Of the 30 current NBA coaches, would it surprise you to learn that eight of them started their NBA coaching careers with no prior NBA coaching experience? Or, of those eight, that five of them simply made the jump as a player to a coach with no coaching experience whatsoever?
Surprising or not, 26% of the current head coaching circle in the NBA found their way into their respective positions despite having zero prior NBA coaching experience on their resumes. The latest names to join this club are Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors, Derek Fisher of the the New York Knicks, and David Blatt of the Cleveland Cavaliers, all hired this offseason. Not only have none of the three coached in the NBA before in any capacity, but two have never even coached before.[newsbox style=”nb1″ display=”tag” tag=”coachb” title=”More Coaching Breakdowns” number_of_posts=”2″ show_more=”no” nb_excerpt=”0″]
While more attention might have been directed towards this player-to-head-coaching phenomenon recently, in light of these hires, this is not exactly something new to the NBA. In the past 25 years, a total of 16 coaches (including Kerr and Fisher) have made the leap from from player to coach with no prior experience. Hickory-High.com’s Rich Kraetsch examined this issue back in May when the Kerr hire was made, and came up with some interesting statistics on the topic up to that point.
The average win percentage of these rookie, no experience head coaches is 45.43%, which falls right in line with the 45.1% averaged by rookie NBA coaches regardless of experience. Even better, these coaches don’t seem to have an adverse effect on their team’s play as the average difference between Actual Wins and Pythag Wins is only -1.35% which is the difference of roughly a game.
The majority of NBA coaches in the history of the league have started somewhere as assistants, which skews the percentages to a certain degree due to the considerably smaller sample size in play here. Nevertheless, these numbers beg the question; does having prior NBA assistant coaching experience matter in today’s NBA?
With Kerr and Fisher yet to begin their coaching careers, there are 14 coaches with analysable data. Seven of these 14 coaches held losing records during their time at the helm, but perhaps of note is that six of those seven had a span of six years in between their playing days before taking over the reigns as coach. Conversely, of the seven with winning records, three had less than five years in between their playing days. Jason Kidd is the latest of the group, jumping straight from his 2012-13 season as a player with the New York Knicks to coaching the Brooklyn Nets to a 44-38 record last season.
Here is the entire breakdown of the 14 players-turned-coaches in the past 25 years, per basketball-reference.com:
Players-Turned-Coaches in the Last 25 Years
|Coach||Years Between Playing/Coaching||Experience In Between||Years Coached||Win-Loss Record||Titles||COYs|
|Jason Kidd||0 years||None||1 (Active)||44-38||0||0|
|Vinny Del Negro||7 years||Broadcast/Front Office||5||210-184||0||0|
|Doc Rivers||3 years||None||15 (Active)||644-498||1||1|
|Mark Jackson||7 years||Broadcast||3||121-109||0||0|
|Larry Bird||5 years||Front Office||3||147-67||0||1|
|Isiah Thomas||6 years||Broadcast/Front Office||5||187-223||0||0|
|Mike Dunleavy||0 years||None||17||613-716||0||1|
|Chris Ford||8 years||None||10||323-376||0||0|
|Allan Bristow||8 years||None||5||207-203||0||0|
|Quinn Buckner||7 years||Broadcast||1||13-69||0||0|
|Butch Beard||15 years||None||2||60-104||0||0|
|M.L. Carr||10 years||Front Office||2||48-116||0||0|
|Johnny Davis||10 years||None||4||73-146||0||0|
|Kevin McHale||12 years||Front Office||5 (Active)||172-152||0||0|
In 2014-15, Kerr and Fisher will each get their first shot at coaching. Kerr has not played in the NBA in 11 years, while Fisher played as recently as last season for the Oklahoma City Thunder. It will be interesting to judge their successes and failures against each other, being that they were both mentored by Phil Jackson and when given such a large discrepancy in when they last played at the NBA level. Kerr, of course, is taking over the reigns of a much more talented Warriors team, which should immediately lead to more wins than Fisher’s Knicks. But Fisher has the luxury of working with the Zen Master himself Phil Jackson on a daily basis, a superstar in Carmelo Anthony better than any Golden State player, and he is coaching in a much weaker Eastern Conference compared to the tough Western Conference that Kerr faces.
These are, however, only the players-turned-coaches. There are other ways in which now-NBA head coaches have made the jump to the NBA level, particularly when coming through the college ranks or when experienced in other professional level coaching. Blatt and Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens are the most notable recent examples of this, and going back further, this is also the way in which new Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Flip Saunders entered the ranks as well back in 1995.
Stevens signed with the Celtics last summer, after taking his Butler Bulldogs to back-to-back NCAA National Championship title games in 2010 and 2011. Blatt signed with the Cavaliers this summer, after guiding European powerhouse Maccabi Tel-Aviv to five Israeli League Championships, seven Israeli Cup titles and the Euroleague title in 2014, along with multiple titles with other teams in the interim years between his two stints. And after finding success as head coach at the University of Minnesota, Saunders went on to coach in the CBA where he won two championships in 1990 and 1992 and was named Coach of the Year twice as well in 1989 and 1992, before Kevin McHale hired him to coach the Timberwolves in 1995.
Famous coaches like Dick Motta, Bill Fitch, P.J. Carlesimo and John Calipari all made similar jumps to Stevens in the past, with varying success. Motta led the Chicago Bulls to the Western Conference Finals in 1974 and 1975 and the Washington Bullets to the 1978 title and 1979 Eastern Conference Finals. Fitch led the Cavaliers to the 1976 East Finals, the Celtics to the 1981 championship and the Houston Rockets to the 1986 Finals. However, Carlesimo and Calipari did not do nearly as well as Motta or Finch. Carlesimo reached the playoffs four times, three times with the Portland Trail Blazers (1994-97) and one time with the Brooklyn Nets (2013), but never was able to make it out of the first round. Meanwhile, Calipari made the playoffs once with the Nets (1998) as the eighth seed, but was fired the following season after just 20 games and a 3-17 record.
According to basketball-reference.com, the NBA has had a total of 313 different head coaches in its history, dating back to 1947. Considering that the NBA had only 11 teams until 1968, where they increased the total to a mere 17, that is an astounding amount of turnover for the position. In just the past 10 years, the NBA has gone through 109 different head coaches, and, when averaged out amongst the 30 teams that the NBA has had throughout that time period, that works out to an average of 3.6 coaches per team.
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Out of the current head coaches in the league, only Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs has held his position before the 2007/08 season began. Aside from him, only Scott Brooks of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat and Rick Carlisle of the Dallas Mavericks have had their positions since before the 2009/10 season began, and only they plus Tom Thibodeau of the Chicago Bulls (hired at the very end of the 2009/10 season) have had their jobs since the start of the fabled Summer of 2010.
Furthermore, the constant turnover of new coaches is not necessarily because of the failure of the old coaches. As a case in point, George Karl was fired by the Denver Nuggets after the 2012/13 season, despite recording a 423-257 record with the team, despite nine consecutive playoff seasons, and despite winning the Coach Of The Year award in the season immediately prior, in order to be replaced by Brian Shaw, a long time assistant receiving his first head coaching job. It surely cannot be said that Karl is any less qualified for another head coaching vacancy than Kerr, Fisher et al – the lure of the untested may be appealing to a front office looking for the next big thing amongst a sea of retreads with established flaws, but the fact that their flaws have not been established yet does not mean they are a better candidate than proven winners with limitations, merely more enigmatic and potential-laden. And the lure of mere potential that one can nevertheless convey in a job interview does not necessarily mean anything – as Vinny Del Negro’s time in Chicago was a painful testament to, sometimes a lack of experience means a sharp and painful learning curve in a league which, as we have seen, affords little patience to its coaches.
In other words, then, coaching in the NBA is a crap shoot. Just this season, there will be 10 coaches starting in their new positions, a third of the league. There is no right or wrong answer in terms of how you go about hiring for the position, as long as the new leader shows the ability to establish increases in the win column, or, in the cases of Kerr or Blatt this season, win when it matters in the playoffs. Some new hires work out, some do not. Some coaches who failed in previous gigs learn from their mistakes and become quality coaches when given a second chance – for example, Terry Stotts in Portland – but many others do not. Doc Rivers won an NBA title without any interim coaching steps in his transition from player to head coach, while Gregg Popovich went through a 14 season college career first. Ultimately, there is no recipe for success.