Nate Tibbetts: Why? — The NFL and WNBA are in different sandboxes — Must-click women’s basketball links — Kellie Harper talks Tennessee
The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, Oct. 18, 2023
The news reverberated through the world of women’s basketball on Monday night, after Woj reported that Nate Tibbetts would be not only the Phoenix Mercury’s next head coach (leaked to an NBA reporter, chef’s kiss), but the highest-paid one in WNBA history.
One question kept hitting my text messages: why?
And ultimately, whatever the success or failure of Tibbetts in Phoenix, with many obstacles to that success in front of him, the ability to answer that question will haunt this hiring no matter what.
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Why a man with no women’s basketball experience of any kind?
Why a man at all?
Why an assistant from the 34-48 Orlando Magic — no one in NBA circles suggested Tibbetts was among the assistants particularly likely to get an NBA head job — instead of one of the numerous assistants who are deeply immersed in the WNBA who wouldn’t require a learning curve to comprehend an entirely new league?
Why not Brandi Poole or Roneeka Hodges?
Why not Barbara Turner or Olaf Lange?
Why not Katie Smith or Pokey Chatman?
Why not Cori Close or Nicki Collen, Kara Lawson or Adia Barnes?
Why not just make Diana Taurasi player-coach?
Why not wait a week and try to throw a ton of money at Sandy Brondello, who still has a house in Phoenix, to remedy one of the greatest mistakes in recent Mercury history?
Why ignore that the four WNBA semifinalists were coached by Brondello, Becky Hammon, Stephanie White and Latricia Trammell? Why ignore that six of the seven full-time head coaches in the playoffs — Cheryl Reeve and Tanisha Wright, too — were women?
Why pair a GM with NBA background with a head coach with NBA background?
Why return to a model of either WNBA cluelessness or, perhaps worse, by staffing up with WNBA knowledge from women in subsidiary roles to allow the men to be front and center?
Why embrace the debunked trope that anything NBA is better than everything WNBA?
Even among the harshest critics around the league, no one is upset with Nate Tibbetts. He’ll now have a chance to prove he’s worth the price paid and the steps skipped. If he can turn that 9-31 Phoenix team into a winner, despite the cavernous holes in the roster from years of Jim Pitman mismanagement, he’ll win 2024 WNBA Coach of the Year.
But even the NBA-first figures who have succeeded in the WNBA — former Chicago Bulls assistant Mike Thibault and Detroit Pistons forward Bill Laimbeer are 1-2 in all-time wins among coaches, after all, though Cheryl Reeve is right on their heels — came into the league at a different time, before it had developed a generation who played and coached, who built the requisite experience, amid an ever-more-complicated landscape for success. (Miss me with the “Becky Hammon’s experience was in the NBA” takes. I covered Becky. The WNBA is in her DNA.)
Hire men like Eric Thibault, a longtime assistant steeped in the league, or a bright young development mind like Zak Buncik from the Dallas staff, and the questions are different. The explanation is an easy-to-understand one. Hire a former WNBA player like Wright or Noelle Quinn or Teresa Weatherspoon, and it might not solve the problems of the organization, either — the proliferation of former WNBA players in coaching will, by definition, mean many of them will fail, since there’s only one championship. Most coaches fail, period.
But you better have a great process to put your team in the best possible position to win in this league.
Unless the goal is to ensure that come 2025, the New York Liberty can add a lottery-level talent to their already enviably-deep roster thanks to a pick swap Pitman engineered with New York in the Michaela Onyenwere deal, a deal New York needed more than Phoenix, the question hovers over this hire, and will for the foreseeable future:
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Briefly: we’ll obviously have a lot more on the WNBA Finals next week. The Next has you covered, of course. I’ll be in Brooklyn tonight with Jackie Powell, Gigi Speer and Em Adler, and should there be a Game 5, in Las Vegas with Jackie Powell and Matthew Walter.
I did want to flag this:
Old enough to remember when I was told the WNBA couldn’t/shouldn’t go up against the Big Bad NFL (last year). I know folks who watched both Sunday. I know folks who watched just the NFL.
And I know folks who watched just the WNBA. Seems like there were a lot of them. Get your wallets ready, media companies.
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Five at The IX: Kellie Harper, Tennessee head coach
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