When the Detroit Pistons fired Lawrence Frank, one of the first names linked to the job was one of the last names linked in 2011: Kelvin Sampson. In the two years since, Sampson left his post as an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks to join Kevin McHale's staff with the Houston Rockets (making sure that his contract has a loophole stating that he can pursue a head coaching job without asking for permission). He briefly served as Houston's acting head coach early this past season, going 7-6, when McHale missed time following the death of his daughter.
I asked Rockets blogger Patrick Harrel of The Dream Shake for his impressions of Sampson and whether he'd be equipped to take over the Pistons. His response:
Sampson has far from a perfect resume as a coach (the end of his tenure at Indiana is perhaps the most egregious mark on his record), but I think he's more than equipped to take over as a head coach in the NBA. For a young team with lots of question marks going into next year like the Pistons, there are few I would pick over Sampson to take over. His style is one that preaches hard work, rebounding, and hustle, crucial to attributes for a young team, but he does so in a way that does not alienate players. While he forces his team to work hard, he gets just as sweaty as they do in practice, connecting with players by getting in on drills and giving post-practice one-on-one sessions.
Sampson spent 12 years as head coach at Oklahoma before his two-year stop at Indiana. He was successful with the Hoosiers, posting a 43-15 record, but was pushed out after violating NCAA violations regarding phone calls and text messaging. (That's the most NCAA sentence I've ever typed. I hate the NCAA. More on this from my 2011 post here.)
Immediately after leaving Indiana, he finished the season with the Spurs, where he worked under his friend Gregg Popovich. Pop was quick to praise his friend and former assistant last December after Sampson's first win as acting head coach -- from Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:
"You could tell very quickly he had the ability to bring the respect of the players," Popovich said. "He has a confidence in his abilities to understand what’s going on at the NBA level. He knows how to get the best out of people. And he’s a competitive son of a (gun)."
So, there you have it. With a career 496-271 record in college and nearly five years of NBA experience as an assistant, Sampson is about as seasoned as they come when you're talking about potential "first-time" NBA head coaches.
(Random fact: Sampson spent the 1979-80 season on Jud Heathcote's staff at Michigan State, just a couple of years before Tom Gores enrolled in East Lansing. Doubt that will be a facture, but it certainly can't hurt.)
Does Sampson's previous lapse of ethics (even though the actual offense was stupid) raise a red flag? Are you worried about his "inexperience?" Now your thoughts.