What makes a good NBA head coach?

derek-fisher-jackson.jpgThe latest trend in the NBA is that teams are more interested in hiring head coaches who are young recently retired players.

Just this week, the New York Knicks hired Derek Fisher as their new head coach, despite zero coaching experience on any level. They had originally offered the job to Steve Kerr, who has also had no coaching experience, but he spurned them to take the top job with the Golden State Warriors.

Last year the Brooklyn Nets hired Jason Kidd to be their head coach just weeks after he retired as a player. And the Phoenix Suns hired Jeff Hornacek as their coach, after he had been an assistant for only two years.

Are all of the teams missing something by minimizing the value of coaching experience? Or is coaching experience an overrated criteria in the hiring of a head coach? What experience makes for a good NBA coach?

And most relevant to LA, what type of coach should the Lakers hire?

To examine this question, I decided to take a look at successful NBA head coaches from the past 15 years. I defined a successful head coach as someone who either took their team to the NBA Finals or someone who won the NBA's Coach of the Year Award. I wound up with a list of 20 individual coaches and 25 different hirings. Here is the list:

Larry Bird- Pacers
Scott Brooks- Thunder
Hubie Brown- Grizzlies
Larry Brown- Sixers, Pistons
Mike Brown- Cavaliers
Rick Carlisle- Pistons, Mavericks
Mike D'Antoni- Suns
Mike Dunleavy- Trail Blazers
Phil Jackson- Lakers (hired twice)
Avery Johnson- Mavericks
George Karl- Nuggets
Sam Mitchell- Raptors
Gregg Popovich- Spurs
Pat Riley- Heat
Doc Rivers- Magic, Celtics
Byron Scott- Nets, Hornets
Erik Spoelstra- Heat
Tom Thibodeau- Bulls
Jeff Van Gundy- Knicks
Stan Van Gundy- Magic

Multiple teams are listed when the coach reached the NBA Finals or won Coach of the Year with more than one team. While it's true that some of these head coaches have struggled in recent years (i.e. Mike Brown, Mike D'Antoni, Avery Johnson), they were all successful at one point in time.

So what are some general themes from this group? First off, the average age that these coaches were hired for their respective jobs was just 47, and the median age was only 43. However, a handful of coaches throw off this average. Long-time successful coaches such as Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, and Larry Brown were hired for their third, fourth, or even eighth job (in Brown's case) into their 60s.

If you look at when all of these coaches were hired for their first-ever head coaching job, then the average and median both plummet to 40. From this group, only Tom Thibodeau received his first head coaching job in his 50s. The next closest are Popovich and D'Antoni who were both 47 when hired for the first time. Jackson got his start at age 44. But Riley (36) and Brown (32) both started at young ages. As did established coaches like Karl (33) and Hubie Brown (41).

Here is a list of those coaches and the age of their first head coaching job:


Avery Johnson, 40
Byron Scott, 39
Doc Rivers, 38
Erik Spoelstra, 38
George Karl, 33
Gregg Popovich, 47
Hubie Brown, 41
Jeff Van Gundy, 34
Larry Bird, 41
Larry Brown, 32
Mike Brown, 35
Mike D'Antoni, 47
Mike Dunleavy, 36
Pat Riley, 36
Phil Jackson, 44
Rick Carlisle, 42
Sam Mitchell, 41
Scott Brooks, 43
Stan Van Gundy, 44
Tom Thibodeau, 52

It appears that young coaches are highly successful. Those who prove themselves at a young age are often able to replicate that success throughout their coaching career. But isn't necessarily always the case.

Secondly, it appears that assistant coaching experience is just as valuable as playing experience. Many of the coaches on this list had barely any experience as an assistant. Doc Rivers, Larry Bird, and Larry Brown never served as assistant coaches. Avery Johnson, Byron Scott, George Karl, Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, Mike Dunleavy, and Sam Mitchell all served as assistants for two years or less. But nearly all of those individuals enjoyed long playing careers. Only Karl and Brown played less than 9 years professionally from that group.

If anything, being an assistant coach made up for years of not playing in the NBA. The coaches with zero pro playing experience include Popovich, Spoelstra, Hubie Brown, Mike Brown, Thibodeau, and both Van Gundy brothers. All of them worked numerous assistant jobs or were coaches at lower levels of basketball. Thibodeau was an NBA assistant for 20 years. Spoelstra spent 11 years on an NBA bench. For Mike Brown it was eight years. Jeff Van Gundy was an NBA assistant for seven years, and spent three years as a college assistant.

Only Popovich and Stan Van Gundy had long tenures in college, and both were at low levels of college. Popovich was an Air Force assistant for six years before becoming the head coach of Division III Pomona-Pitzer for eight seasons. He eventually served four years as an NBA assistant and spent two years in the Spurs front office before hiring himself as San Antonio's head coach. Van Gundy had stops at every level. He was a college assistant for six years combined at Vermont, Canisius, and Fordham. He was a college head coach for eight years combined at Castleton (NAIA), UMass Lowell (NCAA Division II), and briefly at Wisconsin. He later served eight years as an NBA assistant.

But it appears that men like Van Gundy and Popovich, who work their way up through the ranks, are more the exception as successful coaches than the rule. View the chart that is linked below:

NBA Coaches Experience.xlsx

On average, these coaches spent just four years as an assistant coach, and the median is only two seasons. Yet, if you include playing experience, then these coaches spent an average of 12 years in the league before being hired for their first job.

Based on these numbers, it appears NBA teams should be focused on hiring one of two types of coaches. They should look at 1) Coaches who have been successful in the NBA before or 2) Recently retired players in their early 40s who have only a few years of assistant coaching experience.

In that case, 17-year veteran Derek Fisher or 15-year veteran Steve Kerr do seem to make a lot of sense. Perhaps the Lakers should consider a young, up-and-coming head coach.

Photo: New York Knicks


More by Phil Wallace:
What makes a good NBA head coach?
Dodgers get a "D" for defense
New Clippers owner should change the team's name
Changes for Clippers, Lakers
What's next for the Lakers?
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