On Monday, the San Antonio Spurs defeated the Phoenix Suns 93-90 in the NBA summer league. The headlines from Las Vegas usually surround everything except the actual results of the games played. In this case, however, the results mattered. Becky Hammon -- the first full-time female assistant coach in NBA history, and head coach of the Spurs summer league team -- became a champion, and a dominant topic in sports, as we once again ponder the possibility of a female head coach in the NBA.
In an interview earlier this summer, Hammon was asked about the importance of simply being recognized as a coach. Her response: "The last thing I want to be is some government statistic of 'we had to hire a women.' I want to be hired because I'm qualified. And I just happen to be a woman." This is the other aspect of the matter: Any team that wants to hire Hammon as a head coach should do so because they're hiring the person whom they think is best served to guide their team to success, and not for other shortsighted reasons like the publicity it would garner for the franchise, for earning the empty honor of "the first NBA team to hire a female head coach."
For Hammon to be a head coach in this league, she'll need to find a team where a specific criteria are met. There has to be support from ownership and the front office and a buy-in from the players -- especially the long-term, franchise building blocks on the team. And there has to be a basketball fit. Never mind gender. All these questions require answers for any inexperienced head coach being considered for an opening in the league.
So which franchises would be candidates?
The Oklahoma City Thunder
It is hard to envision a team on the cusp of winning a championship being willing to hand over the keys to an unproven coach, although you could point to the Thunder, who are under more pressure than ever to win the championship in Kevin Durant's last season before free agency, and yet decided to shift gears and hire Billy Donovan -- although Donovan does have extensive experience at the collegiate level. A counterargument would be the Warriors, who just won a championship with rookie head coach Steve Kerr. Kerr surrounded himself with knowledgeable assistants like Ron Adams and Alvin Gentry. If Hammon were hired, that team could replicate a similar model by hiring experienced coaches to round out her coaching staff.
The Philadelphia 76ers
A team like the 76ers, who are in no rush to win games in the present, would theoretically provide a realistic opportunity for someone like Hammon to grow together with the franchise and not be thrust into a spotlight where every win and loss is tied to her job security. It should be noted that, of course, Philadelphia currently employs former Spurs assistant Brett Brown as its head coach (a moment of silence for his career winning percentage, which will never recover from Sam Hinkie's seven-year plan). Popovich's coaching tree is spread throughout the league. If the Spurs contend or even win another championship (not an unrealistic thought) over the next several years, it's conceivable Hammon could emerge as a coaching candidate, the next assistant from a championship team that is sought after by a team looking for a bright young mind to guide them.
Pretty much any forward-looking pro or college franchise
Set aside whether their innovative minds have made them successful in this league, there are many progressive and open-minded owners who could take a chance on this: Mark Cuban in Dallas, Vivek Ranadive in Sacramento, the list goes on. Remember, Hammon isn't the only woman who is actively involved with the NBA, even though she is the most prominent.
In last year's summer league, Natalie Nakase was an assistant with the Clippers. Nancy Lieberman -- who has coached the Texas Legends of the NBA Development League (an affiliate of Cuban's Mavericks) -- was an assistant with the Kings this year. As was Lindsey Harding -- who was drafted first overall in the 2007 WNBA draft and still plays professional overseas -- who worked with the Raptors. There may come a time when having a woman on an NBA coaching staff becomes the norm, not because it becomes some mandatory exercise, but because the people who are most qualified to contribute to the success of a basketball team aren't just one gender.
As to where this leads, Hammon believes that there's a "huge possibility" she might coach at the college level. And that might be the next step for her, to add head coaching experience to her resume, whether it is in the NCAA or overseas. It is only through these additional reps with which she'll be able to ease the minds of those who question whether she is capable of leading a group of men in a sporting environment. When free-agent forward LaMarcus Aldridge met with and eventually signed with the Spurs, there were reports that Pop provided assurance to him that he intends to be with the team through the duration of Aldridge's contract. If that's the case, there won't be an opening in San Antonio, but perhaps in several years, if the Spurs see the potential in Hammon, a succession plan could be formed to groom her as the next head coach.
Again, these are all possibilities worth considering. There are options for where Hammon wants her career to go. And to be fair, all excitement aside about the progress made, there are still a lot of steps before we see a female become a head coach in the NBA. But those hurdles feel more realistic now, and we need only one pioneer to open up the doors for others. Hammon is on course to be that trendsetter, and even though it might take a while still, the question is slowly turning from if to when.