Why Steve Nash’s Hiring Is About Relationships, Not Race

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A spirited discussion with a general manager nearly a decade ago helped me form a trusty philosophy for evaluating N.B.A. coaches.

This was not long after LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat in July 2010, which many around the league view as the launch of the N.B.A.’s player empowerment era.

I declared that buy-in from players meant far more for coaches in the modern game than strategic acumen. The G.M. reminded me that nothing was more important to a coach’s success than talent but agreed with the rest of the premise.

I’ve made a habit of reciting these rankings (and cheekily claiming them as my own) ever since. The No. 1 variable for any new coach’s odds of success is the quality of the roster. No. 2 is player belief in the coach’s knowledge, messaging and system, and in-game mastery of Xs and Os is a distant third.

This is not to say that game management doesn’t matter in the N.B.A. It will always be a big deal — no one knows it better right now than Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee’s under-fire head coach — and it will almost certainly rank as Steve Nash’s biggest weakness as a rookie coach with the Nets next season. Nash, after all, is new to coaching.

Yet there are moves that can offset what an inexperienced coach lacks in that area. The Nets can surround Nash with sharp, well-traveled assistant coaches to help him with the nuances of in-game adjustments, substitution patterns, drawing up plays on the fly and other coaching “feel” matters as he learns them. It’s the Larry Bird Model that crystallized 20 years ago, when Bird helped steer the Indiana Pacers into the 2000 N.B.A. finals as an unseasoned head coach with top-shelf offensive (Rick Carlisle) and defensive coordinators (Dick Harter) flanking him.

Tactical experts like Carlisle and Harter are much easier to find than a coach who, before his first practice, holds deep respect from Kevin Durant. Nash and Durant first bonded after being introduced by Adam Harrington, who is now a Nets assistant coach but played with Nash in Dallas and began training Durant during the 2013-14 season, when Durant won the Most Valuable Player Award with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Nash and Durant then worked together, albeit in brief spurts, throughout Durant’s three seasons with the Golden State Warriors, when Nash would drop by the Warriors’ practice gym in his role as a part-time consultant in player development. It was impossible to miss that Nash was more apt to work with the 7-foot Durant than the guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

“My Yoda,” Durant called Nash in those days.

Yet when Nash landed the Nets’ job last week, another relationship came into focus: Nash’s ties to Nets General Manager Sean Marks. Even though I covered Nash at close range for much of his N.B.A. career, I didn’t realize how close he and Marks had grown during their brief stint as teammates in Phoenix — or how far back the bond stretched. Nash and Marks have known each other for more than 20 years, starting out as international basketball rivals representing Canada and New Zealand.

Those are the primary reasons Nash landed the Nets job before anyone even knew he was interested. Nash’s new boss has seen firsthand the way that, as a player, he could galvanize a team and make everyone around him, even a 15th man like Marks, feel good.

“He’s going to be great,” said Alvin Gentry, who coached Nash and Marks as an assistant with Phoenix, then took over as the Suns’ head coach before an unexpected run to the Western Conference finals in 2010.

“Steve is tremendous with people,” Gentry continued. “He will get along great with players, and he has a great demeanor for coaching — great competitor, but always under control.”

Even so, last week’s fiery debate after the Nets hired Nash, as a white coach with zero coaching experience, was understandable — and needed. Even if you agreed with TNT’s Charles Barkley that criticism of the Nets was overwrought, there is a longstanding diversity issue in the N.B.A.’s coaching and front-office ranks.

There are only five Black head coaches in a league with a player pool that is an estimated 80 percent Black, although five teams have coaching vacancies — including New Orleans, which fired Gentry last month. There are also just seven Black front-office executives with varying degrees of lead decision-making power: Cleveland’s Koby Altman, Detroit’s Troy Weaver, Philadelphia’s Elton Brand, Phoenix’s James Jones, Sacramento’s Joe Dumars, San Antonio’s Brian Wright and Toronto’s Masai Ujiri.

Only Ujiri, of that group, holds the title of team president.

The numbers are abysmal. They would be disheartening even if this league, and this country, were not in the midst of a national reckoning on race. The N.B.A. may grade well in diversity studies when measured against the other major North American sports leagues, but it is not enough for this league to outpace the N.F.L. and Major League Baseball.

So maybe it is time for the N.B.A. to consider crafting its own version of the N.F.L.’s “Rooney Rule” — something stronger at the league level to help nonwhite coaching and front-office candidates and to address the failings Commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged in June.

“There is no doubt there is more we can do internally, the league and our teams, and in terms of hiring practices,” Silver said.

I nonetheless share Barkley’s view that Nash got this job, above all, because he’s Steve Nash. He got it because of the exclusive connections he established with two of the Nets’ foremost power brokers. I don’t believe, as my former ESPN colleague Stephen A. Smith said, that his hiring is an example of white privilege.

Who else could the Nets have considered who has such deep buy-in from Marks and, most crucially, Durant? It puts Nash on good footing in the climb to earn the same support from the mercurial Kyrie Irving, as well as from Joe Tsai, the new Nets owner.

The Nets, though, will surely be asked to explain their hiring process in greater detail Wednesday, when Nash is formally introduced as their new coach in a virtual news conference — and they have to know the questions won’t stop there.

Several significant challenges loom for Nash beyond mastering all the in-game ins and outs, like dealing with the intense news media demands that come with any coaching job in New York. Nash’s maiden coaching foray also comes with lofty expectations, as Durant will probably be back from an extended injury absence and the Nets will be expected to contend immediately.

The long, stressful hours of a head coach’s life figure to be another shock to the system after Nash spent the first five seasons of his retirement juggling various part-time basketball and soccer jobs that, above all, allowed him to be a largely full-time father to his five children.

Yet there is no ambiguity about Task No. 1: Nash must forge a winning connection with Irving.

“Guys,” Gentry emphasized, “will love playing for Steve.”

They sure loved playing alongside him, but Nash — after transforming himself from a lightly recruited collegian to a two-time N.B.A. Most Valuable Player Award winner — will have to prove himself all over again from the bench. No matter how you rank the keys to success, coaching tends to be a different game.

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You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at [email protected]. (Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.)

Q: You’ve talked about the price of room service meals at the N.B.A. bubble and also mentioned some of the delivery meals you had and the ice cream sundae bar. But who pays for all this? How are all the expenses divided up for players, team staff, media and even the on-site barbers and DJs? — Steve Mitzenmacher (Pleasanton, Calif.)

Stein: The breakdown is pretty simple. Expenses for members of the news media are paid by the outlets they work for. Expenses for all the teams and most other campus residents (referees, league officials, game operations people, etc.) are covered by the league.

It costs $550 per day for the reporters covering the N.B.A. restart. That figure includes lodging, three daily meals, transportation to game venues and practice sites and, of course, daily coronavirus testing. Room service meals and food orders from approved off-campus vendors, such as the supplier of my beloved French Dip sandwich, cost extra.

When you add up the reporters from independent outlets like The New York Times, both of the league’s media partners (ESPN and Turner) and the producers who accompany television reporters on their assignments, there are nearly 30 members of the news media on campus.

The latest estimate for the league’s costs is $180 million.

Q: You think he’s captaining over “The Admiral” David Robinson? — @CAE15 from Twitter

Stein: I tweeted that James Harden was “captain of the All-Lefty Team” after he scored 25 points in the first half of Houston’s Game 1 victory Friday over the Los Angeles Lakers.

Another respondent, @DeBe_03, tweeted that “Bill Russell has entered the chat.” Yet another, @martinshama, wrote that H-a-r-d-e-n is a “weird way to spell Manu Ginobili.”

Friendly reminder: My All-Lefty Team is an annual thing. It comes out every August, in conjunction with International Left-Handers’ Day, and referring to Harden as the captain of that team was purely a nod to the All-Lefty Team of 2019-20.

You can see who joined Harden among this season’s top six lefties, in this August newsletter.

Had we been referring to the all-time N.B.A. All-Lefty Team, of course it would have included Russell, Robinson and Ginobili as the sixth man — with Russell the obvious choice as captain.

Harden is the only current All-Lefty Team member who would also make my all-time southpaw squad. The problem: That would leave just two more open spots for the likes of Tiny Archibald, Gail Goodrich, Chris Mullin, Chris Bosh, Bob Lanier and Artis Gilmore.

Q: How is the bubble affecting relationships between players? Are players befriending and interacting with players on other teams that they normally wouldn’t? Or are tensions higher? — Rich Kordsmeier (Dallas)

Stein: It naturally varies from team to team, but players are spending more time with their teammates than ever before. So that will be something interesting to track next season. The chemistry that various teams built at the bubble will surely carry over in some cases.

But I don’t think it’s universal. It can work both ways, because when teams are struggling, there is little escape from basketball or one another.

As Danny Green of the Los Angeles Lakers put it: “The bubble is as good as you play. If you’re not playing well, walls are going to close in on you.”

Milwaukee is the most interesting case study to me. As I’ve written on a few occasions, there was a distinct impression during the seeding games that the Bucks, as a group, were not loving bubble life. Then they fell into a 3-0 series hole against Miami in the second round of a championship-or-bust season.

In between, Milwaukee staged a historic walkout moments before Game 5 of its first-round series against Orlando to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Wisconsin. The gumption it took to do that, as well as the momentous wave of protests across North American sports that the Bucks’ move inspired, is bound to bond this group forever on some level.

Milwaukee, of course, also pulled off an overtime win in Game 4 against the Heat despite losing Giannis Antetokounmpo to an ankle injury, so it’s a full-on roller coaster now. The Bucks had every reason in the world to finally let go of the rope after losing Giannis. So let’s see how much longer they can extend the series — and delay the endless noise on the way about Antetokounmpo’s future. There is sure to be some second-guessing, too, about the decision not to spend what it took to retain Malcolm Brogdon.

Only three N.B.A. teams have a Black head coach and a Black lead decision-maker in the front office: Cleveland (J.B. Bickerstaff and Koby Altman), Detroit (Dwane Casey and Troy Weaver) and Phoenix (Monty Williams and James Jones). The league’s player pool is roughly 80 percent Black.

We have already seen three walk-off endings in these playoffs, thanks to buzzer-beaters by Dallas’s Luka Doncic and Toronto’s OG Anunoby, and Jimmy Butler’s two free throws with no time left on the clock in Miami’s Game 2 victory over Milwaukee. The record for buzzer-beaters in a single N.B.A. postseason, according to Stathead, is four in 2015, made by Jerryd Bayless, Derrick Rose, LeBron James and Paul Pierce.

The aforementioned free throws by Butler wrapped up the first N.B.A. playoff game decided at the line with time expired in 41 years, according to Stathead. Washington’s Larry Wright clinched Game 1 of the 1979 N.B.A. finals over Seattle in that manner.

The first round of the playoffs lasted 17 days.

In October, The New York Times asked a group of eight writers and editors to predict this season’s N.B.A. champion. Only one of them — yours truly — picked the Milwaukee Bucks. But I will own it. I thought continuity and last season’s playoff disappointment would fuel the Bucks this season to win the East at the very least. It’s difficult to dispute now that their offensive limitations, with no guard capable of consistently creating shot opportunities for himself or his teammates when possessions stagnate around Giannis, became a major problem in the playoffs.

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