Sifting Through The Assistant Coaching Changes: Why, Why Now, And What Does It Mean?

There are a ton of questions being asked about Portland's decision to go a different direction with its coaching staff.  I can only speak from my personal experience over the last three or so years -- and certainly that brief amount of time pales in comparison to other chapters of this organization's history -- but I haven't witnessed a murkier, uglier, more vicious time behind-the-scenes than the last few weeks. That confusion makes addressing the underlying issues regarding the coaching staff a little bit more challenging. But here's an attempt to address each of the major issues in turn.

Timing

Before we get into the players and personalities involved, let's start with the most basic question: what is influencing the organization's decision to change members of its coaching staff this summer?  

The most obvious factor here: there is already staff turnover in the form of Monty Williams leaving for New Orleans and Maurice Lucas reportedly stepping away for good.  These departures necessitate new hiring(s) and therefore a hiring process and evaluation of current personnel.  Put simply, there will be new coaches, in part, because the organization already needed to look for new coaches.  

The goal of any staff is to have a well-balanced, cohesive group.  With Williams' departure, the group of assistants lost a huge part of its identity. He was the staff's centerpiece, a unique bridge between developmental coaches and strategic coaches, thanks to his skills in both roles, and a singular connection between players and coaches because he is a young former player.  Williams was a very empowered, vocal and respected assistant coach.  It was clear he was held in a different regard from his fellow assistants by players and coaches alike. Just like a "glue guy" on the court, his presence made the unit, and its individual parts, better.  Likewise, with his loss, each individual piece takes a hit.

The second factor at play is the organization's mandate to win now and to admit that taking the same path as previous years isn't going to achieve that goal.  Of course, youth, injuries and playoff match-ups served as extenuating circumstances and explanations for the early exits the last two years.  But the team has committed big dollars to its core players and, ready or not, ownership demands return on that investment this year.  The heat is being felt by people throughout the organization and it's only natural that that would extend to the coaching staff as well.  That type of pressure evolves into a number of questions.  Is Nate McMillan's still our guy?  Which assistants are the most critical? Whose skills overlap Nate McMillan's and whose complement him?  Has our roster or focus as a staff changed considerably?

At this point, given his track record over the last two years and his contributions to the organization's turnaround prior to that, McMillan is solidly in place.  But the rest of those questions have to be asked and answered honestly.   Surveying the roster that he expects to come into training camp, McMillan surely noticed some major differences between this group and previous versions.  The core players no longer require hand-holding and motivating by virtue of their increased maturity.  The key role players are well-established veterans that need less skill development.  The biological clock is ticking on a number of important bodies.  The learning stage is (mostly) over, it's all about execution and consistency now.

Put those factors together and considering coaching changes this summer isn't a radical notion at all.  In hindsight we probably should have been more actively predicting it.

Why Prunty and Demopolous?

Nate McMillan's four remaining staff members can be split into two pretty obvious groups.  There are the player development coaches -- Bill Bayno and Kaleb Canales -- and there are the X's and O's guys in Joe Prunty and Dean Demopolous.

Bayno and Canales both enjoy reputations as around-the-clock workers who are dedicated to serving their players.  McMillan made it clear when Bayno left briefly for Loyola Marymount how much he valued Bayno's contributions.  He's been given key assignments, like working with Greg Oden last summer.  Couple that with the speed with which he landed back in Portland is all the evidence you need that he has McMillan's trust and respect.

Canales is a cheery, energetic, motivated coach who earned some media attention towards the end of last season; McMillan seemed to believe that credit was past due for him. McMillan has also said in the past how he appreciated the work Canales put in prior to being officially added to the coaching staff.  A worker and scratcher himself, McMillan clearly sees a bit of himself in Canales.

The most difficult of the staff members to get a read on is Prunty.  He certainly never sought attention from the media, which was somewhat ironic because his wife was a natural television broadcaster.  He maintained an even-keeled presence throughout his time in Portland.  The standout Prunty moment for me came during last year's Summer League, when he was irate at his team's lackadaisical performance.  I wrote at the time...

Summer League Coach Joe Prunty called the overall team effort "unacceptable" roughly 15 times in 6 minutes during his postgame media availability and ended one memorable, frustrated flourish with a jab at the team's collective heart: "There's a point where you've got to have pride."  He followed that jab with a knockout right when asked how he felt, "I'm not happy. I'm not sure what to say. I don't want to lose. I don't understand the question." Prunty was seriously pissed.

Irate is not an emotion you see often at Summer League, where the games don't matter all that much and the vibe is very mellow.  There was a feeling that Prunty perhaps was taking the lack of effort from his players personally, as if it showed that they did not respect him or his temporary authority.  After the next game, Prunty's first win in four tries, his fellow coaching staff members made light of his situation, joking that the pressure was now off of him.  I think there was some truth hidden in the ribbing: he definitely prefers to operate in the background.  

As has been discussed previously, his knowledge of player tendencies and opposing team strategies were a big plus and, in the limited amount of time I have been able to watch him instruct players, his communication skills were good. He was a clear speaker, sharp, to the point, and he commanded attention.  Even if Avery Johnson hadn't landed the New Jersey job, Prunty would have had options this summer.  With his former boss in Dallas needing to put together a staff from scratch, his short-term NBA future is virtually guaranteed.

So why is that future not here in Portland?  There seem to be no questions about his personality, work ethic, professionalism, knowledge of the game, or reliability.  Perhaps, then, he simply lacked a singular strength that solidified his spot here in McMillan's "do not poach" list.  Also to be considered: Prunty's resume includes time around championship-caliber teams in both San Antonio and Dallas.  His hiring had Kevin Pritchard's culture-focused fingerprints all over it.  These days, Kevin Pritchard's hands are wrapped in two pairs of latex gloves filled with bleach and handcuffed behind his back.  

Demopolous is the most complicated case of all. Here's a man whose coaching philosophy might be better suited for the college game.  His obsession with limiting turnovers (and the decrease in pace that goes with that) and a variety of defenses (zones, floods and the like) are seen more often in the collegiate ranks.  It's very possible that the success of his style peaked with the 2009 Blazers.  That team's incredible offensive efficiency was driven by very good outside shooting, high rebound rates and low turnover rates, all Demopolous staples.  In a sense, his system is basically "Blake-Ball": play careful, play smart, play deliberate and hit open shots.  Unfortunately for him, Steve Blake had to be sacrificed for the cause. As good as that team was, there was an overriding sense that the style of play and the personnel on hand would not combine to create winning playoff basketball.  Throw new personnel into the mix -- particularly Andre Miller and Jerryd Bayless -- and the approach takes on a more pronounced round peg/square hole feel.

Demopolous has coached with McMillan for the better part of a decade dating back to their days in Seattle.  Any change to that relationship that isn't brought about by a promotion is somewhat shocking. Sources in both Seattle and Portland have expressed significant surprise over this split during the last two days.  Cutting loose such a respected, intelligent, long-service assistant is not an easy decision for anyone in McMillan's place.   

There are essentially three explanations in this type of situation.  First, the head coach believes his assistant has lost his passion for the game,  Second, he believes the assistant has lost his ability to connect with players.  Third, he believes his assistant has imparted all of his available knowledge to the head coach and is no longer a critical piece in and of himself.  

In Demopolous's case, passion for the game and teaching cannot be questioned.  Even during pre-draft workouts two weeks ago, he stayed late to pass on tips and build rapport with a player who will never play in an NBA game.  

It's incredibly difficult for any outsider to judge whether he's still able to connect with his current players.  But during portions of training camp open to the media last year, Demopolous commanded the team's defensive schemes and certainly had everyone's attention.  Given that he is a direct, no-nonsense communicator with a long coaching history, it's difficult to believe that he somehow lost the ability to get through to his players, particularly given that this current group is eminently coachable.

I think the third explanation is the most likely one here.  McMillan and Demopolous clearly share a vision for how basketball games are won.  After nearly a decade of coaching together they can likely finish each other's sentences.  That can be a great thing when wins are piling up: "We're doing it like we knew we would!"  But when things start to turn the other direction, even slightly, that shared knowledge and set of experiences changes from a life preserver into an anchor in an instant.  McMillan can look in the mirror and tell himself honestly that Demopolous's departure will have little impact on his ability to coach next season, precisely because Demopolous has influenced McMillan's coaching so thoroughly for the last ten years.  His work here is done.  

If McMillan was serious about "shaking up" his coaching staff -- either because he concluded his current path wasn't working or because he was feeling pressure from above to explore the alternatives -- he couldn't effect a shakeup without cutting ties to Demopolous.   If Demopolous stays, the shakeup is seriously lacking in shaking.  As with Prunty, McMillan's decision is made much easier by the fact that he can safely assume both coaches will find landing spots in short order, given their extensive experience and contributions to back-to-back 50+ win teams.  It's more than possible that both men already have handshake offers lined up.  

Assembling all of these pieces, this situation looks more and more like the textbook definition of "parting ways."  Whether it turns out to be a mutually beneficial decision remains to be seen.

Replacements 

Up until this point of the process I think it's fair to applaud either Nate McMillan or those putting pressure on him for confronting difficult questions and making potentially painful decisions. I think most would agree that there is absolutely room for improvement on this coaching staff.  Any attempt at seeking that improvement should be embraced.

It's here, though, where things start to get questionable.  Do Bernie Bickerstaff and son (assuming those two do wind up in Portland) really embody that potential improvement? 

McMillan's shopping list for an upgraded coaching staff isn't necessarily an easy one to fill.  With Bayno and Canales he has player development handled.  A former player would help round out the staff but it's not an absolute necessity, as McMillan is a relatively young former player himself.  The big holes to fill are on the strategic side: Xs and Os, game-planning, schemes, in-game advice, playoff/championship experience. These were already an issue prior to this summer and now they are magnified.

Expecting McMillan to bring in an "offensive coordinator" to handle things on that end is simply unrealistic.  McMillan has his system and he will stick to it to the bitter end.  He has debated all the possibilities in his head, with fellow coaches, as both a player and a coach. He has meticulously formed a distinct basketball philosophy and he doesn't care at all whether you agree with it.  To expect an assistant to change those ingrained attitudes and make meaningful stylistic differences to his team's on-court play is overly ambitious.  

It's not just McMillan's personality that renders his new assistants relatively powerless.  It's his recent awards and honors too.  Two consecutive 50 win seasons, back-to-back buzz for Coach of the Year, Olympics Gold Medal, USA basketball contract extension.  That kind of public validation empowers a coach's beliefs, and perhaps it should.  It's far better to be stubborn than uncertain as an NBA head coach.  Standing for something is always better than standing for nothing. McMillan has significant reason to believe that he stands for the right things, winning things.  

If given the authority to pick his assistants, a head coach is far likelier to prefer coaches he respects and is familiar with than those he is not. He is also likely to prefer coaches that aren't likely to replace him to those who present a threat on his own bench.  

In Bernie Bickerstaff, I believe, you have all of these factors converging: his long history with McMillan makes him a known commodity, he understands and respects coaching dynamics and won't over-step, he has more than three decades of league-wide experience and, given his age, he is unlikely to seek or be awarded a head coaching position in the NBA again.  This isn't Dwayne Casey, who represents an imminent threat to every head coach he works for. Bickerstaff is a hiring that makes a lot of sense for McMillan.

But how sensical is it from everyone else's perspective?  It's hard to endorse this potential hire based on performance.  Bickerstaff has an overall record of 414-512, well below .500.  He hasn't been a head coach since 2007.  His most recent stint as an assistant saw his boss, Vinny Del Negro, get canned hard. The last time he was a head coach and won a playoff series was more than 20 years ago, in 1989. Nate McMillan played on that Seattle team.

Those are the ugly results, but how is he getting there?  If we look at Hollinger's rankings from Bickerstaff's most recent stops -- as an assistant in Chicago and a head coach in Charlotte -- a pretty clear picture emerges.

Bickerstaff_medium

Teams Bickerstaff has coached recently are: not good on offense, so-so on defense, significantly worse on the glass than McMillan's teams have been, and much faster-paced than the Blazers have been in recent years.  In short, the only shared trait between McMillan's team's and Bickerstaff's teams are average defenses, although both strive to limit turnovers too.  

Barring any major roster moves, the Blazers aren't likely to see huge changes in their offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency or rebound rate next year. If there's a potential impact area for Bickerstaff on the Blazers, and I'm not convinced there is, it would be pace, by default.  McMillan, Miller and Bickerstaff may prove to be a more natural match than McMillan, Miller and Demopolous were.  But faster hasn't equalled better for Bickerstaff in the past, certainly not to a degree that would cause McMillan to radically change his approach to tempo.  We're therefore left with the only reasonable conclusion: Bickerstaff will not likely make a significant strategic impact next season.

So, then, what are his benefits?  The major one is obvious, and McMillan has said as much: experience.  Bickerstaff has lived and breathed the NBA for longer than most of the players he will coach, and he's successfully raised a child in it.  He's been around the league so long, this Seattle Times article from 2000 recalls, he even tried to trade Nate McMillan to Cleveland for Hot Rod Williams.

But the trade didn't become official because Williams, who had a no-trade clause, refused to play for the Sonics. Because the near-trade took place during the exhibition season, McMillan didn't have much time to return to the right mindset.

"I had to come into training camp a week later and face Bob Whitsitt and Bernie Bickerstaff and those guys, who had told me that there wasn't anything going on," McMillan recalled. "You do feel rejected, but you have to be professional. You're still getting paid."

Ironically, that shared history, however ugly at the time,  is likely what's most attractive to McMillan.  An extra pair of experienced hands is valuable to an older roster that's focused on achieving success now and to a coach dealing with all sorts of organizational drama behind-the-scenes.  For McMillan, it's always been, to one degree or another, his way or the highway.  Bickerstaff certainly won't step in front of that. Double down on that for John-Blair Bickerstaff, if he does wind up joining his father in Portland.  Really, Bickerstaff's presence in Portland and past history with the Sonics will serve to reinforce McMillan's authority in front of his players.  He will be seen by them as another one of the guys from the good old days in Seattle, this year's Hersey Hawkins, but on the bench.

The only problem with this scenario?  Unless he finds a whiz as a fifth man to complete his staff, a heavier load of the strategic stuff falls to McMillan himself.  It's more than likely McMillan doesn't see this burden as a problem.  And that's the most troubling part of all.  

Final Thoughts

Being handed the authority to select a staff this summer comes with a future price that McMillan must pay.  That price, of course, is playoff success.  Just like McMillan is able to part ways with Prunty and Demopolous with a clear conscience this year, knowing he's extracted their maximum benefit to his team, the organization will be in a position to take the same stance with McMillan next year, should the Blazers fail to advance out of the first round for the third consecutive season.  "We paid you handsomely, we assembled a deep roster, we remained patient and then we gave you your choice of assistants," the Vulcan logic will go. "We upheld our end of the bargain by supporting you in every way possible.  It was on you to deliver. We part ways with you now because we enjoy blood and also because you couldn't get it done."

McMillan certainly seems capable of advancing next season if he catches some of the breaks that eluded him in 2009-2010.  But from here forward, unless there are some radical developments in his coaching search in the coming weeks, he has relinquished his cover.   The 2010-2011 season has become the reckoning for "Nate's way or the highway."  The good news is that McMillan seems cool with that.  The bad news is, well, McMillan seems cool with that. 

-- Ben Golliver | benjamin.golliver@gmail.com | Twitter

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