For the 2014-15 National Basketball Association season, Steve Kerr will be head coach of the Golden State Warriors. It will be his first coaching job ever, anywhere.
Steve Kerr is a thoughtful and intelligent man, a former NBA point guard who chose to remain in the game as a broadcaster, then as a general manager of the Phoenix Suns, and then back to broadcasting.
But he has never coached.
There is a weird trend going on in the NBA in which players with absolutely no coaching experience are being granted head coaching jobs at the highest level of the game. The latest was Jason Kidd, who went directly from playing to being a head coach of the Brooklyn Nets. He took absolutely no time off between one career and the next.
The fact that Kidd brought the Nets to the 2014 playoffs after a horrendous start speaks to the possibility that such a move can work. It has worked for others as well.
But what does it say about the job that it can be performed adequately, or better than adequately, by someone who has never done it before at a lower level?
I think about former Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson, inarguably the most successful NBA coach of all-time, who dealt with the dregs of minor league basketball, the former Continental Basketball Association, coaching in Puerto Rico, before he got his shot with the Bulls.
Or current Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who coached as an assistant for more than 20 years before getting a head coaching gig.
Today, it’s Kidd and Kerr, who never played minor league basketball, much less coached minor league basketball.
Doc Rivers is an amazing example. He worked as a broadcaster for a couple of years after his playing career ended before getting a head coaching job with the Orlando Magic. He coached them successfully for five seasons, but when they got off to a bad start in 2004 he was fired, and hired almost immediately again by the Boston Celtics, with whom he won a championship in 2008.
He’s so good as a coach, he was traded by the Celtics to the Los Angeles Clippers, who gave up a first-round draft pick in 2015 for the coach.
Mark Jackson just got fired from his first coaching job, but it was a controversial firing, because the Golden State Warriors were a good team under his guidance. Part of Jackson’s problem is being able to work well with others, which is a lesson learned in the minor leagues, one might think.
Both Larry Bird and Magic Johnson tried their hand at coaching, Bird after a few years in the front office and Johnson for only a few games after retiring as a player with the Los Angeles Lakers. Bird was successful, even earning a Coach of the Year nod, while Johnson did not do well.
Danny Ainge went from player to coach in one year without working a minute as an assistant, and the Phoenix Suns did well under his tutelage. But he quit after three seasons in order to spend more time with his family. He moved into the front office with the Celtics and put together the team that Doc Rivers led to the title in 2008.
What does this all mean in regards to coaching in the NBA?
Most of the players mentioned as going from player to coach were point guards, which is similar to those baseball catchers who move immediately into managing positions. Both positions require a large field of vision and an understanding of what all players in the game are required to do.
It’s about leadership, apparently, and a person born with leadership skills can handle being thrust into a leadership position at the highest level without practice.
That is what is being asked of Kerr. It will be interesting to see if he can succeed, although he has a five-year contract to get his act together.
If he does succeed, how hard is it going to be to find former players willing to settle for assistant coaching jobs somewhere?