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June 7, 2011

Mark Jackson and Coaching Neophytes

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 12:57 pm

ESPN’s Mark Jackson will switch sidelines next season after the Golden State Warriors hired him as their new head coach. Jackson takes over the Warriors with no coaching experience at any level, having gone directly into broadcasting after retiring in 2004. Naturally, this is not a typical career path. Friend of BP Nate Parham, writing on Golden State of Mind, found two direct comparisons: Doc Rivers, who worked for TNT before being hired by the Orlando Magic, and short-lived Dallas Mavericks coach Quinn Buckner.

In addition, Larry Bird had no coaching experience before taking over the Indiana Pacers. The examples of Rivers and Bird show that a stint on the bench is not a requirement for being effective as a head coach. Rivers won Coach of the Year in his first year on the sidelines, while Bird led the Pacers to the Eastern Conference Finals as a rookie coach and ultimately reached the NBA Finals in the last of his three seasons at the helm.

Bird’s success points to the importance of a veteran coaching staff for a new head coach to lean on as they are learning. Bird, a pioneer in terms of coaching coordinators, had current Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle in charge of Indiana’s offense and respected veteran assistant Dick Harter running the defense. That’s why the news later Monday evening that Michael Malone will join Jackson’s staff as lead assistant after interviewing for the top job was encouraging. Malone was a key assistant to Mike Brown in Cleveland before helping rookie head coach Monty Williams in New Orleans this season.

Jackson’s lengthy playing career and rapport with players around the league suggests he should be able to succeed in terms of managing players in the locker room. It will take more than that for him to win consistently, however. Rivers, long known as a players’ coach in something of a backhanded compliment, has become one of the NBA’s most skilled tacticians. He’s also demonstrated an openness to statistical analysis. By contrast, the philosophy Jackson has espoused on the airwaves for the last half-decade runs counter to much of what the APBRmetrics community holds to be true.

Perhaps Jackson was just being argumentative with Jeff Van Gundy all this time and really believes in a style of basketball with a stronger proven connection to winning. And maybe he will be able to lean on his coaching staff to make up for his own lack of experience on the bench. We can only evaluate this, or any hire, in likelihoods and not certainties. From that perspective, hiring Jackson appears to be an unnecessarily large risk with other, more proven candidates like Dwane Casey and Brian Shaw available.

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