Part 9 and the final resume in my 10-part series on head coaching candidates. Today I look at the people's champion, Melvin Hunt, and what he might do as head coach of the Denver Nuggets going forward.
Melvin Hunt began his NBA coaching career in 1999 when he joined the Houston Rockets as a video coordinator and scout. In 2001 he was promoted to assistant coach where he sat alongside Rudy Tomjanovich for two seasons. Rudy T was forced to step down as head coach for health reasons in 2003 and Hunt was then reassigned as a college and international scout for the Rockets. In 2004, Hunt followed Rudy T to L.A. as an assistant with the Lakers although once again, Rudy T was forced to step down, citing mental and physical exhaustion.
Hunt joined Mike Brown’s staff in Cleveland in 2005 where he was an assistant for five seasons. In those five seasons, the Cavaliers reached the NBA Finals and won a franchise best 66 games. All told, it was the most successful five-year stretch in the Cavaliers’ history.
In 2010, Brown was released by the Cavs and Hunt was picked up by George Karl and the Denver Nuggets. He coached under Karl for three seasons, including the Nuggets’ franchise record 57-win season in 2013. He stayed on when Karl was fired and received the 3rd most votes for best assistant coach in the league’s annual General Manager survey in 2014 (Brian Shaw was voted best assistant in 2011). Hunt took over as interim head coach on March 3rd and has since led the team to a 7-5 record including wins against the league’s two best teams, the Atlanta Hawks and Golden State Warriors.
With only a few weeks of head coaching experience it is difficult to accurately project what type of coach Hunt is or will be. Nonetheless, he’s revealed a few key characteristics and stylistic preferences over the last few weeks.
Hunt is an emotional leader with no shortage of inspirational quotes or encouraging adages at his disposal. You’d be hard pressed to get him to say anything negative about his team and when he does, it’s usually said in such a way as to come across as encouraging. He radiates positive energy and you can tell from watching him speak that positivity is something that he is both mindful of and something that comes naturally to him.
He’s also not lacking for charm. At press conferences, most questions are first greeted with a joke before launching in to his answer. He also has the unique skill of making everyone feel important. From press, to fans to the last guy off of the bench, Hunt is very attentive to how he treats everyone. On the sideline, he’s a loud and passionate presence, something he may have learned from his mentor, Rudy T, who used to sweat through his shirt when he coached the Rockets. That positive energy and enthusiasm has had a remarkable impact on a Nuggets locker room that was among the most dreary and dysfunctional locker rooms in the league.
Hunt seems to have the support of several current and former players including Corey Brewer who recently said of Hunt, "I think he's going to prove to people that he should be a head coach." He added, "I think he was a great assistant under coach (George) Karl, and I'm happy for him. I feel like he's got them back to playing the right way." Danilo Gallinari has publicly expressed support of Hunt as well. All of the Nuggets players appear to support Hunt, based solely on their improved effort since he became interim head coach. His affable personality even gives him a 'one of the guys' type of feel.
The Nuggets’ on-court style since Hunt took over has been somewhat identical to the style George Karl’s teams played with from 2010-2013. While some new offensive sets have been put in, the biggest change has come from giving the players a green light to make plays and take shots at their discretion. Hunt has given his players a huge amount of trust to play the right way and for the most part, the team has responded by sharing the basketball and playing for each other.
Hunt emphasizes spacing the court first and reacting to the defense and to each other. Players cut and fill spots around the perimeter while leaving the paint open for dribble penetration and cuts to the basket. In the clip below, watch how their double hi screen set does't work but rather than devolve into a straight isolation for Ty Lawson or a stagnant pick and roll, the players all read and react to the ball, driving, kicking, cutting, and filling spots around the perimeter. Players look for opportunities to drive and they are able to manufacture points out of sheer trust and reading each other. On its own, this is a fairly impressive play. But it is just one of many examples of the team playing free while also abiding by a set of principles; keep the lane open, space the court and replace the open spots along the perimeter, and trust each other to make plays.
The loss of Jusuf Nurkic earlier in the season forced Hunt to play extremely small frontcourt lineups when he took over. Under Shaw, this was a recipe for disaster. Especially the dreaded J.J. Hickson/Kenneth Faried lineup, which was atrocious under Shaw who insisted on playing through the post and making somewhat deliberate choices on every given possession. That duo has been uniquely productive under Hunt as the team has sped up their decision making in the half court, turning their lack of size into a relative strength. With the paint wide open, the team’s several skilled wing players have been able to penetrate and kick.
There is a saying in football that the most popular guy on the team is the backup QB. This has certainly been the case with Melvin Hunt, as fans have raced to his defense, possibly overstating his achievements because the last year and a half under Shaw were so miserable. Objectively speaking, players seem to like playing for him, he’s done a great job getting the team to play hard for three weeks and he’s allowed the team to play a style that fits their strengths. Beyond those statements, it’s impossible to say with any confidence exactly how he will perform as a head coach going forward.
Therefore, my reservations with Hunt as head coach have absolutely nothing to do with what he’s done as a head coach. I actually really like the guy. He’s ridiculously over the top in his positive energy and charm but it doesn’t appear to be just for show. I think he’s genuinely an optimistic and charismatic guy. My concern about him begins and ends with what we don’t know about him.
How will he reign in a player who starts shooting too much in his free-flowing offense? How will he handle his assistants and the front office? How will he handle an injured player's minutes on the second night of a back-to-back when the team is on a 3-game losing streak? How will he do in playoff situations when he needs to make game-by-game adjustments? What type of playbook will he install given a full training camp?
Hunt clearly recognized the issues with Brian Shaw’s preferred style and has done a great job of changing the team's identity on the fly. The team is executing a fast paced, high motion offense very well despite not having much practice time. When he does call for more structure, like out of timeouts or late in games, he's done a great job of drawing up sets that take advantage of mismatches.
One recent example that stood out was an after timeout play the team ran against Golden State in a very pivotal moment in the game. It was a relatively simple action to get Wilson Chandler post position against Justin Holiday. Jameer Nelson started to set the screen on Holiday’s hip before quickly jumping toward the baseline, allowing Chandler to get great position on the cut. The play ended with an easy, mouse-in-the-house dunk and Nelson quickly points back to the Nuggets bench, apparently giving credit to his coach.
Lastly, there is the issue of ownership. It would take a lot of guts for Tim Connelley and Josh Kroenke to hire another rookie head coach after their experiment with Shaw fell flat on its face. Regardless of how you feel about the Nuggets’ owner, Josh wants to win. Bringing in a big name coach would likely help put us back in playoff contention and tell the fans that he means business. Hiring a young up-and-comer who has been on the radar would also be easily defensible regardless of the outcome. But hiring Hunt is a huge risk on their part. Until a few weeks ago, Hunt wasn’t really given much consideration around the league as a head-coaching prospect. He interviewed for the Nuggets and was rumored in a few other instances but was never heavily sought after or discussed around the league as a can't miss option. If they hire him and it doesn’t work out, the front office will be criticized for over reacting to a small sample size.
On the other hand, ownership will be criticized if they don’t give him serious consideration. Hunt clearly has the fan vote. Even the Denver media seems largely on board with the passionate new guy. Cutting him loose after the team has performed very well under him would come across as disloyal and somewhat stubborn to a large portion of the Nuggets fan base. In that regard, Josh Kroenke might find himself standing in the arena like Commodus, begrudgingly giving the thumbs up as the crowd eggs him on.
I think Hunt has what it takes to be a good coach in this league. I’m not very confident in that statement and I don’t think any prudent basketball fan can be more than cautiously optimistic about him as a coaching prospect. But I think he has plenty of leadership and just enough of a basketball mind to turn this team around. I imagine that his learning curve will be steep and if they go with Hunt, the front office would do him a great service by insisting he get an assistant staff that is experienced and knowledgeable. Ultimately, I think he’ll be a good coach for the Nuggets, but I say that knowing it’s far from a guarantee.