At the same time that the NBA playoffs are set to begin during the upcoming week in the Disney World bubble, teams that weren’t good or lucky enough to secure one of the sixteen spots have started to make moves to prepare themselves for the 2020-21 season and beyond. Just this week, both the Chicago Bulls and New Orleans Pelicans have made big moves by firing Jim Boylen and Alvin Gentry, respectively.
Those moves obviously two opportunities for aspiring head coaches to get their first chance to lead a team or former head coaches to get another chance. An example of that second thing is seen from how former Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Ty Lue and former Brooklyn Nets/Milwaukee Bucks head coach Jason Kidd were linked to the Pelicans job just minutes following Gentry’s dismissal.
While Lue is definitely worthy of another look with how he helped coach the LeBron-led Cleveland Cavaliers to three straight titles, including winning the 2016 titles, former head coaches and long-time assistants shouldn’t be the only candidates to be looked at to lead NBA teams. Rather than a retread like Kidd, those teams could take a closer look at current or recent G League head coaches.
Because not only are those coaches talented and have had success at a difficult league to coach in, the G League has a great track record of coaching alumni with the likes of NBA champion Nick Nurse, Jazz head coach Quin Snyder, and Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins. This piece will look at four coaches that shined in the G League during the 2018-19 or 2019-20 season that should be linked to NBA head coaching gigs. Although the likes of Martin Schiller and Blake Ahearn would definitely be great candidates, they aren’t able to be on this list due to recently being hired to new gigs, with Schiller being hired by Zalgiris Kaunus and Ahearn being added to the Grizzlies’ coaching staff.
Among the four men on this list, Heath by far has the most coaching experience as he started his career way back in 1988-89 with Division II squad Hillsdale Chargers. After thirteen years as an assistant coach for various college teams, he was hired to lead Kent State before the 2001-02 season. In his opening season with the team, the Golden Flashes were outstanding from the jump as they went 30-6 during the regular season before winning the MAC Tournament. That great success wasn’t able to match what the team was able to do as the 12th seed in the NCAA Tournament as they surpassed expectations by making a run to the Elite Eight, where they lost to 5th seed Indiana.
Following that season, Heath spent the next twelve seasons coaching both Arkansas and South Florida. Unfortunately for the coach, he wasn’t able to match that success as he made it to the NCAA Tournament in only three of those seasons
In the three years since that hiring, Lakeland has gone 85-57 with only two playoff appearances due to COVID-19 putting a premature end to the 2019-20 G League season. So far, they haven’t gone to the G League Finals during that run, thanks in part to a clutch Theo Pinson three during the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals.
However, that shouldn’t make you think negatively of Heath’s run with the team as that type of consistency is honestly incredible with how much rosters change from season-to-season. That consistent success has to do with his ability to develop players as the likes of Troy Caupain, BJ Johnson, and Vic Law have all progressed to the point where they signed NBA deals with the Orlando Magic.
Heath’s ability to develop talent and maintain success despite constant roster change has been the keys for him to stand as one of the best coaches in the G League. Although NBA teams may decide to overlook the 55-year-old head coach, Heath has used his run in the G League to show that he has the skills to lead a group of young men while also being able to quickly make them learn a system to have success on the basketball court.
Going from Stan Heath, who was just a few breaks away from making it to the 2019 G League Finals, we go to a an that actually led the team that competed in that series. Although he was the coach of the Long Island Nets for just one season, Will Weaver made the most out of that time as he led the team to a franchise-best 34-16 record, good enough to have them be the best team in the Eastern Conference. That success had a lot to do with great play on the defensive end, as the team finished third in the G League by allowing only 104.4 points per 100 possessions.
While the likes of Theo Pinson, Shannon Scott, Jordan McLaughlin were all great defensive players, that great team defense wouldn’t be possible without Weaver having the leadership to make his team work as a collective despite not having a lot of chemistry and putting a plan in place where the players on the team heightened their strengths while hiding the weaknesses.
After clinching the #1 seed in the East and making their way to the 2019 G League Finals, the Nets were matched up against the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. However, that marvelous season came to an unfortunate end as they lost 2-1 in the best-of-3 game series.
Following that season, Weaver, who was an assistant coach for the Australian National Team since 2014, returned to the land of Vegemite by becoming the next head coach of the Sydney Kings of the National Basketball League. Similar to his work with Long Island, Weaver was able to push the team to immediate success as they finished the regular season with an NBL-best 20-8 record.
The squad followed that up with a series win over Melbourne United in the semi-finals. After losing games 1 and 3 against the Perth Wildcats in the best-of-five Grand final, Weaver and the Kings ran into a foe that no team could defend: COVID-19. That global pandemic pushed the NBL to cancel games 4 and 5 of the series, which led to the Perth Wildcats being named champions of the season.
Although Weaver hasn’t been able to capture that title despite being so close in both the G league and NBL, his ability to push his news to have immediate success exemplifies the fact that he’s an incredibly talented young coach that can really lead a unit to play excellent defense. That fact should be enough for him to be thought of as a legitimate option to lead an NBA team.
From a very young age, Chase had the privilege of growing up around an NBA team as his father started his career with the San Antonio Spurs at around the same time that he was born. After starting out as an assistant general manager in 1988, R.C. was able to climb up the ladder to the point where he became GM in 2002. In that role, he helped build a dynasty as the Spurs won four championships during his reign in 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2014. Chase growing around a team that had that amazing level of success is the type of opportunity that no child has unless they were part of the Buss family in the 1980’s or an offspring of Phil Jackson or Jerry Krause being raised in the 90’s.
After playing as a walk-on for Bill Self at Kansas, Chase started his coaching career in 2012 as a regional scout for the Atlanta Hawks. As the years went by, he was able to make his way up the coaching ladder by working as a coordinator of player development for Chicago from 2015-17 before being an assistant coach for Erie during the 2017-18 campaign. After one year in Pennsylvania, he made the journey to Delaware to work on Connor Johnson’s staff as an assistant for the Delaware Blue Coats.
Following two seasons as a G League assistant coach, he went a step further up the ladder when he was named head coach of the Wisconsin Herd on July 29th, 2019. In a similar way to Will Weaver, Chase was immediately able to lead the team to success during his first year as the team’s head coach. During the 2019-20 season, the team finished the pandemic shortened year with a league-best 33-10 record, which included them going 17-3 on the road.
Although the tremendous offensive play of Jaylen Adams, Frank Mason, and Rayjon Tucker were enough to have the team finish the year with the 7th best offense in the G League, it was actually defense that really allowed them to be dominant. Per 100 possessions, opposing teams only averaged 105.2 points against the team, which placed them as the 4th best defense in the G League.
While the COVID-19 pandemic prevented us from seeing if Buford had what it took to push the Herd to a G League title, his tremendous first season as the team’s head coach proves that he might have what it takes to follow in his father’s footsteps and lead an NBA team to greatness.
Do you know what the first three coaches that we covered in this piece have in common? Despite the success at the G League level, none of them were able to actually win the G League title. Well, that trend will come to an end with our fourth and final coach as Joseph Blair was the very tall man on the bench that was able to lead the Rio Grande Valley Vipers to their third title in franchise history during the 2018-19 G League season. That title victory was impressive for two reasons:
- It was the first season where Joseph Blair was a head coach.
- The team didn’t really have a reliable rotation as assignees Isaiah Hartenstein and Danuel House were key members of the team that also spent a lot of time up in the NBA with Houston.
Despite those factors, the Vipers were able to finish the regular season with a 34-16 record. That great success was due to them being top-10 in the league in both offense and defense, a feat that wasn’t accomplished by any other team in the G League. Besides Michael Frazier, the offense was led by assignees (Hartenstein and House), players that arrived during the middle of the season (Brandon Sampson) or players that excelled before getting called up (Bruno Caboclo). That feat shows that Blair has great flexibility as a coach that allows him to quickly insert different players into a rotation and put them in a position where they can shine.
Following that title-winning season with the Vipers, the Philadelphia 76ers hired Blair to join Brett Brown’s staff as an assistant coach. As of the time of this piece, that’s still the position that he holds today. However, his potential as a coach definitely extends past his current spot as an assistant coach due to the leadership and coaching ability that was evident when he pushed the Rio Grande Valley Vipers to a G League title.