The three best coaches in the Eastern Conference are the ones who are still alive and playing basketball. Look at their rosters, and you realize that’s not a coincidence. Individual talent counts for a lot in the NBA, but the past few weeks of basketball have dealt a significant blow to the colloquial understanding of the league’s superstar system.
A year ago at this time, few people outside of Miami, Toronto, and Boston even bothered to consider the fact that the Eastern Conference finals would feature any team other than the 76ers or the Bucks. The Raptors had lost Kawhi Leonard. The Celtics had lost Kyrie Irving. The Heat were little more than the latest stop on Jimmy Butler’s demolition tour. Revisionists might attempt to massage these narratives, but that is what they were. Vegas had the Bucks at 6-to-1 and the 76ers at 8-to-1. The Celtics were the next-best thing. At 25-to-1.
Looking back now, it’s easy to chalk all of this up to our misevaluation of talent. The story lines might have been different if we’d known that Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum would both increase their scoring average by 50 percent, or that Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo would emerge the way they did. Maybe we should have put more stock in the fact that the Raptors were the defending NBA champions.
At the same time, there’s a reason the Celtics and Raptors will need seven games to decide their semifinal, and it’s the same reason we should all be expecting a similar outcome when the winner faces the Heat. Each of these teams might differ in their constituent parts, but their core identities are uncannily similar. If you are currently the general manager of an Eastern Conference team that finds itself at an inflection point, you would be wise to take note.
Two weeks after the Sixers parted ways with Brett Brown, we haven’t heard much hard information regarding their search for a replacement. The usual line of out-of-work coaches have made it known that they would be interested in the job. With apologies to Jason Kidd and Mike Brown, the conventional wisdom suggests they would be wiser to focus their pursuits on more intelligentsia-approved candidates such as Tyronn Lue and Billy Donovan. But it might do all of us some good to consider the possibility that the best coach to turn the Sixers into a contender is someone who none of us has yet considered.
Now would be a logical place for me to drop a name or two, but I’m not going to do that, because that would undermine my point. What do Nick Nurse, Brad Stevens, and Erik Spoelstra have in common? Practically nothing, apart from the lack of NBA head coaching experience, and the fact that somebody in a position of power realized that they would be perfect for the job.
Spoelstra was a no-name assistant for a second-division team in Germany when the Heat hired him as their video coordinator. At some point within the next 13 years, Pat Riley decided that he would be his successor. Good luck finding someone else who fits that profile.
Stevens' story is well-known. A 23-year-old with an economics degree, he quit his job at Eli Lilly to volunteer in Butler’s basketball office. Seven years later, he was named the Bulldogs' head coach. Two years after that, he was in the Final Four, where Celtics general manager Danny Ainge was in the stands to watch the Blue Devils win a thriller over Butler. Three years after that, Ainge was in Indiana, convincing Stevens to sign a contract to replace Doc Rivers.
Nurse’s path to the Raptors' job was the least-conventional of all. From small-college assistant to the British Basketball League to the NBA D-League, he won at every level. After five years as an assistant under Dwayne Casey, Masai Ujiri tapped him to replace Casey.
On an abstract level, there are some commonalities within all three cases. One, these were men with an intense love for their profession and a willingness to embrace any circumstance. Two, they had a track record of winning – Spoelstra with Riley’s Heat, Stevens at Butler, Nurse virtually everywhere he went. Three, and most notable, they were handpicked from a list of one by well-established executives who were intimately familiar with their careers.
It’s this last point that offers us the biggest reason to wonder whether the Sixers even have the opportunity to make the right choice. The dysfunction that has marred their front office for the past four years puts them light years away from the organizations that the Heat, Raptors, and Celtics had built by the time they made their current hires. Ainge hired Stevens three years after watching him go toe-to-toe with Mike Krzyzewski and filing it away. Three years ago, the Sixers' GM was the guy whom Ujiri had replaced with the Raptors, and Elton Brand had just retired from the NBA.
All of it seems set up for the Sixers to throw a bunch of money at the biggest name and hope for the best. And, hey, maybe it will work. Donovan and Lue are both good candidates. But the current Eastern Conference playoff field tells us that they shouldn’t be the only ones. A coaching search gives an organization a rare opportunity to self-evaluate. There aren’t many circumstances in which ownership can sit down with a bunch of bright basketball minds who are not on the payroll and pick their brains about winning.
The right search for the Sixers will be one that casts the widest possible net, and includes the most-diverse set of backgrounds. Somewhere out in the basketball universe are the next Spoelstra, the next Nurse, the next Stevens. In order to catch him, the Sixers must give themselves the chance.