Coach McMillan Wonders If Guards Make Better Coaches

Mike Rice and Nate McMillan sitting side-by-side on a couch in a dark home theatre.  

Yes, that's the premise of a new television program from Comcast Sports Northwest.  A little creepy, sure, but oddly enthralling as the viewer gets to watch and listen as two coaches break down game tape.

In an episode that aired (re-aired?) last night, the two coaches raised a few questions:

  • Do former guards make the best NBA head coaches?
  • When was the last time a center was a successful head coach?

Thanks to Basketball Reference's data I ran a simple analysis to answer these questions.  

The answers aren't particularly shocking but are hopefully more interesting than the 385th iteration of an Andre Miller - to - Portland rumor.

Click through for the results.

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Note: Basketball Reference lists regular season stats  for 285 NBA head coaches.  The following analysis is limited to the 112 of these coaches that have 100 or more wins in their NBA careers.  Coachers are considered to be former players if they played in the NBA, ABA or the BAA (precursor to the NBA). Playoff results are not included.

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Before we look at which position enjoys the most success as an NBA Head Coach, we should briefly look first at a larger dichotomy: former players vs. non-former players.

Are Former NBA/ABA Players Better Coaches Than Non-Former Players?

  • There are 112 NBA coaches with at least 100 wins. 68 are former players; 44 are non-former players. The following table compares the two groups' wins/losses/winning percentage.
Nmchart1_medium
  • Of the top 25 winningest head coaches, 14 are former players, 11 are non-former players.
  • The top 6 most winningest coaches in NBA history are former players. 
  • 7 of the top 10 most winningest coaches are former players.
  • Note: both groups listed above are able to have >50% winning percentages because this includes only those coaches with >100 wins. As you might imagine, coaches with <100 wins helped boost the winning percentages of both groups shown above. 

Which position makes the best NBA head coach?

OK, now to tackle Coach McMillan's questions.

As stated, there are 68 NBA coaches with more than 100 wins. The following table breaks these 68 coaches down into their positions and compares their wins/losses and winning percentage by position. All positional designations were pulled from Basketball-Reference and/or wikipedia.

Nmchart2_medium 

  • Clearly, former guards have overwhelmingly dominated other positions.
  • Interestingly, though, forwards have actually outperformed all other positions when it comes to winning percentage: 57%.  

The following chart condenses the data slightly to help show just how dominant guards have been as coaches.  

Nmchart3_medium

  • For NBA coaches that were former players and have 100 or more victories, former guards have more wins and more games coached than all other positions combined.

Are there any Centers coaching? How successful have Centers been?

  • Only 5 true centers have more than 100 career victories: Bill Russell, Joe Lapchick, Wes Unseld, Dave Cowens and Harry Gallatin.  
  • From that list, Only Unseld (last coached in 1994) and Cowens (last coached in 2001) could be considered "modern." 
  • The "forward/center" designation list includes Dan Issel, Tom Heinsohn, Dolph Schayes and Ray Scott in case you feel there was a center's name missing from the list above. 
  • Issel is by far the most "modern" name from that list, having last coached in 2002.

Nate Notes

  • Coach McMillan is currently 37th on the list of most NBA victories as a head coach.  
  • Only 11 former guards have more career wins than Coach McMillan: Lenny Wilkens, Larry Brown, George Karl, Rick Adelman, Gene Shue, Mike Dunleavy, Al Attles, KC Jones, Kevin Loughery, Larry Costello, Doc Rivers.

Conclusions

Among NBA Coaches with >100 victories...

  • Former players have outperformend non-players. 
Among NBA Coaches with >100 victories that were former players...
  • More former guards have had long, successful NBA coaching careers than any other position.
  • Former forwards enjoy a better winning percentage than any other position. 
  • Former centers are a rare breed with very little recent success. 

-- Ben (benjamin.golliver@gmail.com)

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