- Ronda Churchill
- Becky Hammon is already the NBA’s first full-time female assistant coach and soon will be the first female to interview for a head coaching position.
- While most were accepting of her position as an assistant, some have raised concerns about her qualifications to be a head coach.
- The most common argument is that she has not “paid her dues” and is “skipping the line.”
- Those arguments make some false assumptions about what makes a good head coach and ignore that she already has a strong reputation in NBA circles.
Becky Hammon is already the first full-time female assistant coach in the NBA, and she is scheduled to become the first woman to interview for a head coaching job when she meets with the Milwaukee Bucks about their vacancy later this week.
The Spurs turned heads before the 2014-15 season when they hired Hammon, but the hire was mostly viewed with curiosity and support. Fast-forward four years and some people in the NBA world are being more vocal about whether she deserves to take the next step and become a head coach.
The arguments against Hammon come in various forms, but generally, boil down to her perceived lack of experience and whether or not she is unfairly receiving an opportunity ahead of more qualified candidates.
The “Skipping the Line” argument
Since it was announced that Hammon was a candidate for the Bucks’ job, the phrase “skipping the line” has been tossed around a lot. The idea is that she does not yet have the resume typically associated with head coaching candidates.
One example of this argument, from ESPN’s Amin Elhassan:
“It’s not that hard. Name the last head coaching candidate with – no prior NBA playing experience – no prior meaningful head coaching experience – less than 5 years assistant coaching experience, of which all has come from the second row.”
If these are things required to be a head coach in the NBA, then Hammon is not ready. But it takes a lot of qualifiers to make this argument.
Hammon did play professional basketball as a point guard and at a high level, but because it was in the WNBA and not the NBA, she does not meet the standards. Hammon has served as a head coach for the Spurs’ Summer League team – where she won a championship – and during the preseason, but apparently, that is not deemed “meaningful.” And why the magic number of “5 years” for assistant coaching experience? Presumably it is because Hammon has four.
The final point also ignores that Hammon’s four years were under Gregg Popovich, arguably the best coach in the NBA, and doesn’t consider that four years under Pop might be the equivalent of five or ten years under other head coaches.
But the most significant problem with this argument is that it presupposes that there is a proven formula for hiring a head coach. If one existed, the NBA wouldn’t have such a high turnover rate for head coaches. And yet, two-thirds of the head coaches in the NBA have been in their current position for fewer than three years.
We have seen plenty of former NBA players fail as head coaches and plenty more that teams wouldn’t even consider hiring. We have seen plenty of coaches with head coaching experience bomb in subsequent jobs. We have seen plenty of long-term assistant coaches who did not succeed as a head coach. None of those criteria guarantee success.
NBA teams are admitting that the old formula is outdated
We have recently seen NBA teams acknowledge that the old formula – whatever it was – wasn’t working and more organizations are thinking outside the box.
“I’d argue that, in 2018, there’s no such thing as ‘qualified’ to be an NBA head coach,” wrote Bomani Jones of ESPN. “They get people from everywhere and with a crazy range of experience.”
We have seen the Cleveland Cavaliers hire David Blatt as a head coach despite all of his previous coaching experience being in Europe. We have seen the Phoenix Suns hire Igor Kokoškov, the first NBA head coach not born in North America. We saw the Boston Celtics hire Brad Stevens even though he was only 36 and the entirety of his coaching experience was at a mid-major college.
And now we have seen the Bucks schedule an interview with Hammon and there are reasons to believe she is indeed qualified to be a candidate.
She is being groomed to be a head coach by the best
The most important factor in favor of Hammon is her mentor. The opinion of Popovich carries a lot of weight in the NBA, and if he says she has what it takes, others are going to listen, as explained by Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN in 2015.
“The power of a Popovich endorsement is the NBA’s ultimate seal of approval. NBA general managers and owners have marveled at what a conversation with Popovich during the interview process can do for a candidate. In Atlanta, Mike Budenholzer didn’t exactly ace the interview. But a call from Popovich that touted Budenholzer’s nuanced qualities and commitment to culture moved opinion. When a rival general manager is ready to measure Hammon’s capacity for a head-coaching job, that power of persuasion, which has the league’s best track record, will be at play on [Hammon’s] behalf.”
After Hammon’s first season, Popovich was already calling her “a natural.”
“She’s right in the middle, and she knows how to do it and out players really respond to her,” Popovich said on NBA TV’s “NBA Inside Stuff.” “She’s just a natural.”
Popovich also compared her to other successful head coaches in the NBA, including Steve Kerr.
“She talks the game,” Popovich said. “She understands the game. So for all those reasons, you really know she’s got the game sort of Avery Johnson, Steve Kerr, [Mike] Budenholzer type thing.”
In April, Louisa Thomas of the New Yorker asked Popovich about the possibility of Hammon becoming a head coach.
“It’s going to take somebody who has some guts, some imagination, and is not driven by old standards and old forms,” Popovich said. “If somebody is smart, it’s actually a pretty good marketing deal – but it’s not about that. It’s got to be that she’s competent, that she’s ready.”
The last part led some to believe that Popovich believes Hammon is ready now. Others took it to mean that a team should hire her when she is ready. Either way, the point may be moot. If a team believes she will be a good coach, even it is at some point down the road a bit, that team may not want to pass on the opportunity to hire her now and risk she becomes a great coach elsewhere.
She already has a strong reputation around the NBA
In 2015, Hammon was already earning rave reviews for her coaching style.
“Those who know Hammon rave about her instincts and understanding of the game,” Arnovitz wrote. “She’s quickly established a reputation as an ‘out-of-the-box thinker’ who appreciates the practical application of situational strategy but also the pursuit of new ideas and innovation, like her mentor, who has emphasized that the former point guard knows as much about the pick-and-roll as Tony Parker.”
That was three years ago.
She also commands the respect of her players.
“She’s committed, she’s passionate, she’s smart, she’s worldly, Manu Ginóbili told the New Yorker.
Parker compared Hammon to Popovich, saying both are “great basketball minds.” Parker also told Thomas that he knew Hammon would be accepted by the other players, noting “She had the support of the point guard, so she’s good.”
Still not convinced? Check out this clip of Hammon in the Spurs’ huddle.
The Bucks may be more interested in a culture change than experience
The Spurs are one of the envies of the NBA world. They have won five championships in 20 years. They always make the playoffs. They have stability with one of the best head coaches, and he runs a class organization that typically breeds stability and class with their best players.
This is not lost on the rest of the league. NBA teams have hired several Spurs assistant coaches and players as head coaches around the league, including Brett Brown, Mike Budenholzer, Steve Kerr, and Mike Brown.
In addition to Hammon, the Bucks also scheduled interviews with Budenholzer, Monty Williams, James Borrego, and Ettore Messina, all of whom were, or are, assistant coaches under Popovich. In other words, the Bucks have seemingly decided that being linked to Popovich makes one worthy of consideration and maybe that person could bring some of the Spurs magic and stability to Milwaukee.
This is not the time to suddenly become concerned about assistants who have “paid their dues”
There are only 30 head coaching jobs in the best basketball league in the world, and inevitably there are always going to be long-time assistant coaches who won’t get a shot to run a team. To make matters worse, the NBA long had a bad reputation when it came to passing over new faces in favor or recycling the same head-coaching names over and over.
We can see this by how patient NBA teams are compared to other leagues.
Of the NBA coaches who have coached at least 20 seasons, 40.0% never won a championship. If we expand that to coaches with at least 15 years of experience, it grows to 53.8%.
The rate is lower in all three of the other major pro leagues, the NFL, the NHL, and MLB. If we look at those three combined, only 28.0% of the coaches with 20+ years of experience never won a title, and the rate is 34.7% for those with 15+ seasons.
It would be nice if every long-term assistant got a shot. But now is not the time to suddenly start worrying about those who have “paid their dues,” merely because this time it is a woman getting a shot.