October 24, 2023 

Nate Tibbetts understanding of criticism, ‘all in’ on Phoenix Mercury head coaching role

'Part of my job is to evolve with our team and I’m willing to do that'

PHOENIX — On Friday, the Phoenix Mercury introduced their 12th head coach in franchise history, Nate Tibbetts, and while the press conference felt like a standard introductory press conference, the elephant in the room was not avoided.

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Tibbetts comes to the Mercury without prior women’s basketball coaching experience. Instead, he has been an assistant in the NBA for over a decade, spending time with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Portland Trail Blazers and Orlando Magic. The Mercury job is not his first head coaching position; before his time in the NBA, Tibbetts held head coaching positions with the Tulsa 66ers and Souix Falls Skyforce of the now-G-League.

“When I took the job, one of the major reasons I took this job was because of the commitment [owner Mat Ishbia] and [CEO Josh Bartelstein] are willing to make, not only to our team but our organization, our sport and our league. That led us to a pool of candidates that was more broad than I could have ever imagined, and ultimately, it led us to Nate Tibbetts.

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“And a few of the reasons I’m so excited to be here working with Nate today – Nate’s vision for how he wants to lead this operation and organization both now and moving forward aligned so well with what we were looking for in a head coach. From his deep history in player development to his interest and curiosity in the analytic space, to this detailed outline of how the offseason is going to look, to his philosophy on how we’re going to play, and finally, to how he treats players on and off the floor.”

The hire has been criticized, however, for Tibbetts’ lack of experience in the women’s game. It has also received negative attention for the job not going to a woman.

When asked about the stir the hire has caused, U’Ren said the Mercury’s coaching search was from a group of diverse candidates.

“We know as we run a WNBA organization that diversity and opportunity are critical,” U’Ren said. “I would say our process, our candidate pool and our finalist pool all reflected that. When I took this job, in my introductory press conference I mentioned how excited I was to join this league because I align with the players and what they stand for. I believe in the values that they stand for. I believe in what this league represents. None of that has faded. And now I’m excited for us to be able to take action in terms of building a basketball operations staff and a coaching staff that reflects that diversity, that provides opportunity to people of all backgrounds, all expertise, all skill sets. And we understand that importance and we look forward to taking action, not just saying the words.”

Tibbetts responded to the criticism of his hire by bringing up that he has been received well by the Phoenix players.

“I don’t really live online,” Tibbetts said. “Me speaking to the players and them welcoming the way that they have and that’s just made me not worry about things that they’re not worried about things that they’re not worried about, to be completely honest. I understand. I’m sensitive to the situation. I know I’m one of only three male head coaches in the WNBA. And so I take responsibility for that. And I know that people are questioning it and agree or disagree, I’m going to do the best job that I can.”

As for why the team decided to go with a new head coach instead of hiring Nikki Blue, the team’s interim head coach for the last 28 games of the 2023 regular season, U’Ren said the hire of Tibbetts over Blue was not about what Blue lacked. Instead, U’Ren pointed to the hire being about what Tibbetts brought to the table. Blue was 7-21 as the Mercury’s interim head coach, but the team played a drastically more inspired brand of basketball compared to their first 12 games of the season under Vanessa Nygaard.

Tibbetts said he decided to move to the WNBA from the NBA because of the opportunity to become a head coach and the commitment he believes the organization will make on a day-to-day basis. He also referenced growing up around girls and women’s basketball as a reason for taking the job. His late father, Fred Tibbetts, was a legendary girls high school basketball coach in South Dakota.

Tibbetts said he is “all in” on the position and Phoenix is where he wants to be. He acknowledged he still has some WNBA knowledge to gain but said he will rely on the Phoenix players to help him learn about the league. He said he is all in on the job and plans to be.

On the court, Tibbetts has a plan for how he wants the Mercury to play but is open to change.

“We’re going to play a fast-paced game,” Tibbetts said. “We’re going to shoot, hopefully, a lot of threes. Defensively, we’re going to protect the rim, we’re going to crash the offensive glass, we’re going to space the floor. And we’re going to give our best players room to go to work. And yeah, it’s one of those things when you talk about ways that you want to play, I think great coaches in this league can adjust to their personnel. … Part of my job is to evolve with our team and I’m willing to do that. I think because of the experiences that I’ve seen, I can play different ways.”

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Reaction to the hire has been positive from the Mercury players who have commented on the matter. Forward Sophie Cunningham commented on the hire under the Mercury’s Instagram post about bringing on Tibbetts. She said people will “grow to really like this guy” and that Tibbetts is “all about women.”

Guard Diana Taurasi told Sports360AZ how the last time Phoenix hired a head coach with no women’s basketball coaching experience, Paul Westhead, they won the 2007 WNBA championship. Taurasi, who said she was consulted on the hire, said she was “thrilled” the team hired the longtime NBA assistant.

“Mat, Josh and Nick – they’re going all in,” Taurasi said. “And I think you can feel that with the hiring of Nate.”

Written by Jesse Morrison

Jesse Morrison covers the Phoenix Mercury for The Next. A native of Roanoke, Va., Jesse moved to Arizona in 2017 to attend the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, graduating in 2021 with a degree in sports journalism. Outside of The Next, Jesse works for Arizona Sports, co-hosting an Arizona State podcast, producing a radio show and writing for their website.

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