When Jason Kidd made a fool of himself by intentionally spilling a drink to get an extra timeout, he cemented his status as a laughingstock just 17 games into his NBA coaching career. His attempt at playfully brushing it off (“I was never good with the ball”) was about as bald-faced a lie as could be told, and nobody—including the NBA league office, who fined him $50,000—was buying it.
Chalk it up to another bad moment in a coaching career already full of them for the future Hall of Famer. Kidd’s stint with the Nets has not gone well thus far; despite sky-high expectations after making a number of marquee acquisitions in the offseason, Brooklyn has limped to a 5-13 start amid numerous injuries and sniping in the media.
Kidd is just the latest in a long line of ex-star players who seemingly couldn’t hack it as coaches. Whether it’s Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, or now Kidd, it feels like, for some reason, these former superstars have some innate attribute that makes it incredibly difficult for them to succeed when they move into a head coaching position.
In the combined histories of the NBA and ABA 339 men have been named head coaches. Of them, 70 are currently enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Of those 70, 42 of them were inducted as players, with Kidd becoming the 43rd as soon as he is eligible.
Out of 42 HOF players turned coaches, only 16 have coached at least 82 games and own a lifetime winning percentage over .500.
Just because these guys were great players, though, does not mean that they will achieve the same kind of success on the bench. Just 16 have coached at least 82 games and own a lifetime winning percentage over .500. If you eliminate Lenny Wilkens (who throws off the curve with his 2,487 games coached, an NBA record), a Hall of Fame player can expect to average a total of 3.4 seasons on the bench. If you put Wilkens back in and look at the median seasons coached, the outlook is actually substantially bleaker than before, as a Hall of Fame player’s expected seasons on the bench goes down to 2.9.
As you run down the list of coaches who were star players and then flopped spectacularly in the coaching profession, it reads like a dream team spanning multiple generations. Here are just some of the legends you’ll see on this list of tremendous failures:
• George Mikan; career record: 9-30
• Bob Cousy; career record: 141-207
• Elgin Baylor; career record: 86-135
• Willis Reed; career record: 82-124
• Wes Unseld; career record: 202-345
• Magic Johnson; career record: 5-11
• Isiah Thomas; career record: 187-223
It seems like no matter what era a player starred in, his transition to coaching has been rocky at best. Going from a player that stands above his peers to someone who now has to take a backseat to many others clearly makes this transition difficult, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. The NBA has also seen a surprising number of player-coaches who, while still being star players, have likewise struggled on the bench. Player-coaches are a collective 1,644-1,805, although this practice has since been completely abandoned (the last player-coach was Dave Cowens with the 1978-79 Celtics).
Essentially, the data reinforces what we have noticed from years of watching the NBA: with a few exceptions, the all-time great players do not make for great coaches. A 2010 article by Dr. Sian Beilock in Psychology Today suggests that “As you get better and better at what you do, your ability to communicate your understanding or to help others learn that skill often gets worse and worse.”
While this certainly can explain why many guys fail, it does not account for those who succeed. Wilkens is regarded as one of the great coaches in history, Wilkens, Harry Gallatin, and Tommy Heinsohn were named Coach of the Year, and Heinsohn, K.C. Jones, and Bill Russell all won multiple NBA titles on the bench. Additionally, six Hall of Fame players who coached over 100 games own career winning percentages over .600.
A close look, though, will reveal that a lot of these successes were more a product of circumstance than anything else. While the longevity and success of Wilkens is the outlier, let’s take a look at some of the other notable coaching successes:
• Billy Cunningham: he had a 76ers team loaded with talent (Bobby Jones, Mo Cheeks, Dr. J, Moses Malone) that as a result made three Finals and won one title.
• Larry Bird: his Pacers teams were incredibly deep and loaded with veterans (Reggie Miller, Rik Smits, Mark Jackson, Derrick McKey, Chris Mullin) that provided stability, making one Finals.
• K.C. Jones: he had three guys named McHale, Parish, and Bird who formed arguably the greatest trio in basketball history, and forced everyone to fall in line behind them.
• Tommy Heinsohn: he landed Jo Jo White and Dave Cowens to go along with stalwart John Havlicek, playing a brand of small ball that confounded most of the league.
While all of these guys were undoubtedly great coaches, there also is a common theme emerging: the presence of numerous All-Star (or better)-caliber players. Basketball is ultimately a player’s game, and if you have an all-time great on your side it’s going to cover up a lot of deficiencies as a coach.
Guys like Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, and Jerry Sloan all enjoyed productive NBA careers, but they were not guys who carried their teams on a nightly basis.
To coach already established stars is, more than anything else, an exercise in managing egos. They’ve got the skills part figured out, so from there the coach just has to keep them happy and productive. The challenge for all coaches, though, is taking the raw talent of a new player and shaping that player into a future star.
As the Beilock article points out, that can be easier said than done for a retired great. They spent their whole careers being paid to not think about how they were able to perform on the court, and “when your performance flows largely outside of your conscious awareness, your memories of what you've done are just not that good.” To be able to teach those things to someone else in a relatable way can be nearly impossible.
While a 2008 Cornell University study suggested that retired NBA players in general do make successful coaches, the examples it cites are of players who, while very good players, were not Hall of Famers. Guys like Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, and Jerry Sloan all enjoyed productive NBA careers, but they were not guys who carried their teams on a nightly basis. Perhaps they lacked the self-possession and bullheadedness to make them stars, but it’s also because they lacked those traits that they were able to become three of the greatest coaches in league history.
And now we arrive back at Jason Kidd. Just 18 games into his coaching career, we aren’t even close to being able to write him off yet. There is literally no precedent for a player going straight from playing to being a head coach, which may in part explain his struggles.
Carmelo Anthony recently reiterated how important Kidd was to the Knicks’ success last year, and there was even a book written during Kidd’s playing days that gushed about his on-court leadership, so clearly there were legitimate reasons why he was hired and expected to do well. When combined with the lackluster record of his predecessors, though, Kidd’s inauspicious beginning does not bode well for a long and successful career as an NBA head coach.