Do Former NBA Players Make Better Coaches?

By: 05.21.10

With the recent Hanley Ramirez debacle in baseball, where the Marlins star shortstop said manager Fredi Gonzalez didn’t know what he was doing because, “he never played in the big leagues,” an intense debate has ensued. Ramirez’s comments sparked an outrage in baseball, but does he have a point? Do guys that played professionally have a coaching advantage over guys who never played professionally? We examine whether coaches who played in the NBA have an advantage over those who didn’t.

The answer to this question is yes and no. The biggest advantage that coaches have who played in the League over those who didn’t is the ability to relate to their players. Playing professional sports and dealing with the expectations, lifestyle, and other perks is an experience very few people can say they have ever had. For a head coach to be able to understand what his players are going through gives him some serious credibility inside the locker room. When your head coach is a former player like Doc Rivers, and he says something, his players are likely to listen because of his playing days in the NBA. However, when a guy who never played in the League like Flip Saunders critiques his players, what is their willingness to listen?

When in Detroit, Saunders clearly never gained the respect of his players, and despite making the Eastern Conference Finals in all three of his seasons at the helm, he was fired. It was clear Saunders could never gain control of his locker room, and currently in Washington, he doesn’t seem to be fitting in too well either – particularly with forward Andray Blatche calling him out at the end of the season.

While guys that played in the NBA have an advantage when it comes to credibility with their players, they have no advantage when it comes to their ability to coach and create game strategy. Most coaches who didn’t play in the NBA are basketball lifers who have played and been around basketball since they were old enough to pick up a ball, so the fact that they weren’t talented enough to make it to the League doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not they know the game.

To prove that being a player doesn’t always make you a better coach, let’s use these two guys as examples: Vinny Del Negro and Gregg Popovich. Del Negro was an awesome shooter, and good role player for the Kings, Spurs, Bucks, Warriors and Suns in his playing days, but his coaching days were anything but pretty. He led the Chicago Bulls to the playoffs in his two seasons at the helm, but was constantly criticized for not maximizing his talent. On the other hand, there is Popovich. Pop played college basketball but never made it in the NBA. His lack of NBA experience has not prevented him from becoming one of the greatest coaches of the last 25 years. He has won four championships with the Spurs, created an offense that took advantage of Tim Duncan‘s skills, and has consistently had one of the most well-prepared and efficient teams in all the League. Other examples of successful head coaches who never played in the NBA are Lawrence Frank, Stan Van Gundy, and Alvin Gentry. So while playing in the NBA doesn’t inherently give a coach more basketball knowledge, it does give them more credibility in the eyes of players, which can be very important if a head coach wants to be successful.

What do you think? Do guys that played professionally have a coaching advantage over guys who never played professionally?

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