On Monday, during Game 5 of the Los Angeles Clippers-Phoenix Suns series, the ESPN broadcast carved out a couple of minutes to congratulate Clippers assistant coach Chauncey Billups on being named the next head coach of the Portland Trailblazers. Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy praised their former colleague’s 17-year NBA career and Rachel Nichols highlighted the strides Billups made in his first and only year as a basketball coach. They discussed how head coach Tyronn Lue spent time this season working with Billups on play designs, breaking down game films, and structuring team rotations. Billups will have to do all of those things on his own when he is responsible for a Portland group with championship aspirations. What the broadcast did not mention was the person Billups beat out for the job. Someone who has performed the same duties, for a longer time, at a higher level, and with a more accomplished coaching staff. San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon, a finalist for the position, measured up in every area except one: delicate waters.
According to Jake Fisher of Bleacher Report, the Portland front office did not believe Hammon could “steer a ship through such delicate waters.” This is a reference to Damian Lillard, who voiced frustration after the Trail Blazers’ first-round playoff exit. Despite being impressed by her interview, the Blazers were concerned after finding some Spurs members were not totally “complimentary pertaining to various aspects of day-to-day coaching responsibilities.” This cryptic feedback sounds uncharacteristic of someone who is praised by Hall of Fame-bound head coach Gregg Popovich for her basketball IQ, work ethic, and interpersonal skills. But, even if that was the case, Portland was wrong for leaking such information. They did not make public their concerns about Mike D’Antoni, the other candidate to receive a second interview. The Trail Blazers did not want to rehash Billups’s dirty laundry either — Billups settled a civil lawsuit with a woman in 1997 when he was accused of rape, but never charged for it. After a short statement in his introductory press conference, the team refused to take follow-up questions.
If Portland is going to discuss shortcomings, it has to go both ways. Hammon’s quest to become the NBA’s first female head coach — already an arduous task — now becomes tougher. Because of Portland’s ambiguous concerns, Hammon will have to carry around a symbolic “kick me” sign to every future interview. That is an incorrect and disingenuous label for someone who has received endorsement from some of the game’s best.
Former Spurs player, Pau Gasol wrote an open letter in 2018 about female coaches and emphasized Hammon. “I’m telling you: Becky Hammon can coach,” he wrote. “I’m not saying she can coach pretty well. I’m not saying she can coach enough to get by. I’m not saying she can coach almost at the level of the NBA’s male coaches. I’m saying: Becky Hammon can coach NBA basketball. Period.” Not a hint of uncomplimentary feedback had been vocalized during her seven years with the Spurs. She earned so much trust with the staff and players that when Popovich was ejected in December of last season, Hammon became the acting head coach.
In addition to coaching, Hammon has proved herself in another area: development. In 2015, she led the Spurs summer league team to the Las Vegas Summer League title. That year she was instrumental in developing Kyle Anderson. In 2016, Hammon was responsible for grooming Dejounte Murray and Bryn Forbes. All three players are active contributors to current NBA rosters, Murray has All-Star potential. Hammon has earned her chops in almost every area it takes to be a successful head coach. Now she needs the opportunity.
It is no secret the NBA needs more diversity in its head coaching ranks. This offseason made progress in that effort. After the Billups hiring, at least eight teams will have a black head coach entering the 2021–22 season. That is still not enough for a league that is 80% black, but significantly better than just a year ago when there were only four. Other qualified black candidates for the three openings left (New Orleans, Washington, and Orlando), include Sam Cassell, Wes Unseld Jr., Jacque Vaughn, Jarron Collins, and Charles Lee. All have the potential to lead a franchise to success.
All also belong to a group, like Hammon, are being overlooked for former NBA players with minimal coaching experience. The most recent success story was Steve Nash, who did an excellent job in his first season as a head coach for Brooklyn. Before that, Steve Kerr struck gold with the Warriors and now has three championships. But, both of those teams were loaded with Hall of Fame talent. In general, history tells us coaches with any prior experience are a coin flip. Since 1980, head coaches without prior coaching experience have led their teams to a combined .503 winning percentage. Only three have won more than a single playoff series — Steve Kerr, Doc Rivers, and Larry Bird. While Billups spent one year under a quality leader in Lue, Hammon has spent the better part of a decade under arguably the best of his generation in Popovich.
Hammon may be forced to wait it out in San Antonio as the heir apparent to Popovich’s head coaching seat, once he retires. The only other team she had an interview with this offseason was Orlando, and it seems unlikely. Still, Portland passing on Hammond feels like a missed opportunity. Kicking her on the way out was just unnecessary. Navigating delicate waters can be an important part of coaching a quality team, but so is player development and maximizing a roster. Those can only be learned by doing. Becky Hammon has done it, totally complimentary or not.