With one of the NBA’s most respected coaches, the 2009-10 coach of the year runner-up, and the 2009-10 NBA Executive of the Year backing up your credentials, it was only a matter of time before Milwaukee Bucks assistant coach Kelvin Sampson became the next hot assistant coach on an NBA short list to fill a head coaching vacancy.
A year and some change ago, a Yahoo! report hinted that the Cleveland Cavaliers expressed interest in Kelvin Sampson during their search for a new head coach, and the Los Angeles Clippers also had the 1995 and 2002 NCAA national coach of the year on their short list before inexplicably opting for Vinny Del Negro.
Sampson never made it past the introductory stage with either team, but a recent report by Yahoo!’s Adrian Wojnarowski indicates he is closer to an NBA head coaching job than he’s ever been. According to Wojnarowski, the Milwaukee Bucks have given the Detroit Pistons permission to talk with Sampson, although an interview has not been scheduled yet. The Houston Rockets also briefly flirted with Kelvin Sampson this offseason before settling on Kevin McHale.
The Pistons are reportedly also interested in Minnesota Timberwolves assistant Bill Laimbeer and Boston Celtics assistant Lawrence Frank, but Sampson seems like a perfect fit for Detroit’s situation. Setting aside his ethical issues as a college coach (we’ll get to that later), Sampson has a pedigree for connecting with young players in college and the NBA, and the Pistons just happen to be in the infancy stage of a massive rebuilding project.
Running down Sampson’s resume, it’s a no-brainer that Sampson has progressively become a realistic candidate for an elite job held by just 30 men in the world. San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich and GM R.C. Buford are ardent fans, and he spent the last two seasons working extensively with Brandon Jennings under Bucks head coach Scott Skiles.
When you have a reference list with those names on it, you’re going to get a few job offers. But as much as his connections jump off the page at curious NBA executives, there are two elephants in Sampson’s room. Fortunately for him, both are about a quarter of their expected size.
Although he was a two-time college coach of the year, Sampson respected recruiting ethics as much as Bernie Madoff respected business ethics. Fortunately for him, the NBA has enough penalties for unethical behavior and fewer opportunities for coaching delinquencies.
The other pachyderm is Sampson’s lack of head coaching experience in the Association, but that doesn’t seem to deter teams from discussing the likes of Tom Izzo, John Calipari, Rick Pitino, and Mike Kryzewski. Every year, top college coaches hear their names floating around the NBA coaching rumor mill, despite history’s insistence that there’s a higher chance of a candle flame surviving a hurricane than a college coach finding NBA success.
However, Sampson has the advantage of being a part of some success at the highest level with the Spurs and Bucks. Unlike the four coaches listed above, Sampson literally started in the basement of the coaching ranks (as an advisor for the Spurs) up to a full time assistant position and the main practice buddy for point guard Brandon Jennings. A little experience in the Association is still better than none, and he really can’t be any worse than Vinny Del Negro.
Sometimes you have to let the baby bird spread his wings and fly, and given the Bucks issues last season, some new blood in the coaching staff can’t make things much worse. Plus it’s a compliment to the organization as a whole when a rival team calls about one of your assistant coaches.
Whatever happens to Kelvin Sampson and the Detroit Pistons, eventually one NBA team will see that the rewards of making him their head coach far outweigh the risks. Just ask Pop and Skiles.