8 NBA Veterans Who Could Become Head Coaches
There is a false notion—that great players make great head coaches—that contradicts reality. In actuality, veteran role players fare better.
I’ll often be watching a game, and someone like Kobe Bryant or LeBron James will make a smart play. Then, the commentators will talk about how that player will make a great coach someday. It’s possible, but not likely.
In fact, in the history of the NBA only two people, Bill Sharman and Lenny Wilkins, have been inducted into the Hall of Fame as both a player and an NBA coach. John Wooden was inducted as a player and a collegiate coach, though.
Tommy Heinsohn won rings as both a crucial player and a head coach, but he only made it into the Hall as a player.
Jerry Sloan has his jersey retired by the Chicago Bulls, and is in the Hall of Fame as a coach, but never made it there as a player.
There are a few others, such as Bill Russell and Larry Bird, who had brief stints as a head coaches that were successful but brief.
For the most part, though, the players who have made the best coaches, such as Phil Jackson, Pat Riley and Larry Brown, have spent their careers as role players. When considering future head coaches, that has to be accounted for.
And I have an idea of why that might be.
There is an expression, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” Here’s a thought for a modification to that cliché. “Those who easily can, do. Those who work to do, teach.”
The notion that because one can do a thing better, they can teach it better, misses a key factor: the process of learning. The more talented a person is, the easier a thing comes to him. The easier it comes, the less cognizant he is of how he learns it.
That cognizance is critical to teaching. If you remember, point by point, how you learned to do a thing, it’s easier to relay it.
If things come overly easy to someone, it’s harder for him to “teach” the steps he had to process in order to “learn.” The struggles to perfect a skill aren't quite the same.
This is just speculation, but that may be why, as a Hoops Hype study shows, head coaches who were never NBA players fare better than those who were players, and those who were role players do more than those who were great players.
(Technically, the study is intended to show the different results by position, but looking over the data confirms my premise.)
So, when looking at players who would make great coaches, I looked at role players first. In particular, I considered those whose roles were team-oriented and required a firm grasp of the offensive and/or defensive schemes. I looked for the “glue guys” who make things work, not by their talent, but by their understanding of the game.
I looked at players who had a high basketball IQ and a high actual IQ. Knowing how to do things on the court is a very important aspect of coaching, but not the only aspect. Knowing how to communicate to players, general managers, scouts, the media and so on are all instrumental to the job as well.
I also looked at pedigree. Most of the players who became great coaches had influences in their playing days. Riley played under Sharman. Jackson played under Hall of Famer Red Holzman and still carries the lessons he learned from him.
This isn’t a list of great players who will be head coaches, so don’t be offended by the lack of Bryant and James. I think both players are among the greatest ever and have an incredible grasp of the game, but their own greatness probably impedes them from being great coaches.
In fact, only one player who is likely to be a future inductee into the Hall of Fame made my list, and there are reasons for his exception, which will be explained in his slide.
This is a list of players who have the best chances of becoming the next great head coach. They are ranked subjectively, based on how much success I think they’d have as determined by the criteria I already laid out.
8. Andre Miller
Andre Miller is about as savvy as they come. He might be the greatest player ever who’s not a great player (and that's how I Yogi Berra).
He’s never been an All-Star, and he probably won’t ever sniff the Hall of Fame, but consider this, only eight players in NBA history have recorded 15,000 points and 8,000 assists.
Five of the players on that list, John Stockton, Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Gary Payton and Isiah Thomas have already been inducted. Two more, Steve Nash and Jason Kidd, will, in all likelihood, make it in on their first ballot. One thing clearly separates them from him, though: He did it with far less natural talent. That's because Miller has a great understanding of the game.
Miller has had a diverse career, spending time under a variety of coaches who run the gamut from bad to great. The foremost was George Karl, whom Miller was with for two stints. While there was some friction with Brian Shaw this year in Denver, for most of his career Miller has been viewed as a team player who relates well to coaches.
He is a player who has used his brain to compensate for less talent his whole career. He has learned under one of the better coaches of Miller’s generation. He’s played on good teams and bad teams, so he knows how to manage a locker room.
He’s played with Carmelo Anthony, so he knows how to work with superstars.
He is the type of player with the kind of life experiences that would be superb to coach a young team, loaded with talent. I see him doing well as a Monty Williams- or Mark Jackson-type of coach.
7. Nick Collison
Nick Collison might not be the first player you’d think of as a future head coach, but he’s far more qualified than you might realize.
He didn’t quite write the book on being a role player, but he did write an article on it. For GQ Magazine, Collison explains how most NBA players were the top dog all the way through college, but then have to adapt their games once they get to the NBA to keep finding time on the court.
If you can become really good at things like screening, passing, defending pick and rolls, communicating, boxing out and rotating defensively, you can have a huge effect on your team winning a game. If those parts of your game become a habit and you develop consistency, you are going to be valuable to your team and have a long career.
The hard part is being able to have the focus to do it over and over again, knowing you aren't going to get a lot of credit. Doing a great job of talking on defense won't get you any high-paying endorsement deals. Nobody is making a YouTube mix of all your badass screens with a Rick Ross track playing over it. (I'm not saying I would complain if someone did this for me.)
These things might not get you YouTube glory (although someone did make this video), but they do potentially make you a great head coach.
Collison is also the son of a high school coach. He has been attending basketball practice since he was a little boy. Perhaps because of that, he’s shown an openness and aptitude to learning all the aspects of team basketball.
The one question mark with Collison is pedigree. He's the son of a coach, and he’s played under some good NBA coaches, such as Nate McMillan and Scott Brooks, but it’s hard to find that great coaching influence in his life.
However, if he could be an assistant to a future Hall of Fame coach for a couple of years, he has all the background, understanding and instincts to make a great future head coach.
6. Tim Duncan
Tim Duncan is the exception of this generation to the "great players don’t make great coaches rule." When you’re nickname is the “Big Fundamental,” you get to be the exception.
I am not saying that Duncan doesn't have physical talent, but going back to his college days he’s developed his game by devoting himself to the fundamentals of it. Whether it’s the finer points of post moves or the broader ones of understanding his place on the court, he’s as sound a player as there is.
Sometimes people think of “fundamentals” and they just consider what a player does when he has the ball. However, even players who command the ball the most only have it in their possession about 20 percent of the time they’re on the court.
What happens the other 80 percent of the time involves a lot of fundamentals too, including reading and reacting to what everyone else is doing.
Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN.com, breaks down a play, showing how a series of Duncan moves and decisions leads to his eventually scoring a basket. Most of what happened were sound, fundamental plays off the ball. (I’d quote it but it’s half the article and one well worth reading.)
With Duncan, there are two aspects to his greatness: his grasp of the game and his development of it. Because he’s worked on both to the point of it becoming a part of his subconscious, he can teach both.
Kobe Bryant works on his game too, but in a different way.
Bryant’s game is largely the work of copying and perfecting Michael Jordan’s moves and the moves of some others. The problem with that, as it pertains to coaching, is that not everyone has the talent of Bryant or Jordan. Not just anyone can learn what Bryant’s learned.
Bryant’s greatness is predicated on his unique ability that he’s honed into a razor-sharp skill set.
What’s amazing about Duncan is that his moves aren’t really that amazing, but they’re just as effective. Duncan can duplicate himself in a team; Bryant can't. That’s not an indictment of either player; it’s just an observation. That’s why Duncan has the makings of a better head coach than Bryant.
Duncan has played his entire career under the tutelage of Gregg Popovich, which is what we’ll succinctly call a “big plus” and leave it at that, because you simply can’t overstate how much that means.
Duncan has not only played under Popovich though, he’s been there through the whole Popovich run. He’s been there for the great defenses and the great offenses. Literally, no human being alive, other than Popovich himself, knows Popovich’s schemes better than Duncan.
The sole drawback to the idea of Coach Duncan is whether or not he has the personality to keep a team motivated. He’s not exactly known for his fiery demeanor or pep talks. He’s always had others to do that for him. If he needs to push a team, can he do it? That misgiving is the only reason he’s not higher on the list.
5. Luol Deng
Luol Deng has all the necessary ingredients to be a tremendous head coach. He's a highly intelligent player with a firm understanding of the game, but his greatest asset is who he is.
Just to get where he is in life, he’s shown great resilience. Josh Hill, from Pippen Ain’t Easy, tells the story of Deng’s life, which "ain’t easy" either. In that article, Deng recounts,
My life has been a tough journey, but a good one. It has helped me mature that much quicker. I see what I have been through as a blessing. It is a gift to help me see things more clearly. I know that it would be such a waste if I didn’t use my position to help other people. This is why it is so important that I now help raise awareness of what is happening in Sudan.
That says a lot about what type of person Deng is. He’s a “good” person, and it’s often overlooked how much difference that can make in any type of leader. We like to believe in the character of those whom we follow, and Deng is that type of person.
When Deng was traded by the Bulls to the Cleveland Cavaliers this year, Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls head coach, had this to say about him, per ESPN Chicago:
You couldn't ask anything more of a player. Practice hard, be a great leader, play for the team, be selfless. Whatever I asked him to do, he did. And he bought in from day one, from the minute I got here.
So I appreciated that and I thought when you look at what he did, the way he worked and the way he performed, those are two things I value greatly. And then when you add to it the type of person he is, all the things that he did in the community. He embodied what we stand for. Lu was never the type of guy that would call attention to himself by the things that he did. He did a lot of good things in this community because he felt it was the right thing to do.
Per Nick Friedell of ESPN Chicago, his coach at Duke, Mike Krzyzewski, defended Deng’s decision to play for the United Kingdom in the Olympics, rather than opt out for surgery in 2012:
I love the fact that he is that loyal to his country. Luol is one of the great guys on this planet, and besides being a very talented player, he has a heart and feelings of a remarkable guy. Great Britain did something for his country, for his family that saved their lives. His dad was in exile in Great Britain, so there's an allegiance there. I love the fact he feels that way. I'm proud of him, I'm proud to have coached him and I'm even more proud to be his friend. He's one exceptional human being.
It’s notable that Thibodeau and Krzyzewski praised his person as much as his talent or anything else.
Deng has been to two All-Star Games, mostly due to his "glueness." He has coaching pedigree in Thibodeau and Krzyzewski. But the personal endorsement from both is what is most persuasive.
Deng would be the type of coach that players would want to win for. He has the intelligence and grasp of the game to teach it, and he has the personality and character to motivate. He would make a great head coach if he did coach, but the question is whether he’ll want to or press for something bigger.
4. Derek Fisher
Derek Fisher might become the second championship point guard in two years to take a head coaching job in the Big Apple in spite of having no coach experience. According to Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today, Fisher’s name is one that’s being floated about for the vacancy with the New York Knicks.
If indeed TNT analyst and former NBA guard Steve Kerr, who played for three of Jackson's championship Bulls teams, wants to coach, he is the front-runner, a person familiar with the situation told USA TODAY Sports. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
But one other name to consider, if Kerr doesn't end up as coach: Derek Fisher, who could end up with the Knicks either as a coach or front-office executive.
Fisher has been too old to play for about five years now, but somehow he keeps playing and contributing. He’s about as fast as Internet Explorer, but he still manages to make things work. He gets open and makes shots.
According to 82games.com, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s offense and defense are better when he’s on the court, suggesting he’s bringing things that don’t show up box scores. That indicates understanding.
Fisher spent the bulk of his career as a point guard in the great Phil Jackson triangle offense and understands it as well as anyone. It’s little wonder that he’s on Jackson’s short list for players being considered for the Knicks job. He’d be successful there, particularly if he has Jackson to mentor him in his new role.
3. Mike Dunleavy Jr.
Mike Dunleavy Jr. has already followed in his father’s footsteps by playing in the NBA. No one would be surprised if he followed him into the ranks of NBA head coaches too.
Dunleavy Jr. learned a lot from his old man. Dunleavy Sr. had an illustrious coaching career spanning 20 years. He went to the NBA finals once and won Coach of the Year for 1998-99.
Junior grew up watching his father and learned from him. He tells Bryan Crawford of Red Eye the most important lesson he received.
Preparation was my dad's biggest thing. I remember him being up late at night, all night, watching film and getting prepared for the next opponent. That's something I've applied to my craft in the years I've been playing. … I'll keep applying that work ethic to whatever I do.
And that shows up in so many aspects of how Dunleavy plays. ESPN has a new stat called “real plus-minus” that tries to adapt plus/minus numbers to who else is on the floor, including both teammates and opponents.
Dunleavy averaged just 11.3 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game this year, but his real plus-minus is plus-3.49, good for 36th in the NBA. That’s a strong indication that his influence is on the court is more indirect than direct.
He always seems to be in the right place at the right time.
On offense, he knows how to free himself for a shot, make the right cuts or set the right picks.
On defense, he closes passing lanes, gets key rebounds and draws charges.
He’s able to have an impact on games because of what happens between his ears. He just knows the game.
In addition to his father’s coaching influence, he had Mike Krzyzewski in college. He has had an array of great coaches in the NBA, including Don Nelson, Rick Carlisle, Frank Vogel and Tom Thibodeau. That diversity of styles also means he’s had the opportunity to learn from both great offensive and defensive minds.
Should he choose to go into coaching, Dunleavy Jr. might even exceed his father’s accomplishments.
2. Chauncey Billups
If Chauncey Billups wants to go from being “Big Shot” to the big shot, he shouldn't have any problems. For the second year in a row, the NBA’s general managers voted that among all NBA players, he would make the best head coach. Ergo, one would assume that at least one GM would give him a chance.
Art Renger of Fox Sports Detroit argues that Billups essentially already has experience. He explained why Billups should be the Pistons’ next head coach after Maurice Cheeks was fired.
Honestly, it's simple: He's been coaching this team on and off the court for years.
According to many people who are much more familiar with the Pistons than me, Billups was the player who kept the team together, even during their 2004 championship run under Larry Brown.
Billups was the voice of reason and made sure the Pistons players, despite their dissatisfaction with their head coach, stayed focused. And it's not a coincidence that the franchise began to crumble after Billups was traded.
Billups also played a pivotal leadership role with the 2010 Team USA. Mike Krzyzewski said of a pending game with Croatia, per Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today:
(Billups will be) as important as anybody on our team because he's the leader of the team. He's been through every experience as a player, and he's been successful. He and I have a very close relationship, and we talk about the team all the time.
Whether it’s the NBA GMs, the Detroit media or the Team USA coach, the praise for Billups' leadership is universal. He has the grasp of the X’s and O’s, but that’s secondary. The innate ability to lead is more essential, and Billups has that in spades.
1. Shane Battier
Shane Battier is a smart man. When Sporting News compiled a list of the 20 smartest athletes in sports, Battier was picked seventh overall, first among NBA players.
He graduated with a degree in religion form Duke, carrying 3.5 grade point average. Per Chris Tomasson of Fox Sports Florida, Battier’s Miami Heat teammate, LeBron James said of Battier, "He's probably the No. 1 smartest basketball player and person I've been around. He knows everything.”
Of course, Battier just tells Tomassson, "Intelligence is an esoteric measurement. I don't know. I'm smart, but I don't know about the smartest.”
Point taken, but if you answer a question about intelligence saying “esoteric measurement,” you’ve established you’re a pretty bright guy, even if only a few people understand what you’re saying.
When Jay Busbee of Yahoo! Sports compiled a list of athletes who could be President of the United States someday, Battier topped the list. Busbee explains his reasonsing:
Perhaps the smartest player in the NBA, and no, that's not damning with faint praise. He makes everyone around him better, which is exactly what you want out of a president, and his Duke background gives him the necessary educational foundation. In fact, if he's not elected to office by 2028, we'll be stunned.
If you’re smart enough and a good enough leader to be president, you can probably handle a head-coaching job, provided you have the right background in basketball, and Battier has that.
Some pretty good coaches have been feeding Battier's giant brain over the years too, including Jeff Van Gundy, Rick Adelman, Lionel Hollins, Hubie Brown and Eric Spoelstra. In addition, Tom Thibodeau was was an assistant with him in Houston, and his collegiate coach was Mike Krzyzewski.
That's a lot of basketball knowledge to be around in your life.
Battier has a tremendous basketball acumen, leadership and respect from his peers. That’s just about every tool in the box. He would be a great NBA head coach…unless he’s too busy being president.