The Spurs shook up their coaching staff this off-season, adding Ettore Messina and Becky Hammon. Those are obviously not your typical assistant coaches. Messina had a stint with the Lakers in 2011 under Mike Brown, but international coaches are a rarity in the NBA. And Hammon will be the first paid female assistant coach in league history.
These moves only corroborate the Spurs' well-earned reputation as the most innovative team in the league. San Antonio hasn't cared about nationality for a while when it comes to players and now that philosophy extends to coaching candidates. And gender didn't stop them from signing someone whom they had worked with before and thought was qualified. The Spurs are actively making a difference in the way the league deals with groups that have traditionally been ignored. The hirings of Messina and Hammon are not going to reverse immigration policy or solve income inequality, but they will certainly contribute to the discussion and that's valuable.
But there's another aspect to the story: the Spurs have once again moved ahead of the curve in exploiting a market inefficiency.
With the lockout, the owners made out like bandits. Not only did they received a larger share of the league's basketball-related income, but they also got contracts shortened, established a de facto hard cap for all but one or two teams and maintained the rookie scale and the maximum salaries. As a result, the vast majority of the teams will make money year-to-year as franchise prices also rise . The rules the owners established, however, don't allow them to throw money at players the way they had in the past; they were designed with that purpose. But since coaches are not included in the salary cap, it seems that money is flowing their way. Tom Ziller observed the phenomenon first in June.
Nothing illustrates that theory better than Tyronn Lue becoming the highest paid assistant coach ever this off-season, beating out Lawrence Frank, who had the crown the season before last. As for head coaches, Jason Kidd and Derek Fisher walked out of the league as players and entered the coaching ranks with extremely high contracts in general, not to mention for first time coaches. Not only that but the poaching of assistant coaches has become a thing, with the Clippers stealing Sam Cassell away from the Wizards and the Warriors getting Ron Adams from the Celtics and attempting to snag Chip Engelland from the Spurs.
With this climate, coaches are becoming more expensive. Good prospects are going fast and anyone who seems like he could be a great one is getting paid a lot. So the pickings are slim and if a team wants a good coaching staff, they might need to up their budget significantly. Unless they can get creative.
Look at the names I mentioned: Steve Kerr, Derek Fisher, Jason Kidd. What do they have in common? They were point guards in the league, with winning track records. You can throw Mark Jackson in there, too. It's easy to see the appeal they have as coaches. Fisher and Kidd immediately got coaching jobs after retiring, based on their reputation as floor generals and leaders.
The Spurs got someone with similar credentials and reputation in Becky Hammon, but got her for cheap and in an assistant coach spot, which is arguably where Fish and Kidd should have started themselves. Obviously Hammon doesn't have the NBA pedigree and name recognition those other guys have, but she has played at the highest level of women's basketball for years and has excelled. By all accounts, she was a fantastic leader. There's nothing to suggest she doesn't have as bright a basketball mind as those other two. But because she's a woman, she surely wasn't even considered by other teams.
So the Spurs got a young, recently retired star on their staff. But there's also a different kind of assistant. They might be former NBA players or not but are lifers with experience. They probably were head coaches at one point in their career. I'm taking about guys like Lawrence Frank, Alvin Gentry and Nate McMillan. Those assistants have had at least a modicum of success in the past and it wouldn't shock anyone if they got another head coaching job at one point. They can even serve as back up plans in case of firings and as guides for new coaches.
But that safety net isn't cheap. Frank, for example, got paid like a head coach to assist Kidd. And Tyronn Lue, who is not experienced but is considered an up-and-comer in the coaching ranks, is being rewarded handsomely to help ease David Blatt's transition.
Instead of pursuing those established names, the Spurs went for an NBA unknown who has one of the most sterling resumes in European basketball history. Messina was rumored to be in the running for a couple of head coaching jobs over the years, but it seemed like he was making the long list rather than the short one, never truly being in contention. Yet this is a guy who has led star-studded teams in the past, could be a lead coach in any league, speaks perfect English and is young enough to learn the ropes for a few years before going off on his own. The only reason there was no bidding war or millionaire contract for Messina is because he never played or coached in the NBA.
Now, it's important to not fall into the Spurs exceptionalism that we as fans can often find so tempting to accept as undeniable fact. Yes, the Spurs often do things differently, but sometimes they do it because they simply are in different positions than the rest of the league. Most teams can't gamble on Messina as a head coach because if he doesn't pan out, the GM will likely get a lot of flak. And having him as an assistant coach in an environment in which his input wouldn't be well received would be a waste of his talent and a potential chemistry problem waiting to happen (See Frank's and Kidd's relationship in Brooklyn as an example).
The Spurs have Pop, who is a big enough figure to shield Messina and Hammon from any undue scrutiny while being flexible enough to allow them to blossom as coaches in their own right, the way he did with Brett Brown and Mike Budenholzer. And because the system is already in place, most of the players are coming back, and Pop is untouchable, they are not going to be asked to make their mark early on.
In fact, for those same reasons, a skeptic might say the hirings are not that important. After all, who knows if either will be there once Pop leaves? And with Pop around, what exactly do they bring to the table that other more traditional choices couldn't?
What anyone that has that opinion would be ignoring is the Spurs' borderline obsessive focus on the process and their unwavering commitment in always being in the vanguard.
There are two equal threats to a team's future: time and complacency. The Spurs know they can't do anything to prevent the first from ravaging their core eventually; they can only hope to slow down its effects. But these signings show the Spurs will do everything in their power to avoid the second threat from becoming a problem. The Spurs showed their ingenuity in finding value where no one else was looking.
With all due to respect to Kawhi Leonard, that commitment to finding advantages through outside-the-box thinking is the biggest cause for optimism I have for the post-Duncan future.