Learning On the Go
May 21, 2014 by Jonathan Lowe • Print Story •
When it comes to the business world, one thing that keeps getting pounded into our heads is that "experience matters." That phrase usually applies to the sports world as well. Star players don't usually win championships in their first go-round. General Managers usually have some sort of apprenticeship before taking over the day-to-day operations of a franchise. Coaches usually learn at the wingtips of a learned master before getting their own opportunity to call Xs and Os.
Experience matters ... sometimes.
While there are cases in every sport where you don't need experience on the bench to get a job leading a team of players, it appears that the NBA has more of these instances than in any of the other pro leagues. Now, it's true that the vast majority of first-time coaches have gone through the rigors of being an assistant (or a college coach). But, over the last 15 years, a growing number of hires have been coming from more unconventional places than your standard coaching tree. That's the case for two of the hotter names in this edition of the annual vacancy carousel. And the processing for either one of them seems to be filed under one of three separate ways of thinking.
The first line of thought focuses on the booth. Doc Rivers had a journeyman career on the court, but parlayed that experience into his color analyst duties for Turner Broadcasting's game coverage. That was impressive enough for Orlando to name him the coach in 1999. Mark Jackson, another journeyman point guard, garnered more consistent attention as part of the three-man team calling games on ESPN (where he has returned to). That gig helped him catch the eye of Golden State, who gave him their head coaching position for the last three seasons. Now, another Turner broadcaster will take a turn at leading a roster. After jettisoning Jackson, the Warriors franchise decided to go down the same road by tabbing Steve Kerr as their next coach.
The second line of thought hones in on the front office. Most of the time, when a person's bio has the title of Coach combined with General Manager (or President of Basketball Operations), it's the former becoming the latter. However, there are a few cases where the opposite has occurred.
Everybody remembers Isiah Thomas' failed run as the President (and then coach) of the Knicks (2003-2006). But how many people remind themselves that Indiana hired him as their head coach (2000-2003) after two unsuccessful turns at seemingly higher ranking positions (Executive Vice President/Minority Owner of Toronto and Owner of the CBA)? There's also the case of Vinny Del Negro, who took a turn at both broadcasting and the front office before becoming the Bulls coach in 2009. Kerr also fits this line of thought due to his stint as the Suns' general manager from 2007-2010.
The third line of thought takes us back to the court. There was a time where players could coach their fellow NBA teammates while competing for a few minutes themselves. The Association put the kibosh on that in 1984, but it appears that almost 30 years later, franchises are looking at a more instant gratification when it comes to the timeline between playing retirement and head coaching infancy.
Nearly one year ago, everyone celebrated the career of Jason Kidd, who retired after 20 Hall of Fame-worthy seasons on the floor. Just days later, many were scratching their heads when Kidd was named the new head coach of the Brooklyn Nets. Don't get me wrong. Kidd was always seen as a "coach on the floor" type of player. But we hadn't seen this type of turnover in years. In fact, J-Kidd became just the third player/coach to experience that type of instant turnaround since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976 (joining Mike Dunleavy and Paul Silas). Fast forward nearly a year, and we could see the next name on that list in under 365 days' time. Having missed out on Kerr, Phil Jackson is reportedly looking at Derek Fisher as a possible candidate to take the open Knicks position. If that situation somehow turns from rumor into reality, you have to wonder whether a trend may be growing over the next few years.
Overall, I think assistant coaches in the pros can still rely on the lion's share of the market for head coaching vacancies. However, it appears, more and more that experience doesn't necessarily matter.