Where do NBA coaches come from?

Thirty NBA teams have spent hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars on coaches. These people are entrusted to guide their team to victory. Given the massive pay and the hoopla that follows a hiring or firing of a head coach, we’re lead to believe that deciding on these people is a key decision. As such, I was curious as to how one becomes an NBA head coach. The answer was pretty simple: play in the NBA as a point guard! Of course, there are a few other ways. Let’s review

Have NBA Experience

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Twenty NBA head coaches have NBA experience. All but Keith Smart have at least 180 games. And the best position to have is point guard. Here’s a fun breakdown:

  • Played in the NBA as a point guard – 10
  • Played in the NBA as a shooting guard – 7
  • Played in the NBA as a small forward – 2
  • Played in the NBA as a power forward – 1
  • Played in the NBA as a center – 0

Play college ball and immediately become an assistant coach

This is a much better feeling than yesterday. Basketball is after all a Big Boy game.

This is the next best route. Six NBA head coaches immediately got a job as an college assistant coach upon their graduation. Having a career as a coach is the next best strategy for getting onto an NBA bench.

Bounce around other leagues until you become a coach

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Four NBA head coaches bounced around other leagues and became coaches in them. Terry Stotts, Eric Spoelstra, Jim Boylan and Keith Smart* all did this. They played in European leagues and/or the CBA and gained coaching jobs in one of those leagues. Of course, they all played college ball as well. Later they’d earn jobs as NBA assistant coaches, and then finally earn top honor themselves.

*Keith Smart is being double counted as NBA experience and bouncing around Europe.

Manage under Bob Knight

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Lawrence Frank is the only active NBA head coach without any playing experience at college level or higher. Well, kind of. He was a manager in college under Bob Knight and immediately became an assistant coach after graduation. In essence, he followed the “Play college ball and immediately become an assistant coach” but got a note from Bob Knight to allow him not to play.

Does it pay not to play?

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NBA players to non-NBA players as head coaches are a two to one edge. When we examine head coaches with decent career lengths (the cutoff I used was two seasons worth of games) and losing career records, we see that the number of coaches with NBA pedigrees is dead even with those that got into the NBA through other means. Each camp has five representatives that haven’t been able to sport a winning record. It’s certainly worth asking if there’s a slight bias towards coaches from outside of the NBA in regards to blame for losses.

Are we hiring the right people?

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What shocked me about NBA head coaches is how spot-on conventional wisdom is. One third of head coaches are former NBA point guards. No NBA head coaches are centers. Only Houston is willing to even take a risk on a big man as a coach. The types of people that teams want as head coaches are pretty clear. You need experience playing basketball, at least to the college level. After college you had better have jumped right into the NBA or into an assistant coaching job. Maybe if you wandered around Europe you’ll be alright. There are clear biases. The data shows that most coaches aren’t really that different relative to one another. This isn’t surprising as the type of person being hired is from a very narrow band. We’ve been shouting for years that NBA teams may be focusing on the wrong traits when evaluating players. It’s certainly worth asking if they are making the same mistakes with their coaches.

-Dre

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