When the Dallas Mavericks hired Jenny Boucek as an assistant coach this offseason they made franchise history. Not only did the organization hire their first woman in a coaching position, they also hired, by extension, their first baby. Boucek, who coached in the WNBA for nearly two decades before joining the NBA as a player development coach for the Kings in 2017, is expecting her first child before this summer is over and will be balancing a newborn and a new roster of players in her role as assistant coach for the team when the 2018 NBA season starts.
The NBA has shown it can and does function well with a top-down management style when it comes to progressive moves, but gender parity isn’t reached by hiring one woman of color as Executive Director of the National Basketball Players Association, nor is the stigma and status of mental health within the league addressed overnight by appointing a Director of Mental Health and Wellness. Progress needs momentum and momentum means refusing to rest on your laurels.
So how does the league prove progress is being made outside just its upper echelons, and more importantly how is that progress implemented at ground level in a meaningful way? Fittingly, for a group concerned with the fundamentals of the game, it is the coaches within the league who can implement the most practical, daily affecting changes.
Jenny Boucek’s hiring crystallized a gap when it came to the benefits available to coaches, most pressingly maternity leave, but later, the option of in-arena childcare available to players and staff. Boucek, who underwent in vitro fertilization (IVF) in order to become pregnant, will certainly not be the first single parent to be employed by the NBA, but she will probably be its most prominent. As a coach, Boucek is in a unique position to implement changes to promote not only better gender-parity when it comes to accessible benefits, but an overall more supporting climate and work-life balance within the intensely encompassing world of competitive basketball.
Whether or not the league has another pregnant coach on staff this season or years down the road is irrelevant, for a league that so often leads by progressive example it’s not a stretch to think other pro-sports leagues beginning to—slowly—add women to their front office rosters will use the NBA as a model to follow. The NBA has its own close example of what quality, in-house childcare can look like in the WNBA, with the Phoenix Mercury creating a room this past season for the children of players and staff, overseen by a nurse from a local neonatal intensive care unit.
A champion and close friend of Bouchek is Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon. Hammon has come up under the progressive coaching prototype in the league and has taken the Spurs fundamentals from Popovich while implementing her own—toughness, repetition and a sharp, penetrating eye—to become an entirely new model of coach. The reality is that Hammon, like Bouchek, has to be better, faster and more successful than her male counterparts in the league to even be considered for the same jobs and opportunities. To ultimately be granted these gigs is still under the discretion of old-guard gatekeepers, the franchise GMs and owners. However much progression the league has enjoyed on the surface, there are plenty whose minds will automatically go to Hammon and Bouchek’s male counterparts when making a decision of who to hire for a head coach opening.
The NBA has made cracks in its glass ceiling but it is a huge and hard thing to smash when there’s only a few women close enough to do it. The league has set itself up for a deficit of female coaching talent in not recruiting from the WNBA or international leagues as aggressively as it has done with male up-and-coming coaches. And it may not be for lack of want, but networks can grow insular the more specialized they get, so asking male coaches already in the league for suggestions on skilled women to hire for available roles could yield a lot of blank looks, or else more of the same. Instead, asking leaders like Hammon and Bouchek, who both have scouting skills on their resume, to recommend other women within their coaching networks would be a good first step to remedy this lack of parity.
What they advocate for off the court matters just as much as what they’re enforcing on it, and changing coaching styles contribute to accelerating the overall progression of the league in real time, literally on the clock.
Coaches like Brad Stevens, who some considered the obvious choice for Coach of the Year this past season, is sitting in that position partially because of the active role he encourages his players to have when it comes to playmaking in-game and critiquing the plays Stevens draws up. As a member of the Positive Coaching Alliance’s National Advisory Board, Stevens stands by the power of positivity when coaching, admitting he’s just not “very effective when angry”. Rather than demand the same results from each of his players, Stevens prefers “focusing on what they do best”, coaching to individual personalities and what will help underline their strengths to empower the team as a whole. It’s a deceptively simple method based on instilling the same kind of confidence in his players seen in superhumanly talented outliers like LeBron James, who always get to call their own shots.
David Fizdale is another coach who earns his players respect by getting close, rather than screaming at them from the sidelines. When Chandler Parsons played for Fizdale in Memphis he said his desire to “play good for him [was] because you love him. You have a personal relationship with him outside of basketball.”
Much has been made—t-shirts, for example—of Fizdale’s postgame haranguing of refs in the 2017 playoffs, but the candor and emotion that he spoke with is often as discouraged as it is taboo when it comes to coaches. A loss of control in a situation not even parallel to a game, such as a postgame presser, traditionally equates to a bad example and a franchise fast on its way off the rails. But it proved the opposite for Fizdale, whose players collectively paid the $30,000 fine he’d earned for the outburst. His abrupt firing from the Grizzlies a year later drew protest from veterans like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, and he was not long out of work before being hired by the Knicks, desperately in need of strong leadership and someone to repair the fractured trust between the front office and its players.
An outspoken advocate for his players, Steve Kerr’s coaching methods can occasionally, ironically, take a backseat in the limelight that comes with leading the Avengers of super teams. The Warriors can boast the best starting lineup in the league but Kerr is above all a distributor. He consistently dials back the minutes of his starters to get the bench in the rotation, thereby keeping the team’s confidence up as a whole. With the exception of a couple big acquisitions, Kerr has built up the Warriors roster to an at times comically dense lineup of incredibly viable and effective mix of players. The trick this year will be to manage personalities—Boogie, for one, has been a thunderhead on many a coach’s horizon— through playing time while honoring his more-is-more ethos.
Luke Walton, who came up under Kerr and shares his laid-back, Southern California vibe, has shown he’s skilled at personality handling in the Big Baller Brand era. As someone who credits his father for teaching him to always question authority, Walton now has to figure out a creative way to wield it in order to manage a cast of offseason acquisitions that could double as an open-call for character actors, a hungry bench of young talent, and the pioneering CEO-player-prototype of LeBron James. And with all eyes eagerly set on the Lakers once the season starts, he may only get one chance.
Whatever Walton comes up with will push the league forward because James himself is one giant catalyst. James accelerates coaching wherever he goes and if the Lakers’ offseason moves are any indication, he, alongside Magic Johnson and Walton, are building with an eye to the next few seasons but more widely, James is using the privilege that’s come with his hard-earned, hybridized position as a player and front office advisor to evolve what future roles could look like for all players within a league expanding to allow them more authority off the court.
Solid proof any sea-change is in the response to those resisting its flow. Tom Thibodeau faced the most friction of his career this past season with an ailing Wolves team who ought to be, on paper, operating a whole lot better. What good is the relentless, powerhouse work ethic of Jimmy Butler paired with the promise of Andrew Wiggins or Karl-Anthony Towns if the only thing being fostered between them is a dissent inevitably fed by overworking your core? D’Antoni faced similar criticism over his stubborn support of the ISO game and failure to adapt defensively in Houston’s worst playoff franchise showing against Golden State. Even with the benefit of going into a new season with the league’s second best team, without showing some measure of personal modification his fate may well mirror Stan Van Gundy's, who is still without a coaching gig after failing to deliver dramatic improvement in Detroit after four years.
A certain amount of progression in coaching is inevitable. With new sports science, data and an increased awareness on mental health in tandem with physical wellbeing, the way basketball gets played at a professional level is bound to evolve. But these renaissance coaches, which we may as well call them, are speeding up that process beyond the regular evolution of the NBA. The progressive coaching methods employed by Hammon and Bouchek, Stevens, Fizdale, Kerr and Walton, make the methods of Phil Jackson (whose refusal to adapt more-or-less got him run out of the league) or the rigidity of Pat Riley look archaic, but when held alongside stubbornly held styles currently used by Thibodeau or D’Antoni, these new-style coaches almost antiquate their current colleagues’ methods in real-time.
The league is in new territory. It is existing in accelerated times, the influence of which permeates all things, regardless of how well established. For the NBA, coaches are where this change is going to take hold the most quickly and where progressive actions will be introduced, tested, discarded and adapted again many times within the same season. Think about it, in a good game you already see this kind of ingenuity at play, its one of the best parts of basketball. What the league is undertaking now is the synthesization, at all levels, of this spirit of innovation at the heart of its game.