buzz to next make his debut as an NBA head coach.
Serving as an assistant coach for the Raptors in 2015, the 18-year veteran ran their G League team over the past two seasons, leading them all the way to a championship last year. He was also named the league’s coach of the year. He coached the team this season to another championship series appearance, this time falling to the Spurs’ G League franchise.
Tony Bennett, Virginia
Experience: Virginia head coach (2009-present), Washington State head coach (2006-09), WSU assistant (2003-06), Wisconsin assistant (1999-2003), North Harbour Kings head coach (1998-99), player for Charlotte Hornets (1992-95)
Head coaching record: 288-119
His Cavaliers may have become the first NCAA No. 1 seed to fall to a No. 16 seed, but he’s nonetheless regarded as one of the best coaches in the college game. Known for installing his father’s Pack Line Defense, a man-to-man concept relying on ball pressure and help, he is a calm leader who might instill defensive values into a young Suns team.
However, his slow-paced offenses that were near dead-last in college hoops would be a odd fit just considering Phoenix’s history of fast-paced basketball.
Experience: Golden State Warriors head coach (2011-14), NBA player (1987-2004)
Head coaching record: 121-109
Jackson is credited with helping the Warriors turn a 23-win team into a 47- and 51-win team the next two years. Fair or not, Jackson took criticism that a team with stars in Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, David Lee and Andre Iguodala couldn’t go deep into the postseason (Draymond Green had yet to become a starting power forward).
The former New York Knick has already been reported as a potential target for the Knicks.
Ettore Messina, San Antonio Spurs
Experience: San Antonio Spurs assistant (2014-present), head coach for Virtus Bologna, Italian national team, Benetton Treviso, CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid (1989-2011)
Head coaching record: 377-279
If the Suns want to primarily hire off of experience, it’s hard to find someone better than Messina.
A winner of four EuroLeague championships, Messina has been coaching overseas since 1989, recently for powerhouses CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid from 2005-14. As an assistant with the Spurs since 2014, Messina has unsurprisingly gained loads of buzz around the league as a potential head coaching hire. He has been previously linked to the head coaching job in Sacramento and will reportedly interview for the same position with Charlotte, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
Sean Miller, Arizona
Experience: Arizona head coach (2009-present), Xavier head coach (2004-09), college assistant (1993-2004)
Head coaching record: 367-121
Could Miller make the NBA jump if things went south in Tucson? Would NBA teams be interested if he wanted to?
Most importantly, would he have any interest in jumping to the NBA, where his detailed, micro-management style might not mesh with front office executives and older basketball players?
We’re not sure, but he’s a beloved head coach and has done a great job with Arizona’s program — scandals and lack of a Final Four aside.
Monty Williams, San Antonio Spurs
Experience: Spurs VP of basketball operations (2016-present), Oklahoma City Thunder associate head coach (2015-16), New Orleans Pelicans/Hornets head coach (2010-15), Portland Trail Blazers assistant (2005-2010), NBA player (1994-2003)
Head coaching record: 173-221
Williams has more NBA coaching experience than most of the candidates here. He was an assistant from 2005-10 with the Trail Blazers before coaching the New Orleans Pelicans from 2010-15.
Known as a player’s coach, the death of his wife led to Williams stepping away as the Thunder’s associate head coach in 2016. He returned to work as the Spurs’ vice president of basketball operations.
Jay Wright, Villanova
Experience: Villanova head coach (2001-present), Hofstra head coach (1994-2001), college assistant at Rochester, Drexel, Villanova and UNLV (1984-1994)
Head coaching record: 542-250 (25-13 in NCAA Tournament)
The only thing Wright doesn’t have going for him is NBA head coaching experience.
As the head coach of the Wildcats since 2001, Wright has won the Big East the past four straight seasons.
Despite recruiting classes lacking real buzz, Wright molded and developed recent players into an NBA-friendly style that led to two national championships in the past three years.
Out of the running
Status: Budenholzer interviewed with the Suns for two days but pulled himself out of the head coaching search, according to Wojnarowksi. The following week, the Hawks reportedly parted ways with Budenholzer, per Wojnarowski.
Experience: Atlanta Hawks head coach (2013-present), San Antonio Spurs assistant coach (1996-2013)
Head coaching record: 213-197
Wojnarowski reported the Suns had been focused on getting to know Budenholzer and both he and the Hawks are open to ending their partnership.
The NBA’s Coach of the Year in 2015 and an Arizona native, Budenholzer is the only coach on this list you can say, with certainty, is a good NBA coach. The core of his great Atlanta teams is long gone and a rebuild with no top-tier pieces except the Hawks’ upcoming first-round pick awaits. Apparently, hanging tight (or perhaps looking elsewhere) is a better option to Budenholzer.
With two years and over $14 million left on his contract, Phoenix would have needed to pay big-time for him to make the move.
The Suns bringing in Budenholzer would have done a lot for the franchise. A highly thought of coach in NBA circles would come to the team, the Suns succeeding would have shown they are willing to spend and most importantly, the Suns would have a really good coach for the roster overhaul they are expected to undergo.
Dan Majerle, Grand Canyon
Status: Majerle told Gambadoro he declined the chance to speak with the Suns about the opening and is content with his current job at GCU.
Experience: Grand Canyon head coach (2013-present), Suns associate coach (2008-13), NBA player (1988-2002)
Head coaching record: 103-58
Majerle seems awfully happy at GCU and doesn’t have experience as an NBA head coach. McDonough said there isn’t any lack of experience that will disqualify anyone in the coaching search, but if Marjerle had been involved, he would have to have made up with the franchise after he wasn’t considered for the interim job when his former boss, Gentry, was fired in 2013 (Majerle and fellow assistant Elston Turner left the team as Phoenix and GM Lance Blanks eyed Hunter for the job).