If nothing else, the Golden State Warriors hire of Mark Jackson begs the following question: is he even better than Keith Smart?
We don't know.
And there's nothing really beyond speculation to base an opinion on because Jackson comes to the Bay straight from the broadcast booth.
But 14-time Sportswriter of the Year Scott Ostler of the San Francisco Chronicle offered some (perhaps obvious) insight about the hire during Sitdown with Gary Radnich earlier tonight that might inspire a different question.
Recent head coach hire Mark Jackson has drawn comparisons to former Eastern Conference foe Doc Rivers.
"I don't think anyone would have caught me off guard because I didn't have any clue of which way they were leaning," Ostler said. "Now the word on the street...is that what they were looking for is a new version of Doc Rivers...They got a guy who was a former really good basketball player in the league who had some gravitas that way and is also kind of a big personality, can talk with people and deal with people, is smart, can deal with the players and all of that.
"And I think he's gonna be like Doc Rivers in this: if you give him a bad team, he will lose. If you give him three Hall of Fame guys...he'll probably get you in the Finals."
I'll leave it to you to assess where the current Golden State Warriors roster stands.
Yet Ostler does leave us with a still vague, yet perhaps more concrete, question: what might the track record of Rivers - and other coaches who went from player to color commentator to coach - tell us about what might be in store for the Warriors?
A friend first proposed Rivers - who were once essentially exchanged for one another as players in the controversial trade that sent Jackson to the Clippers - as a comparison in an effort to offer some comfort in the midst of a hire that I am honestly still struggling with:
Doc Rivers had no head coaching experience and was simply a game analyst before getting hired!
But before we exchange our subjective opinions about who we liked better as an analyst, what makes this hire toughest to swallow is that there were a number of other candidates available with either assistant or head coaching experience that appeared to offer qualities that would help the Warriors: Dwayne Casey, Lawrence Frank, Mike Malone and Brian Shaw are all names that have been linked to the Warriors by NBA observers. Any one of those are not only coaches that could develop with a young Warriors team, but also have some foundation to actually know how to lead the team.
Yet after my level-headed friend brought up the Rivers comparison, we tried to think about other names who fit the mold of going from the broadcast booth to the sidelines without any prior coaching experience. We came up with two prior to Jackson: Rivers (Orlando Magic) and Quinn Buckner (Dallas Mavericks): 2000 Coach of the Year and two Finals appearances vs. one year of cellar dwelling. Technically, we can throw Magic Johnson in there as well, but he was a March 1994 hire who chose to step down at the end of the season.
So while there obviously aren't enough prior examples to say definitively how Jackson might do as a coach, we can summarize the two most similar attempts in the past as follows:
- Rivers has excelled as a "players' coach" whereas Buckner failed as something of an authoritarian coach.
- Rivers was named Coach of the Year in his first season out of the booth whereas Buckner was fired.
- While Rivers has clearly been successful as a coach, he has also been erratic in both Orlando and Boston.
It's probably safe to assume that Jackson will be more of a players' coach, but what we might be able to glean from Rivers' career is that it takes time to come into one's own with that approach: with veterans, it's an excellent strategy to respect their experience and manage their egos. But with a young team - such as the current Warriors - there has to be some focus on development. And hypothetically, that's the type of thing that someone coming from the broadcast booth would learn from spending time as an assistant.
In a piece about the development of college basketball coaches at SB Nation's Swish Appeal, basketball coach and development expert Brian McCormick described at length the value of a coach developing expertise slowly rather than jumping right into the head coach's seat.
Assistant coaches gain some experience running drills, implementing game plans, scouting, running off-season workouts, etc. - and some head coaches do a better job of nurturing future head coaches than others - and they learn by watching their head coach as he or she works. Therefore, there is value in being an assistant coach in terms of learning the art and science of coaching. However, just as one develops his shooting more through deliberate practice than watching expert shooters, a coach develops his or her coaching skills more through deliberate practice than watching an expert coach.
Even though serving as an assistant might not necessarily lead to immediate success, it at the very least allows someone to learn the basics of "the art and science of coaching." Of course, the coaching pipeline from mid-major to major doesn't necessarily exist at the NBA level. Nevertheless, if you're in need of a person who can develop individuals and bring a team together into a coherent whole, someone with experience as an assistant would seem to be better prepared for the job.
Then again, the NBA isn't devoid of that development opportunity for coaching - regardless of how you feel about the quality of the D-League, it could also provide a coaching incubator for coaches to develop their skill as much as it does for players to develop theirs. Although it hasn't at all gained the type of status that would make that an attractive path for a highly visible individual like Jackson, it would also be the type of experience that someone with no coaching experience could benefit from to gain that deliberate practice.
But barring some sort of bizarre mix-up in which Jackson is actually Malone's assistant, Jackson is the Warriors' guy. And whether we'd prefer someone with more experience or simply don't like Jackson's on-air perspectives on basketball, my friend offered one final piece of light-hearted optimism at the end of our conversation:
Doc Rivers, Orlando Magic & Boston Celtics (1999-2004 & 2004-Present)
Overall coaching record: 451-380 (Playoffs: 46-40):
- Magic: 171-168
- Celtics: 280-212
Prior broadcast employer: TNT
- Won 2000 NBA Coach of Year fresh out of the booth after going 41-41 with an Orlando Magic team that started four undrated players: John Amaechi, Darrell Armstrong, Bo Outlaw and Ben Wallace. The missed the playoffs by one game in dramatic fashion. It's hard to remember a team in recent memory that played harder and achieved more with less.
- He has coached the Boston Celtics to two NBA Finals and it's probably safe to say that his 2008 Celtics team might have advanced past the Magic were it not for an injury to Kevin Garnett.
- Rivers is probably most widely known as a "players' coach", as SB Nation's Celtics Blog once described. By putting faith in his players, respecting their opinions, and guiding rather than dictating, Rivers has gained a reputation among some as a guy whose teams will always play hard for him. Recently retired superstar Shaquille O'Neal recently praised Rivers for his focus on the team over individual accolades. You get the point: the Ubuntu (togetherness) thing has become more than the empty rhetoric people once assumed it was and has developed into an increasingly substantive coaching philosophy.
- Bill Simmons once wrote multiple thousand words about how badly Rivers stinks as coach, citing inconsistent rotations, bad strategy, and an inability to coach close games. He continued the criticism in 2008, describing what he saw as "The Ugly Side of Ubuntu". We can sum up Simmons' pre-championship Rivers sentiment as follows: never mistake motivational speech activity with coaching achievement. Simmons has since changed his tune on Rivers, but that of course was spurred by success with three Hall of Famers.
- Despite his first year in Orlando, there will always be concerns that Rivers is only as good as his talent. That might sound like common sense, but presumably a great coach would get his players to play better than the sum of their talents. After initial success in Orlando, Rivers was fired after getting out to a 1-10 start in the 2003-04 season that turned into a 1-19 start.
- Would Rivers have achieved success quicker if he had some prior coaching experience, whether NBA assistant or college?
Quinn Buckner, Dallas Mavericks (1993-94)
Overall coaching record: 13-69
Broadcast employer prior to hire: NBC
- Despite being the fourth-worse defensive team in the league, Buckner's Mavs forced the fourth-highest rate of turnovers in the league.
- His team was 8th in free throw percentage (74.7%)!
- If we were to be generous, Buckner's effort to emphasize discipline - without being exactly like his former coach Bobby Knight - is perhaps admirable. Structure is good.
- Buckner believed that what his young team needed was defense and discipline. As you can probably gather from their record, that didn't work out so well and was quickly referred to as "the reign of terror". Structure isn't inherently bad in the NBA, but implementing structure with NBA players has proven difficult for novice coaches.
- While Buckner came in focusing on the young folks, he managed to alienate both the younger players and his veterans. Particularly amazing is the speed at which he managed to accomplish this task: a December 1993 Sports Illustrated article by Phil Taylor describes how Buckner had already managed to alienate Derek Harper, Jimmy Jackson, and Jamaal Mashburn by the end of November.
- The SI article also notes that Buckner tried to implement something like a triangle offense (three years before Jim Cleamons tried it in Dallas). Here's what we've learned about the triangle offense, in a nutshell: if you don't have someone named Jordan or Kobe, it's likely not a particularly good idea.
- Building off the argument that Rivers is only as good as the talent he has, might the same have been true for Buckner? The Dallas Mavericks were in complete disarray prior to Buckner's arrival, going 11-71. They needed a miracle worker and hired a guy who clearly needed time to figure out his coaching identity.
Other notable names:
- Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers (1993-1994): After retiring from the NBA, Johnson worked for NBC before being hired by the Lakers in March 1994. Johnson chose not to return shortly after he began.
- Doug Collins, Chicago Bulls (1986 - 1989): Collins was a CBS commentator prior to taking his first NBA coaching job with the Bulls, but he doesn't quite fit the mold here: he had been an assistant coach at both Penn and Arizona State prior to joining the Bulls. No, that doesn't constitute professional or even head coaching experience, but it was more than any of the above had prior to reaching the head coach level.
Pat Riley, Los Angles Lakers (1981-1990): Indeed Pat Riley also moved from the broadcast booth to the bench, but spent time as an assistant to Paul Westhead - who led the Lakers to a title - before being promoted. Not only did that give him coaching experience, but also experience with the very team he ended up coaching, which puts him in a considerably different category than the previously mentioned coaches.