The player-coach is one of the wonderful oddities in sport, happening at those rare times when a team decides that not only is an athlete their best option on the field/court, but the best one off of it as well. Pete Rose, Bill Russell, Ty Cobb … all legends who not only played on the field but coached the team at the same time.
Sadly, we don’t see it at all anymore. The last MLB player-coach was Rose. The last in the NBA was in 1971. We haven’t seen an official player-coach in the NFL since the 1920s, though Dan Reeves was both a player and an assistant for the Cowboys in the 1970s.
It’s asking too much of players, and pro sports franchises tend to be risk-averse, so they would rather just name a figurehead that has a decent resume than roll the dice with a player-coach and risk humiliation.
This is lame, because player-coaches are objectively awesome. So I sat down and tried to figure out: Who could possibly be the next player-coach in American sports?
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The best bet we have right now in this country is with the Phoenix Rising FC USL soccer team, where Didier Drogba has come on as a player and part-owner. It would surprise no one if the team named him the coach as well. (Frank Yallop, the team’s former coach, has resigned and there’s only an interim head coach, Rick Schantz, in place now.) But this is second-tier American soccer. There’s nothing close to this happening in MLS, though they have had player-coaches before. (Walter Zenga did it for New England Revolution in 1998-99.)
So yes, MLS maybe, but the league is moving away from it, and the player-coach was a reality of the early years of MLS, which the league is now trying to distance itself from.
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Hockey? I can’t see it – line changes, practices … there’s a lot going on. There’s also such a stress on every man being just as important to the team that it would be tough for say, Sidney Crosby to be named the head coach. He wouldn’t want it.
NFL? No way. The offenses and defenses are wildly complex, there are 50+ guys on the team you have to keep track of, not including practice players. Just managing the coaching staff is a serious job. Trying to do all that and do all you can to master an NFL playbook and execute on the field? It’s ridiculous to imagine a player could do that, and even if he could, the NFL is so risk-averse there’s no way a team would ever name one of its players the coach as well. They’d rather hire Jeff Fisher and go 7-9 and be done with it.
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I could possibly see it happening in Major League Baseball, especially in the American League. You pick a lineup, pick a starter, get updates on how the bullpen is feeling, and ride from there. But I’m just not sure who the player would be. The game’s biggest stars right now are all young. Maybe Albert Pujols could take over and manage the Angels (hard to see him doing much worse than what has been done), or have Atlanta just say the hell with it and let Freddie Freeman manage the team.
The more I think about it, actually, the more I like Pujols. He’s well liked. He can still play a bit. He’s under contract anyway, it’s going to be tough for the team to move him, so might as well save on staff costs and just pay him to be the manager as well. He doesn’t have to do too much – defend his teammates in the media, make sure his bullpen is fresh, not overwork anyone. It’s not like baseball teams practice a ton; they have a bazillion games. Just fill out the lineup card and be done with it.
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The best one, of course, is a sport with light in-season practicing, a small core unit, and a game that’s best seen from the court: Basketball. Basketball is the answer. And there’s one person ready to be a player-coach right now: LeBron James.
The one hiccup in this great plan is that the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement doesn’t allow for player-coaches, because coaches salaries don’t count under the salary cap and there was concern that this would be a way for teams to circumvent the rules. But let’s pretend, for the sake of this article, that an exception was granted. Or James wasn’t officially named the coach, the Cavaliers just didn’t have one designated, or put someone as the interim head coach for the season with James doing all the work.
Could it work?
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Why on earth not? He’s the best basketball player of the last two decades, easily, has a brilliant basketball mind, and can do anything on the court. He also happens to play his best when he’s operating in an efficient offense that’s moving the ball. That’s why you could never have Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan coach while playing: they believed so fully in themselves on the court that it was always tough for them to imagine anyone else could do what needed to be done. James doesn’t have that problem. He is happy to defer to teammates if he trusts them and they can do the job.
He’s also at his happiest when the team is moving the ball and playing complete basketball on the offensive end. On defense he’d probably need a little help, but that’s what assistants are for. Bring in a young defensive guru who would be happy to work with James, get some other assistants to work one-on-one with players and scout future opponents, let James handle the rest. He’s already doing most of the stuff anyway – holding players accountable, choosing what to run on offense. Just give him the title and let him go.
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Is there any other reason to do this other than “I think it would be pretty cool if we had another player-coach?” Not really. Having Lue there both helps James and protects him in a way – he already faces so much scrutiny as a player, it would be asking a lot for him to also have to answer questions as the coach as well. James can point to Lue as the decision maker when things get rough (something Lue knows is part of the job and welcomes) and Lue can intervene during intra-team issues.
But let’s be real here: James is already basically treated as the coach and the G.M. of the Cavaliers. He helped build this team, he leads them on the floor, and often leads them off of it. He’s already doing a lot of the job, so if there were ever someone to just got ahead and do it, it would be him. Let’s find a workaround for that CBA. I want James coaching and playing for the Cavaliers.