As of this writing, there are five NBA teams with openings at their head coach position: the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Minnesota Timberwolves, the New York Knicks and the Utah Jazz. Mark Jackson was fired as Golden State Warriors head coach less than two weeks ago and Wednesday the Warriors announced they had hired Steve Kerr to be their new head coach with a contract reportedly valued at five years, $25 million. That same day, the Detroit Pistons announced they had hired former Orlando Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy to serve as head coach and President of Basketball Operations, paying him $35 million over five years. On Thursday, the Portland Trailblazers announced a multi-year extension for head coach Terry Stotts. In the coming days, we’ll discuss some of these other personnel decisions and the relevant factors. But for now, let’s talk about Steve Kerr.
- The name on everyone’s tongue the last few weeks has been Steve Kerr. When Phil Jackson was announced as President of the New York Knicks on March 18 and given whopping $60 million over five years to guide the Knicks back to glory, it was only a matter of time before Mike Woodson was canned and Phil went to work on bringing in one of “his guys” to install the trademark Triangle offense. Woodson was fired on April 21 and the rumor mill started churning away. Names that have been floated include Brian Shaw, Steve Kerr, Fred Hoiberg, Jim Cleamons, Kurt Rambis and many others including Phil himself. I’ll take this opportunity to address Phil Jackson coaching the Knicks before we get back to business. Phil is 68 years old. Dave D’Alessandro and others have talked about this, but what Phil is looking for is himself. Just…not him. He wants someone who knows what it means to win – someone who has experienced an NBA championship – and someone who can institute his triangle offense. Everyone in the media and frankly many of us neutral NBA fans would love to see Phil Jackson as an NBA coach again, especially coaching the Knicks. We’ve never seen him coach the Knicks before, so it would be new, and Phil is one of those compelling head coaches, right there with the Van Gundys, Popovich, Mourinho, Klinsmann and others for me, who can be insightful and tactically brilliant while also providing personality. That said, Phil Jackson has said he will not be coaching the Knicks, and he’s 68. He’s not coaching the Knicks. We need to stop acting like it’s a possibility.
- Oh, and some part of me isn’t giving up on the chance that Phil Jackson will be the head coach of the Knicks next season. So if you feel like giving up on this piece because I contradicted myself two bullets in, I totally understand.
- Let’s get back to Steve Kerr, because all of the discussion of Kerr is certainly part of what fueled this post’s creation. Steve Kerr is 48 years old and prior to his time as an analyst for Turner broadcasting (2003-07, 2010-2014), Kerr played in the NBA for 15 years from 1988-2003 and was one of the better shooters of his day. Phil coached him in Chicago from 1993-98, and Steve established his winning credentials with three NBA Championships as a member of the Bulls and two more as a player for the San Antonio Spurs. The time between his stints at Turner was spent as GM of the Phoenix Suns, marking a return to the team who drafted him. During his time as GM of the Suns, the team had a record of 155-91, making the playoffs two of three years and going as far as the Western Conference Finals in 2009-10 where they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers.
- All of this is to say that Kerr is a “basketball lifer” who has experience running a team but not as a head coach. And he knows what it means to win…but not as a head coach. So it was a relatively foregone conclusion Kerr would be hired as the Knicks head coach. Besides, when was the last time the Knicks hired a head coach who had won an NBA Championship? Oh…right…Isiah Thomas aside, Kerr was seen as a lock for the Knicks gig, until word started spreading that Mark Jackson could be fired in Golden State. You see, the one thing we haven’t mentioned is that Steve Kerr is a “West Coast guy.” I am a West Coast guy, so I know what that’s like. But then again, if Steve is a West Coast guy who has children at different schools in California, why did any of us think he would go to the Knicks anyway? All of our prior speculation aside, Steve Kerr is now being paid a lot of money – and has been given five years – to coach the Golden State Warriors.
- Let’s talk about Mark Jackson. Mark is not a West Coast guy. Mark was born and raised in Brooklyn, spent four years as a star at St. John’s in Queens, and was drafted by the Knicks where he became a star. After retiring following the 2003-04 season, Mark would find his way into broadcasting, first with the YES Network and later with ABC/ESPN. I was particularly fond of his work with Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy, as well as Jackson’s catch phrases like, “Mama there goes that man!” Jackson was always seen as one of those former point guards with a “High Basketball IQ” (wait, is he white?) however, and he had made it known he wanted to get into coaching. The Golden State Warriors gave him that opportunity when he was hired on June 6, 2011 as the first head coach under new owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber. Jackson inherited a Warriors squad that had reached the playoffs just once in the previous 17 seasons, but after one more dismal showing in his first year at the helm – Golden State finished 22-43 – Jackson led the Warriors to prominence. His team was fueled by “The Splash Bros.” – Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson – as well as the contributions of names like David Lee, Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes. In his second season, the Warriors finished 47-35 and reached the second round of the playoffs before losing to the San Antonio Spurs. What did Mark Jackson and his boys have in store this year? A season with a 51-31 record, the Warriors most wins in a season since 1991-92. Curry and Thompson were incredibly captivating, with Curry averaging 24.0 ppg, 8.5 apg and shooting 42% from 3-point range, while Thompson averaged 18.4 ppg and also shot 42% from beyond the arc. However, Andrew Bogut went down with an injury and the Warriors were unable to get past the Clippers in a contentious first round series. Couple that first round exit with the purported issues between Mark Jackson and Warriors management “on the business side” as he has said, and the result was his dismissal.
- That’s the background on Jackson, but you’re still left with a problem. One of those “this just doesn’t make sense” kind of problems. Mark Jackson came in and took a team that was a perennial also-ran and turned them into one of the best teams in the league. Not only that, the fan base was rejuvenated and from all accounts, every single player in that locker room had his back. Reggie Miller, in his numerous appearances on the Dan Patrick Show, went as far as to invoke one of my favorite cliches in saying that everyone in that locker room “would run through a brick wall” for Jackson (imagine someone running through a brick wall. I love it. So ridiculous). Mr. Lacob and Mr. Gruber, I don’t know what problem you guys had with Mark Jackson, but you should have found a way to get over it. Steve Kerr is coming in without any head coaching experience, and you want him to take this team to the next level?
- Which brings me to my other problem with the Golden State Warriors: I don’t think this team, as it is currently put together, is a championship team. They don’t have the intangible championship feel to them. This Warriors squad feels like a bunch of talented players who played their hearts out…and lost in the first round (to a team that then lost in the second round). Andre Iguodala, David Lee and Andrew Bogut aren’t getting any better, which is to say their best years are likely behind them. I could be proven wrong, however, if Harrison Barnes, Thompson and Curry continue to improve on both sides of the ball. They are the young core of this team. This much is for certain: as long as they have a competent coach who can get these guys motivated enough to play for him, there’s no reason why they can’t be one of the best squads in the Western Conference for years to come.
- Steve Kerr will be entering his first season as an NBA head coach without any NBA coaching experience, so I thought it would be interesting to see how that had worked out for other guys. Let’s examine how other NBA head coaches with zero NBA coaching experience – as a head coach or assistant coach – have fared in their first gig:
NBA Head Coaches with no prior coaching experience, assistant or otherwise, in their first stint as a Head Coach
|Bill Russell||Boston Celtics||1966-69||162||83||28||18|
|Lenny Wilkens||Seattle SuperSonics||1969-72||121||125||N/A||N/A|
|Al Attles||Golden State Warriors||1969-83||557||518||31||30|
|Don Nelson||Milwaukee Bucks||1976-87||540||344||42||46|
|Dave Cowens||Boston Celtics||1978-79||27||41||N/A||N/A|
|Dan Issel||Denver Nuggets||1992-95||96||102||6||6|
|Danny Ainge||Phoenix Suns||1996-00||136||90||3||9|
|Doc Rivers||Orlando Magic||1999-04||171||168||5||10|
|Isiah Thomas||Indiana Pacers||2000-03||131||115||5||10|
|Vinny Del Negro||Chicago Bulls||2008-10||82||82||4||8|
|Mark Jackson||Golden State Warriors||2011-14||121||109||9||10|
I should note that four coaches were purposefully omitted here; Scott Skiles was an assistant for the first 20 games of the 1999-00 season and took over on an interim basis. Kevin McHale, Kevin Pritchard and Kiki Vandeweghe all fit the bill as they had no coaching experience. However, they were all executives who fired their head coach and took over on an interim basis, and therefore they were also excluded. If you’ll excuse the formatting issues in regards to that table, I’d like to make some observations from the data above:
|Average regular season games coached:||356|
|Average number of seasons coached:||4 1/3|
|Chances of reaching playoffs:||81.8%|
|Average Regular season winning pct:||0.547|
|Average Playoff winning pct:||0.475|
So what I’m getting at here is that the whole “no NBA coaching experience” problem may not actually be that big of a problem. Mark Jackson did just fine, as did a number of other coaches on the list above. We’ll see how Kerr does as the Warriors head coach beginning next year, and we’ll touch on other moves in the NBA coaching realm in the coming days and weeks.