J.B. Bickerstaff is perhaps best know for being Bernie Bickerstaff’s son and a piece of one of David Kahn’s harebrained schemes. Jerry Zgoda of the StarTribune:
The idea with hiring Bickerstaff — 67 and a head coach with four different NBA teams during his long career when he also was a president and GM — would be to sign him for a year or two while his son J.B. is groomed to take over the job when he’s ready.
Fortunately for the Timberwolves, they hired Rick Adelman instead. It worked out for Bickerstaff, too. He went to the Rockets and worked with a team with a winning record for the first time since 2000-01.
Obviously, that losing streak isn’t only Bickerstaff’s fault, but it’s certainly not a positive. Teams obviously like to hire winners, so how did Bickerstaff shine amid despair work his way up the coaching ranks while losing? Nepotism, perhaps? Leonard Laye of BobcatsBasketball.com when Bickerstaff was a Bobcats assistant:
John-Blair is the NBA’s youngest assistant coach. His father had the same distinction when, in 1973 at age 29, he started his coaching career in the league as a Washington assistant.
“Getting an opportunity like this, at my age, is a blessing,” John-Blair said. “Getting to work with my dad every day is a blessing.
Even if Bickerstaff got a leg up because his dad coached – and that’s not necessarily the case – maybe he seized the opportunity and developed into a worthy coaching candidate. For a small window into what Bickerstaff does, here’s an article excerpt from 2011, when Bickerstaff was a Timberwolves assistant. Judd Spicer of City Pages:
Bickerstaff is quick to laud the lack of generational gaps between the rest of the staff — coaches Kurt Rambis, Bill Laimbeer, Reggie Theus are all 53-years old; Dave Wohl is 61 — and the players, but adds that being a young coach has allowed him to serve in a conduit-capacity with players.
"The relationships — because of the similar generation I have with players — it opens doors up for us as a coaching staff," Bickerstaff explains. "It gives me the ability to relate to the guys, but also to be in a position as a coach to demand things from players. I think I can get a lot out of people because I do have that relationship with them. And it’s a relationship built on respect, and they understand that my best interest is for them and the team. Because of that, the coaches can come to me and I can go to the guys and get what we need to get done."
By nature, assistant coaches have different relationships with players than head coaches do. Assistant coaches often smooth over the hardline messages head coaches must deliver, and it sounds like Bickerstaff fills his role well. But can he also make and communicate the difficult decisions as a head coach?
And what has he done to prove himself in Houston? There’s only so much work for assistants to do, and the Rockets have two – Bickerstaff and Kelvin Sampson – good enough to interview for head-coaching positions. By both sharing responsibilities, there’s a limited opportunity for either to prove himself. But Sampson at least established his bona fides with the Bucks and Indiana University.
I asked for a wide-ranging coach search that includes candidates who would command a large salary, and the Pistons – who have or will interview Nate McMillan, Nate Budenholzer, Lindsey Hunter and Bickerstaff – are doing jut that. If they hire Bickerstaff because they like him more than McMillan and Budenholzer, I could maybe get behind that. If they hire Bickerstaff because more-established candidates turn them down, I’d be pretty underwhelmed.
In the meantime, I’ll keep reminding myself it doesn’t matter who they interview. It matters only whom they hire, and they’re probably not going to hire Bickerstaff.