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Becoming a Head Coach

by Bill Lea

By David Locke - Locked on Jazz

What does someone need to be a head coach? If someone says he is ready to be a head coach, what does that mean? Over the last few weeks, I have identified 42 successful current and former NBA head coaches.

These 42 coaches have each been a head coach sometime in the last 30 years. Almost all of them have won at least half of their games and won more than 200 games. The exceptions are those coaches who are still too early in their careers or those who quit too early (e.g. Larry Bird, Danny Ainge) to have won 200 games. In addition, I included Bill Fitch and Dick Motta—both of whom won less than half their games but also won more than 900 games.

Each of these coaches, with the possible exception of Jerry Sloan, were successful in his first stop as a NBA head coach.

Looking at the path of these 42 coaches, who on average won 58 percent of their games and nearly 600 in their careers …

  • 24 of the 42 (57 percent) had some sort of head coaching experience prior to their first NBA head coaching job.
  • 14 coaches (33 percent) were college head coaches who became NBA assistant coaches before being hired as an NBA head coach.
  • 10 of the 42 successful coaches (24 percent) were minor league head coaches who became NBA assistant coaches before being hired as an NBA head coach.
  • A head coach who was good at his previous head coaching job is almost always good again at his next job.
  • Eight of the 42 successful coaches (19 percent) are former players who moved on to the NBA bench as an assistant coach and then became an NBA head coach without any head coaching experience.
  • Nine former NBA players have become a head coach without any other coaching experience.
  • Only three coaches (Frank Vogel, Jeff Van Gundy and Erik Spoelstra) have gone from being an NBA assistant without head coaching experience to being a successful NBA head coach.
  • Almost zero coaches, other than maybe Jerry Sloan, have moved into the successful category after an initial unsuccessful first attempt as a head coach.
  • Paul Westphal is the only successful coach to move straight from college without any NBA coaching experience (though Westphal was a longtime NBA player).
  • Only Mike D’Antoni, Avery Johnson and Paul Westphal have been successful in their first stint as a head coach and then unable to replicate that in their next jobs—22 of the possible 25 coaches who were good in their first job were good again.


  • It’s important for your new head coach to have been a head coach at some level of basketball prior to his first NBA job.
  • Former NBA head coaches who were successful in their first job or two will more often than not be successful again.

Coaches Who Fit First Conclusion

Current NBA assistant coaches with head coaching experience (years of head coaching experience):

  • Nick Nurse, Toronto Raptors assistant, European and D-League head coach (19 years)
  • Brad Jones, Utah Jazz assistant, College and D-League head coach (11 years)
  • Quinn Snyder, Atlanta Hawks assistant, D-League and College head coach (10 years)
  • Jim Boylen, San Antonio Spurs assistant, College head coach (4 years)
  • Pat Delany, Miami Heat, D-League head coach (3 years)
  • Darvin Ham, Atlanta Hawks assistant. former NBA player, D-League head coach (3 years)
  • Alex Jensen, Utah Jazz assistant, D-League head coach (2 years)
  • Jay Larranaga, Boston Celtics assistant, D-League head coach (2 years)
  • Nate Tibbets, Porltand Trail Blazers assistant, D-Leauge head coach (2 years)
  • Dale Osbourne, Portland Trail Blazers assistant, D-League head coach (1 year)
  • Taylor Jenkins, Atlanta Hawks assistant, D-League head coach (1 year)

Coaches Who Fit Second Conclusion

Successful former NBA head coaches who are not a current head coach (wins, winning percentage):

  • Stan Van Gundy (371 wins, .640 winning percentage)
  • George Karl (1,131 wins, .600 winning percentage)
  • Avery Johnson (254 wins, .580 winning percentage)
  • Jeff Van Gundy (430 wins, .580 winning percentage)
  • Mike D’Antoni (455 wins, .520 winning percentage)
  • Lionel Hollins (214 wins, .520 winning percentage)
  • Nate McMillan (478 wins, .510 winning percentage)
  • Scott Skiles (443 wins, .510 winning percentage)