How the NBA’s Top Teams Recruit Top Coaches — and What You Can Learn from Them

April 22, 2019

At last, the NBA postseason has rolled around. And with the league’s best teams so fully stocked with talent, the playoffs may very well turn on the performances of people who never take a shot: the coaches. In a close-fought series the difference between winning and losing may hinge on if they get the right players on the floor at the right time with the right plan.

So while it’s mission critical for NBA teams to find and field the best players in the world, club owners and executives will also go to great lengths to land the best coaching talent anywhere, employing many of the same tactics that recruiters use. Like many of you, they put a premium on finding leaders with skills such as adaptability, collaborative problem-solving, and, especially, effective communication. As a result, many NBA team have embraced an approach of hiring for skills over experience and promoting from within.

Here are how four of the best NBA organizations have found coaching talent in recent years, along with the lessons these hires offer for recruiters and talent professionals.

1. Brad Stevens: The Boston Celtics recruited for skills and potential rather than experience and pedigree

When the Boston Celtics chose Butler University coach Brad Stevens as their new coach in 2013, The New York Times called the move “a stunner.” Though Brad had coached the Bulldogs to two NCAA title games, he had never worked in the NBA. What’s more, at 36, Brad was younger than any head coach in the league as well as any number of veteran players.

But the Celtics and their team president, Danny Ainge, have built a reputation for risky and unconventional moves that have played out successfully.

“Though he is young,” Danny said, “I see Brad as a great leader who leads with impeccable character and a strong work ethic. His teams always play hard and execute on both ends of the court. Brad is a coach who has already enjoyed lots of success.”

But success didn’t come immediately for Brad in Boston, which had traded All-Stars Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett shortly before his arrival. His team won only 25 games his first season. But the next year they won 40 and made the playoffs. And in the last two seasons, the Celtics have made it to the Eastern Conference Finals before bowing out.

Putting the focus on skills rather than experience is a smart recruiting practice that has paid off for Boston, as it can for you. Don’t get hung up on educational pedigree — “Butler? Pshaw!” — or professional pedigree. The Celtics, by looking at an extremely young candidate from a small school in a small market, put potential ahead of credential. Nearly six years after hiring Brad, the Celtics may be ready to hoist a new championship banner in the rafters of the Boston Garden — to join the 17 already in place.

2. Steve Kerr: The Golden State Warriors landed a former sharpshooting player — with exceptional soft skills

The Celtics gambled a little by giving their head job to someone who had never coached an NBA game. The Golden State Warriors, on the other hand, bet the house when they signed Steve Kerr to a five-year contract for $25 million in 2014. Steve had played 15 seasons in the NBA and retired with five championship rings and the career record as the league’s most accurate three-point shooter (a distinction that he, not his star Stephen Curry, still holds). He had been general manager of the Phoenix Suns but he had never coached a game at any level.

And the Warriors hired Steve only after firing the popular and charismatic Mark Jackson, who had just led the team to 51 wins in the regular season and their second straight playoff appearance.

“It’s a nervy, risk-taker’s moon shot,” wrote Tim Kawakami of Steve’s hiring in the San Jose Mercury. That’s how it looked five years ago. Now it looks like a Kevin Durant slam dunk. The Warriors entered the playoffs as odds-on favorites to win their fourth title in five years. Over Steve’s tenure, the Warriors have had the best five-year record in NBA history, with 322 regular season wins and only 88 losses.

The Warriors’ front office clearly saw something in him — and in the 16-page PowerPoint presentation he delivered during his three-hour job interview. According to Sports Illustrated, Steve’s presentation “included segments on leadership, relationships, analytics, and everything from dress code to dieticians to yoga instructors to sleep specialists.”

By talking about leadership and relationships, Steve showed that he was dialed in to the importance of soft skills. In LinkedIn’s recent list of most in-demand soft skills, persuasion came in at No. 2. And the one constant through Steve’s entire presentation was his virtuoso communications skills.

He is smart, funny, insightful, and thoughtful to an extraordinary degree, skills that landed him two different gigs doing color commentary on TNT before he became the Warriors coach. John Madden, the Hall of Fame football coach and legendary broadcaster, listens to every one of Steve’s postgame press conferences. Why? “I always learn something when I hear him,” John says.

When LinkedIn surveyed talent professionals around the world for our Global Talent Trends 2019 report, 80% of them said soft skills are increasingly important to their company’s success. And while the NBA has advanced analytics to measure on-court hard skills such as shooting, rebounding, passing, and defense, the Golden State Warriors have moved to the top of the league, in part, because of their head coach’s world-beating soft skills.

3. Nate McMillan: The Indiana Pacers tapped into the talent they already had in place by promoting their associate head coach

When Indiana Pacers President (and resident basketball legend) Larry Bird decided his team needed a change in leadership after the 2015-16 season, he and general manager Kevin Pritchard compiled a list of potential candidates, made some phone calls, and interviewed just one person.

“The choice for me,” Larry said, “was very easy.”

The choice was the veteran who had been on the Pacers’ bench for three years as the associate head coach: Nate McMillan.

Nate brought a lot to the job. He had 12 years as a player in the league and 12 years as a head coach with the Seattle SuperSonics and the Portland Trailblazers, leading those two teams to five playoff appearances.

An internal promotion made sense. A grass-is-greener vision sometimes keeps organizations from seeing that there are many advantages to promoting from within:

1) It’s fast. Nate was hired less than 10 days after his predecessor Frank Vogel was let go.

2) It can keep you from losing your best people. Just before he was named the Pacers head coach, Nate had interviewed for the top job with the Sacramento Kings.

3) It boosts morale. An internal promotion sends a clear message that current employees are noticed and not taken for granted.

4) You know what you’re getting. Nate’s predecessor, Frank Vogel, raved about the work Nate did in his first season with the Pacers: “He’s helped me a ton, especially (with) in-game management, with game planning as well. . . . All the decisions that go into being a head coach from managing your video guys to your travel schedule to when to practice, when not to practice. When to rest guys, how to use your rotation, all the head coaching decisions.”

Nate has met expectations, and then some. The Pacers returned to the playoffs for the third straight year. Which is stunning because their lone All-Star, Victor Oladipo, suffered a gruesome knee injury in January that required season-ending surgery.

Though the Pacers were swept in the first round of the playoffs by Brad's Celtics, Nate keeps coming up in discussions about end-of-the-season awards. Sports Illustrated’s Crossover has put Nate in the Coach of the Year conversation: “[D]ay-to-day, it has been McMillan, pushing these Pacers to believe they could win without Oladipo.” SI goes on to tout the toughness and effort the Pacers bring to every possession in every game. And the Sir Charles in Charge sports blog feels like Nate deserves serious COY consideration for developing young stars like Oladipo, Myles Turner, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Domantas Sabonis and for his “ability to get the absolute most out of all his players on the defensive side of the ball.”

With Victor Oladipo out, Nate successfully turned to his bench. You may be surprised at the talent you can find on your bench too. When you have a crucial role to fill, take time to evaluate the talent and skills that you already have in-house before you post your first ad or job description.

4. Becky Hammon: The San Antonio Spurs hired the NBA’s first female assistant coach, signaling a commitment to finding the best talent regardless of demographics

In some ways, the National Basketball Association is the picture of diversity: roughly 75% of its players are African American. At the start of the 2018-19 season, there were 108 international players on league rosters from 42 countries and territories outside the United States. And while professional sports have not been particularly welcoming to gay men, Golden State Warriors President Rick Welts came out publicly eight years ago and has since been enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Nonetheless, there has been one thing that the NBA just wasn’t going to see: a female head coach. But that scenario now seems at least mildly plausible after the San Antonio Spurs hired Becky Hammon in 2014 and made her the league’s first full-time female coach.

This wasn’t a publicity stunt by a feckless team trying to distract fans from a disaster on the court. It was a calculated move by one of the most successful and respected franchises in the sport. Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich is the dean of current NBA coaches and is widely regarded as one of the greatest head coaches in league history.

The Spurs hired Becky, a former seven-time WNBA All-Star point guard, partly because Pop was so impressed by her leadership skills as a player.

“I’d watch the game,” Pop told The New Yorker, “and the only thing I could see . . . was Becky’s aura, her leadership, her effect on teammates, her effect on the crowd, the way she handled herself. She was, like, the ultimate leader.”

When Hammon was hired, the team was quick to counter the notion they were making a political statement. “It has nothing to do with her being a woman,” Pop said. “She happens to be a woman.”

Hiring for diversity is about performance not politics. Actively considering candidates from underrepresented groups expands your talent pool and gives your business access to a broader range of viewpoints and life experiences. And hiring for diversity, when coupled with inclusion, is a proven way to boost your organization’s performance.

Though Becky’s hiring came as a surprise, she has been embraced and endorsed by Spur stars like Tony Parker and Pau Gasol who have praised her basketball IQ and her ability to connect with players. With Becky on the staff, the Spurs have made five consecutive playoff appearances — of course, they had made 17 straight before she joined them too. Last year, as an acknowledgment of her coaching credentials, the Milwaukee Bucks interviewed Becky for their open head coaching position.

And Becky is learning from the best. Gregg Popovich is universally esteemed for his deep understanding of the game and the people who play it. And by looking into a talent pool that had never been tapped by the NBA, Pop once again remained a step ahead of the competition.

Final thoughts: Embrace the tactics of leading NBA teams to give you access to more talent

You may not have $25 million to offer a candidate with no experience doing the very thing you’re hiring for (and you may not have $25 mil for a candidate who does), but you can improve your game with a few tactics from the NBA playbook.

Emphasize skills and potential when looking for candidates and be willing to seriously consider people who have shown great success doing related jobs (Brad Stevens coaching college, Steve Kerr broadcasting and serving as an NBA general manager). Look down your own bench and see if there’s someone you can promote from within who has already demonstrated the talent and insight you’re hoping for. And, finally, consider candidates who look different from anyone who’s ever held your job before. You just might find a winner.

*Image from Getty

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