We know so very little about what it takes to be a good coach.
We know so little about the ability to maintain relationships while holding on to a locker room’s respect, about delegating responsibility while retaining a firm grasp on what is going on around you, about keeping every player engaged while making sure every player is acutely aware of his role. These are the things that can be confirmed only by first-hand accounts, and those can often omit the dirty-laundry process of arriving at the correct places, assuming those places are found in the first place.
Take Dwane Casey’s six-year working relationship Kyle Lowry, a pairing that was at the centre of the best run in Raptors’ history. It is not speaking out of turn to say there were multiple points in the history of that relationship when it seemed impossible that one would relent to deal with the other for another season. Yes, those moments often came at the disappointing ends of otherwise successful seasons, so they had to be taken with a grain of salt. Still, the relationship felt like it would end multiple times and, ultimately, its ultimate conclusion had nothing to do with the pairing itself.
Massaging the relationship with Lowry, his most important player, was just a small part of Casey’s job. The coach was criticized for his rotations and after-timeout plays — not without cause — because that is about the only thing related to a coach’s tasks that the public can assign value. Most of a coach’s job is in the details and moments we never see, and therefore can never fully understand.
Casey waited more than four years between getting his first and second head coaching opportunities in the NBA. Between his second and third, he had to wait just a month, as the Pistons hired him on Monday to fill their vacancy. The Raptors are the only team still looking for a head coach.
In broad strokes, the Pistons are not unlike the early Raptors teams that Casey coached, excluding his first year in charge. They have a veteran core that does not really fit ideally, a group that has under-performed compared to ownership’s expectations. Also, they are undergoing a change in management, which Casey navigated well between his second and third seasons in Toronto.
The Pistons need to re-organize around a common goal — you might recognize that as non-cliché-speak for a “culture change” — and Casey showed that he was particularly adept at that in Toronto.
That does not mean his time in Detroit will go smoothly, because there are just so many variables when it comes to coaching. Top among them is talent.
That brings us to the Toronto job. Over the weekend, TSN’S Josh Lewenberg reported that Masai Ujiri is down to two candidates for his first ever head coach hiring: Casey’s top offensive lieutenant, Nick Nurse, and Spurs assistant coach Ettore Messina, a long-time Euroleague head coach. While their paths have been different, both could safely be filed under the category of veteran coaches who took circuitous routes to their first head coaching job with one obvious, lingering question. For Nurse: Is he dramatically different enough stylistically to erase the feeling that he is just another cog in the Raptors machine that repeatedly failed at the biggest moments? For Messina: Can a European coach, even one as experienced as Messina, lead an NBA team? (Messina would be the first European NBA head coach, along with Phoenix’s Igor Koksokov, who was hired in May.)
There are more detailed, and arguably, more important questions surrounding both candidates, but the point is that we can never truly know how any coach will do in his first time on the job. It has become en vogue to look for the next great coach (even if Nurse is 50 and Messina is 58, they both qualify as untested and therefore intriguing) as opposed to experienced hands, more derisively known as retreads. Of the seven coaches that Masai Ujiri has reportedly interviewed for the Raptors job, only one, Mike Budenholzer, had previously been an NBA coach. Everybody wants the next Brad Stevens or Quin Snyder, even if landing on the next Mike Montgomery or Leonard Hamilton (I’ll give you a minute for Googling purposes) is just as likely.
And no amount of first-hand references and experience can really change that. Nurse has been a head coach overseas and in the D-League, and has worked as an assistant internationally and in the NBA. Messina has more top-level head-coaching experience than almost any candidate who has never been a head coach, capped by four years working under Gregg Popovich. He is essentially a master who took one final apprenticeship for good measure. As Raptors assistant Rex Kalamian, Raptors 905 head coach Jerry Stackhouse, who is off to Memphis as an assistant coach, Spurs assistant Ime Udoka and Lithuanian coach Sarunas Jasikevicius have fallen off the search’s radar, Nurse and Messina stand out as the most experienced of the inexperienced.
Still, they are not safe bets as Casey is in Detroit, as Ujiri determined the Raptors could no longer afford to play it safe. A few years ago, longtime Miami assistant David Fizdale — who had the LeBron James seal of approval — seemed like a sure things as a first-time head coach. He did not even get through two seasons on the job in Memphis, and is now on to his second gig.
Nurse and Messina both have waited a long time for the opportunity that will likely go to one of them in Toronto. Whoever gets the job, the only honest thing to say is that we have no idea how they will do.