DAN BICKLEY

Despite hiring a very good coach in Kokoskov, Suns have more work to do

May 3, 2018, 6:39 PM
Slovenia's coach Igor Kokoskov looks on during their Eurobasket European Basketball Championship se...
Slovenia's coach Igor Kokoskov looks on during their Eurobasket European Basketball Championship semifinal match against Spain in Istanbul, Thursday, Sept. 14. 2017. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
(AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Dig deep, Suns fans. Strip away the suspicions, the scar tissue and the hard-earned skepticism. Look at Igor Kokoskov for who he is, and not who will soon be signing his paychecks in Phoenix.

It’s a liberating exercise. It might even restore your faith in the future.

The Suns’ latest head coach isn’t a marquee name. He feels like a consolation prize, accepting a three-year deal after Mike Budenholzer withdrew his candidacy and David Fizdale reportedly turned down a four-year offer, concluding an exhaustive search that featured 10 prospects and two high-profile rejections.

But the first choice isn’t always the right choice. Testimonials are pouring in from some of the most trusted voices on Planet Orange, transcending the perception problem still shadowing owner Robert Sarver.

Including this mouthful from a man who has seen the worst of the Suns:

“This will be one of the best hires they’ve ever made,” said former Suns coach Alvin Gentry.

Over the years, Kokoskov has forged an impeccable reputation, silently regarded as one of the best assistant coaches in the NBA. He is a servant to basketball and not his ego. He has a pleasing temperament. He feels most at home in the background, which NBA players appreciate almost as much as playing time.

His age — 46 — belies his wealth of experience. He is considered an offensive mastermind, and will overhaul the aesthetics and uninspired style of play that has plagued this team for years. He is a pioneer, the first European-born head coach in the NBA, well-versed in the schematic trends overtaking the league. He is the perfect choice to groom incoming rookie Luka Doncic, a Slovenian star that could end up in the Valley. He gives me new hope for Dragan Bender, a Croatian star struggling to find a comfort zone in the NBA.

There are obvious concerns. Kokoskov has never been a head coach in the NBA, a transition that can’t be rationalized or overstated. He’ll surely rank among the bottom third in compensation, feeding into the belief that Sarver will always choose frugality and controllability over elite talent. And if the new guy was so good, why did it take him 18 years to get this opportunity?

The answer is comforting.

Kokoskov made a powerful statement at the 2017 EuroBasket tournament, leading Slovenia to an unexpected championship with one NBA player on its roster (Goran Dragic). For perspective, Slovenia is a country of 2.1 million people, failing to qualify for the past seven Summer Olympics.

The gold medal validated those who believe Kokoskov is ready to be a head coach in the NBA. More importantly, it should fill him with confidence for the heavy lifting ahead.

“He’s a really innovative guy,” Gentry said. “If you talk to Goran (Dragic), he’ll tell you that Igor is more responsible for his development than anybody. And I told Robert (Sarver) that this is a great hire for them, and I think he’s going to be great for Suns fans.”

A word of caution: Head coaches only matter so much in the NBA. The Suns should be applauded for a lengthy process, including an olive branch extended to Dan Majerle. And while they landed a very good coach, this is the least of their concerns.

They need Ryan McDonough to be a great general manager in the coming months, and they need Sarver to be an owner worthy of our pride and emotional investment.

Rejections from Budenholzer and Fizdale will inevitably fuel those who believe the current owner is destroying the team’s heritage. But sometime in 2017, Sarver became less omnipresent, finally convinced there was a time and a place for his input.

Meanwhile, James Jones strongly countered Sarver’s image problem. The vice president of basketball operations said his boss is intensely involved, far more than some new-wave owners who are rarely seen at the arena. But he made an important distinction, saying “at no point is Robert a dictator or does he meddle in decisions.”

“His passion is a lot of times mistaken for control,” Jones said.

The appointment of Kokoskov seems to have pacified many diehard basketball fans in the Valley, even if his hiring won’t move the meter for casual fans. That’s OK. Nobody buys tickets to see the head coach draw up plays on the clipboard.

What this team needs most is better talent and a better fit of players for his system. They need McDonough to prove he’s worthy of his position, capable of pulling a franchise out of quicksand and ending the drought in one of the NBA’s most tormented cities.

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Despite hiring a very good coach in Kokoskov, Suns have more work to do