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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 Duran 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.”

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.


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.


Hit me up anytime on Twitter (@TheSteinLine) or Facebook (@MarcSteinNBA) or Instagram (@thesteinline). Send any other feedback to [email protected].



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