Suns coaching candidates: Mike Budenholzer reportedly the early front-runner, but there are several options


Frank Vogel was on top of the coaching profession less than four years ago. On Oct. 11, 2020, his Los Angeles Lakers won their 17th championship. It was Vogel’s first as a head coach, but it might wind up being his last. In the 1,306 days that have passed since, Vogel has now been fired twice. The Lakers let him go due to his failure to successfully integrate Russell Westbrook into their barren roster. Now the Suns, after only one year on the job, have let him go following a first-round sweep at the hands of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Neither firing was especially normal. Vogel was the most successful Lakers coach since Phil Jackson. He got the boot after one season out of the playoffs. Vogel won 49 games in his first Suns season. He isn’t getting a second. Neither was necessarily his fault. Both teams gave him extremely flawed rosters lacking in the sort of defensive depth that made him so successful at his best.

But teams looking to compete on the level that the Lakers and Suns are just aren’t interested in excuses. It’s either win or get lost. That should give you an idea of both what the Suns are looking for out of their next head coach and the sort of pressure that will face that hire. They’re not trying to find a coach who can develop into a star in three years. They need someone to help them win here and now. Here are five candidates they may pursue to try to do just that.

Mike Budenholzer

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Thursday that former Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer has emerged as the favorite for this job, and, well, that makes sense. There are 10 active head coaches that have won championships. Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, Erik Spoelstra, Nick Nurse, Michael Malone, Rick Carlisle and Doc Rivers are all employed elsewhere. The Suns just fired Vogel. We’ll get to No. 9 in a bit. That leaves Budenholzer as the only championship-winner on the board.

If the Suns want a revamped offense, as all of the reporting thus far has claimed, Budenholzer is a strong choice. Phoenix relied way too heavily on mid-range jumpers this season, and that poor shot-selection hampered its offense. Budenholzer teams are known for taking the right shots. That primarily means firing off a bunch of 3-pointers, but they get to the rim as well. Of course, this team’s personnel isn’t exactly suited to attacking the basket, but perhaps there’s a middle-ground Budenholzer could find. Defensively, his principles are similar to Vogel’s. He prefers drop-coverage in pick-and-roll, but like Vogel, he’d struggle to implement that scheme properly with the poor point-of-attack defenders Phoenix has.

Maybe the roster could be tweaked slightly to help Budenholzer defensively. Flexibility is limited due to the second apron and all of the picks the Suns have already traded. But proven, winning coaches are rarely available. Budenholzer certainly fits that bill, and he’ll therefore be attractive to a Phoenix team that isn’t interested in waiting. 

Kevin Young

Young was presumably the runner-up in last year’s search, with many outlets reporting during the process that was the favorite. Young was the lead assistant under Monty Williams during his tenure in Phoenix, and the Suns made him the NBA’s highest-paid assistant last season.

There are two primary issues at play here. The first is that Young just took the head-coaching job at BYU. College coaches leave for the NBA from time to time… but we’ve never a college coach leave for the NBA before coaching a single game. The last time we saw a coach get cold feet on a job before it even began was Billy Donovan back in 2007, when he accepted and then declined the Orlando Magic job. So there’s some slight precedent here, but it’s a bit different in Young’s case because he was in the building in Phoenix. He likely knew whether or not he had a shot at the Phoenix job before he took the BYU position. That he took the job suggests he either doesn’t want to coach the Suns or didn’t expect to get the chance.

The other hurdle here, even if the Suns could theoretically pry Young away, is whether or not they would want to. Young was the primary architect of the offense that flopped in the playoffs. He was a very highly-regarded offensive assistant, but for whatever reason, his approach didn’t translate to last year’s Suns roster. Phoenix seems to want a clean slate, so that may knock Young out of the running whether or not he’s interested.

Ty Lue

Here’s our final championship-winning coach. The Clippers currently hold a team-option on Lue for next season, and they reportedly want to extend him. Notably, however, the Lakers are reportedly interested in Lue’s services. Multiple teams were last offseason as well, and the Suns were one of them. The NBA doesn’t seem to have much faith in the Lue-Clippers marriage. Whether that means he can be extracted from Los Angeles is another question. The Clippers hold all the cards here. But the Suns, and the Lakers, are both going to try.

We’re abandoning experienced coaches for a moment to key in on the hottest first-timer on the market. Redick was reportedly a finalist for the Hornets job that just went to Charles Lee. It is not clear how close he came or didn’t come to getting that job, but it’s plausible that his focus has shifted to a higher-profile job, as he is reportedly a real candidate to land with the Lakers. After all, he and LeBron James host a podcast together.

The things have attracted these other teams should attract the Suns as well. Redick’s X’s and O’s acumen is on display in his various media jobs. He’s a recent enough player to plausibly connect with an aging Suns roster. He played against every member of Phoenix’s core, at least. You never quite know what you’re getting when you hire a coach with no experience. Sometimes it’s Derek Fisher. Sometimes it’s Steve Kerr. The league-wide interest in Redick suggests that there is faith that he’s going to come closer to the Kerr end of the spectrum. He’s a risky hire, but that makes the reward potentially that much higher.

Chauncey Billups

On Wednesday, Marc Stein reported that teams are monitoring the Portland Trail Blazers‘ head coach. The Blazers have already shaken up his staff, and Billups is heading into the last year of his deal. His Blazers have largely struggled, but it’s unclear how much of that is his fault. He has had either injury-laden rosters or, in the case of this season, an incredibly young one. When Billups took the Blazers job he likely expected to contend. Circumstances haven’t allowed for that.

Could he do so in Phoenix? Potentially. There are currently only three open jobs in the NBA now that Lee has filled the Charlotte vacancy. They belong to the Wizards, Lakers and Suns. If teams are monitoring Billups, it stands to reason that Phoenix is one of them. All of the reporting surrounding the end of Vogel’s Suns tenure made it clear that he had lost the locker room. Billups, a championship player with the Pistons, would command immediate respect upon taking the job. His Blazers rosters have been too limited to draw meaningful schematic conclusions about how he would handle the Suns job, but winning over the locker room would be a nice start.





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