Igor Kokoskov can only hope Suns’ record doesn’t determine his fate
PHOENIX — For every moment on the scale of weird-to-bad for first-year Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov this season, there was another leading to hopefulness.
The bad included a miscommunicated non-foul that led to overtime against the Boston Celtics early on. Later came a franchise-record 17-game losing streak.
Devin Booker’s biggest step toward stardom yet and a 8-13 finish to the season — despite losing more than a starting lineup’s worth of players — were a few indicators that the tide could shift in favor of the Suns.
Yet Phoenix closed the 2018-19 season holding a 19-63 record with Tuesday’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
Record, the ultimate indicator of a head coach’s status on a team, makes Kokoskov’s future uncertain.
“Personally, I’m very, very not very pleased and satisfied with our season,” he said Wednesday. “I have a high expectation for myself. First time when I met with (reporters), I mentioned this is not developmental league, this is professional basketball league.
“It’s all about winning or losing games. (There is a) subjective opinion of how I feel about a season, but I see my work as the record of the team. That’s fact. That’s not a subjective opinion.”
As of Wednesday, Kokoskov hadn’t yet spoken to Suns owner Robert Sarver or current co-interim GM James Jones about his future.
The general manager who hired Kokoskov, Ryan McDonough, was ousted before the head coach debuted in October. Jones, who also helped in the coaching search, appears ready to remain in a key decision-making role and will be influenced by incoming senior vice president of basketball operations Jeff Bower.
Kokoskov held a brief farewell meeting with the Suns on Wednesday rather than holding extensive one-on-one interviews before players packed up their lockers.
“Offseason starts in a couple of days,” Kokoskov said, adding he would be available to help players improve this summer. “They have to start working on their games pretty soon. It’s going to be a long summer but also part of the message is they’re going to watch playoff games and be upset we’re not there.
“We had plenty of time to kind of build relationships and to talk and discuss (this season). I don’t give too much attention to the last meeting and that some miracle is going to be had to build that chemistry.”
In other words, the usually-steady head coach treated this final day like every other one.
That approach may have finally begun breaking through late in the season, showing in how the Suns performed down the homestretch. Still, there’s always room to improve.
It’s paramount with just 19 wins on the year.
“You ask me about a young player: What area is he going to get better?” Kokoskov said. “Coach(ing) is the same when it comes to, you know, everything. Literally everything. Where is our ball movement? Flow of our offense, better spacing, be more efficient with our time, ATOs [after timeout plays] — everything.”
Critiques of Kokoskov didn’t end with only self-reflection.
Kelly Oubre Jr., who was acquired before the February trade deadline, admitted it took him a bit to simply understand what Kokoskov was asking of him this season.
“I salute him,” Oubre Jr. said. “He’s gotten better throughout the year. When I first got to the team, it was really hard to understand him. Me and him started talking, got to know each other a little bit. He’s a very transparent individual. He’ll let you know what he’s feeling, let you know what he sees.
“You need that out of a coach, somebody who’s going to hold everybody accountable, you know, keep everybody on the same page. We have to get better of course — we all do — but this foundation has started.”
Oubre, 23, enters free agency after he joined Phoenix franchise cornerstones Booker and Deandre Ayton having made a significant leap under Kokoskov this season. Oubre averaged 20.2 points, 5.7 rebounds and shot 47 percent in 12 games after the All-Star break.
This, after he struggled to find a similar role with the Washington Wizards.
Fellow midseason trade acquisition Tyler Johnson also vouched for Kokoskov. The point guard heard good things about the first-year coach from ex-Miami Heat teammate Goran Dragic, who was the starting point guard on Kokoskov’s Slovenian national team that won EuroBasket in 2017.
“I really liked Igor,” Johnson said. “(Dragic) was letting me know beforehand how he was as coach, and when I got here he definitely didn’t disappoint. There’s a lot of variables that go into the success of the team, but I thought he did an excellent job of really taking the time to get guys to understand their roles and to be a professional.”
Booker’s opinion, when it’s all said and done, means the most.
So take this for what it’s worth:
“Everybody has to grow,” Booker said. “Obviously he’s been around the game a long time, but it’s a whole new role as a head coach. He stayed cool, calm and collected the whole season but he did what he needed to do for us. He gave us the advice that we need.”
BOOKER TRUSTING OF SUNS LEADERSHIP
Booker wouldn’t speak on the yet-to-be-official hiring of Bower, but he did say that he trusts the decision-makers who are already part of the organization.
“I have full support in our front office and the guys making that decision,” he said.
While Booker said veteran addition would help, he also said he would be “cool with the roster as is.
“We’re going to be in good shape next year,” he added. “I’m very happy. I think the true fans know that and know how much I care about this city and how bad we want to win here.”
— Forward T.J. Warren has struggled to stay healthy over his five-year career. He’s yet to play more than 66 games and this year made it only 43, missing the homestretch due to a bone bruise in his ankle.
“It’s been tough,” Warren said Wednesday after averaging 18 points per game on 49 percent shooting. “I just wanted to make sure I could be myself when I came back, and mentally and physically I wasn’t feeling like that. I didn’t want to rush it or have any second-thoughts.”
— Johnson’s arthroscopic knee surgery that ended his season went well and “shouldn’t have any bearing on my work this summer,” he said.