As the team looks to replace Doc Rivers, the Clippers should look to hire coach Jay Wright from Villanova. Wright, one of the most respected coaches in college basketball, has been with the Wildcats since 2001, posting a stellar 471-182 (.721) record with 14 NCAA Tournament appearances. As the program has improved under his leadership, they’ve emerged as one of the most dominant college basketball teams in recent years: 215-38 (0.850) in the last 7 seasons, with two national championships in 2016 and 2018.
Wright has never coached in the NBA before, but not for lack of opportunity–he simply has his choice of jobs and has always chosen to keep the one he has, just down the road from where he grew up in Pennsylvania. It’s hard to knock Wright’s gig at Nova: building a Hall of Fame resume by winning titles as a hometown hero with essentially a lifetime contract and boosters, administrators, and fans who adore him. If he stays in the Philadelphia suburbs, Nova will only keep adding wins and titles (national championships can be elusive, but the Wildcats are the gold standard of the Big East and were head-and-shoulders above the rest of the conference when I was working at St. John’s).
Moving to the NBA, on the other hand, is a risk. Of the NBA’s 30 head coach jobs, just 9 are occupied by coaches who have been with their team for 4 or more seasons. Four coaches have been hired (meaning their predecessor fired) in 2020; six more jobs remain vacant. Wright, at 58 years old, has a lot of seasons ahead of him, and walking away from a paradise of a collegiate job at Villanova for an unsuccessful 3-year stint in the pros would be a tremendous loss. That scenario isn’t unheard of: Billy Donovan left a similarly iconic legacy at Florida to take the highly attractive Oklahoma City Thunder job in 2015, only for Kevin Durant to depart in free agency next summer and Donovan and OKC to ultimately part ways this off-season. Just last summer, John Beilein left the University of Michigan after an extremely successful decade in Ann Arbor to take the Cleveland Cavaliers job, and he didn’t even make it through his first season.
Even the legendary John Calipari struggled in the pros: after a stellar opening to his career at UMass, he jumped to the Brooklyn Nets and was fired 20 games into his third season before going on to have his spectacular runs at Memphis and now Kentucky.
So, if things are so perfect for him in Pennsylvania, and the transition to the NBA is so perilous, how can Steve Ballmer, Lawrence Frank, and Jerry West convince Jay Wright to coach the Clippers?
Because it’s one of the most appealing job openings in NBA history.
How often does a head coach have an opportunity to walk onto a job with superstars the caliber of Paul George and especially Kawhi Leonard, who has won two NBA Finals MVP awards? The Clippers’ disappointing finish in the 2020 NBA Playoffs aside, they remain among top contenders for the 2021 title chase, backed by an organization so deep with respected staff and executives that it is unrecognizable from the Clippers of a decade ago.
Jay Wright has often talked about loving his job at Villanova and not wanting to leave–but he’s also talked about the urge to coach in the NBA someday. The door appears to be open, albeit narrowly, for Wright to be sold on the right landing spot in the league, with Jeff Goodman speculating that he could be a likely prominent collegiate coach to make the jump. For coaches who make the switch, life in the NBA is a relief from the hassles of recruiting and academics that take up most of someone’s time when they’re running an NCAA program. Count Brad Stevens and Billy Donovan among the successful college coaches who enjoyed only having to focus on basketball when they moved to the NBA, according to this Gary Parrish piece that lays out the case for a coach like Wright to make the jump. And while Wright is well-compensated at Villanova and has turned down higher-paying offers before, perhaps nobody in professional sports is as willing to pay whatever it takes as Steve Ballmer.
Leaving Nova would be heart-wrenching and risky, but if Wright wants to try his hand in the pros he will never get an opportunity better than this one.
If the Clippers want him, it will be up to Ballmer, West, and Frank to convince him of that. Jay Wright is not a mercenary coach. Coaching a winner–and potential championship squad–is certainly important to him, and I don’t doubt an eight-figure salary’s potential to persuade anyone to take a gig, but the Clippers will need to sell him on his role in a larger organizational vision. In order to convince Wright to walk away from a rest-of-his-life utopia in Villanova, the Clippers will need to convince him that there is a potential for the same kind of longevity and fulfillment in LA. A big number next to a dollar sign and the draw of Leonard and George in 2021 (and potentially for a few years beyond) will hopefully get Wright to take the meeting, but in order to get him to take the job it will be up to Ballmer and co. to convince him that the organization is both committed to sustained excellence and capable of living up to that commitment. He’ll need to be impressed with the team’s basketball operations staff–and what happens to the decision-making structure when Jerry West inevitably retires. It probably wouldn’t hurt to use the Clippers’ new arena, expected to open in 2024, as a talking point to demonstrate Ballmer’s commitment to excellence throughout the organization.
In the end, it may not be enough. I can’t say what Wright will choose, and I don’t really know what the right choice would be, either. Leaving Villanova could wind up being one of the biggest regrets of his career–but passing on this Clippers gig would likely be his career’s biggest “what-if” moment. A job offer from the Clippers would force Wright into an excruciating decision.
For LA, there’s no harm in trying. There are two coaches with championship pedigree on the market right now, and both were on the Clippers’ bench last season. With Rivers gone and Lue taking interviews around the league, the Clippers may have to get creative in their hiring search. Wright would be more than an outside-the-box solution; he’d be a paradigm-shifting high-profile addition. From bringing Jerry West on board to trading Blake Griffin to recruiting Kawhi Leonard to trading for Paul George to pushing through the new arena deal to firing Doc Rivers, Steve Ballmer has been nothing in his brief tenure as Clippers owner if not unafraid to take drastic action and make improbably things happen once he has decided it’s in the team’s best interests.
If Ballmer sets his heart on Wright, my money’s on Steve.