Timberwolves Coaching Candidate: Tom Izzo

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

It seems unlikely that he's willing to leave Michigan State, but it seems pretty clear that he's the guy Flip Saunders wants as next coach of the Timberwolves. Let's take a look.

A couple of weeks ago, soon after the official retirement of Rick Adelman, Tom Izzo said on a radio show that he planned to be back with Michigan State next season, suggesting that he was ruling out a move to the NBA, and especially the Timberwolves.

There remained rumblings, however, that Izzo did have interest in the job, and it has emerged that he is likely the first choice of Flip Saunders if he can get him.  Yesterday, Darren Wolfson tweeted:

It still feels to me unlikely that Izzo will leave a place where he is beloved, successful, and comfortable, but obviously the Wolves are trying to convince him. So lets take a look.


Career record: 468-187 all as coach at Michigan State. He was named head coach at Michigan State in 1995 following the retirement of Jud Heathcote.

Accomplishments: Won a National Championship in 2000, has been to six Final Fours, won seven Big Ten Championships, and has taken 17 straight teams to the NCAA tournament.  Thirteen of his players have been taken in the NBA draft, the best of which are probably Zach Randolph and Jason Richardson.  Though it would be unfair to say he's had a lack of talent, his players have had less success in the NBA then many other long-time successful college coaches. Several of his former assistants have become college head coaches, notably Stan Heath at USF and Tom Crean at Indiana.

Coaching Style: Izzo is known for having tough and disciplined teams that focus on defense. He coaches a physical style of basketball exemplified by his rebounding practice drill that has players wearing football helmets and shoulder pads. His teams tend to be very good at limiting opponent's shooting efficiency, both from inside the arc and outside of it.  Offensively, his teams are generally not fast paced, and thus don't score a ton of points, but they are consistently better on that end of the court then you might think.  His teams are regularly among the nation's leaders in assists, and often are near the top in 2 point FG%, suggesting that they get a lot of easy baskets from quality ball movement.  Those of you who watch lots of college basketball can chime in on how this actually looks on the court. He comes across as a rather no-nonsense type who instills discipline in his players, but also seems well liked by his teams and certainly is a beloved figure in East Lansing.


Why Would He Be a Good Hire? He pretty clearly knows how to coach basketball, at least at the college level. His teams are consistently successful both in the conference and at the national level. He has achieved a lot of success with very good but not great talent; he has not enjoyed the constant flow of high school All-Americans that some of his peers have. (In fact, I cannot think of any one-and-done's who have played for him).  His former players appear to give him a lot of credit for making them better, something the Wolves could use. He has a style that works.  His teams' defenses are always very strong and aggressive, and his offense features good ball movement, basics that are essential at all levels of basketball. Beyond having a style that works, he gets his teams to play well within that style; they execute. As noted, lots of assists, lots of high percentage shots.

I would think that if he took the job, it would be with great motivation.  He's nearly 60 years old; this would be his one shot at the NBA. If he comes, it has to be because he wants the challenge of coaching at the highest level, and wants to prove (perhaps to himself) that he can succeed.  I have worries about experienced NBA coaches seeing the job, at least subconsciously, as semi-retirement. Izzo is unlikely to do that. We'd get everything he has.

What are the Risks? Mostly the (possible) downsides revolve around the issues of moving from college to NBA basketball. In general, coaches who have made this move have not fared particularly well; that includes some high profile guys like Rick Pitino and John Calipari. One issue is tactics: the NBA is a significantly different game with more emphasis on spacing, and dominated by the pick and roll. "System" college coaches have to have the smarts and flexibility to adapt to a different game and figure out how to coach it. Izzo has been a college coach for more then two decades, and whether he has the tactical chops to figure the pro game out on the fly is unknown.  Hugely successful college coaches win most of their games because of the massive talent gap that exists in college ball. Though Izzo has not had the same parade of All-American talent that others like Coach K or Calipari have had, still, he puts more talent on the floor most nights then his opponent, which leads to a lot of wins.  In the pro game, that isn't as true. The talent levels are much closer on a nightly basis, and you have to be able to find small advantages and exploit them.

Another problem college coaches often have in making the move to the NBA is relating to players. College coaches, especially long tenured, successful ones, have a lot of power. Over playing time, over how players behave off the court, over their schools and towns.  The NBA is different; it's a players league. You can succeed being "tough" as a coach, but you can't if you don't show players respect. After two decades of having things run exactly as he wants them run, can Izzo successfully make the adjustment to a situation that requires more compromise?

Finally, with the clock ticking, there is always risk in hiring someone with no NBA experience. It would be a steep learning curve on how things work in the league, and the Wolves need to win right now.  Of course, there is a risk with everyone: hire an NBA assistant, and maybe they can't handle the head job. Hire an experienced NBA head coach, and maybe they lack the motivation.  But still, it's something to keep in mind with Izzo.

What do I think, you ask? I guess I've warmed to it a bit.  My first reaction was pretty strongly against Izzo, but having done a bit of research, I think he's got a chance to succeed. There is basketball substance there.  My instinct is always going to be to try to find the younger guy, the forward thinking assistant coach who is ready for a head job, but I would not be unhappy to give Izzo a shot. He and Flip get along, which appears to be a major criteria for Saunders, for better or worse. I would endorse the hire, though it might not be my first choice.

What are the Chances? 20% maybe?  I don't know; I think it would take some major convincing to get him to leave MSU, and I'm guessing when push comes to shove he won't leave. He's getting paid, he has roots there, he wins, he's beloved. It's tough to leave that, especially at 60 years old.  Why would he want to, to take on a much tougher job in terms of travel, with a team that hasn't been in the playoffs in a decade?  It's going to be a tough sell.

What do you think of Izzo?

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