What Does History Teach Us About NBA Players Who Immediately Become Coaches?

Tuesday the New York Knicks hired Derek Fisher as their head coach. Less than two weeks ago Fisher was the backup point guard for the Oklahoma City Thunder. By hiring Fisher the Knicks became the second New York City basketball team in as many years to hire a player in his first year of retirement as a head coach. The Brooklyn Nets tapped 19-year pro Jason Kidd a year ago.

Fisher, who played for new Knicks president Phil Jackson on five Los Angeles Lakers championship squads, has the task of turning around a team that missed the playoffs this season, one year after winning 54 games and clinching the second seed in the Eastern Conference.

The Knicks are also stuck with the league’s second largest payroll and are well above the luxury tax threshold. Making matters worse for Fisher and Jackson, Knicks star Carmelo Anthony can opt out of the final year of his contract and become a free agent this offseason. (He has until June 23 to make a decision.)

New Knicks head coach Derek Fisher with team president Phil Jackson (AP Photo)
New Knicks head coach Derek Fisher with team president Phil Jackson (AP Photo)

There’s nothing usual about a team hiring a former player to be its leader on the sideline. Fourteen current NBA head coaches once suited up for an NBA squad, while others played pro ball overseas. Nor is it rare for a team to hire a former player with no previous coaching experience.

When the Orlando Magic hired long-time Hawks and Knicks guard Doc Rivers in 1999, Rivers hadn’t spent any time as an assistant or coaching in college or a minor or foreign league. He’d spent his post-retirement years as an analyst for TNT. Rivers’s inexperience didn’t keep him from being the NBA’s Coach of the Year in his first season. Doc eventually would become one of the league’s most reliable and successful coaches, winning a title with the Celtics in 2008 and holding together the Clippers during the recent (and ongoing) Donald Sterling fiasco.

In 2011 the Warriors hired player-turned-broadcaster Mark Jackson, despite Jackson’s complete lack of experience. Jackson led Golden State to consecutive playoff appearances and a 50-win season for the first time in two decades.

Larry Bird, in his first and only coaching gig, was the most successful head coach in the history of the Indiana Pacers. The Association’s top coaching candidate this offseason was former Bulls and Spurs guard Steve Kerr, who’d spent some of his time since retiring working in the front office but none as a coach.

Rivers, Jackson, Bird and several others—including current Rockets coach Kevin McHale and a litany of short-lived former head coaches (Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson, and Quinn Buckner)—got a coveted NBA head coaching job without any previous coaching experience. But none of those players-turned-coaches went directly from playing to head coaching. They had instead spent time on television or in management.

Derek Fisher will become only the third person the 1976 ABA-NBA merger to end one season as a player on an NBA roster then begin the next as an NBA head coach. The others were Kidd and Paul Silas, who retired from the Sonics in 1980 to become the head coach of the San Diego Clippers.

Kidd went 44-38 in his first season as coach in Brookylyn. His Nets were five games worse than the previous season’s team but showed tremendous improvement late in the season and advanced to the second round of the playoffs.

Silas had the misfortune of coaching a Clippers team that had just traded away the league’s second leading scorer (World B. Free), whose best player (Bill Walton) would miss two entire seasons, and who (in Free and Walton’s absence) were playing in a mostly empty arena in San Diego. The Clippers were then sold to Donald Sterling in the middle of Silas’s short tenure.

Silas coached the Clippers for three years, never winning more than 36 games or making the playoffs He wouldn’t coach again until 1998 when he took over the Charlotte Hornets. Silas spent four seasons with the Hornets, going to the playoffs four times. He went on to have a short stint with the Cavs (as LeBron James’s first NBA coach) and later the Bobcats. Silas compiled a career record of 387-488.

Paul Silas, during his difficult tenure with the San Diego Clippers.
Paul Silas, during his difficult tenure with the San Diego Clippers.

Mike Dunleavy, Sr., often appears in lists of players who immediately made the transition to head coaching, but his situation was different than Silas, Kidd and Fisher’s. Technically Dunleavy was a player with the Milwaukee Bucks during the 1989-90 season then the head coach of the Lakers for the 1990-91 season. But Dunleavy’s primary role with the Bucks was as an assistant coach. He had retired as a player in 1985 then later joined the Bucks as an assistant coach. During his tenure as an assistant Dunleavy came off the bench and played seven games, two in 1988-89 and five in 1989-90.

When Dunleavy took over as head coach of the Lakers in 1990, he’d already spent two seasons as an assistant. He also inherited Magic Johnson, James Worthy and a team one year removed from an NBA Finals appearance, and two years removed from an NBA title. So the fact that Dunleavy took the Lakers to the finals in his first season as a head coach tells us very little about the merits of hiring as a head coach a recently retired player. Dunleavy never returned to the NBA Finals, though his late 1990s Blazers teams twice advanced to the Western Conference Finals. During his 17 seasons as a head coach, Dunleavy’s teams spent more postseasons in the lottery than in the Playoffs.

Avery Johnson, like fellow point guards Fisher and Kidd, also made a quick transition from player to head coach, taking the reins of the Dallas Mavericks during his first season after retiring as a player. Unlike Fisher, Kidd, and Silas, Johnson began his first post-retirement season (2004-05) as an assistant to Don Nelson. The Mavericks organization had planned for Johnson to eventually follow Nelson as head coach. Johnson’s opportunity came sooner than expected.

Nelson resigned during the spring of 2005. Under Johnson the Mavs went 16-2 and advanced to the second round of the playoffs. In his first full year as head coach, the Mavericks reached the finals, where they lost to the Miami Heat. In his second full season, Johnson’s Mavericks compiled the league’s best record. Johnson has the distinction of being the fastest coach in NBA history to win 50 games, winning 50 of his first 62. But after two first-round playoff exits, the Mavs let go of Johnson after his third full season.

Nelson, whom Johnson replaced in Dallas, had been in a similar situation nearly 30 years earlier. Eighteen games into the 1976-77 season, Nelson—who had retired as a player following the 1975-76 season—became the head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks when the Bucks fired longtime coach Larry Costello after a 3-15 start. The Bucks didn’t turn things around during Nelson’s first year, but they improved significantly the following season.

In Nelson’s fourth year in Milwaukee the Bucks began a run of seven straight division titles that included three trips to the Eastern Conference Finals. Nellie was not only the head coach of those teams but also the general manager. In 1977 he traded up in the draft and landed perennial All-Star Marques Johnson. Over the next few years he would draft Sidney Moncrief and trade for Bob Lanier to turn the Bucks into a legitimate contender during the early 1980s. Nelson would coach for 31 seasons and become the NBA’s all-time winningest coach, though he would never win a title, or even take a team to the finals.

Don Nelson with the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1970s
Don Nelson with the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1970s

Based on these few examples, it’s hard to draw any conclusions about the merits of hiring a just-retired player as a head coach. Kidd has only held the job for a single year. Silas didn’t fare well with the Clippers, but he wasn’t exactly put in a position to flourish. Johnson’s first two full coaching seasons included a trip to the finals and a 67-win regular season, but he has not had sustained success as a coach. After the Mavericks decided (in retrospect, correctly) that Johnson was not the coach who could lead them to a title, he went to work for ESPN. In his second coaching gig with the Nets, he went 60-116 before being fired in 2012. Don Nelson gives us one positive example of a player taking over as head coach shortly after retirement, though Nelson’s success as a coach was tied closely to his success as a general manager.

For the most part, the great coaches in the modern NBA paid their dues before landing a head coaching gig. Phil Jackson coached the Albany Patroons in the CBA and a pair of teams in the Puerto Rican league and served as an assistant to Doug Collins before taking over the Bulls in 1989.

Gregg Popovich spent two decades as an assistant in college and the NBA before the Spurs hired him as general manager. After a few years in that role, he hired himself as head coach.

Pat Riley went into broadcasting after retiring as a player in 1976. He spent two years as a Lakers assistant then got the head coaching job after Lakers star Magic Johnson clashed with previous coach Paul Westhead.

Chuck Daly, coach of the Bad Boys Pistons and the original Dream Team, coached high school and college ball for 26 years before getting an NBA job.

Rick Carlisle and Erik Spoelstra, winners of the last three NBA championships, each spent 11 seasons as an assistant before getting a job as a head coach.

Of course, there have been plenty of coaches who logged time as assistants and college coaches who weren’t successful as head coaches in the NBA. An overwhelming majority of NBA head coaches began their careers assistants or coaches at lower levels. So it’s not remarkable that some such coaches became all-time greats.

Perhaps the question of whether to hire a recently retired basketball player is similar to the question of whether to start a rookie quarterback in the NFL. The answer: it depends on the person, the situation and the organization. In the case of NBA players-turned-coaches, we just don’t have enough data to draw any meaningful conclusions.

Fisher’s success will rely mostly on his relationship with Jackson and Jackson’s ability to hold on to Carmelo Anthony while lifting the Knicks out of salary cap hell. That would be true regardless of whether or not Fisher had spent time as an assistant or coaching in the D-League. If Jackson is able to get the right pieces in place for the Knicks, we’ll learn if on-the-job training is sufficient for Fisher, or if he would have been better off first paying his dues.

About the Author

Josh Tinley

Josh Tinley writes the Away From The Action column at Midwest Sports Fans, covering all aspects of sport aside from what actually happens on the field, court, or track. Josh grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from the University of Evansville and Vanderbilt Divinity School. He is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports and the managing editor of LinC, a weekly curriculum for teens that explores the intersection of faith and culture. Josh lives outside Nashville with his wife, Ashlee, and children, Meyer (7), Resha Kate (5), and Malachi (3). He will not allow himself to die before the Evansville Purple Aces make another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Follow him on Twitter @joshtinley or send him an e-mail.