Two days after a collision with his defenceman knocked him out of a playoff game, Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Ilya Samsonov was not on the ice for practice on Tuesday.
The phrase ‘winning the press conference’ is a kind of multi-purpose slight: it diminishes the people holding the press conference and the subject of it also.
It speaks to bells and whistles, sizzle without steak, style over substance and whatever metaphor you might what to choose when it comes to hype trains running downhill, no brakes.
Had it been either goal, the Toronto Raptors could have conceivably knocked the proverbial press conference out of the park had they chosen this week to announce that WNBA legend Becky Hammon as either next head coach.
Imagine: just as the WNBA gets set to hold the first exhibition game in Canada at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday, one of the most female-forward organizations in sports introduces a trailblazer in a critical role, crossing a barrier that seemed insurmountable even a few years ago.
Even in the ever more cluttered space of sports, media, and entertainment, you would have to think it would be a breakthrough moment for the Raptors, women in sports, and redefining the limits of what’s possible all in one tidy package.
It wouldn’t win the press conference, it would dominate the news cycle.
Cue the New York Times feature, and maybe a visit from 60 Minutes.
It’s not going to happen though.
Not the part about the Raptors hiring Hammon, the former WNBA star, long-time San Antonio Spurs assistant coach and reigning coach-of-the-year for the WNBA champions Las Vegas Aces.
That might yet happen. Hammon, among others, remains in the running. But the Raptors won’t be announcing either new head coach this week or this weekend or next.
And they certainly won’t be making a coaching hire based on anything other than what that person can do to help spark a franchise that seems to be drifting at the moment.
Hiring the right coach is more important than any other consideration. Whoever gets the job — Hammon or anyone else — will have to make either presence felt quickly and will be judged accordingly, wins and losses being an uncompromising metric.
My understanding is the net of possible candidates to replace former head coach Nick Nurse remains quite wide; there is no shortlist as of yet. Hammon is one of several candidates the Raptors plan to interview or have already. And while the intention remains to have the 10th head coach in franchise history in place by the draft on June 23rd, there’s no need to make a move now.
The NBA timetable has its own pace. Looking ahead to the week of May 15th-21st, you have the NBA draft combine, which is one of the few moments in the year the entire league is one place at one time. Just as it’s an opportunity for teams to interview potential draft picks, it is also a convenient opportunity for a team conducting a coaching search to do further interviews with a preferred list of candidates. From there perhaps the last week of May becomes a window to narrow down your top choice with an eye towards an announcement in early June?
That would still give the Raptors and either new coach nearly three weeks to get organized in advance of the draft. For what it’s worth, that’s about when Raptors Miami Masai Ujiri hired Nurse back in the summer of 2018.
But who will get the job?
Hammon was one of a few names that surfaced amid reports of the Raptors asking for permission to interview candidates currently affiliated with other organizations, a list that included former Raptors assistant and Raptors 905 head coach Patrick Mutombo; former Brooklyn Nets head coach and current Golden State Warriors assistant Kenny Atkinson; Milwaukee Bucks assistant coach Charles Lee, Miami Heat assistant Chris Quinn, Philadelphia 76ers assistant Sam Cassell, and Sacramento Kings assistant Jordi Fernandez. Other candidates mentioned include former Raptors assistant, Raptors 905 head coach and current Vanderbilt University head coach Jerry Stackhouse, current Raptors assistant Adrian Griffin and Denver Nuggets assistant David Adelman.
Then there are some wild cards, with former Raptors head coach Dwane Casey thought to have registered interest and one source suggesting that Toronto has looked into the possibility of veteran NBA sharpshooter, turned podcaster, turned broadcaster JJ Reddick — who has spoken openly about the possibility of getting into coaching — as being head coach material.
There has been precious little firm information to filter out, though there are some indications that, with Ujiri determined to make a fresh break from the recent past, it might not bode well for some of the candidates with Raptors ties — Mutombo, Stackhouse, or Griffin, though the latter has his supporters, providing he can demonstrate he would represent a departure from Nurse, rather than a continuation.
Where would Hammon fit in?
You would have to think she’d be seriously considered. She had a hall-of-fame career as a player, starring both in the WNBA and overseas, including suiting up in two Olympics for Russia as a naturalized citizen. Upon her retirement she spent eight years as an assistant to Gregg Popovich with the Spurs before joining the Aces in December of 2021.
Those who know her well are surprised she hasn’t landed an NBA job yet.
“I have no doubts that she can do it,” says Dan Hughes, who was the San Antonio Stars general manager and head coach for Hammon’s eight years with the team after she was acquired from the New York Liberty in 2007. “I’m honestly amazed there hasn’t been more of a rush to offer her a position. Think about it: the thing I would want as a GM is someone who is ready and, male or female, you have to take a look at this coach: eight years with Gregg Popovich, good record of success as a player, a good reputation with the players she’s worked with. She goes into the WNBA and wins a championship in her first year as a head coach? It took me 16 years to win a championship. You tell me. This is somebody that someone is going to pull the trigger on and if I was a GM I’d be pulling the trigger. This is a unique situation because she’s probably over-prepared for the job. She’s more than ready to be a head coach and she proved that last year.”
Over the years Hammon been endorsed by former Spurs players as an NBA coach in waiting, with Hall-of-Fame centre Paul Gasol going so far as to pen an essay on the subject for The Players Tribune in the summer of 2018 when Hammon was a candidate for the Milwaukee Bucks job that Mike Budenholzer eventually was hired for.
Canadian women’s national team star Kayla Alexander played with Hammon in San Antonio for two seasons and was duly impressed.
“I was a wide-eyed rookie coming in, sharing the court with women I was either watching on TV as a child or trying to model my game after when I was in college. I remember watching Becky on TV with my Dad,” says Alexander, who played eight seasons in the WNBA, her first two overlapping with Hammon’s last two years before she transitioned into coaching. “She was a true leader. A phenomenal player and she also coached you well on the court too: getting people into the right spots, giving you direction, feedback. She knew the game and had an incredible IQ and was passionate about what she does.
“And then off the court too: very welcoming, very kind, made you feel like part of the family. She was like ‘if you ever need anything’ and she welcomed the team to her home and really enjoyed our team and having bonding experiences with them,” says Alexander, a 2020 Olympian who is playing professionally in France. “I don’t have anything but positive memories and positive things to say, honestly. … I have great memories and am very thankful and honoured to have had the privilege of sharing the court with her.”
The question is, even if the Raptors settled on Hammon, would she want to leave her situation with the Aces? She’s the highest paid coach in the WNBA, reportedly earning $1 million for a 36-game season. The Aces recently opened a leading-edge training facility and after winning the title a year ago have assembled what some are calling a ‘super team’ to defend it, adding two-time MVP Candace Parker in the off-season to a roster that already includes 2022 MVP A’ja Wilson and Finals MVP Chelsea Gray. It’s the most desirable head coaching position in women’s basketball, arguably.
But Ujiri can be persuasive and NBA head coaching jobs typically pay in multiples of what Hammon is earning now. There’s also a chance to make history.
This week will be an exciting one for Toronto and women’s basketball with a sold-out crowd celebrating a Canadian first. There will be plenty of press conferences and the vibes will be exceptional. For one week everyone will be a winner.
But if Hammon ends up emerging from the pack and becoming the Raptors next head coach sometime in the coming weeks, it will be an exciting year for basketball everywhere.