Why Aren't There More Head Coach/GM Hybrids in the NBA?

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Why Aren't There More Head Coach/GM Hybrids in the NBA?
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There's a new trend that seems to be seeping (not sweeping) its way through the NBA.

No, not four-point plays, "small ball" or Tom Thibodeau-style overloading defense, though those are all intriguing developments in the basketball world.

Rather, I'm referring to coaches with at least one foot firmly planted in the front office.

Last summer, it was Doc Rivers jumping the Boston Celtics' sinking vessel to join the Los Angeles Clippers' ship as both head coach and senior vice president of basketball operations. This spring, Stan Van Gundy followed suit by assuming double duties as the Detroit Pistons' head coach and president of basketball operations.

If not for Dave Joerger's sudden reversal, the Memphis Grizzlies might've attempted to work out a similar arrangement with current Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, per Grantland's Bill Simmons.

In truth, two hires of this sort do not a revolution make. If anything, the authority granted to Rivers in L.A. and Van Gundy in Motown may be little more than anomalies whose connection is merely temporal.

But could this be just the infancy of a more widespread movement in the confluence of coaching and management in the NBA? Might we see more overseers operating this way in basketball to the extent that they once did in MLB and the NHL, have been in European club soccer and are now in the NFL?

And would this be a good thing for the particular teams that pursue it and for the NBA as a whole?

 

The Fortunate Few

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

To be sure, situations like these are hardly new to the NBA. Red Auerbach all but built the Celtics' Bill Russell-led dynasty of the 1950s and 1960s by himself. Rick Pitino was given similar authority in Beantown between 1997 and 2001, albeit to far lesser effectiveness.

Pat Riley pioneered the practice in the league's modern era with the Miami Heat, when he ditched the New York Knicks for a gig on South Beach in 1995. Mike Dunleavy served as coach and general manager of the Clippers before his tenure there came to an acrimonious end.

There have been others who "fell" into double duties. Stu Jackson, Isiah Thomas and Kevin McHale were all in charge of basketball operations before trying to make their moves work more directly as coaches of the Vancouver Grizzlies, the New York Knicks and the Minnesota Timberwolves, respectively.

During the 1996-97 season, Gregg Popovich, then the GM of the San Antonio Spurs, deposed Bob Hill, the team's popular head coach, to take over a team that finished 20-62 in David Robinson's absence.

All Pop's done since then is lead the Spurs to 17 straight playoff appearances, five of which have ended in the NBA Finals, with Tim Duncan by his side.

Even Riley has taken this road back to the coaching ranks. In 2005, Riley, having receded back into the Heat's front office two-and-a-half years earlier, shoved Stan Van Gundy aside and guided Miami to its first championship the following spring.

As far as the sheer number of coach/GM types are concerned, though, the NBA still lags behind the league that it—and every other major pro sports collective, for that matter—would most like to emulate: the NFL.

Pro basketball may have been first on the hybrid bandwagon—with Riley beating out Hall of Famer Bill Parcells by just two years—but the Association can only lay claim to three such power players (Popovich, Rivers and Van Gundy) among its coaches. The NFL, on the other hand, features no fewer than five at present.

Bill Belichick is both head coach and general manager of the New England Patriots. Andy Reid once held similar power with the Philadelphia Eagles and now holds the title of "executive vice president of football operations" along with that of head coach with the Kansas City Chiefs. Jeff Fisher, once "just" the coach of the Tennessee Titans, has final say over most decisions as "executive vice president" of the St. Louis Rams.

Pete Carroll and Chip Kelly were both given power over personnel upon leaving the collegiate ranks—Carroll officially, Kelly unofficially. Mike Shanahan had that power with the Washington Redskins until he was fired this past December.

As in the NBA, the NFL's occasional penchant for putting one man in charge of two incredibly demanding jobs can be traced to at least one charismatic champion in particular. In football, Bill Parcells attempted to consolidate such sway for himself in the late 1980s, during a coup with the Atlanta Falcons that was ultimately nixed by commissioner Pete Rozelle.

It would be nearly another decade before The Big Tuna took command in this manner and not before Parcells himself lent his voice to the rationale for this high-level multitasking.

"If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries," Parcells famously told Patriots owner Robert Kraft amid a front-office power struggle that paved the way for Parcells' departure from Foxborough in 1997, via USA Today's Jim Corbett.

Mike Holmgren took Parcells' demands and ran with them in 1999, when he became an all-around head honcho with the Seattle Seahawks. By 2002, Holmgren had been stripped of his duties as GM, though the Seahawks kept him on as coach long enough for Seattle to reach its first-ever Super Bowl in 2005.

 

Why Do Both?

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

The line of thinking that runs through Holmgren, Parcells, Riley and the others mentioned herein holds plenty of appeal to the range of perfectionists, obsessives and "control freaks" who've managed to work their way to the upper crust of coaching in pro sports.

The vast majority have little choice but to operate in pragmatic fashion, maximizing the collective talent of the players they have on hand while hoping that their counterparts in the front office are on the same page, that they'll put together a roster that tickles the coach's fancy.

"One of the big problems at least in our league right now in a lot of places is there is not a great connection necessarily between front office and coaching," Van Gundy said upon his introduction as the Pistons' new head guru, per The Associated Press' Noah Trister (via WXYZ.com). "This setup -- nothing to do with power -- it allows us to really create a tremendous synergy and a very unified organization."

Only a select few, though, have accumulated the requisite blend of trust, respect, good will and flat-out leverage to create their own such synergy. For the most part, those who've been granted sweeping authority on the sports-operations end are not only experienced, but also come equipped with weighty resumes and impressive track records.

Parcells and Riley both won multiple championships before seeking out say in personnel decisions. Rivers earned one ring in two trips to the Finals before he started over in L.A. Shanahan and Belichick stockpiled that power within the same organizations that they led to the top, with Shanahan carving out similar circumstances for himself after he left the Denver Broncos.

Reid, Fisher, Van Gundy and Dunleavy have each endured the bittersweetness of being runners-up on the biggest stages of their respective sports.

As for Pitino, Carroll and Kelly, they were all accustomed to having carte blanche over team operations from their time at the NCAA level. College coaches aren't just allowed to shop for some of their own groceries; they're practically required to pick up all of them. In essence, recruiting is the collegiate equivalent of being a professional GM, just as Spanish and Portuguese are comparable without actually being the same.

Pitino didn't handle that transition so smoothly. He was ousted by the C's after piling up a record of 102-146 in four seasons.

Carroll, on the other hand, has done quite well wielding his omnipotence. He's led the Seahawks to the playoffs three times in four years since leaving USC, including the franchise's first Super Bowl victory this year. Kelly just finished his first year in this capacity but managed to guide the Eagles into the postseason nonetheless.

Perhaps power over personnel decisions will be enough to eventually lure Kentucky coach John Calipari back to the professional ranks. He seems to find himself on coaching short lists every year, only to turn them down to preserve the immense pull he enjoys in Lexington.

That power, with all of its appeal, appears to have become a carrot that team owners and CEOs are willing to dangle in order to attract the top coaching talent. Riley was doing quite well with the Knicks in the mid-1990s before Heat owner Micky Arison surreptitiously signed him to take over in Miami.

Riley's somewhat sudden decision to return to coaching during the 2005-06 season probably had plenty to do with Van Gundy, who was cast aside by the Heat as a result of that power play, opting for Detroit's revolving door. Van Gundy had been the front-runner to succeed Mark Jackson with the Golden State Warriors, per ESPN.com's Marc Stein, but they didn't offer SVG anywhere near the same say that the Pistons did.

Rivers was never going to have final say over Celtics GM Danny Ainge in Boston, and in the team's impending collapse last summer, he found a means to it elsewhere. As Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher recently relayed:

This is why every coach wants to have personnel control," a former NBA assistant coach said, citing Doc Rivers with the Clippers and now Stan Van Gundy with the Detroit Pistons. "Doc can go get his own groceries, because he knows what he wants to cook.

 

The Pitfalls of Power

KATHY WILLENS/Associated Press

Of course, not everyone who aspires to these lofty heights of the coaching profession does so successfully. Four years seems to be the "magic number," particularly for those who fall short of expectations. Parcells receded into the Jets' front office after four years, Holmgren spent four years in a dual role with the Seahawks, and Shanahan and Pitino were each ousted entirely after their fourth seasons in D.C. and Boston, respectively.

This uneven record makes plenty of sense, aside from the simple fact that wins and losses can only be divided in so many ways. Doing one or the other of these jobs is a difficult-enough proposition in itself. Each brings its on unique set of demands and constraints on an individual's finite time, energy and tolerance.

Not to mention the disparity in priorities between the two positions. Coaches, on the one hand, are focused primarily on winning as much as they can right away. Their task is to squeeze as much out of the players they have on hand. More often than not, their livelihoods and continued job security depend on it.

GMs and executives would certainly prefer the same but must do everything with the bigger picture in mind. They must concern themselves with the long-term health of the organization, whether that means building a winner from scratch or perpetuating one's reign atop the proverbial heap.

Those executives whose continued employment is contingent on immediate results often sacrifice their franchises' future flexibility to better ensure short-term gain.

Just ask Joe Dumars, whose swan song as Pistons GM featured the signings of Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings to contemptible contracts last summer, or Chris Grant, who was axed by the Cleveland Cavaliers after swapping picks and Andrew Bynum's contract for Luol Deng during the 2013-14 season.

In theory, asking a coach to also act as a front-office force is a perilous proposition. How can one person be expected to juggle big picture and small, short term and long, along with the countless other duties associated with each job—without tripping over one foot while trying to follow another?

It helps that most of these "super coaches" aren't also outright GMs. Most serve primarily as coaches, retaining veto power of sorts over personnel decisions, while delegating most of the leg work to others within the front office.

In L.A., Rivers has Gary Sacks, who'd risen through the Clippers' ranks before Rivers came to town. In Detroit, Van Gundy may well hire Otis Smith, who was the GM in Orlando when SVG coached the Magic, to handle the day-to-day operations of the Pistons' front office. As the Detroit Free Press' Jeff Seidel wrote:

By all accounts, they worked well together in Orlando. Last week, Van Gundy told an Orlando radio station that Smith would be a candidate in Detroit. 'Absolutely, if that's something he's interested in,' Van Gundy said.

And then Van Gundy spent more than two minutes during the interview talking about Smith, praising his moves. 'I hold him in very, very high regard,' Van Gundy told WYGM-AM. 'But Otis is living a pretty good life right now. I'm not totally sure he even wants to jump back into the fray.'

 

No More "Blame Game"

Surely, Van Gundy is a good enough coach to turn the Pistons around, but if he's going to succeed in that endeavor, he'll need someone to help him pick out those groceries so he can focus on whipping up a tasty product.

Even more so when considering the pressure that a coach/GM hybrid typically has to deal with. As Uncle Ben once told Peter Parker, "With great power comes great responsibility."

And so it is with coaches becoming the masters of their domains. These powers are conferred not to just any sideline stalkers, but to those who are at or near the top of the profession, who are well versed in the ways of the political tug-of-war that takes place within pro sports franchises and, most of all, whose reputations afford them the leeway to ask that both sides of that battle be theirs to play.

The success or failure of a team under the auspices of a coach/GM, likely then has much more to do with the person in the position than with the responsibilities that person must fulfill. More often than not, organizations confer these multifaceted powers only to coaches whose experience, qualifications and reputations place them at or near the top of their respective fields.

It's about getting the best people in the building, first and foremost, and hoping/expecting that they can handle their new duties once they're situated.

Not the least of which is handling the demands from the very top of the heap without the benefit of the usual buffer between the owner's box and the coach's corner.

"There's no excuses now," Van Gundy added at his introductory press conference. "What happens a lot of times in this thing is -- and I know because I talk to coaches all the time. Coaches say, 'I'm doing a great job but this guy is not getting me good enough players.' And the front office is telling ownership, 'We put together a great roster and the coach is screwing it up.'

"There's none of that anymore. It's on us to get it done."

 

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