Kelvin Sampson has agreed to a contract with the Houston Rockets to become the lead assistant under new head coach Kevin McHale, departing Milwaukee after three seasons on Scott Skiles' staff. Sampson will join J.B. Bickerstaff, a former assistant with the Timberwolves who worked under McHale with the Wolves in 2008-2009, on the Rockets' staff.
Sampson, unrestricted by the lockout that has handcuffed the players of the NBA, had been undergoing his own free-agency period, interviewing with a number of teams. He had been mentioned in a few head-coaching rumors, most notably with the Rockets and Detroit Pistons, who interviewed him in mid-June. Perhaps not coincidentally, Sampson's departure comes just a week after lead assistant Jim Boylan inked a one year deal to stay with the Bucks, turning down an offer from the Suns to become the defensive specialist in Phoenix. The contracts of all the Bucks' assistant coaches were set to lapse on July 1, but the Bucks reportedly offered all of them new deals ahead of the draft.
Sampson earned high praise for his role as an assistant in Milwaukee, where he was regarded as a "player's coach," a popular guy among everyone who played for him. He joined the Bucks in May 2008 after a brief stint as an adviser to Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, which came on the heels of the recruiting scandal that forced him to resign from his head coaching position at Indiana in February 2008. In Milwaukee he was particularly involved in the early career of Brandon Jennings, regularly putting the then-19-year-old rookie through late night drills at the Bucks' training facility in the summer of 2009. With the retirement of Yao Ming likely to trigger a significant overhaul of the Rockets' roster, Sampson could easily find himself in a similar role, mentoring young players in Houston as they arrive in the next few years.
This doesn't completely close the book on Sampson's job search, however. According to Vincent Goodwill of the Detroit News, Sampson's deal with the Rockets includes an out clause if a head coaching position becomes available to him. A hat-tip to the Pistons blog Piston Powered for highlighting this.
As Piston Powered points out, a deal including such a clause would seem a big vote of confidence in Sampson on the part of Houston. Their willingness to roll the dice on him taking a head-coaching position later, potentially necessitating some hasty backup plan, would suggest that they are very eager to have him.
It's unfortunate that a popular guy like Sampson is headed out the door, but he's earned this new position. Sampson's move means the Bucks are in the market for an assistant coach, which we are sure to hear more about in the coming days. That's right, real news!