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Becky Hammon’s departure from the NBA hopefully won’t be permanent

Hammon did everything right but always hit a wall before reaching her goal. Now she’s taking a different path that will hopefully lead her to her original destination.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Los Angeles Clippers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Becky Hammon will leave San Antonio after this season to become the head coach of the Las Vegas Aces of the WNBA (formerly her old club, the San Antonio Silver Stars). The announcement was made late on Dec. 30, with the Spurs facing a back-to-back on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, so it was hard to focus on the ramifications of a really important development. Now, she’s had the time to address it.

Normally this wouldn’t be big news, but Hammon is not just another assistant coach for the Spurs or the NBA in general. She was the longest tenured member of the staff in San Antonio and was seen as the potential successor of Gregg Popovich, and many expected her to be the first female head coach in the league.

While a future at the helm either in San Antonio or somewhere else in the NBA is still possible, Hammon’s decision seems to make her dream more unlikely. So it’s worth taking a look at why she might have made it.

First of all, it’s important to acknowledge that this was a wonderful opportunity for Hammon, for many reasons. She said so herself when she addressed the media. The WNBA has never had the level of talent it has today, and despite not having the support of the mainstream media yet, it has been gaining adepts. The league has seen improved viewership and is getting an infusion of marketable young talent to go with the familiar aging superstars that carried the league for literally decades.

Hammon’s Aces have the 2020 season MVP in A’ja Wilson on their roster, as well as other great players like Liz Cambage and Kelsey Plum. The team had the second best record in the league last season and should be a contender with Hammon at the helm, especially if she modernizes the offense, which ranked dead last in three-point attempts last season. It was also been reported that Hammon will be the highest paid WNBA coach ever and will have input on personnel decisions. Becky turned her time in the NBA into a fantastic job.

It’s not the one she originally wanted, though. She made it clear that she was open to a WNBA job and briefly considered an offer to coach the Florida Gators’s women’s team, but she has stated that her goal was to get an opportunity in the NBA. She did what she could to achieve that goal. Hammon worked her way from the second row to the first and became one of Popovich’s main assistants, which is a safe way into a head coaching position. Mike Budenholzer, Brett Brown, Jacque Vaughn, James Borrego, Jim Boylen and Ime Udoka all got opportunities to run teams away from San Antonio right after working under Pop. Hammon wasn’t so lucky despite receiving interest from four teams and reaching the final stage with the Portland Trail Blazers. Whether any of the teams that interviewed Hammon actually intended to hire her, however, remains unclear, even to her.

Clearly she was not pleased with how things transpired in her many interviews, and for good reason, but her decision to desist on her goal of becoming an NBA head coach for now surely has to do with the Spurs as well. While other assistants, from the hyper accomplished like Ettore Messina (another outsider who never got his chance at the big job) to the rising stars like Will Hardy, have moved on, Hammon stayed. We’ll never know if she did it because she didn’t get any offers to be an assistant elsewhere, because she thought staying with Pop was the best way to get a head coaching job, because she thought she was going to be Pop’s successor, or simply because she was comfortable in San Antonio. But the answer could be important. Popovich and the Spurs deserve plenty of credit for hiring Hammon, but were they actually considering her as a potential head coach? If they weren’t — or if Hammon thought they weren’t — her decision makes a lot more sense.

It’s safe to say the NBA clearly didn’t treat Hammon fairly if, as she recently admitted, the excuse used to deny her a real shot at the big job was that she had only been in San Antonio and had never been a head coach. We know that’s not valid reasoning because there are plenty of examples of men who have gotten head coaching jobs without any experience, or who got jobs after only working under Pop. Fortunately, she’ll be able to check those arbitrary boxes once he gets to Las Vegas, but it’s fair to wonder if once she leaves the NBA world, will there be new opportunities for her to return? There have not been any head coaches who have made an immediate transition from the WNBA to the NBA. Even former NBA players who enjoyed enormous success at the WNBA level, like Michael Cooper and Bill Laimbeer, only managed to get assistant positions when they made the jump.

Hammon is no stranger to being a pioneer, so she probably welcomes the challenge to once again forge a new path. The winds of change are blowing, with more and more women joining the NBA coaching ranks and public opinion being more receptive to those additions. If she does well in Las Vegas, there will be pressure to give Hammon an opportunity in the NBA, and for good reason, not only by the media but likely by the players as well, who have in general showed tremendous respect both for the WNBA and Hammon. And as she takes over the reins, she won’t be under as much scrutiny as she is now and would have been if she had taken her first steps as a head coach in the NBA. Despite not being what she actually wanted, Hammon’s new job probably comes at a good time for her and shouldn’t completely destroy her chances of actually attaining her initial goal. That’s the hope, at least.

Trailblazers often have to settle for opening doors for others that they’ll never get to walk through themselves, but that should not be Hammon’s fate. If becoming an NBA head coach continues to be her goal, we have to believe she’ll achieve it because the alternative is too grim for anyone who was encouraged by the league finally making some strides in terms of equality in the past decade.

Even as she prepares to step away from the league, Hammon will remain a reluctant symbol, an avatar for change that never materialized fully. Hopefully soon the day will come when she can be viewed solely as what she’s been all along: a competent leader who is ready to make the best of her chance, if someone is smart enough to give her one.