NBA

Greatness doesn't carry over from court to bench

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Charley Rosen

Charley Rosen is FOXSports.com's NBA analyst and author of 17 sports books, the current ones being Bullpen Diaries: Mariano Rivera, Bronx Dreams, Pinstripe Legends, and the Future of the New York Yankees and Crazy Basketball: A Life In and Out of Bounds.

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Taking a look at the NBA's current coaches, plus undergoing a cursory investigation of the most prominent names on the league's all-time coaching roster, leads to an interesting conclusion: Very few great players turn into great coaches. Before investigating the reasons why this is so, here's a completely subjective rating of some notable All-Star caliber NBA players and their subsequent coaching careers.

Great players who became great coaches

Bill Sharman: He led the 1971-72 Lakers to a record 33 consecutive wins and an NBA title. He also coached the Golden State Warriors into the Finals. Best of all, he managed to convince Wilt Chamberlain to play a team-oriented game. He's perhaps the most underrated NBA coach ever.

The 10 best coaches

jackson Phil or Red? Red or Phil? Which one is No. 1? And who are the other eight guys on our Top 10 coaches in NBA history?
Lenny Wilkens: He was never comfortable with rookies but always got the best out of his veteran players — except in New York.

Great players who became good coaches

Larry Bird: He had excellent success on the Pacers' bench even though he didn't like several of his players and wasn't all that crazy about coaching to begin with. Billy Cunningham: He was a totally inept coach at first but eventually figured things out. Tommy Heinsohn: He bled Celtic green and briefly resurrected Boston's lapsed Russellian dynasty. Gene Shue: He specialized in improving the fortunes of bad ball clubs, which is the only reason why he lost so many games.

Great players who became fair-to-middling coaches

Doug Collins: He had no imagination, little interest in defense and his teams never quite reached their potential. Dolph Schayes: He was too nice a guy to be a good coach. Rudy Tomjanovich: With the Rockets, he let his best players operate with little or no supervision — fortunately they were mostly good citizens. With the Lakers, his laissez-faire attitude was ruinous. Jerry West: His manic perfectionism made his players too nervous to play at their best. Paul Westphal: He couldn't deal with "problem" players.

Great players who became bad coaches

Elgin Baylor: Since he never played defense, he was incapable of teaching his players how to defend. Mo Cheeks: He lacked even a semblance of the charisma necessary to get his players to follow his directions. Bob Cousy: He let Tiny Archibald run amok and did little else. Dave Cowens: His free-spirited private life was more important to him than coaching. Magic Johnson: He couldn't believe that the players he coached refused to work as hard as he had. Dan Issel: He wasn't an effective communicator. Willis Reed: Nobody he either played with or coached fully respected his expertise. Bill Russell: He was a good coach only when he coached himself. In Seattle, his overbearing arrogance prompted him to tell his players what cars to drive, what women to date and what clothes to wear. Needless to say, few of the Sonics could relate to him. Isiah Thomas: While he could fool the media (until he got to New York), he could never fool his players. Wes Unseld: Another nice guy who failed in a ruthless business. In contrast to the above, here's how several notable role players fared as coaches.

Role players who became great coaches

Alex Hannum: He took no guff from anybody. He even managed to force Wilt Chamberlain into submission by physically threatening the big fellow. The sheer force of Hannum's personality compelled his players to accept his leadership. Red Holzman: He respected and trusted his players, and they reciprocated. Phil Jackson: He went from being the Knicks' sixth man to the best NBA coach ever. Nate McMillan: It's been his way or the highway. Pat Riley: He specialized in adjusting his personal game plan to suit the specific skills of his players. In addition, all of his teams were always meticulously well prepared for every game they played. Jerry Sloan: He's a feisty, disciplined player and coach whose teams reflect his personality.

Role players who became good coaches

Rick Adelman: He knows his Xs and Os as well as anybody. Al Attles: He could defeat any of his peers in hand-to-hand combat, both as a player and as a coach. He used this threat to good advantage. K.C. Jones: He was the epitome of a quiet, inspirational leader. Kevin Loughery: He was perhaps the best practice coach in NBA history. Doc Rivers: His most important talent is creating and encouraging team-oriented goals. Paul Silas: His basic coaching tools were dignity, patience and honesty.

Role players who became fair-to-middling coaches

Don Chaney: He could quietly motivate good players, a tactic that didn't work with lesser players. Eddie Jordan: He was too committed to a Princetonian offense. George Karl: He plays too many head-games with his players. Sam Mitchell: He knew the game but was much too confrontational. Don Nelson: His Gargantuan ego gets in the way. Scott Skiles: He's more intense on the bench than most of his players are on the court. Mike Woodson: He has done a terrific job with a severely flawed ball club.

Role player who became a bad coach

Mike Dunleavy: His paranoia gets in the way. Why, then, have there been more role players who make the grade as coaches? Because, in order to merely compete:
  • They had to learn all of the subtle, detailed aspects of the game.
  • They understood the necessities of discipline, preparation, teamwork and unselfishness.
  • Since they could rarely overpower a game, they learned how (and why) to let the game come to them.
  • They practiced hard and never took shortcuts.
  • They had to develop their off-the-ball game.
  • They valued the contributions of role players.
  • Their psyches weren't overwhelmed or unduly influenced by the star syndrome. And why have so many great players failed when they moved to the bench?
  • Because they were good enough to simply out-talent so many of their contemporaries while their knowledge of the game was relatively shallow.
  • They expected their players to be able to do the things they were able to do.
  • They expected their players to completely follow their orders simply because they themselves were such transcendent players.
  • Players had to come to them and not the other way around.
  • Humility and admitting mistakes were not part of their game plan. As the player played, so shall he coach.
  • Tagged: Knicks, Warriors, Lakers

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