My first exposure to Mike Longabardi was on November 13, 2013, in Zach Lowe’s Grantland piece. The Suns were still the surprise of the season and, after discussing the Suns’ improvement on offense, eschewing long twos and taking more high-percentage threes, Lowe turned his attention to Phoenix’s defense:
“But the Suns have really shined on the other side, where they’re fifth in points allowed per possession. Mike Longabardi, an assistant coach who worked under Tom Thibodeau in Boston, has Phoenix playing a standard Thibodeau system with shocking success. Everyone is following the rules, Bledsoe is a freaking menace, and opponents are shooting only about 40 percent on close-range shots when Channing Frye, Morris, or Miles Plumlee is near the rim, per SportVU. That’s not quite Roy Hibbert–level intimidation, but Tyson Chandler–level work is a giant surprise for this frisky bunch. They’re probably not a playoff team, and they certainly wish not to be, but they are way better than anyone anticipated.”
Just a day later, Peter J. Novak of SLC Dunk followed up with some more research and analysis of Longabardi, digging up both the Houston connection with Dennis Lindsey and a great quote about Longabardi and the Suns’ fast start by Marcin Gortat—who was traded before he even played a regular season game for the Suns:
“I’ve seen a lot of guys with a lot of energy, young guys who want to work hard, which is obviously a big thing in the NBA,” Gortat said. “But, I would say the big success on that team is actually Mike Longabardi, the assistant coach from the Boston Celtics. He’s the defensive coordinator. He’s just an incredible defensive coordinator. He gets his team ready for every game and I think the success of the team, a lot goes to him. He knows how to win the games.”
So, a logical next question is, does he want to be a head coach? From a getting-to-know-you piece before the season started, he answers that question.
“My goal is, hopefully, one day become a head coach. I don’t know if that’s going to happen or not; only time will tell. But I know if I do probably get an opportunity it’s going to have to be in a situation where you’re going to have to start from the ground up. So to me, this is exciting too. So I’m going to come here, see what Jeff is going to do; how he’s going to do things and help him a little bit.”
In that, he understands that a kind of situation where he’d get an opportunity would be one where he’d have to start from the ground up, similar to the position the Jazz are in now, and also similar to the position Phoenix was in a year ago. So he’s got a year under his belt of building from the ground up, as well as experience in building a championship-winning, defensive-focused culture in Boston in his years before that. His response also reminds me of Brett Brown’s comments discussed here earlier this month: he also understood that to “truly rebuild and grow something is going to take three to five years.”
Would Longabardi want to come to Utah? Check out his response as to why the Phoenix opportunity intrigued him:
“I just looked at the whole perspective that they have, and I’ve never been in this situation before. It’s a great place to live. I like the moves that Ryan (McDonough) has made. So for me personally, it was an opportunity to come in and kind of put my stamp on it and help (Hornacek) so that we can all be successful and build it from the bottom up.”
Given the roster and the moves Dennis Lindsey has made, I could see Longabardi saying similarly complimentary things about the Jazz, both the organization, and the roster. Lindsey has made both some aggressive moves (trading into the Top 10 to pick Trey Burke last year), and doing things differently to make sure no stone is left unturned (bringing in the plethora of players both for the draft, and the free-agent mini-camp last summer). What better situation to come in to and put his stamp on a team, help it be successful, and build it from the bottom up? Considering the Jazz were ranked dead last in the league last year in defense, the only way the defense can go is up.
In that same article, Longabardi talks about how he’s a family man—married and with two young daughters. “I’m committed to the job and I’m committed to my family.” While Phoenix has obviously been a good fit for him so far on several levels, Utah might be a wonderful fit, as well.
One of the criticisms I’ve heard about Longabardi is that he’s short and, as such, might not be able to command the respect of the players. Who’s a short coach who didn’t seem to have any problem commanding the respect of his players? Jeff Van Gundy. In fact, this is what John Starks said of Van Gundy to Sports Illustrated back in 2000:
“He may be small in stature, but he has a big heart and a very strong mind. Players see that, and they respect that.”
Longabardi’s very strong mind has helped his teams become much better defensively. In the year before Longabardi came to Phoenix, the Suns were ranked 24th in the league in defensive efficiency (using Hollinger’s ratings). This past season, a year in which the Suns had a supposedly weaker roster, they ranked 13th. For the two seasons he was the assistant in Boston and over the defensive schemes, Boston was ranked 2nd and 6th. I think that shows a keen mind strong enough for the players to respect.
Given the criteria Dennis Lindsey is looking for—development, discipline, and defense—Mike Longabardi would be an excellent fit.