Gregg Popovich isn’t buying this inexperienced business when it comes to Igor Kokoskov.
“Igor’s been coaching for like 90 years,” joked Popovich about Kokoskov, who’s been an NBA assistant dating back to his time with the Los Angeles Clippers in 2000-01. “Everybody thinks he’s some kind of rookie.”
It’s been a rough start for Kokoskov as the Phoenix Suns (2-7) suffered through a seven-game losing skid, but Popovich believes there are better days ahead for the Suns with their first-time NBA head coach at the helm.
“It’s just about being at a new program,” the San Antonio Spurs coach said. “Putting new people together is not easy. It takes a while. They’re going to learn what he’s all about and vice versa and they’ve had a very tough schedule so far. It’s been a difficult start because of that.
“So the future portends well because he knows what he’s doing.”
Lloyd Pierce is having his struggles with the Atlanta Hawks (3-6) while James Borrego is doing decent in Charlotte with the Hornets (5-5), but another first-time NBA head coach is thriving early.
Nick Nurse has the Toronto Raptors (10-1) tied with the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors for the league’s best record going into Tuesday’s games.
“I feel pretty comfortable,” said the former G League head coach of the Iowa Wolves (then known as the Energy) and the Rio Grande Vipers. “I think I’m more comfortable than I thought I’d feel this early.”
Now, Nurse took over a team that finished atop the East Conference last season while Kokoskov took on the task of coaching a team that had the NBA’s worst record at 21-61.
Nurse was also an assistant at Toronto for five seasons under Dwane Casey. So, he’d already worked with many of the Raptors before becoming their head coach.
“He was my guy,” Toronto center Jonas Valanciunas said. “I started working out with him. He used to teach me little things and we built up our relationship. We became pretty close. We were watching film together. We were trying to correct some mistakes I do on the court. He helped me a lot.”
Kokoskov had been an assistant at Phoenix for five seasons (2008-13) under Mike D’Antoni during the stellar “Seven Seconds or Less” days with two-time MVP Steve Nash, but this is an entirely different team.
These Suns are young and were without their best player, Devin Booker, for three games because of a left hamstring strain.
That’s after he missed the preseason with an injury to his right shooting hand that required surgery Sept. 10.
“He’s our best player, best weapon, best scorer, best playmaker,” Kokoskov said. “We would definitely be better, but we can’t change the past. Just knock on wood that this is the last issue we’re dealing with for the rest of the season.”
Toronto traded its best player, All-Star DeMar DeRozan, but got someone even better in return — Kawhi Leonard.
Nurse is clearly in a better situation, but he’s won despite injuries to Fred VanVleet (toe) and Leonard (foot).
Toronto exploded to a 41-10 lead in Sunday’s 14-point win over LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, 121-107, without Leonard, who sat out with the toe injury he suffered Friday at Phoenix.
The Raptors are deep, talented, but Nurse is doing his part well, too.
“He knows how to deal with players,” Valanciunas said. “He knows how to give information to players. He has his own way. Sometimes what we do isn’t always the best thing to do, but the way he convinces us to do it, and do it together, it works because we do it all together.”
Nurse’s “way” is a unique blend that is certainly working for the Raptors.
“He’s been assertive,” Raptors center Greg Monroe said. “He’s been really calm and composed.”
Nurse thought he’d have to have 25 to 30 games under his belt to shake off the rust calling plays, timeouts and making substitutions.
“A lot of nights, I feel for him because he’s trying to find minutes for everybody,” Raptors forward Danny Green said. “We have guys that can play, and play major minutes on any team. To figure out a way to use rotations and figure out a way to make it work, he’s done an amazing job of managing that.”
Having a veteran team and quality assistants has helped Nurse adjust and adapt quicker than he expected.
“I’ve tried to let them play and I’ve tried to let my really, really good coaching staff coach,” Nurse said. “It feels OK so far.”
Nurse is clearly off to the best start of the four first-time ever NBA head coaches including Borrego, who went 10-20 as an interim with Orlando at the end of the 2014-15 season, but unlike him, the other three came from different places before getting their first taste of head coaching.
Pierce served as an assistant in Philadelphia for four seasons before replacing Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta. The Hornets hired Borrego, who coached under Popovich the last three seasons, to replace Steve Clifford.
Kokoskov came to Phoenix from Utah and doesn’t that familiarity with his players like Nurse does with his. He’s been trying to bridge that gap by having meaningful conversations with them.
“He wants us to be able to have that open-door policy and feel comfortable to communicate with him about whatever we’re feeling,” Suns veteran forward Ryan Anderson said.
Kokoskov spends countless hours trying to turn Phoenix into a winner now, not later, and is constantly questioning every decision he makes.
“When you have a coach that cares,” Anderson said. “His wheels are turning constantly.“
Nurse and Kokoskov are adjusting to the NBA schedule that’s now filled by games every other day or back-to-backs. That’s led to fewer practice opportunities.
“It hit me the other day we had eight games in 13 days,” Nurse said.
To combat that, Nurse said he’s tried to make the most of shootarounds before games, but added the practices have been light.
Kokoskov is experiencing the same thing, but being the creative coach Popovich described him as, has found a way to make it work.
“It’s more teaching, more film,” Kokoskov said. “Much more film than what we did 15 years ago. A lot more teaching. Less drilling.”
Kokoskov said players learn from “watching the screens” which plays into more film time. In his sessions, Kokoskov calls himself the director and delivers each player their unique storyline.
“We have categories that we’re covering and finding those clips that we can prove that if you don’t (do this), this is what’s going to happen,” he said.
Kokoskov says it’s in his nature to be positive. This slow start is testing that aspect of him, but Popovich believes Phoenix is in good hands with this so-called rookie coach who’s been coaching nearly a century.
“He’s been around the block in a lot of different situations,” Popovich said. “He’s a seasoned, fine coach. He’s creative. He’s disciplined. He knows what it takes.”