Being an NBA head coach is a terribly competitive job, and holding one of those 30 available positions is definitely a rare honour for those in the basketball coaching profession. But is it necessary to have NBA experience to be an NBA head coach? Common knowledge says no; a lot of big name coaches, such as Gregg Popovich and Larry Brown, have been successful in recent years without playing a minute in the NBA. But if you look at the list of the current 30 head coaches today, you’ll notice that 19 of them – over 63 percent – have had NBA playing experience.
For a young NBA player, having a coach who has been in their shoes before can be an added plus. Some of the greatest minds in the league have had the experience of the physical wear-and-tear and have gained tactical knowledge of the league first-hand as players themselves.
A few of the greatest player-turned-coaches of our generation are not in the head-coaching profession anymore, such as Phil Jackson and Pat Riley. We’ll focus on the present, and list the five best NBA players-turned-coaches. Some have been better players than coaches, and vice versa; we’ll judge them by their success in both the sidelines and on the court.
Many current coaches have spent a decade or more playing the league, including Larry Drew, Vinny Del Negro, Mike Woodson and Tyrone Corbin. Thunder coach Scott Brooks was part of the Rockets’ 1994 championship team. Kings coach Keith Smart barely makes the NBA player/coaches list, as he spent two games on the Spurs roster in the mid-80s, playing a total of 12 minutes! Lakers’ Coach Mike D’Antoni may have only spent one year in the NBA, but he has a glittering resume as a superstar playing professionally in Italy. Jacque Vaughn, now coach of the Magic, won a championship with the Spurs in 2007 and retired from the league just four years ago. But the most recent retiree is Lindsey Hunter, who spent 17 years playing around the league, winning two championships with the Lakers (2002) and the Pistons (2004) and is now the Suns coach. Matching him in longevity is Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson, who also had a memorable 17-year-career.
In no particular order, here are the top five players-turned-coaches. Jackson and Hunter were both great players, but because of their relative lack of coaching experience, they closely miss out this list. The biggest snub is 76ers Coach Doug Collins, who spent eight years in the NBA in the 70′s, also with the 76ers, and was an All Star four times.
The current Celtics coach enjoyed a long career playing in the NBA, suiting up for the Hawks, Clippers, Knicks and Spurs through a 13-year-stretch. His best year perhaps came with the Hawks, when he averaged 12.8 ppg and 10 assists a game back in 1987. But it is as a coach that Rivers has truly made a name for himself; he won the Coach of the Year award with the Magic back in 2000 and was hired with the Celtics in 2004. Rivers has been able to be a great motivating force in Boston, leading the team to a championship in 2008 and remaining in the conversation of the league’s best coaches since.
Scott may not be enjoying the sweet smell of victory too often in Cleveland these days, but the former sharp-shooter has revelled in his share of success in the past. Scott played in the NBA for 14 years as a part of some great Lakers teams, winning three Championships in 1985, 1987, and 1988. He also played for the Pacers, Grizzlies and the Lakers before leaving the NBA. Scott returned to the league as a head coach for the Nets in 2000. He was named Coach of the Year in 2008 for his work with the Hornets. Now, he has the challenge to help lift this young Cavaliers side to better days.
One of the rare few to have enjoyed championship success both as a player and a coach. Carlisle only played in the NBA for five years, and despite modest career averages of around two points and one assist per game, his experience set him up for greater things ahead. Carlisle played a bit part in Boston’s great 1986 championship team. He returned as a head coach in the league in 2001, and spent time working with the Pistons and the Pacers before moving to the Mavericks, where he is employed now. Carlisle won the 2002 Coach of the Year award in Detroit and a championship in Dallas in 2011.
Definitely the greatest player on our list, McHale is one of the game’s all time greats. A career-Celtic in his playing days, McHale played for 14 years in the league, winning three championships (1981, 1984, 1986), playing in the All Star Game seven times and retiring as one of the best offensive and defensive big men of his generation. McHale returned to coach the Timberwolves over a few tumultuous years in the past decade, but it is his work now with the Houston Rockets that is helping him make a mark in the coaching profession.
The leader of the NBA’s best defense in Memphis, Lionel Hollins, is proving to be a great coach. He was an even better player. Hollins was part of the Portland Trailblazers squad that won a championship in 1977. He played 10 years in the league and has had his jersey retired in Portland. While he has served in coaching positions for Arizona State, the Phoenix Suns, the Milwaukee Bucks and a few teams in other leagues, he has taken the head and assistant coaching positions several times for the Grizzlies since 1999-00. With good work this time around, fans will be hoping he’s there to stay.