One of the common questions during Brad Stevens’ tenure as head coach of the Boston Celtics was whether the team could have benefitted from having more former NBA players as part of his staff.
Now, as Stevens prepares to hire Boston’s next coach, the conversation shifts to whether a former NBA standout like Sam Cassell ought to be at the top of the team’ wish list.
There’s a notion that former high-level players can best reach and mold impressionable young players, and that someone with name recognition can promote early buy-in based on their career accomplishments.
While the Celtics haven’t been completely devoid of former NBA experience -- both Walter McCarty and Evan Turner were on staff during Stevens’ tenure -- Boston has never quite had the sort of high-level player that the team’s younger players might have grown up watching.
Cassell wasn’t exactly a superstar but he is a former All-Star (2004) who won three NBA titles during a well-traveled career. He was famous for his clutch shot-making (as well as his signature celebration). Cassell has an obvious Boston connection, too, having wrapped up his career as part of the Celtics’ 2008 title team after signing as a buyout guy.
Cassell jumped directly into the coaching ranks in the aftermath of his playing career, joining the Washington Wizards in 2009. He latched on the staff of former Celtics coach Doc Rivers in 2014 and has been with him for stints with the Los Angeles Clippers and now the Philadelphia 76ers.
NBC Sports Boston analyst Kendrick Perkins has been staunch in his support of his former teammate and believes Cassell is the best candidate to lead this team forward based on Cassell's experiences as a player and coach.
“Brad Stevens, if you want to make your next move your best move, you need to go hire Sam Cassell,” said Perkins. “He won a championship in Boston as a player, he’s a two-time champion as a Rocket. He’s been a long-time assistant, he’s coached superstars, he’s played with superstars.
“You have two young superstars over there in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum … You need someone in that locker room that these players are going to respect, that they’re going to look up to, that they’re going to soak in knowledge, and a guy that is going to hold them accountable.
"To me, it’s a clear-cut favorite that Sam Cassell should be the coach."
Here’s maybe the biggest selling point with Cassell: During his various coaching stops, he’s been credited with helping develop young stars and get the most out of veterans. Cassell helped John Wall blossom with the Wizards and Ben Simmons made strides this year in Philadelphia. In L.A., Cassell’s presence helped maximize the Chris Paul experience.
Chauncey Billups is another former NBA standout earning heavy buzz as a coaching candidate, including for Portland’s vacancy after the team parted ways with Terry Stotts following a first-round playoff exit.
The Celtics selected Billups third overall in the 1997 NBA Draft but he spent only 51 games in green and was dealt to Toronto before the end of his rookie season. Billups went on to be a key piece of Detroit’s core, earning Finals MVP during the Pistons’ 2004 title season. Billups was a five-time All-Star and landed on three All-NBA teams during his career.
The Nets rolled the dice on a former player with no NBA head coaching experience when they hired Steve Nash last year. With a strong support staff beside him, including a couple former NBA head coaches, the Nets have thrived this year and are the favorite to win an NBA title.
Stevens’ staffs in Boston have had a lot of bright basketball minds but playing experience was largely limited to overseas accomplishments. Jerome Allen appeared in 117 games over three NBA seasons before finishing his playing days on the international stage. Jay Larranaga spent 12 years starring overseas.
Cassell has positioned himself for a head coaching opportunity based on the past 12 years as an assistant. His playing career only fortifies his resume. The question remains: Is he the coach who can pluck the most out of Boston’s All-Star core and get this team back to the title stage?
Editor's Note: Chris Forsberg will examine different Celtics head coach candidates every day this week. Next up: the retreads.