NBA / May 21, 2010 / 12:45 pm

Do Former NBA Players Make Better Coaches?

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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  • Top fo the World

    No, especially black coaches, because i think the athletes tune them out afterwhile. None of the players have produced for a black coach. If Clev fires Mike Brown, they will hired Tom Thibed from the C’s or JVG and watch him win a title.

    Tune Out Crown
    Hawks – Woodson
    Sixers – Jordan
    Mavericks – Avery (dude won 66 games)

  • mules

    So your saying Del Negro had more credibility in his players’ eyes than Popovich does in his?…hell no. Shit…most of the Bulls probably had more respect for Pop than they did for their own coach.

  • The Other Aj

    I think a coach who has played is better suited for veteran teams (ie Detroit, Boston, etc) When Pop came to the spurs Duncan was young, SVG came to orlando a couple years ago dwight was young & jameer was a rookie, etc…for teams that have a lot of veterans, especially veterans who have won chips, get a good coach who has played the game.

  • http://www.hiphopknights.com Richard Henry

    Without a doubt! Now there are exceptions such as the Van Gundy brothers and perhaps others.

    You have to factor in the management of the players, being used to different personalities,understanding the effects of schedules and the psychology of the game itself.

    Except for a few exceptions, coaches who have played do better overall and have the experience to handle the adversity better.

    Look at some of the best coaches of all time: Lenny Wilkins, Phil Jackson, Rick Adelman, Don Nelson, Rudy Tomjanovich and many more.

    If I am an owner and looking to build a championship team in a couple of years, you bet that I am going for the coach who played 12 years in the nba as opposed to one who has never played.

    Richard Henry

  • Celts Fan

    @Mules – what they’re saying is that former players have instant credibility (They’ve been through it) in players’ eyes, while non-players need to prove they know what’s what and earn that cred. It doesn’t amount to anything over the long-haul, but that first season can be make or break based on if the players buy in, especially on a losing team where over-achieving means an 8-seed and a quick L in the playoffs (which is where most coaching vacancies originate, that or a contender severely underachieving over a few seasons – aka by Mike Brown) where the guys believing in the coach makes a huge deal.

  • boomshakalaka

    @ 1

    Are you fucking kidding me? black coaches, “especially”, get tuned out? why the hell would you make it an ethnicity issue?

    there are soooo many examples that completely discredit your statement. Like anyone was listening to Lawrence Frank right? the list could go on and on and on.

    watch how many people post how ridiculous your comment is.

  • Bruce

    What is the name of that guy down in Miami? He got to go too!

  • boomshakalaka

    plenty of players just plain give up on their coaches sometimes whether they are black or white, doesn’t matter.

    The ratio of white coaches to black coaches is pretty lopsided. so focusing on picking out successful and unsuccessful black coaches and making that the focal point of an argument is too easy and incredibly skewed.

    Being that there have been an exponentially greater number of white coaches than black coaches, there have been way more successful white coaches and a lot more UNsuccessful white coaches.

  • netstar

    @6 Eric Spolestra, but players were calling him “coach ‘spo” before he was even given the title. They love him in miami, he isnt going anywhere

  • deron williams’ sideburns

    in doc rivers’ case, three hall of fame players make better coaches.

  • isotope

    Doesnt matter a whole lot, but didnt Vinny play for the Spurs and not the Suns? And I don’t think he was a bad coach. Think about it, the Bulls are considered to be talented because of playing with him. No one really said Noah was crazy talented coming out of college. Rose has definitely gotten better since his rookie year. It’s just hard to “earn” the respect; ex-player or not. No one cared about Pop until he earned it with the championships. Winning is the key. Ex-player or not.

    Think about it, how many great players are known as great coaches? Not a whole lot. They’re either known as a great player and an OK coach or an OK player but a great coach.

  • buffaloballa

    don’t look at the coach…look at the staff…

  • boomshakalaka

    just to clarify, there have been a lot more white coaches than black throughout NBA history. For the past few years the ratio has been around 3 to 2 (white to black), with more black coaches being hired to replace their white counterparts who have failed.

    it doesn’t make a damn difference. An idiot coach is an idiot coach.

  • dagwaller

    Great write up. On a related note, I don’t understand why Del Negro was let go. They went as far as their talent would allow, in my eyes.

  • JH

    An ex-player has a distinct advantage over a non-player but that is just one of the many factors that make up a good coach.

  • ebdi17

    The about-to-be-departed Kiki makes me — and many other Nets fans — long for the “glory” days of L. Frank. Who’d a thunk?

  • s.bucketz

    what about coaches that physically look like a ball w/ a mustache?? a la Stan Van Gundy??

  • Celts Fan

    @Isotope – Noah was supposedly gonna be the #1 overall pick the year he decided to stay in Florida and was still a lottery pick. no one said he was talented coming outta college??? You serious bro? smfh

  • http://getyourishbusted.net Chicagorilla

    So SVG is a good coach and Flip Saunders isn’t on his level? lol. While Pop didn’t play Pro ball, playing college ball was damn close. I think players respect you for at least making it to college or overseas.

    But I do believe that former players are WAAAAAAYYY better coaches over all ONLY in the case that they played under good coaches. Lawrence Frank was terrible btw, should only go as far as being an assistant never the HNIC. SVG will be fired after he loses this year (Brandon Bass is counting down the days) and that will be the 2nd time he sucked ass with loaded team.

  • http://getyourishbusted.net Chicagorilla


    Vinny Del coaching the Bulls (DRose in particular) is like you buying a Maybach Benz for your 16yr old daughter who just got her license. He shouldn’t have gotten the job in the first place. He needs to spend some time on the bench learning behind a guy like Sloan, Pop, Phil, D.Collins, or Hubey. Then try to do this coaching thing again.

  • http://getyourishbusted.net Chicagorilla


    Vinny Del coaching the Bulls (DRose in particular) is like you buying a Maybach Benz for your 16yr old daughter who just got her license. He shouldn’t have gotten the job in the first place. He needs to spend some time on the bench learning behind a guy like Sloan, Pop, Phil, D.Collins, or Hubey. Then try to do this coaching thing again.

  • air99

    I think Darko Milicic can be a great coach. lol

  • QQ

    @Top fo the World

    The last time I checked Alvin Gentry and Doc Rivers were black.