Steve Kerr just took over the gig as the next Golden State Warriors coach, replacing his point-guard counterpart Marc Jackson. Jackson departs after three years, a 51-win season, and back-to-back playoff appearances, the best in over 20 years for the Warriors. Kerr’s hiring is no surprise as the validity of an, at-best, average player becoming a superstar coach is more prominent in sports.
The traditional thought is simple: a great player can (or should) transition into a great coach. However, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and, recently, Kevin McHale have demonstrated otherwise. Each are three of the game’s best players yet none won titles as a coach or fully developed their players. Current Houston Rockets head coach McHale was heavily favored over the undersized Portland Trailblazers. The offseason acquisition of Dwight Howard teamed with Jeremy Lin, James Harden, Chandler Parsons and co. was supposed to make the Rockets instant title contenders. Howard instead found himself with his hands full getting outplayed by Robin Lopez. The Rockets were ousted in six games on a game-winning three-pointer by All-Star point guard Damien Lillard.
McHale, the Boston Celtics legend, was left scratching his head for a long offseason. He was simply outcoached by the Trailblazers Terry Stotts. During the 2000s, the Trailblazers were the butt of late-night jokes as many of their players were suspended due to drug use, empty seats were aplenty in the Moda Center (formerly the Rose Garden), as the team was nicknamed the ‘Jailblazers. Stotts was an All-American at the University of Oklahoma. He was drafted in the second round by the Rockets in 1980. He joined the CBA and played a few more years in Europe before retiring as a player. Stotts never played a game in the NBA. He recently led the Trailblazers to a 54-28 record. Stotts is credited with turning around the organization and giving the city a team to be proud about. Lopez, Lillard, Nicolas Batum and All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge form the centerpiece for a winning team for years to come. As the players have grown, much of their development is attributed to Stotts ability to harness talent and help the players reach their full potential.
Doc Rivers enjoyed 14 years in the NBA as a player. Never an All-Star, he finished with career averages of 10.9 points, 5.7 assists, and 3.0 rebounds. Even playing alongside Atlanta Hawks legend Dominique Wilkins, he could not lead the team past the first-round. As a coach, Rivers won a title with the Celtics, led them to another NBA Finals appearance, meshed egos between superstars Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen, and is now doing the same for the Los Angeles Clippers’ Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
Scott Brooks won a title with the Houston Rockets as a player in 1994. He also only started 7 of 680 games and retired with a career 4.9 points average. As coach of the heavily-touted Oklahoma City Thunder, Brooks has compiled a 293-170 (.633%) record, led them to an NBA Finals, and is poised for another trip if they can beat the Spurs this year.
The Zen Master, Phil Jackson, the winningest coach in all professional sports, in 20 seasons on the sideline, has an 1155-485 record, the highest winning percentage at .704, and 11 NBA titles. He is widely regarded as the greatest coach in American sports. He got Michael Jordan to trust his teammates. He got Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal to play together. He also only averaged 6.7 points per game for his career in 12 seasons as a player.
Stotts, Rivers, Brooks, Kerr and Jackson cannot even be mentioned alongside Johnson, Bird and McHale when it comes to players. As coaches, the roles are reversed. When it comes to managing a game from the sidelines and teaching players, it seems the best coaches are the players with the least talent. They are the ones who realize they are not as skilled as the Jordans or LeBrons but find a way to create a life for themselves through basketball. They use whatever minimal talent through gritty play and clutch shots to make an NBA roster and have an impact. All-Star level players can use their natural ability to constantly compete at a high level. But it does not transition well to teaching young talent. Jordan can’t teach Lillard how to dunk from the free-throw line. But Stotts can certainly teach Lillard how to improve his jump-shot or where to receive the ball after coming off a screen. Jackson lasted 12 seasons in the NBA as a player so he sure can evaluate talent and determination in a player immediately.
For the record, Kerr holds a 6.0 career scoring average in 16 years. However, this new career adventure Kerr is about to embark upon is the start of something special. Kerr looks to be the next Gregg Popovich as the next two decades could be taught from one of the NBA’s best shooters.