In the wake of Jeff Hornacek’s firing and more coaching turnover than ever before, this is an examination of ex-players’ coaching abilities.
While the NBA appears to be littered with head coaches that also happen to be ex-NBA players, their presence is actually severely declining.
As of today, exactly half of NBA teams are run by one-time players. That split is almost identical across conferences as well, with seven such coaches in the East and eight in the West.
The list of current head coaches that fit the criteria is as follows:
• Tony Brown*
• Earl Watson*
*Interim head coach
In order to assess whether this trend is growing or declining, we must examine the distribution of ex-player head coaches in the NBA at other times. For the sake of simplicity, we will compare the 2015-16 (post-firings) distribution to those of 2010-11 (five years ago) and 2005-06 (10 years ago). In 2010-11, 22 of 30 head coaches were ex-players (73%!), compared to 18 such head coaches in 2005-06. While this shows fluctuation, it also shows a drastically declining trend, with a large drop from 73% to 50% in five years.
Furthermore, dismissals must fit into the discussion in terms of which direction the phenomenon is trending. With that in mind, three of the four coaches that were relieved of their duties so far this season were ex-players. These three coaches, Lionel Hollins, Jeff Hornacek and Kevin McHale, formerly of the Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns and Houston Rockets respectively, were also extraordinarily decorated as players, with the latter being a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. The fourth coach was David Blatt, who played for the infamous Pete Carril-led Princeton Tigers before playing professionally in Israel.
Of the 15 coaches listed above, only George Karl, Rick Carlisle and Billy Donovan were on the very fringe as rotation players and were not likely to have made much of an impact, if any at all. The others played for a significant amount of time, and with impact.
With an overwhelming majority of these coaches having played one of the guard positions (14/15), there would seem to be a fairly heavy correlation between being a guard and coaching ability. More specifically, the overwhelming majority of these coaches were point guards (9/15).
Indeed, the point guard is often considered the ‘quarterback’ of basketball and is often the team’s most cerebral and studious player. While that is certainly not always the case, almost all great point guards are at least partially known for their basketball IQ, with Jason Kidd, Derek Fisher, Doc Rivers and Steve Kerr coming to mind from the aforementioned list.
If we factor in the fired head coaches, while McHale was a big man and Hornacek more of a shooting guard, Hollins was a highly decorated point guard as well. Similarly, Scott Brooks, another ex-NBA point guard, was relieved of his duties prior to the start of the season. Monty Williams, the only other deposed coach from last season to play in the NBA, was a small forward. David Blatt, recently fired coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, was himself a point guard during his playing days at Princeton and then in Israel. His replacement, Tyronn Lue, was a point guard as well, infamously getting stepped over by Allen Iverson en route to an NBA championship in 2001. Even the roots of most assistant coaches lie in the point guard position.
It is clear that there is a strong correlation between playing the point guard position and coaching. This suggests that the probing, analytical tendencies required by the point guard position fall in line with the sort of higher-level thinking associated with head coaching. Furthermore, it is evident that this trend is declining, as evidenced by the alarming downturn in ex-player head coaches in the NBA. This marks a major shift, as forward-thinking minds across the NBA continue to think outside the box.
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