The line out of the Brooklyn Nets’ training camp making news today is Kevin Durant’s dismissal of James Harden: “I don’t think about James Harden at all. He’s not on our team.” While Durant was providing column fodder, new head coach Steve Nash choosing sides in a war that’s been brewing since the bubble kicked off in Orlando this summer. The declaration of battle? Nash said he plans on wearing polos this upcoming season. “The league is going casual, and [I] expect to go with the flow,” he said, according to reporter Alex Schiffer. Nash is representative of a swelling trend among NBA coaches—culminating in a vote Tuesday to change the guidelines so coaches would be free to shed the suit for the upcoming season.
The vote to relax wardrobe guidelines flies in the face of a contingent of NBA coaches who argue in favor of preserving the suit and the tradition that comes with it. Those coaches have always worn suits, often in the name of former NBA clotheshorses like Pat Riley, Chuck Daly, and Flip Saunders. “If I ever [wore a polo outside the Orlando environment], Chuck would roll over in his grave,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle told ESPN’s Zach Lowe. “The legacy of guys like Chuck Daly, Pat Riley, Lenny Wilkens—that is a big part of this.” Other members of Team Suit include the Raptors’ Nick Nurse, the Lakers’ Frank Vogel, and the Hawks’ Lloyd Pierce.
Up until the NBA constructed a bubble in Orlando to finish out the 2019-2020 season, all the momentum was with Team Suit. Orlando was supposed to be an anomaly: wardrobe guidelines were relaxed to accommodate an environment that would make packing more difficult and a Florida summer inhospitable to layering. However, coaches who got a taste of the polo lifestyle are reticent to return to the old “normal.” (Whom among us, really?) ESPN reported that the most recent poll among coaches, conducted about two years ago, found that they were heavily in favor of keeping the suited look. Opinions shifted following several months spent in the bubble that helped many coaches see the virtues of a more comfortable wardrobe. The pandemic is thought to be changing how we dress for at least the foreseeable future, with much of the population ditching their suits and jeans for sweats. That same attitude change is taking hold among NBA coaches, and Team Casual has picked up important converts over the last couple of months. “After being in quarantine and not even putting on jeans for six months, I’m leaning toward basketball casual,” Ryan Saunders, Minnesota Timberwolves coach and son of the fashionable Flip, told ESPN. “My dad would have a fit.”
The basis of Team Casual’s argument is threefold: it’s much easier to pack polos than suits for road trips; a relaxed dress code makes it easier to run up and down the sidelines yelling out plays; and it’s pretty silly that coaches in gyms have to wear a suit and tie, anyway. Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat coach and unofficial captain of Team Casual, guided the Heat to the bubble NBA Finals wearing a pair of black of Jordan 3s.
Following Tuesday’s vote, Team Suit appears to be up against an unstoppable wave. Dress codes across industries have been relaxing over the last decade—even Wall Street bankers are no longer required to wear a suit and tie. Since instituting its league-wide dress code in 2005, the NBA has grown more casual over the years as players have leaned into full-on fashion.
What’s most interesting about the fight between Team Casual and Team Suit is how much the coaches care. Much of the conversation around NBA fashion, rightfully, focuses on the players: Russell Westbrook’s pushing the boundaries of distressed clothing, P.J. Tucker’s peerless sneaker collection, and LeBron James’s adventures in Thom Browne-ing his entire squad.
However, the coaches seem to think about what they wear as much as the players do. Golden State assistant coach Mike Brown tracks his suit-and-tie combinations carefully so as to not repeat against the same opponent. “I have a whole process,” Brown told ESPN. “I like guys being able to show their personalities with their suit games.” You wouldn’t necessarily know it from looking at the sidelines over the years, but coaches seem to genuinely consider what they wear.
Still, looking at the new guidelines, it appears long-term change for the NBA coach’s wardrobe is here to stay. Whereas Spoelstra admitted just a couple months ago he was afraid to admit his preference for polos because he coaches for Riley’s franchise, Team Casual is now the dominant force in the NBA.