While certainly not the ideal situation for any NBA franchise, a coaching vacancy brings with it several bits of silver lining. Struggling organizations can brand a coaching change, both internally and externally, as the turning of a new leaf – and indeed, in most cases there’s at least some truth to this. A new bench boss can bring about change from a variety of angles, from strategic philosophy to player management to relations with the front office and media. Utah’s next coach will be the one expected to take the young core from the “potential” phase into “results”, and key in this transition will be a forging of a far more concrete team identity, particular defensively.
As far as “bigger” name candidates go, look no further than everyone’s favorite TV analyst, Jeff Van Gundy. Linked to a potential Jazz opening by way of his connection with Utah GM Dennis Lindsey when both were in Houston, Van Gundy brings with him a strong reputation around the league as an excellent systems coach, particularly defensively. He’s experienced as an NBA top man, with stints in Houston and, before that, New York. Beyond just his time logged in the league, though, Van Gundy brings exactly the sort of fundamental change the Jazz need – smart, basic systems supported by sound reasoning[ref]That is, he places importance not only on his players following the system, but on them understanding why each element of the system is in place, allowing them to work within it but also improvise on it when appropriate.[/ref].
Van Gundy began as a coach in the college ranks, bouncing his way around several programs during the mid-80’s. He spent time as an assistant under Rick Pitino at Providence, and made the jump to the NBA as a Knicks assistant in 1989, serving under such names as Pat Riley and Don Nelson before becoming head coach for New York in 1996. He led the Knicks to the playoffs in each of his five full seasons, including a Cinderella run to the Finals as an 8-seed in the shortened 1998-99 season before a loss to Tim Duncan and the Spurs. He resigned in 2001, but was quickly back on the sidelines for the Rockets in 2003, where he remained for four seasons. Houston during this time was successful in a tough Western Conference, but was unfortunately marred by a series of first-round playoff disappointments that would largely fall on the head of stars Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming. He was let go by the Rockets after a seventh-game loss to our very own Jazz in the first round in 2007, and began his time in broadcasting not long after. All in all, his NBA head-coaching record is 430-318, good for a .575 winning percentage.
Purely from an “X’s and O’s” standpoint, Van Gundy would be an excellent fit in Utah. He’s known as a defense-first coach, and numbers from his previous teams support this notion. In nine full seasons with Houston and New York, his teams were never lower than seventh league-wide for defensive efficiency, with several top three showings and one squad (his 1996-97 Knicks) that topped the league, per NBA.com. He’s one of the NBA’s foremost defensive systems experts, widely lauded for his ability to fit scheme to his personnel[ref]As opposed to some coaches who attempt to bend and fit their personnel to their preferred scheme, regardless of how well said personnel actually fits.[/ref].
He preaches elements of various defensive styles, and is well aware of the vulnerabilities that come with being too static or predictable – as a result, he attaches a variety of situational caveats and counters to his schemes while maintaining the basics. His base system, both in Houston and New York, ran inside-out; that is, the big men inside are the captains defensively, recognizing the response particular situations call for and communicating outwardly to their guards. He preaches many elements of “Red” defense – heavy guard pressure on the ball, particularly on the wings and especially after the ball-handler has picked up his dribble. His Knicks teams especially used this in conjunction with frequent fronting of the low post, something modern fans will equate with the Miami Heat’s strategy.[ref]It wasn’t as necessary in Houston, as Yao was such an interior presence that fronting the post would have accomplished less than simply having him between the man and the basket at all times.[/ref]
Van Gundy was particularly wary of becoming transparent against the pick-and-roll, even during the mid-90’s slog-fest when only the Jazz and a handful of other teams were even using it as the centerpiece of their offense. He varied things quite well based on personnel, and his Knicks teams in particular were versatile given the presence of Patrick Ewing and several long, speedy wing defenders. These Knicks would often blitz the ball-handler up high with both defenders[ref]Again, the current Miami Heat are probably the best modern example.[/ref], and were particularly diligent in playing a “down” coverage (also known more commonly as “ice” or “blue” today) against side pick-and-rolls to cut off the middle of the floor[ref]Van Gundy was before his time in advocating heavily for the use of space and the sideline/baseline as defensive weapons.[/ref]. His Rockets certainly varied things to a degree, but were generally a bit more conservative, again due to Yao’s skill set as a defensive anchor. Elements like heavy on-ball trapping after dribble pick-ups, selective double-teams situationally, and precise rotations remained constants throughout.
Perhaps most vital, though, is the way Van Gundy teaches recovery. First-level stuff is important, but also expected in the NBA – where many defenses break down is in the time it takes them to rotate through multiple offensive actions and remain stout. JVG spends a huge amount of time with his teams on this detail, preaching a “big pushes small” philosophy where wings crash into the paint and bump opposing big men, creating enough time for the recovering defensive big to get back in position and “push” the wing back out to his man. He details specific recovery protocols for each of his defensive schemes and their potential variations, and while complex, these have resulted in his teams always being among the most disciplined in the league defensively. My strategy-inclined readers should gain some real insight from this late 90’s video detailing many of Van Gundy’s defensive principles along with corresponding tape from his Knicks teams:
Van Gundy isn’t without potential shortcomings as a coach, though a few are overstated somewhat. It’s true that both he and brother Stan aren’t shy about expressing their opinions publicly, but I think of this as far less of an issue than many[ref]Plus, as I mentioned on this week’s Salt City Hoops podcast, I think Stan is far more prone to foot-in-mouth syndrome of the two, and much of Jeff’s “loudmouth” reputation stems from being paid to, you know, say things about basketball on national television.[/ref]. Some might have concerns with his offensive acumen, and while these are more legitimate worries, Van Gundy has actually done a respectable job coaxing average offense out of groups with limited talent (particularly those Knicks teams, who were old and bland besides a beyond-his-prime Ewing), with a couple context-heavy exceptions[ref]His first year in Houston, which was just Yao’s second season and one year before McGrady arrived, and his 05-06 Rockets team that saw those two miss a combined 60 games.[/ref].
He seems like a long shot in the eyes of many, and didn’t do much to change that perception earlier this week when he stated on ESPN 700 that he hadn’t been contacted by the Jazz and did not expect to be. This sort of deflection is common, though, and while Van Gundy might not be at the top of any lists right now, the coaching search is just in its infancy and much could change. Here’s hoping he gets a serious look – his reputation and experience, coupled with a strong defensive background and a rock-solid system, would be perfect for a young Jazz squad in need of more firm guidance and identity.