Former Players From 1980s, 1990s Becoming Key Coaches In NBA
(Updated: March 23, 2014 prior to the Phoenix Suns game against the Timberwolves at Target Center with added input from Jeff Hornacek)
(Feb. 20, 2014) Tyrone Corbin played for nine franchises between 1985 and 2001, including a stint with the Timberwolves early in franchise history. He's one of 13 current NBA coaches who played in the league between 1985 and 1995. The Wolves will take on his Utah Jazz on Saturday--he's the first of three former players from that era coaching teams on Minnesota's upcoming five-game road trip. (Photo credit: NBAE/Getty Images)
Kevin Durant likes the feistiness, the intensity, he sees in his coach Scott Brooks. There’s a competitiveness inside Brooks that continues to fuel him on the sideline long after his playing days ended. So much so that Durant joked if he wanted to use his super-stretch reach and challenge the 5-foot-11 Brooks in a fistfight, he suspects his head coach would be up to the challenge.
“He wouldn’t back down,” Durant said. “That’s the type of coach you respect. A guy who played in the league as a journeyman who worked his way up. He did the same thing as a coach.”
At All-Star Weekend in New Orleans, Brooks and Durant were present, side-by-side, as the three-time scoring champion bolstered the Western Conference’s starting lineup while his coach led from the sidelines—the Thunder entered the All-Star Break with the West’s top record. Brooks made the transition from player to coach seamlessly, once a role player who admits he didn’t plan on making it 10 years in the league that began learning from Bill Musselman and Rudy Tomjanovich while he was still wearing those short shorts of the late 1980s and early 1990s. He knew at one point he’d like to try his hand at coaching, and his playing days opened up an avenue to do just that.
[Pictured, at right, Scott Brooks as a player and a coach]
He’s not alone. Brooks is one of 16 head coaches currently in the league who once played in the NBA. Of those 16 coaches, 13 of them played at least a portion of their career between 1985 and 1995, a stretch known for its physical play, its bright personalities and the league’s coming of age into the international machine it is today.
The Wolves will see three of these coaches on the upcoming five-game road trip beginning Saturday, including Tyrone Corbin in Utah, Jeff Hornacek in Phoenix and Brian Shaw in Denver.
"I think that era, I think the guys knew how to play the game," Hornacek said. "I think the late 80s and early 90s, you look at the one Dream Team. They were athletic, they knew how to play the game. That era, you couldn't play the game during that time if you didn't know how to play, because those guys would kill you. That's probably why a lot of those guys are coaching now."
The players from that era played a smash-mouth, physical brand of basketball that permeated through the league. When you crossed the paint, you expected a hefty blow from an enforcer at the power forward position. When you touched the ball on the perimeter, you received a hand check or a little bump even before you put the ball on the floor. That era of basketball, while different than today in so many ways, produced a collection of coaches who understand the rigors of the sport, how to relate to their players and how to infuse a personality within their clubs that help produce success.
You look around the league and you see it. Kevin McHale was one of the toughest players of his era. He finished out a postseason on a fractured foot en route to another deep Celtics playoff run. During his prime, he was one of the most difficult low-post players to stop, and he did it night in and night out.
Today, he’s a coach with a 154-141 career record. He’s held a record above .500 in four of his five seasons on the bench, and he’s 36-17 with the Rockets this season with a remodeled team revolving around Dwight Howard and James Harden. His style, and the respect he gets in the locker room, run in part through his storied playing days in the 1980s.
[Pictured, at right, former players/current coaches Doc Rivers and Kevin McHale]
“He’s cut off the old cloth,” Harden said. “He’s going to tell you stories about what he used to do and, you know, how he played and how we need to be more physical. He’s going to give it to you straight up. That’s the kind of leadership we need, especially young guys. Straight up and not sugarcoat anything—just go out and get it done.”
Go down the list and check out the former players now walking the sidelines. Along with Brooks and McHale, Corbin, Hornacek and Shaw, you’ll find Jason Kidd (Brooklyn), Rick Carlisle (Dallas), Mark Jackson (Golden State), Doc Rivers (Los Angeles Clippers), Mike D’Antoni (Los Angeles Lakers), Larry Drew (Milwaukee), Rick Adelman (Minnesota), Monty Williams (New Orleans), Mike Woodson (New York), Jacque Vaughn (Orlando) and Randy Wittman (Washington) all in head coaching positions. All but D’Antoni, Adelman and Vaughn played in the late-80s and early-90s.
That’s a pretty unique group that makes up more than 1/3 of the league. Former players who were teammates and friends with these guys love seeing it. Dominique Wilkins, for example, played under Mike Fratello with Rivers and Wittman. Now he gets to see his former teammates coach in the league each night.
“What they’ve done as coaches, and both of them are having winning years,” Wilkins said. “It’s nice to see how far they’ve come, but I always knew those guys were coaches.”
So what’s the main thing these coaches can bring to their positions? And how have they blended the lessons from their own era into today’s game?
First off, former players instantly have something that bonds them with their players. They’ve played the game, and they understand what athletes go through on a regular basis. They understand the rigors of learning schemes, and they know when to push athletes physically and when to hold back.
When it comes to blending the game’s Xs and Os, it’s not exactly a perfect fit. Today’s game is so much different than the game these players played in the 1980s and 1990s. There is no illegal zone defense today, and the rules are also far different when it comes to hand checks, the physicality allowed for defensive players and emphasis on the outside game compared to the interior play of old.
Back then, bigs inside let you know when you were crossing the paint. Wolves assistant coach Terry Porter, who was a head coach for Milwaukee and Phoenix prior to his position in Minnesota, said the number of pick-and-rolls today compared to the post-up touches from back then has really become far more prevalent. In the late 1980s and early 1990s when the Blazers—led by current Wolves coach Rick Adelman—were at their best, Portland would feed Kevin Duckworth and Buck Williams inside and build off that through the athleticism of Porter and Clyde Drexler.
When Adelman moved on and had those successful years in Sacramento, he adapted and evolved. Porter said that’s important for all coaches. Today, you see players from that era mixing in what they learned as players with the style and new analytics of today’s game.
Mavs forward Dirk Nowitzki said Carlisle, for instance, has a great blend of both.
“He’s definitely old school in some ways, but then some of the newer stuff with the analytics, with the points per possession, you know what lineup was the best plus/minus, some of that stuff they didn’t do back in the day,” Nowitzki said. “He’s got a good mix of having an old-school mentality but using the new tools that are available now to make us the best team. And I think some of that stuff helped us in it all in 2011. Some of the combinations of players that we got that year and some of the lineups that we put out there was a tribute to us knowing and using some of the newer tools.”
[Pictured, at right, Brian Shaw as a player and a coach]
Shaw was an assistant in the league with the Lakers and Pacers for eight years after finishing his NBA career that spanned 1988 through 2003. He was revered as an up-and-coming assistant rumored for head positions around the league, and he finally landed in Denver after the Nuggets parted ways with 1,000-win coach George Karl this offseason.
Shaw said he embraces analytics as a means for confirming things they’ve noticed through old-school scouting. It’s definitely used with the Nuggets. From a learning perspective, though, Shaw said he is happy he was able to play in the era of basketball he did. It gave him an appreciation for the game and certainly helped him study basketball. He brings that with him now that he is coaching in the league.
NBA legend Karl Malone played during that same era. He’s not currently affiliated with the league, but he played for a legend in Jerry Sloan who was a player himself and understood the game from a player’s perspective. Sloan was hard-nosed and as old school as they come, but so was Malone—he admits he still is. And that connection to the players goes a long way.
Malone, for instance, said if a coach or general manager was going to chime in on how he prepared for the game, including the type of analytics and training used today, that person had better played the game before—if not in the pros, then in college or grew up with a father as a coach who knew the game from Day 1. If not, it was falling on deaf ears.
“A GM or a coach can’t tell me [anything] if he ain’t played it. So I won’t even listen to him,” Malone said over All-Star Weekend. “Now, if coach Sloan, who played? The Larry Birds, the Magic [Johnsons], the people who played the game? I’ll listen.”
That’s an extreme example from a Hall of Famer, but it shows the connection former players have as coaches to current players. Adelman is one in Minnesota—he played in the 1960s and 1970s before getting his first shot in the NBA alongside the legendary Dr. Jack Ramsay. And he coached through the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and today as a player’s coach who understood what his players went through on a daily basis.
The players from that 1980s and 1990s era have the grit it took to play in that league, and they bring the experiences with them to today’s game.
“I think ex-players being coaches, you kind of understand what guys go through night in and night out,” said Dell Curry, who played against the majority of these coaches in that 1980s-90s era. “You relate to players a lot easier. You tailor your schemes to maybe give your players an edge. But I love the fact that you’re seeing a lot of ex-players commit themselves. Paid their dues, and when they get an opportunity to succeed—what Jeff Hornacek is doing is tremendous.”
[Pictured, at right, Jeff Hornacek as a player and a coach]
They’re having success, too. Seven of the current 13 head coaches in the league who played in that mid-1980 to mid-1990s era are in the playoffs as of this week. Hornacek is one on this road trip that is in that group—his Suns were a top-5 lottery pick last year and expected to rebuild again in 2013-14, but they’ve been in the playoff mix since the early parts of the season.
Where those teams end up this year and how many more former players from that era rise into head coaching positions is to be determined. For now, though, it’s a becoming an impressive fraternity that is taking its experience and determination from one of the league’s most celebrated eras into a new generation of NBA basketball.
“It’s always nice to see success when they move forward and they retire,” Porter said. “It’s nice to see those guys you competed against and battled against, moving on to have success at different levels on the basketball court. There’s a ton of guys that you talk about competing against and obviously really respected a lot, but it’s nice to see them go out and have success.”