Steve Nash and Newbie Coaches

How do we assess the Steve Nash hire in Brooklyn?  Nash was a great and smart player but he has no direct coaching experience.  By Nash’s own admission, he jumped the line due to his great playing career.  Is that fair?  There are a couple issues to unwrap here.  Let’s delve into a few of them:

Does Nash’s getting a coaching gig under these circumstances constitute white privilege?

Before getting into a long conversation as to the term white privilege and when it’s fair to use it, let’s defer to Nash’s response to this question.  He was quite thoughtful about it: “I’m very sensitive to the cause and the goal. I’m not sure that this is an example that purely fits that conversation. But I own it, and I understand why it’s important to talk about it and that we need more diversity and more opportunity for African-American coaches and staff in all capacities.” 

There is sort of a paradox to this conversation.  Regardless where you stand on the political spectrum and how you feel about this issue, it is quite fair to stay that African-Americans are underrepresented when you compare the percentage of African-American coaches and executives relative to the percentage of African-American NBA players.  On the other hand, Nash’s race probably was not a direct factor in his getting this job.  Indeed, there are several African-American players who also jumped the line similarly because of their reputations as being smart and well-liked.  On the micro-level the Nash hiring has justification.  On a macro-level the struggle continues.  The underrepresentation issue remains and it’s not clear that this can ever be harmonized.  

What has Nash really shown to be a good fit for the Nets?

Hard to say exactly but Kevin Durant is happy about it and that is all that matters for now.  A newbie coach and a happy, content, and eager KD is worth much more than a good coach and a potentially unhappy KD.  This isn’t fair but it is life.   This isn’t to blame Durant either.  It’s hard to find a star player who didn’t have a lot of input into who his coach would be.  This working relationship is important and a huge factor in picking a coach.  It’s just the nature of the beast.

Did Jacque Vaughn get a fair shake?

Vaughn did a nice job in the bubble and, under normal circumstances, had a decent shot at a return.  The counterpoint, though, is that it’s not like Vaughn has no prior record to assess.  He had a 58-158 record with Orlando from 2012-15 and lost five more games than would be expected based upon the point differential.  It’s hard to pin the post-Dwight Howard struggle in Orlando too much on Vaughn but the lack of progress was not to his credit either.  It would be nice to see Vaughn get another shot at head coaching but the Nets should not bet their limited Durant window on him just to be “fair.”  The Nets have given Vaughn a high-profile assistant coach position and that’s pretty fair under the circumstances.

Newbie coaches, a brief study

The phenomenon of hiring coaches without any previous formal assistant coach training is not new.  In fact, we’ve seen a few player-coaches back in the day (Bill Russell, Dave Debusschere, Lenny Wilkens for example) and quite a few college coaches come in with no NBA experience.

Let’s focus on those that jumped to the head coaching chair with no prior coaching experience in the NBA.  I thought we could focus on more recent direct head coaches from the past 20-25 years and see how they’ve done.  Here’s a relatively comprehensive summary:

M.L. Carr, Boston 1995-97:  Carr was first the GM of the wreckage of the 1980s Celtics.  He made some questionable moves as GM (signed old Dominique Wilkins to a rebuilding team for no apparent reason) and then installed himself as coach.  He proclaimed his Celtics would run (they were first in pace) but were no better than the previous year.  He decided to tank in 1996-97and tanked well but got fired for the trouble.  He wasn’t considered a great coach but the lack of overall plan was the much bigger problem.  We looked at Carr’s Boston time at length earlier in the year here.

Jason Kidd, Brooklyn 2013-14:  Who could forget the first time the Nets tried the star player-to-coach thing?  Kidd had just retired as a player after a brilliant career and was a Nets legend.  Similar to the current Nets, Kidd was tabbed to make the stars on the roster happy.  The season is best remembered for Kidd’s abrupt departure to coach the Bucks after the season. 

In terms of his actual coaching, the results were mixed.  The Nets struggled early but rallied to make the playoffs at 44-38 (despite being outscored for the season).  Kidd famously intentionally spilled a drink on the court to stop the clock against the Lakers, which seemed a little bush league but at least he was trying to win.  He then demoted his designated experienced coach Lawrence Frank and made Frank write up scouting reports.  In the end, the Nets upset the Raptors in a tough seven-game series (including winning Game 7 in Toronto) before losing to Miami.  It was a weird ride but it’s hard to say, overall, that Kidd was a bad coach in Brooklyn.  Kidd’s record in Milwaukee was similarly solid but with some question marks as well.

Vinny Del Negro, Chicago 2008-10:  Del Negro was a radio analyst and assistant GM before getting a coaching job in Chicago.  He went 82-82 before being fired.  Del Negro’s record was vanilla but his battles with GM John Paxson were not.  This came to a head when Del Negro exceeded a minutes-limit on Joakim Noah, causing an argument where Paxson tried to choke him out.  Del Negro was fired after the season and the Bulls were markedly better the next season with Tom Thibodeau.  Del Negro seemed adequate, at best, as a coach in Chicago.  He was able to get another shot with the Clippers and did oversee the start of the turnaround before being dumped for Doc Rivers.

Quinn Buckner, Dallas 1993-94:  Buckner was the heady Hoosier point guard who had a solid NBA career mostly for the Celtics.  He went on to be a pretty good broadcaster.  His reputation as a player and analyst got him a shot with the rebuilding Mavs.  Lord, did that go badly.  The Mavs were coming off of an 11-71 season but had a few talented players (Derek Harper and young Jimmy Jackson and Jamal Mashburn).  Buckner might’ve had a bit too much of the Bobby Knight shtick in him and the players really didn’t like it.  The Mavs started out 1-23 and, according to an agent, Buckner had “alienated everyone in the organization, including the towel boy.”  The Mavs finished 13-69 and Buckner was fired for, according to owner Donald Carter, “burned bridges.”  Buckner seemed to overestimate his leverage over the players and was a bit too belligerent.  Carter said: “It wasn’t just the young players. Let’s face it, it was young and old. The bridges that were burned weren’t just over young players.”   Buckner returned to the television booth thereafter.

Dan Issel, Denver 1992-95:  Issel was a Nuggets star in the 1970s and early 1980s and was a popular figure that management would hope wipe away the messy Paul Westhead years.  Issel slowly built a bad Nuggets team into a solid playoff team, including upsetting the Sonics in the 1993-94 Playoffs.  The Nuggets had high expectations in 1994-95 but stalled out and Issel abruptly and emotionally resigned after an 18-16 start.  Issel said he wasn’t having fun and said that: “I never coached before, and I certainly won’t coach again.  I tried to make the right decision for my family and for the organization.”  That ended up being untrue.  Issel was rehired to coach the Nuggets in 1999 and quit again in 2000-01 with the team floundering (they were under.500 every year of Issel’s second tenure, which lacked any of the success of his first try).

Mark Jackson/Steve Kerr, Golden State 2011-Present:  The Warriors have twice now gone to the analyst well for a head coach.  First with Jax, who helped bring GS from non-playoff team to 51 wins. Jackson was then canned for Kerr, who was also a TV guy.  Jackson reportedly had some issues internally but his biggest problem was he had Steph Curry and, somehow, the offense wasn’t great.  In all, Jackson certainly did pretty well in GS but was far from perfect.  We don’t need to review Kerr’s tenure other than to say that it’s worked pretty well.

Larry Bird/Isiah Thomas, Indiana 1997-2003: Donnie Walsh gambled on a pair of Indiana legends to coach.  First, Bird was brought into a very veteran team and Bird, with the help of some good assistants, restored them to contenders.  When he quit because he was sick of the grind, Walsh brought in Isiah to a quasi-rebuild situation.  Say what you will about Isiah (and there is a lot to critique), his Indiana teams steadily improved and he developed the young players nicely.  He was canned because Bird was brought back into management and Bird still despised Thomas from their beef back in the 1980s.

Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers 1993-94:  In between his comebacks as a player, the Lakers brought Magic in to coach at the end of the 1993-94 season.  There were 16 games left and the team was 27-37.  Jerry Buss must’ve thought he would give his favorite player a shot and there was nothing to lose because the season was done anyway.   Magic was obviously tactically qualified to take the job and the players would respect his body of work.  Johnson told Sports Illustrated at the time that: “[s]omebody compared [this] to taking a car for a test drive, that’s about right.”

The team started out 5-1, before closing the season on a ten-game losing streak.  Magic’s time is best remembered for his destruction of Vlade Divac’s beeper in a fit of rage and frustration.  After the season, Magic said he didn’t want to return.  Buss and Jerry West both extolled Magic’s ability when he quit.  Looking back, many regard Magic’s tenure as a failure.  Of course, it’s not really fair to make any conclusions from a 16-game stretch of meaningless games.  If is fair to say, based much more on his time as GM, that Magic’s fiery temperament does not lend itself to coach or GM. 

Kevin McHale, Minnesota 2004-05:  McHale was the GM and he canned his buddy Flip Saunders when the T-Wolves were struggling.  McHale led the team to a 19-12 finish and went back to being GM (to diminished success).  He would coach the Wolves briefly again before having a decent stint in Houston pre-Mike D’Antoni.

Derek Fisher, New York 2014-16:  Fisher was tabbed for his veteran savvy as a recently retired player to fix the Knicks.  New York had little talent but Fisher didn’t distinguish himself in year one when the previously decent team cratered to 17-65.  Phil Jackson had made some terrible moves (remember the deal for Samuel Dalembert?) but the Knicks were so bad on defense and offense that there was an effort component that could not be ignored.   Fisher’s Knicks improved a bit the next season but it wasn’t enough (particularly when management was unhappy about an off-the-court altercation with Matt Barnes over a domestic issue).  Fisher was fired and, in typical MSG-fashion, they slagged him on the way out.  That was not totally fair but Fisher’s time did not show him as a great coach.

Doc Rivers, Orlando 1999-2004:  Doc was a smart player and TV analyst, so Orlando gave him a shot.  It started well, when he won Coach of the Year by going 41-41 in 1999-00 with a bunch of decent hustlers.  The team was a little better with Tracy McGrady the next three years but the bottom fell out in 2004-05 and Rivers was fired after a 1-10 start.  Doc would go on to be a great coach in Boston in Los Angeles.  His early start was definitely a good learning experience, if not a huge success.

Danny Ainge, Phoenix 1996-2000:  Yet another TNT/TBS analyst turned coach.  Ainge got the job when Cotton Fitzsimmons started out 0-8 in 1996-97.  Ainge, with no coaching experience, had already had a pre-agreement to coach the Suns at some point when he felt like it.  When Cotton struggled, Ainge came in and turned the Suns around (40-34).  They made the playoffs and almost beat the Sonics (remember Rex Chapman’s crazy shots?).  Ainge kept the Suns pretty good the next two seasons but they lost in the first round both years.  Ainge started the 1999-00 season 13-7 but resigned for personal reasons.   He took a few years off and has been Boston’s GM since 2003.

John Lucas, San Antonio 1992-94:  Lucas had been a great point guard who struggled with drug issues.  After his career, he developed a famous rehabilitation program and helped other players with similar issues.  The Spurs brought him in early 1992-93 when head coach Jerry Tarkanian couldn’t handle the job, despite having prime David Robinson.  Lucas brought his enthusiasm to the job and led the team to a 39-22 finish and the second round of the playoffs.  Sport Illustrated wrote about his coaching style thusly: “[f]ueled by raw energy and an endless stream of Diet Coke, Lucas is in constant overdrive.”  Lucas led the Spurs to a 55-win season in 1993-94 before quitting after the season to take over the entire 76ers organization.  Lucas didn’t have the horses in Philly and they went 42-122.  He also had a shot with the Cavs pre-LeBron when they were clearly tanking.  Luke was fired after an 8-34 start in 2002-03. 

(Note we did not include Reggie Theus in Sacramento because he been a college coach before coming to the NBA).

In all, the newbie coaches turned out okay.  There were more huge success stories than total disasters and plenty of perfectly adequate coaches in between.   So, we don’t know what the future will hold for Nash but there is little reason to think he’ll be a bad coach.  Being an assistant coach has value but it is not an absolute necessity to be a solid head coach.  The Nets’ fate will more likely ride on the health of Durant than anything Nash does.