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Who’s Kyrie Irving’s favorite coach? The Athletic thinks that’s important

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NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Washington Wizards Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Alex Schiffer leads a group of writers for The Athletic in a roundtable discussion of who the Nets might choose as their next coach. Never mind that Sean Marks has said he’s likely to hold off the search until the season continues or is put to bed.

For whatever reason, whether the discussion group is tilted toward writers who know Kyrie Irving or because Irving has been accused of being as a coach killer, much of the conversation dealt with what the Nets guard might be happy with. After all, as one of the writers, Joe Vardon, points out, of all the coaches Irving has played for since his rookie year in 2011 (six of them), only two were not fired while he was on the team.

In that context, the focus was on two of Irving’s former coaches, Mike Brown who mentored him as a young player and Tyronn Lue, who was his coach when he and LeBron James won their championship in 2016.

Vardon who covers and covered the Cavs thinks Lue wants the job and thinks he would be a good fit because of his experience coaching superstars like Kyrie and Kevin Durant and because Irving might need to be THE man next season if Durant isn’t the same on return from his Achilles rupture.

Offensively speaking, I’d argue Kyrie’s “best” season was in 2016-17, his last in Cleveland, during which he averaged 25.2 points and 5.8 assists and led the Cavs with 19.7 shots per game. At the time, his points and shots were career highs. But for this discussion, what’s important is Kyrie put up these numbers with Lue as coach on a team in which he was not the primary ballhandler or scorer (LeBron was).

Who is Durant going to be when he returns from the Achilles tear? Is he going to be the explosive, ball-dominant, slashing, driving, chucking force, from either the wing or the block, that we’ve known him to be? Or is he going to be a step slow, relying more on Irving to create for him because of the injury?

Vardon also dismisses reports of bad blood between Lue and Irving...

In Cleveland, there were a few reported incidents with Irving at practice, which took place behind closed doors. But those were chalked up more to Irving being an enigma than something personal between him and Lue. Lue has also proven he can coach Irving and another star together, and he is generally one of the more popular coaches in the league. As either an assistant or head coach, Lue has worked with Irving, LeBron, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul.

Vardon and Michael Lee note that Brown also has a rep for being able to handle superstars, but Lee also points to the troubled relationship between Irving and Brown. Lee spoke about Brown’s record both in Golden State when Steve Kerr went down with a bad back three years ago.

Brown had a reputation for being too rigid and conservative with the Los Angeles Lakers and during his two stops in Cleveland. But he has loosened up a bit more in his years as Kerr’s right-hand man in Golden State. It doesn’t get mentioned enough, but Brown did a phenomenal job keeping it together when Kerr had to take some time to deal with a serious back injury during the Warriors’ run to the 2017 title. They went 12-0 that postseason with Brown at the helm.

Vardon recalls how Irving and Brown didn’t get along but also notes that Irving admitted being wrong.

Kyrie was terrible to Brown when they were together for one season in Cleveland, to the point where Irving said “I kind of regret being part of that” — referring to Brown’s dismissal following the 2013-14 season. Irving made the remark during his last Finals appearance with the Cavs, while Brown was filling in for Steve Kerr on the Warriors bench. Irving said: “I was a 21-year-old kid, just trying to lead a franchise, and he was a new head coach that I had to get introduced to a new offense, new players, as well as a new system.” The Cavs sent Brown packing in part because of concerns Irving would not sign an extension if he was the coach.

Even if bygones are, well, you know, the idea of an Irving-Brown reunion is stunning and startling to me. Why would either man want to go down that path again?

Sam Amick disagrees and also thinks Brown, who recently agreed to coach the Nigerian national team in next year’s Olympics, could be itching to return to the big chair.

I think Brown could be in a really good spot for a new challenge like this. There were lessons learned in Cleveland and with the Lakers, to be sure, but the combination of his work ethic and coaching influences is very unique. He’s a Popovich disciple from his days as a Spurs assistant, and then spent these past few seasons in yet another championship environment as a trusted ally for a fellow Pop acolyte in Kerr.

All of that (and more) said, the roundtable misses a key point about Irving’s coaching preferences. Jacque Vaughn has been Irving’s personal coach. They would work out before games and there was a palatable connections. Besides, Marks has had nothing but good things to say about Vaughn’s communications with the Nets players. Schiffer admits some are rooting for making the interim coach permanent.

I’ve been told that some internally are rooting for Vaughn, but I don’t see how he puts together the resume to make a case unless the season returns and the Nets pull off an upset in the first round of the playoffs.

Lee vouches for Vaughn but thinks he’s unlikely.

Vaughn wasn’t really given a fair shot in Orlando, since that team was expected to lose and did. He’s played for Hall of Fame coaches in Popovich, Jerry Sloan and Roy Williams and probably learned from his Magic failure. If he gets a shot in Brooklyn, I don’t think it would be the worst outcome for the franchise. But a new, innovative voice who can relate to the quirky whims of stars is what both Durant and Irving need.

Then there’s the litany of other names that the group basically dismisses: Jason Kidd, Mark Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy, Gregg Popovich for a variety of reasons. They also note that Marks could do what Masai Ujiri did in Toronto, hire an unknown. The name most mentioned among them is Ime Udoka, the 76ers and Spurs assistant whose last NBA gig was as a training camp cut with the Nets back in 2011.

Says Amick...

If Marks wants to keep it in the Spurs family with someone who many see as head coaching material, and who has a fantastic way of connecting with players while running a regimented ship, he should give Udoka a call. The former Spurs assistant is currently with (fellow former Spurs assistant) Brett Brown in Philadelphia.

Amick also throws another name into the mix, these guys with KD connections...

Rex Kalamian comes to mind, too, and not only because he worked with Durant for six seasons in Oklahoma City as an assistant (2009-15). The Clippers assistant has proven himself for quite some time now, and this past decade — working with Scott Brooks in OKC, Dwane Casey in Toronto, and Doc Rivers with the Clippers — has come with a lot of high-pressure playoff moments.

As we wrote a while back, Thunder assistant Brian Keefe is another coach worth considering. He’s a member of the Spurs family (video coordinator from 2005-07) who worked with Durant while with the Thunder (2007-14) and is known to be close with him. He also coached for the Knicks and Lakers.

When will we know? Beats us, but at some point, you’ll start to see rumors. Like Brooklyn’s most famous native son says, we don’t make the schedule, the virus does.