Interviewing as an NBA Head Coach

By David Aldridge, (

From the interview process to the job itself, coaching in the NBA can be rough — yet openings never lack for willing candidates.

What is it like to interview for an NBA head coaching job?

It was a long flight from Florida to England.

But the job Terry Stotts wanted very badly was there. More accurately, the man who could give Terry Stotts the job he wanted very badly was there.

Paul Allen was in London for the 2012 Summer Olympics, and the billionaire Microsoft co-founder and owner of the Portland Trail Blazers brought his yacht,named Octopus, to the Thames in order to see, be seen and do business. So that’s where Allen interviewed Stotts, who had just helped the Mavericks win the 2011 NBA title as part of Rick Carlisle’s staff.

But Stotts insisted the moment and the venue didn’t make him especially nervous.

“It’s like anybody else going into an interview, and knowing you’ve made the cut this far,” he said Sunday night. “I don’t think it’s any dissimilar to anybody going into a job that you really want. You know yourself well. You’re confident. From that standpoint, I think it’s similar to what a lot of people go through in their lives.”

True: we’ve all gone on job interviews. Yet rarely do most of us interview for positions that are so public, pay so much yet are so fraught with peril.

Coaches are hired to be fired. They know that as they are going through the process. But they want the gigs, anyway.


It is the dream of almost everyone who becomes an NBA assistant — the chance to move over those precious 12 inches and get the chance to run your own shop. It does not hurt that coach salaries have once again begun to rise, as they did in the late 1990s. (It was a subject of great angst for former commissioner David Stern, who was known to strenuously rail against teams that spent big on coaches, yet complain that their teams were losing money.)

Since the start of this season, more than a third of the league’s coaches have been replaced or are being replaced — 12 out of 30. In less than seven months. Only one of those was the coach’s idea — Scott Skiles’ sudden resignation in Orlando earlier this month. And no team interviews just one candidate — though many teams only were serious about one, as with the Washington Wizards and their new coach, Scott Brooks, and the Minnesota Timberwovles and Tom Thibodeau. So more than two dozen assistant coaches, or former head coaches, have had to sit in those chairs, and make their cases.

In many ways, it’s a marriage proposal — do you, assistant coach, take this GM and owner to be your lawfully wedded partners, to have closed-door meetings and hold trade talks, in spite of sickness and always wishing for health, ’till you part — probably within three or four years?

Former head coaches like David Blatt, Jeff Van Gundy, Mike Woodson, and Jeff Bzdelik have interviewed. Up and coming coaches like assistants Nate Tibbets and David Vanterpool (Portland), David Fizdale (Miami), Stephen Silas (Charlotte) and James Borrego (San Antonio) have interviewed. New guys who’ve earned a shot (Kenny Atkinson and Luke Walton) have gotten hired; older guys who deserve a shot (Patrick Ewing, Elston Turner) have not gotten them. The recently fired — Frank Vogel and Dave Joerger — are among the newly hired.

What are teams looking for?

“You start with all the basics, obviously — knowledge,” said longtime executive Wayne Embry, now with Toronto. As the first African-American General Manager in league history, in 1972, Embry hired Don Nelson to coach the Milwaukee Bucks, and subsequently hired Lenny Wilkens and Mike Fratello in Cleveland.

“Then you get into style of play, defense, offense,” Embry said. “You talk about all of those, to get a sense of what to expect from the coach. Then you try to adapt that to your personnel and get a feel for him, because you would think your coach would know your personnel and how to use it. All the basketball things that you would expect. But then you get into the people, the relationship aspect of it, and how he sees himself as a coach and how he would manage people — personalities. Basketball is an item. But people play the game.”

Embry was a former terrific player in his own right, and he made decisions in an era where ex-players frequently became head coaches. But he wasn’t locked into that line of thinking. Mainly, he wanted head coaches who could put their own egos aside.

… You get into the people, the relationship aspect of it, and how he sees himself as a coach and how he would manage people — personalities. Basketball is an item. But people play the game.

– Toronto Raptors executive Wayne Embry

“Playing experience — I place some value on that, but I negate that somewhat by thinking a guy who’s a coach and able to learn and teach the game can be just as effective,” Embry said. “It just depends on the human being. As long as the Billy Donovans — who had some pro experience — and Vogels, who are being very successful, I think you have to respect the NBA player as a player. It’s a player’s game. As long as you understand that — and I think that’s why the Cotton Fitzsimmonses and John MacLeods were so successful — as long as a person understands that, I think they’ll be just fine.”

Stotts did not make the NBA as a player. He was an assistant coach with the Bucks in 2002 under George Karl, with whom he’d spent nine seasons on the bench in Seattle and Milwaukee, when he first got a head coach interview, with the Detoit Pistons. The job came up quickly and the Bucks were in the middle of a playoff series with Charlotte. But Stotts took the interview. He didn’t get the job as the Pistons hired Carlisle. But he got a feel for the process.

“I heard someone say that different GMs, or whoever’s doing the hiring, it goes past the Xs and Os,” Stotts said. “It’s personality. Do you want to work with this guy? Do you think he’s comfortable being a leader? The owner doesn’t really know the guy. Who is this guy? So sometimes the name recognition of guys being on TV may help. When it’s the GM making the hire and making the recommendation to the owner, then it maybe becomes more about style and Xs and Os. Even then, it goes beyond Xs and Os. Every GM does his homework. He knows the pros and cons of everyone he’s interviewing, strengths and weaknesses, and he knows what’s good for his team.”

Later that year, though, Stotts got his first chance. He’d gone to Atlanta to be Lon Kruger’s top assistant, but Kruger only lasted 27 games into his third season as coach for the Hawks before being fired, just after Christmas. Stotts coached the Hawks for a season and a half before being fired in 2004. And, as befitting the insane nature of his profession, he was the longest-tenured coach in the Eastern Conference at the time.

There’s pressure on the coach, of course and they’re ultimately judged by their won-loss record. But the GM wants to keep his job secure, too.

“It’s always difficult,” Embry said. “The person is aspiring, and they obviously think they can do the job. At the end of the day you have to be satisfied with what you’ve heard and what you know. You want to know as much as you can about the person, part with the money they’re asking for these days.”

 In the recent past, owners gave their general managers a wide berth when interviewing coaching candidates. There was very little input from them.

“The first guy, my first interview (in 1985) was Jerry Sloan,” said longtime executive Donnie Walsh, who hired the likes of Larry Brown and Larry Bird as head coaches while he was general manager in Indiana. “He said he couldn’t take it because he was set up to be the head coach in Utah pretty quickly. And then I chose Jack Ramsay.”

Walsh said he had normally had three areas he wanted to explore with potential coaches.

“Usually before I really interviewed them, I kind of knew enough about them, so I had more specific questions,” he said. “I wanted to know what kind of style they were comfortable with, without telling them what style I thought was best for the team. Usually when you were dealing with experienced guys, you kind of know they knew every style, so you could get more specific and start applying your team to that.

“Then, the next thing is, what do you like about the team off the court? What are you rules? Do you have a lot of rules? How do you deal with the rules? I had my answer for that, which is you don’t overreact. If you say ‘be here at 9 o’clock’ and he’s there at 9:01, you fine him. No conversation Don’t make a drama out of it. But I do kind of want to know how they deal with that.

“And, the third thing I tried to let them know was, they’re the spokesman for the franchise on a daily basis, which is more than the general manager or the owner or the president. Are they comfortable in that role? I tried to get some feel for that. Most of the time I talked to guys I already knew. So I had more specific things I could talk to them about. Now, I would probably would add ‘how much input do you think you should have in the draft, and trades?’ Things like that. Because now there are coaches who have all the authority. And I guess I’d want to know how much do you rely on analytics, and how many assistant coaches do you want? A lot of these guys won’t let their assistants even talk in practice.”

Walsh had two very different Larrys to interview for head coach vacancies.

He played in college at North Carolina with Larry Brown, one of his best friends in the business. So when he wanted to hire Brown in 1993, he didn’t have many questions.

“I didn’t have to interview Larry; I said ‘this is the guy,'” Walsh said. “They were fine with it. They wanted to meet with Larry, so I said okay, and that’s basically how we hired him. With Larry, I knew everything he was going to do. And I also knew that in the third year he’d start to get the wanderlust. I said to our owners, ‘he’s going to be the best coach you’ve ever seen the first two years.’ Then in the third year, he’s going to get a little (messed) up. And then the fourth year — I don’t know if he’s going to make the fourth year, but if he does, he ‘s going to be ready to get out of here.”

Brown lasted four seasons in Indiana, and then, Walsh had another opening to fill. He reached out to Larry Bird, who was looking for somewhere to make an impact while in an executive role with the Celtics.

“That was a very in-depth interview,” Walsh said. “You have to remember; Larry never coached at all. In fact, I remember saying in that one, ‘you know, you’ve never coached. You’re going to have to have good assistants; who are you thinking of?’ And when he told me (Carlisle and the late Dick Harter), I thought, good, cross that one off; ’cause he gave me the exact right answer on everything I asked him. He was working for the Celtics, but in the front office, and didn’t have that much power, and he was getting sick of that. So that’s how it got started with me.”

Bird surprised Walsh.

Don’t tell them what you think they want to hear. You have to be firm in what you believe in. And show passion. It’s good to be enthusiastic. But the best thing is to be yourself, and let that come through.

– Blazers coach Terry Stotts, on interviewing for NBA coaching jobs

“He did something that nobody’s ever done to me, and I’ve interviewed a lot of guys. We were down the line by this time. I said, ‘Larry, tell me how you’re going to deal with this team. You know our team.’ He started, ‘well, in the first day of training camp, I’m going to do this,’ and he took it all the way to The Finals of the NBA, and told me exactly how he was going to do with it. And after he left, after three years, and we made the Eastern Conference finals twice, and The Finals once in his three years. After it was all over with and I went to the next thing, I thought to myself, it’s amazing; he knew exactly what he was going to do, and that’s what he did.”

Stotts got another head coaching job in Milwaukee that again lasted less than two seasons before he was fired in 2007. A year later, he was hired as an assistant in Dallas — by Carlisle, the guy who’d beaten him out in Detroit, after his first head coaching interview — along with Dwane Casey.

Stotts became Carlisle’s offensive coordinator — Carlisle had been Bird’s offensive coordinator in Indy — while Casey shaped the defense. In three years, Dallas’ staff had put together both brilliant offensive concepts (the “flow” offense) and mastered zone defenses featuring Tyson Chandler in the middle. With vets like Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki leading the way on the floor, Dallas stunned the Miami Heat in The Finals.

And Carlisle pushed both Stotts and Casey — who’d also gotten a short stint early in his head coaching career, in Minnesota — to any team that would listen.

“He really had a belief in both of us, and really felt like we were both deserving of the opportunity,” Stotts said. “From that standpoint, he was very reassuring — this job’s yours, you’re the best guy for it, go in there and be yourself. Because he did have a strong belief in both of us.”

Toronto hired Casey right after the Mavs won their title. The Blazers hired Stotts a year later. He first met with GM Neil Olshey in Las Vegas, then with Bert Kolde, Allen’s right-hand man, in Portland along with other team officials. The last meeting was across the Atlantic, with Allen.

 “Kaleb Canales (who was then the Blazers’ interim coach) and I flew over together, and it came down to him and me,” Stotts said. “And he and I were on the same flight back.”

Canales, himself a rising star, is now on Carlisle’s staff in Dallas. His time is coming, too.

Stotts’ time is now. (As is Casey’s, having taken the Raptors to their first Eastern Conference finals.) He’s become one of the game’s best coaches, having seemingly and seamlessly transitioned the Blazers through what was expected to be a major rebuilding project into an exciting new team built around Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in one short season. Portland not only didn’t fall into the Lottery — it made the Western Conference semifinals and gave top-seeded Golden State all it wanted for five games.

Now, it’s Stotts who gives advice to his young assistants, who are in the interview pipeline.

“Be yourself, be confident, speak your mind,” Stotts said. “Don’t tell them what you think they want to hear. You have to be firm in what you believe in. And show passion. It’s good to be enthusiastic. But the best thing is to be yourself, and let that come through. They’re hiring the person.”

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