NBA notes: Suns hire Igor Kokoskov as coach; Thunder’s Billy Donovan expected to return
The Phoenix Suns have hired Utah Jazz assistant Igor Kokoskov as their new head coach.
The 46-year-old Serbian becomes the first NBA head coach born outside the United States. He served as a Suns assistant from 2008 to 2013, a stretch that included Phoenix’s 2010 run to the Western Conference finals.
Kokoskov agreed to terms with the Suns after the team conducted a long series of initial interviews followed by second interviews with what general manager Ryan McDonough termed “a handful” of finalists.
Kokoskov inherits an exceedingly young team that compiled a 21-61 record, worst in the NBA and second-worst in franchise history.
He succeeds interim coach Jay Triano, who took over after Earl Watson was fired three games into the season.
In a statement announcing the hiring, McDonough said Kokoskov “has been a pioneer throughout his basketball career and he brings a wealth of high-level coaching experience to our club.”
“He was one of the first non-American born assistant coaches at both the NCAA and NBA levels and his most recent coaching stint includes leading the Slovenian national team to the 2017 EuroBasket title, which was the first European title in the history of the country,” McDonough said. “Igor’s teams have always had a player development focus, a creative style of play and a track record of success.”
Kokoskov was with the Jazz in Houston on Wednesday night, where they met the Rockets in the second game of their Western Conference semifinal playoff series. He will take over the Suns as soon as his duties with the Jazz are completed.
He is in his 18th season as an NBA assistant coach. In addition to the Jazz and Suns, Kokoskov was an assistant at Orlando (2015), Cleveland (2013-14), Detroit (2003-2008) and Los Angeles Clippers (2000-2003).
He became a U.S. citizen on June 18, 2010, in a ceremony on the court at Phoenix’s Talking Stick Resort Arena. He and his family have kept a home in the Phoenix area since his time with the Suns.
Kokoskov also was head coach of the Georgia national team from 2008 to 2015, qualifying for the EuroBasket tournament three times.
He was the first foreign-born assistant at an NCAA Division I basketball program when he was hired by then-coach Quin Snyder in 1999. Snyder, now head coach of the Jazz, hired Kokoskov as an assistant there three seasons ago.
Thunder GM backs Donovan
Thunder general manager Sam Presti said coach Billy Donovan’s job is safe, despite a disappointing season.
Oklahoma City had high expectations this season after trading for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to join reigning MVP Russell Westbrook.
Even with the added star power, the Thunder won just one more regular-season game than last year and lost in the first round of the playoffs to Utah. Presti says he was disappointed. George also could leave in free agency.
Presti noted that Donovan has been forced to deal with constant change. The Thunder went to the Western Conference finals in Donovan’s first season with a fully stacked roster.
A few months later, Kevin Durant left for Golden State in free agency, and the Thunder scrambled to make the playoffs.
This season, shooting guard Andre Roberson suffered a season-ending injury in January.
Donovan has a 150-96 career regular-season record (.610) with the Thunder.
Bickerstaff expects Grizzlies turnaround
Memphis Grizzlies coach J.B. Bickerstaff believes he can make the franchise competitive immediately with a quick recovery from a 60-loss season. That’s what his boss expects as well.
“We’re going into it with an optimistic view and we’re planning on success,” Bickerstaff said Wednesday, one day after having the interim tag removed from his title . “We’re planning on a playoff run. There’s no doubt about it.”
The Grizzlies announced Tuesday that Bickerstaff would remain their head coach after he worked the last 63 games of Memphis’ 2017-18 season on an interim basis. Bickerstaff began the 2017-18 season as an associate head coach on the staff of David Fizdale, who was fired in late November .
Memphis went 15-48 under Bickerstaff, 39, and finished the season 22-60, posting the second-worst record in the NBA and ending a string of seven straight playoff appearances. General manager Chris Wallace said he was encouraged by Bickerstaff’s approach during a season derailed by injuries.
“You learn a great deal about people in adversity, much more than watching them while they’re winning,” Wallace said. “J.B. was given a very difficult task this year when he took over as interim head coach and guided us through some very choppy waters. He kept the team together through very difficult times.”
Wallace also noted the Grizzlies shouldn’t have similar struggles next season.
Veteran guard Mike Conley should be healthy again after injuries to his left heel and Achilles tendon caused him to play just 12 games this year. Memphis’ poor performance this season also assures the Grizzlies an early pick in the NBA draft to join a nucleus that includes Conley and 33-year-old center Marc Gasol.
“Starting next year, we want to get back in the playoffs again and be a relevant team that’s pushing to win the Western Conference and go on,” Wallace said. “We think we’re well equipped to get back in again. We get Mike Conley healthy. Marc Gasol still has many good years in front of him. We’ve got a number of young players that have come on to develop. We’re going to have a top-five pick. We’re going to be able to use a midlevel exception.
“We’ve got a lot of tools to work with, and a lot of the heavy lifting has already been done.”
5:05 p.m.: This report has been updated with the hiring of Igor Kokoskov as coach of the Phoenix Suns.
This report was originally published at 12:30 p.m.
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