Chris Finch, David Vanterpool and NBA Coach Hiring Trends

When Minnesota fired Ryan Saunders last week, they immediately hired Chris Finch, an assistant coach with the Raptors.  The move caused some controversy because the T-Wolves passed over Saunders’ associate head coach David Vanterpool, who is Black, for Finch, who is white.  Several players expressed disappointment that Vanterpool wasn’t even considered for the job.  Marc J. Spears wrote an article for The Undefeated where he explored the frustration of many Black assistant coaches, with one coach telling Spears that: “[t]hey use your skill set during the difficult times, but when it’s time to reward you with an opportunity, they always seem to find a reason to not, and then expect you to continue to be the good soldier.”

In this particular case, the move was not that surprising.  The T-Wolves were 7-24 and the worst team in the league.  In these situations, the top assistant does sometimes get the interim job with an outside shot of getting the permanent job long-term if the interim can turn things around.  On the other hand, when a staff has prolonged losing seasons, management can look externally for a total reset.  In fact, this is precisely how Saunders got the full-time job in Minnesota.  It is a little odd (or perhaps awkward), that Finch will be using the same coaching staff that Saunders used, including Vanterpool, for now.

All these details aside, the frustration of Black coaches is also understandable.  As Spears wrote: “[t]here are currently seven Black NBA head coaches among 30 teams in a league where about 75% of the players are African American.”  (Diversity is even less prevalent in GM chair).  For these potential coaches, they see the macro picture and are quite frustrated that Vanterpool didn’t even get an interview.  Obviously, cause-and-effect in this area are hotly debated, with some scholars concluding that hiring discrimination against African Americans, generally, remaining at the same levels for the past 25 years.

I don’t intend to make any conclusions about why NBA coach hiring decisions happen but, instead, I thought we could look generally at each team’s hiring decisions over the last decade to see what patterns emerge.  Before looking at each team, we have to establish broad categories from which we can label most coaching hires.  There are only a finite number of hiring types and we see the candidate categories thusly:

Internal Assistant: Sometimes the local assistant makes good on the head coaching job by impressing on an interim basis (Jeff Van Gundy did this in New York years ago) or by getting a promotion when someone retires or is canned (Erik Spoelstra and Nick Nurse).

External Assistant:  like Chris Finch, a long-time assistant can get the job the hard way by placing with another team after years of putting in time.

Retreads: Those head coaches that are okay but never really great but range from bad to solid but can get a new job by virtue of their past resume.  Think Kevin Loughery in the old days.  More recently, coaches like Scotty Brooks or Alvin Gentry fit the category.  Tom Thibodeau was a star after he left Chicago but is now a solid retread.

College Guys: The star college coaches who want to take a shot in the pros like Brad Stevens or, at one point, Billy Donovan.

Star Coaches:  There aren’t too many of these but the top coaches are the no-brainers to hire.  Easy examples are Pat Riley, Phil Jackson and Chuck Daly.  Today, Steve Kerr, Rick Carlise, Erik Spoelstra, and Doc Rivers fit this bill (though they aren’t quite the level of the former coaches yet).

Star Newbies:  Star players (and announcers who were just good players) sometimes can skip the grueling assistant jobs and get head coaching jobs right away.  Doc Rivers, Mark Jackson, Jason Kidd, Steve Kerr, and Steve Nash all did this.  For our purposes, even Derek Fisher is considered a star newbie because he was able to jump to head coaching by virtue of his position as a decent (and well-known) player.

The above definitions shift for each coach over time.  For example, Donovan was once the college guy and is now a decent retread, while Spoelstra is a star now and Kidd would be a retread if he gets another head coaching job.  Some groupings are a bit subjective too.  A coach with prior head coaching experience could be a retread or an internal assistant at the same time.  We will make the best calls we can on those hybrid situations to pick the category that fits best. 

Also, there are a few Hispanic/Asian coaches (three to be precise) and we will count them in the non-white categories for our purposes.  We will categorize each coach by hiring group and race to see what trends, if any emerge.  We will not count any interim coach who only coached but a few games.

Having said all that, the NBA has had 124 regular or significant interim coaches since the start of the 2010-11 season.  Here’s a breakdown of the data:

-In total, 71 hires were white and 53 were Black.

-4 coaches came directly from the college ranks, all of whom were white (this may be a whole other conversation).

-23 hires were assistants who came from another organization, 14 white and 9 were Black.

-2 anomalies: Greg Popovich was GM and made himself coach in San Antonio and David Blatt came directly from Europe. 

-5 coaches came directly from playing, broadcasting, or front offices.  3 were Black, 2 were white.

-7 coaches were “star” hires.  5 were white and 2 were Black (both Doc Rivers).

-45 coaches were “retreads” of varying degrees of proficiency.  29 of the retreads were white and 16 were Black.

-The internal assistant promotions were particularly interesting to me because that is the scenario that is the origin of the current Finch/Vanterpool controversy.  Internal assistant promotions were definitely a different data point and one category where there were more Black candidates than white.  Of the 39, 23 were Black and 16 were white.

-In addition, 29 of these internal promotions were on an interim basis and 14 of the 29 got the full-time job.  Of that group, 17 interims were Black and 12 were white.  Digging further: 8 of the 17 Black coaches got the full-time gig.  6 of the 12 white coaches also got the full-time job. 

-One more anomaly, Paul Silas is the only coach to get an interim gig while not being an assistant coach beforehand (in Charlotte).  He also got the full-time job briefly.

-Age! On top of race, front offices seem to want to find young bodies and lock them in if they are any good.  Sometimes, you get Spoelstra.  Other times, Ryan Saunders.  In either case, the market gets tighter as the coaches age too.  Is this fair?  Probably not.  This is also a discussion for another day.

Before making too many conclusions, though, remember that we are only looking at the finished data and not accounting for individual hiring situations and who may have been considered in those cases.  Still, this broad data does tell us the life of an assistant is rough.

Assistant coaches, particularly Black assistants, have their best path to a full-time gig through this interim label.  The data shows that interims usually have about a 50% chance getting the job.  The numbers are actually probably a little higher because we did not filter out a few scenarios where it was clear the interim coach was clearly not going to be retained under any circumstance.    

Assistant coaches are also a different group than stars.  An African American star player can skip the line while someone like Vanterpool can grind it out in the video room for years.  It’s not totally fair but it has worked at times.  Doc Rivers is a great coach but he made the jump straight from broadcasting. (I didn’t specifically study this end but it also felt like ex-player assistants got more opportunities from the assistant ranks than those that played no or little NBA ball).

Putting it all together, the picture is bleak for assistants who dream of becoming head coaches.  There are tons of factors working against them and African American assistants appear to have a particularly hard path to a full-time job.  Given the data, you can understand why so many were disappointed that Vanterpool missed his best route to a job. 

Full coach hiring data is below:


-Larry Drew, internal assistant (AA)

-Mike Budenholzer, external assistant (W)

-Lloyd Pierce, external assistant (AA)


-Doc Rivers, retread (AA)

-Brad Stevens, college guy (W)


-Avery Johnson, retread (AA)

-P.J. Carlesimo, internal assistant (W)(interim, didn’t get full-time job)

-Jason Kidd, star newbie (AA)

-Lionel Hollins, retread (AA)

-Kenny Atkinson, external assistant (W)

-Jacque Vaughn, internal assistant (AA)(interim, didn’t get full-time job)

-Steve Nash, star newbie (W)


-Larry Brown, retread (W)

-Paul Silas, retread (AA)(interim hire, got full-time job)

-Mike Dunlap, college guy (W)

-Steve Clifford, external assistant (W)

-James Borrego, external assistant (H)


-Mike Brown, external assistant (AA)

-Byron Scott, retread (AA)

-David Blatt, European coach (W)

-Ty Lue, internal assistant (AA)(interim hire, got full-time job)

-Larry Drew, internal assistant (AA)(interim hire, didn’t get full-time job)

-John Beilein, college guy (W)

-J.B. Bickerstaff, internal assistant (AA)(interim hire, got full-time job)


-Rick Carlisle, retread (W)


-George Karl, star coach (W)

-Brian Shaw, external assistant (AA)

-Melvin Hunt, internal assistant (AA)(interim hire, didn’t get full-time job)

-Michael Malone, retread (W)


-John Kuester, external assistant (W)

-Lawrence Frank, retread (W)

-Maurice Cheeks, retread (AA)

-John Loyer, internal assistant (W)(interim hire, didn’t get full-time job)

-Stan Van Gundy, retread (W)

-Dwane Casey, retread (AA)

Golden State

-Keith Smart, internal assistant (AA)

-Mark Jackson, star newbie (AA)

-Steve Kerr, star newbie (W)


-Rick Adelman, retread (W)

-Kevin McHale, retread (W)

-J.B. Bickerstaff, internal assistant (AA) (interim hire, didn’t get full-time job)

-Mike D’Antoni, retread (W)

-Stephen Silas, external assistant (AA)


-Jim O’Brien, retread (W)

-Frank Vogel, internal assistant (W) (interim hire, got full-time job)

-Nate McMillan, internal assistant (AA)

-Nate Bjorkgren, external assistant (W)

Los Angeles Clippers

-Vinny Del Negro, retread (W)

-Doc Rivers, star coach (AA)

-Ty Lue, retread (AA)

Los Angeles Lakers

-Phil Jackson, star coach (W)

-Mike Brown, retread, (AA)

-Mike D’Antoni, retread (W)

-Byron Scott, retread (AA)

-Luke Walton, external assistant (W)

-Frank Vogel, retread (W)


-Lionel Hollins, internal assistant (AA)

-Dave Joerger, internal assistant (W)

-Dave Fizdale, external assistant (AA)

-J.B. Bickerstaff, internal assistant (AA)(interim hire, got full-time job)

-Taylor Jenkins, external assistant (W)


-Erik Spoelstra, internal assistant (A)


-Scott Skiles, retread (W)

-Jim Boylan, internal assistant (W) (interim hire, didn’t get full-time job)

-Larry Drew, retread (AA)

-Jason Kidd, retread (AA)

-Joe Prunty, internal assistant (W)(interim hire, didn’t get full-time job)

-Mike Budenholzer, retread (W)


-Kurt Rambis, external assistant (W)

-Rick Adelman, retread (W)

-Flip Saunders, retread (W)

-Sam Mitchell, internal assistant (AA)

-Tom Thibodeau, star coach (W)

-Ryan Saunders, internal assistant (W)(interim hire, got full-time job)

-Chris Finch, external assistant (W)

New Orleans

-Monty Williams, external assistant (AA)

-Alvin Gentry, retread (AA)

-Stan Van Gundy, retread (W)

New York

-Mike D’Antoni, star coach (W)

-Mike Woodson, internal assistant (AA)(interim hire, got full-time job)

-Derek Fisher, star newbie (AA)

-Kurt Rambis, internal assistant (W)(interim hire, didn’t get full-time job)

-Jeff Hornacek, retread (W)

-Dave Fizdale, retread (AA)

-Mike Miller, internal assistant (W)(interim hire, didn’t get full-time job)

-Tom Thibodeau, retread (W)

Oklahoma City

-Scott Brooks, internal assistant (W)(interim hire, got full-time job)

-Billy Donovan, college coach (W)

-Mark Daigneault, (W) internal assistant

Orlando Magic

-Stan Van Gundy, retread (W)

-Jacque Vaughn, external assistant (AA)

-James Borrego, internal assistant (H)(interim hire, didn’t get full-time job)

-Scott Skiles, retread (W)

-Frank Vogel, retread (W)

-Steve Clifford, retread (W)


-Doug Collins, retread (W)

-Brent Brown, external assistant (W)

-Doc Rivers, star coach (AA)


-Alvin Gentry, internal assistant (AA)(interim hire, got full-time job)

-Lindsey Hunter, internal assistant (AA)(interim hire, didn’t get full-time job)

-Jeff Hornacek, external assistant (W)

-Earl Watson, internal assistant (AA)(interim hire, got full-time job)

-Jay Triano, internal assistant (W)(interim hire, didn’t get full-time job)

-Igor Kokoskov, external assistant (W)

-Monty Williams, retread (AA)


-Nate McMillan, retread (AA)

-Kaleb Canales, internal assistant (H)(interim hire, didn’t get full-time job)

-Terry Stotts, retread (W)


-Paul Westphal, retread (W)

-Keith Smart, internal assistant (AA)(interim hire, got full-time job)

-Mike Malone, external assistant (W)

-Tyrone Corbin, internal assistant (AA)(interim hire, didn’t get full-time job)

-George Karl, star coach (W)

-Dave Joerger, retread (W)

-Luke Walton, retread (W)

San Antonio

-Greg Poppovich, internal executive (W)


-Jay Triano, internal assistant (W)(interim hire, got full-time job)

-Dwane Casey, external assistant (AA)

-Nick Nurse, internal assistant (W)


-Jerry Sloan, internal assistant (W)(interim hire, got full-time job)

-Tyrone Corbin, internal assistant (AA)(interim hire, got full-time job)

-Quinn Snyder, external assistant (W)


-Flip Saunders, star coach, (W)

-Randy Wittman, internal assistant (W)(interim hire, got full-time job)

-Scott Brooks, retread (W)