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Why Is the Player-Turned-Coach Suddenly More Appealing to NBA Execs?

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Adam FromalNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 28, 2016

Scores of players in NBA history have gone on to find plenty of success as coaches. 

Phil Jackson played for the New York Knicks long before he began his journey up the coaching totem pole. Don Nelson, Jerry Sloan, Larry Brown, Pat Riley and so many other great signal-callers played professional basketball before taking to the sidelines as well. 

That trend isn't changing, and it never will. However, the player-turned-coach with no prior coaching experience is becoming more popular than ever before. 

All of a sudden, coaching experience on the resume is no longer a prerequisite for landing a gig as one of 30 NBA head coaches. Not in any role. Not at any level. 

Jason Kidd was hired by the Brooklyn Nets right out of retirement before the 2013-14 season, and this offseason promises to have even more former players follow suit. Steve Kerr already has, joining the Golden State Warriors even though his only post-playing experience comes in the broadcast booth and the front office of the Phoenix Suns. 

And how about all the other rumors? 

Derek Fisher is at the top of Jackson's wish list for the New York Knicks, according to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski. He's not even retired yet. Tyronn Lue, per ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne, is another candidate. So too is Luke Walton, as reported by Shelburne and ESPN.com's Marc Stein.   

All three are former players (or current ones). Lue and Walton have coached, though they have extremely limited experience. 

Of course, this isn't a trend that applies only to the Knicks. 

The Utah Jazz have shown interest in John Stockton (per Stein) and Earl Watson (according to CSNNW.com's Chris Haynes), neither of whom have anything other than empty space under the "Coaching" header on their resumes. Maybe they've done some youth league coaching under the radar, but that'd be it.  

So, what gives? Why the sudden influx of coaching candidates who haven't, well, coached?

 

Historical Examples

CHUCK BURTON/Associated Press

Believe it or not, this isn't an entirely new trend. 

According to Hickory-High.com's Rich Kraetsch, there have been 13 first-year head coaches who played in the NBA but hadn't gained any sideline experience prior to being hired by their respective teams. 

Here's the breakdown of the coaches involved: 

Players-Turned-Coaches in the Last 25 Years
CoachYears Between Playing/CoachingExperience In BetweenYears CoachedWin-Loss RecordTitlesCOYs
Jason Kidd0 yearsNone1 (Active)44-3800
Vinny Del Negro7 yearsBroadcast/Front Office5210-18400
Doc Rivers3 yearsNone15 (Active)644-49811
Mark Jackson7 yearsBroadcast3121-10900
Larry Bird5 yearsFront Office3147-6701
Isiah Thomas6 yearsBroadcast/Front Office5187-22300
Mike Dunleavy0 yearsNone17613-71601
Chris Ford8 yearsNone10323-37600
Allan Bristow8 yearsNone5207-20300
Quinn Buckner7 yearsBroadcast113-6900
Butch Beard15 yearsNone260-10400
M.L. Carr10 yearsFront Office248-11600
Johnny Davis10 yearsNone473-14600
Basketball-Reference.com

As you can tell right off the bat, there's a wide variety of outcomes in that bunch. 

Doc Rivers was without question the most successful, enjoying a long tenure with multiple teams, winning the group's only title and joining Larry Bird and Mike Dunleavy as one of three Coaches of the Year in the bunch. But it's not like he was the only one who proved to be a quality hire. 

In his first season with the Brooklyn Nets, Kidd was quite good after a rough start. Once the players began buying in to what he was selling, the Nets turned their season around and advanced into the second round of the playoffs. Even though he was arguably the league's worst coach at the beginning of the 2013-14 campaign, he now looks like a successful hire. 

Vinny Del Negro, while he has an awful reputation now thanks to his complete lack of offensive creativity, at least boasted a winning record, as did Mark Jackson, Bird and Allan Bristow

1 Oct 1997:  Head coach Larry Bird of the Indiana Pacers talks to his team during a game against the Golden State Warriors at the Market Square Arena in Indianapolis, Indiana.  The Pacers won the game 96-83. Mandatory Credit: Mark Lyons  /Allsport
Mark Lyons/Getty Images

In fact, of the 13 coaches who have gone right to the head coach's chair without any prior experience in the last 25 years, seven were at least moderately successful. But what about how they fare in their first seasons? 

We have the answer to that, thanks to Kraetsch

No Experience vs. Experience Among 1st-Year Coaches
Win %Offensive EfficiencyDefensive Efficiency
No Experience45.430.3% below league average0.7% below league average
Prior Experience45.1Not CalculatedNot Calculated

Those are insignificant differences. 

Sure, first-year head coaches win slightly more games, on average, when they don't have experience, but don't make the mistake of drawing any sort of causation from that. Especially because those teams are typically just below the league average in both offensive and defensive efficiency. 

Quite frankly, there doesn't seem to be any historical reason to hire someone with no experience. Then again, there doesn't seem to be any historical reason to avoid doing so either. 

 

What's Going on Now?

Ben Margot/Associated Press

Even though 13 seems like a lot over the past 25 years, that's only one almost every other year.

There's still a current influx of coaching candidates with absolutely no experience, and it's not at all unlikely that we could see multiple teams add to the group. There's a solid chance that either the Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Los Angeles Lakers or Jazz make it at least two heading into the 2014-15 campaign. 

And remember, this is a year after Kidd was brought on board by the Nets. So we're already guaranteed to have more than the average in the most recent portion of NBA history.

Why?

There are a few reasons, and all of them are important.

First, NBA players are getting smarter. Said Nets general manager Billy King after he hired the former point guard, via Fox Sports:

Jason is a proven winner and leader with an incredible wealth of basketball knowledge and experience. This will be a natural transition for him to move into the role of head coach, as he embodies the tough, smart and team-first mentality that we are trying to establish in Brooklyn.

As analytics take over with increasing frequency, current players are getting much better at understanding the game. Sure, some guys are hesitant to embrace the academic side of the game, but others are watching and listening at all times, knowing they want to work on the sidelines after their playing days are over. 

If you think back to the 1990s, the pick-and-roll was only just becoming popularized. Stockton (interestingly enough, one of the coaching candidates for the Jazz) and Karl Malone were the first duo to truly make that now-commonplace set the focal point of their offensive system. 

SALT LAKE CITY - 1989:  John Stockton #12 of the Utah Jazz drives to the basket around a Karl Malone #32 pick against the New York Knicks circa 1989 at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

And in just about two decades, that's become the staple of nearly every single offense in the modern Association. 

Things change, and the current players are the most up-to-date. So too are those who recently retired. Is there any wonder that front offices are looking at these younger candidates? 

That's still not it. Being up to date and able to think ahead are certainly advantageous while holding the clipboards, but so too is falling in line with the expectations of the front office. 

The whims of general managers and presidents are easier to put into action when a coach can be molded and isn't already a rigid figure on the sidelines. A first-year coach with no prior experience can end up being shaped, mentored and tutored exactly as his superiors wish, while a retread is more likely to push back. 

Sure, there are still examples when the two portions of the organization don't get along (cough, Mark Jackson, cough), but most times, schisms between the two occur when the coach is already set in his ways. Think about Lionel Hollins, who was fired by the Memphis Grizzlies after he couldn't get on board with the analytics movement that was taking place.

George Karl and the Denver Nuggets had a fairly similar scenario unfold, even though Karl won Coach of the Year right before he was fired. And the recently hired Stan Van Gundy had the following to say on the subject after taking over the Detroit Pistons, via the Associated Press' Noah Trister:

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. This setup—nothing to do with power—it allows us to really create a tremendous synergy and a very unified organization.

SVG has the rare luxury of being both the coach and the man in charge of personnel decisions, but hiring a fresh face is another way to avoid the disconnect. 

The best example is the one brewing in New York. 

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 18: Phil Jackson addresses the media during his introductory press conference as President of the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on March 18, 2014 in New York City.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Jackson, ever since he took control of the Knicks as president of basketball operations, has been trying to find a head coach, and he's looked almost exclusively at his former players.

Why?

Because it's easier for him to mentor them than to bring in someone like Jeff Van Gundy or Karl, seeing as they already have established coaching philosophies. That way, he gets to run his triangle offense, essentially buoying the team with his view while not actually standing on the sideline and dealing with the day-to-day minutiae. Al Iannazzone of Newsday wrote: 

Jackson wants to install the vaunted triangle offense. He would need someone fluent in triangle and able to teach it, which made Kerr his top candidate. But Kerr chose Golden State, and now Jackson is expected to turn to some old friends.

It's only one example, but it's a significant one nonetheless. 

The situation in New York serves as a perfect microcosm for the league as a whole, as Jackson's ideal hire will allow for the marriage between coach and front office to have the synergistic harmony that every organization desires. 

This, more than anything else, is why the idea of the player-turned-coach is suddenly so appealing to executives all over the NBA. They get to coach the team by extension, and there's much lower risk of discord in such a vertically integrated scheme. 

Kidd was the beginning of this restarted trend. Kerr was the next step. 

But this new rage on the sidelines won't stop anytime soon. 

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