Before the 2014-15 NBA season began, a complete stranger hacked into my SB Nation account and penned an absurdly ridiculous article under the credit of "Andrew Feinstein" questioning whether or not coaching really matters in the NBA. The author (whoever the hell that idiot was) was arguing that with the NBA being a players' league first and foremast, coaching matters very little - i.e. LeBron James and Tim Duncan can make Erik Spoelstra and Gregg Popovich, respectively, look like coaching geniuses, whether they are indeed or not.
While I agree with the mystery author of that column that, ultimately, an NBA coach is only as good as the talent on his roster, there's no question that a good coach can buy you extra wins that you'd otherwise not expect. Just as a crummy coach can cost you multiple would-be victories throughout an NBA season (and post-season).
Less than 10 games into the 2014-15 NBA season it has never been more apparent that coaching really does matter in the NBA.
And it matters a lot.
For example, it's inconceivable that the Nuggets' own head coach, Brian Shaw, can deliver a 1-6 record out of the gate with a roster of talented, young, athletic players - in his second year with essentially the exact same roster from the previous season, no less. And it's not just Shaw's early regular season record which is dreadful but the manner in which his Nuggets are losing. Of those six losses, five have been by nine or more points, five have seen the Nuggets' opponent put up 110 or more points and three were at home ... lest we forget that the 2012-13 Nuggets lost three home games all season long.
And while this version of the Denver Nuggets were besieged by multiple injuries last season, which derailed whatever playoff hopes they might have had, there are no injury or "getting to know the roster" excuses to point to this season. If anything, the 2014-15 Denver Nuggets should be markedly better than the previous season's product and yet they appear to be playing in the same sluggish and confused manner that the fans experienced last season. Equally inconceivable is how Shaw, a 14-year NBA veteran and a multi-season NBA assistant coach, including several sitting alongside 11-time NBA champion Phil Jackson during the Lakers' second championship run on Jackson's watch, seems completely unable (thus far) to push the buttons necessary to get the deep and talented Nuggets to play above the NBA pack.
Meanwhile, Shaw's former Lakers teammate Derek Fisher has "coached" the New York Knicks to a 2-7 record, including a six-game active losing streak of his own, despite a) having not faced a single Western Conference opponent, and b) playing half of those games inside the friendly confines of Madison Square Garden. Interestingly, Shaw and Fisher will face off in New York on Sunday, and given that the NBA doesn't allow for ties one of them will finally increase his wins record this season.
But perhaps Shaw and Fisher, like so many ex-Lakers players before them, are just part of a broader and yet quite dubious historical NBA oddity: could it be possible that ex-Lakers simply make crummy head coaches?
Let's examine the evidence.
The following is a list of every former Los Angeles Lakers player since 1970 who became an NBA coach after his playing career (in Los Angeles and elsewhere) was over and his accompanying record as an NBA head coach. Asterisks denotes current head coaches.
Elgin Baylor 86-135 (.389)
Butch Carter 73-92 (.442)
Wilt Chamberlain 37-47 (.440)
Don Chaney 337-494 (.406)
Jim Cleamons 28-70 (.286)
Michael Cooper 4-10 (.286)
Adrian Dantley 11-8 (.579)
Larry Drew 143-169 (.458)
Derek Fisher 2-7 (.222)*
Lindsey Hunter 12-29 (.293)
Magic Johnson 5-11 (.313)
Eddie Jordan 257-343 (.428)
Larry Krystkowiak 31-69 (.310)
Kurt Rambis 56-145 (.279)
Pat Riley 1210-694 (.636)
Byron Scott 417-527 (.422)*
Brian Shaw 37-52 (.416)*
Jerry West 145-101 (.589)
Brian Winters 36-148 (.196)
Excluding the legendary Pat Riley (who belongs on the NBA's "Mount Rushmore" of head coaches alongside Popovich, Jackson and Red Auerbach) and his astounding 1210-694 coaching record, former Lakers-turned-head-coaches have collectively produced a record of 1,717-2,457 (.411). And that doesn't include the late, great George Mikan - the NBA's first true superstar - who, after winning five championships as the starting center for the then-Minneapolis Lakers, coached those same Lakers to a 9-30 record during the 1957-58 season.
One would think, given that the Lakers franchise has participated in nearly half of the NBA Finals ever conducted since joining the NBA in 1948, that the NBA's glamour franchise would turn out great head coaches. Remarkably, as you can clearly see above, it's quite the opposite. It's as if playing for the Lakers almost guarantees that you'll be a crappy head coach in the NBA when your playing days are over.
How is that possible?
One theory I have is that it's not uncommon for great players and former champions to make exceptionally unsuccessful head coaches in the NBA. With the exceptions of Jerry West and Larry Bird (both of whom smartly exited coaching after three successful seasons apiece from the bench) and Bill Russell (successful coaching in Boston, average in Seattle, disaster in Sacramento), many championship caliber players have failed as head coaches, and failed miserably, including the aforementioned ex-Lakers Baylor (86-135), Chamberlain (37-47) and Johnson (5-11) in addition to players of their ilk like Isiah Thomas (187-223), Bob Cousy (141-207), Clyde Drexler (19-39 at the University of Houston), Dan Issel (180-208), Wes Unseld (202-345), Dave Cowens (161-191) and Willis Reed (82-124). Those guys were so so so great as players that I can only surmise that it must have been impossible for them to understand how the average NBA player couldn't be as great as they were when they played. Or how the modern day star player didn't work as hard as they did. And so on. In other words, for whatever reason many great players of yesteryear simply couldn't relate to the modern day players (of their respective coaching eras) that they coached and thus, failed as head coaches. It's just a theory, but now you see why no one is lining up to hand Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Patrick Ewing head coaching positions anytime soon.
Conversely, many hard scrabble role players who played for championship-caliber teams have become great and successful head coaches, such as coaching legends like Riley and Jackson in addition to the likes of Rick Carlisle, Lionel Hollins, K.C. Jones and Don Nelson. And even some hard scrabble former role players who never tasted a professional basketball championship as players became great head coaches, like former Nuggets head coaches George Karl, Larry Brown and Doug Moe in addition to terrific modern era coaches like Rick Adelman, Jerry Sloan, Doc Rivers and Rudy Tomjanovich (although Tomjanovich was a five-time NBA All-Star and Brown and Moe appeared in three ABA All-Star games each).
And yet if you re-visit the above list of former Lakers-turned-NBA-head-coaches above, despite getting a little bit of everything - superstars (Magic, Wilt, Baylor, West), All-Stars (Dantley), excellent role players (Scott, Cooper) and hard scrabble role players (Fisher, Rambis, Shaw, etc.) - by and large they've all stunk as NBA head coaches.
Just ask Nuggets fans: after 14 games with the ex-Laker defensive specialist Cooper as interim head coach in 2005, Coop was removed altogether when Karl was hired (under Karl, the Nuggets went on to win 32 of their remaining 40 games ... an NBA record for a mid-season coaching replacement). Dantley, who had a brief playing stint with the Lakers in the late 1970s, took over the Nuggets coaching reigns from a cancer-stricken Karl in 2010 and "guided" the fourth-seeded Nuggets to a first round loss to the fifth-seeded Utah Jazz despite having home court advantage. And of course there's Shaw, who nearly challenged former Nuggets (and, coincidentally, former Lakers) head coach Paul Westhead on Wednesday evening for the most points given up in a half by the Nuggets when his squad allowed the traveling Portland Trail Blazers to put up 84 points in just 24 minutes of game time. At least Westhead's Nuggets knew how to run (sorry, had to!).
So I'll ask the question again: why do ex-Lakers make such bad NBA head coaches?
I think it goes back to the Lakers' franchise's remarkably high number of NBA Finals appearances (31) since they joined the league in 1948 as the Minneapolis Lakers. Just like those star Lakers players such as Magic, Wilt, Baylor and Mikan probably had trouble relating to modern (in their coaching days) NBA players, I suspect so too did the Lakers role players who experienced a multitude of post-season successes even if they were just riding the bench or contributing in small ways alongside those megawatt superstars. Perhaps the great Lakers coaches of their respective eras, like John Kundla, Fred Schaus, Bill Sharman, Riley and Jackson - and the great players they coached like Mikan, Baylor, West, Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson, James Worthy, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant - just made coaching look easier than it really is. Whereas role players on average teams, like Karl, Adelman, Sloan, etc. witnessed first hand the work ethic and ingenuity that has to go into every practice, every game and every off-season just to eke out a few extra wins. It's questionable if former Lakers ever learn those skills while playing with consistently successful results.
Could it be that former Lakers players are simply too spoiled by their playing success to become decent head coaches?
Consider the Nuggets' own Shaw again. Remember midway through last season when Shaw appeared to have lost his locker room and went as far as going on the radio to berate his own players for things including the cleanliness of their seats on the team's private plane? And then he followed that up by banning pizza and nachos from the locker room? It was hard to argue with anything Shaw said, did or even his general point of view on professionalism in the NBA. But in light of last season's disappointing 36-46 record (snapping the Nuggets' consecutive 10-year post-season appearance streak) and this season's disastrously uninspired 1-6 start, one has to wonder whether or not Shaw realizes that the 2013 through 2015 Nuggets will never be like the 2000 through 2003 Lakers Shaw previously played for or the 2007 through 2010 Lakers whom Shaw previously assistant-coached for. There are no superstar (or even All-Star) alpha males in this Nuggets locker room, and thus it's incumbent upon Shaw to develop leaders and get the Nuggets to play cohesively together for the greater good. You know, all that strength in numbers stuff that Nuggets fans (including me) have openly and enthusiastically bought into but their very own head coach doesn't appear to understand.
Just shy of 90 regular season games into his head coaching career, it's possible (although highly improbable) that Shaw will right a Nuggets ship that he himself has veered dramatically off course. But the early returns on Shaw's coaching - combined with the shoddy track record of former Lakers as head coaches throughout NBA history - rightfully has Nuggets fans everywhere on high alert. And should Shaw not stick around for the long term here in Denver as the Nuggets head coach, I can only give the organization one piece of advice with their next coaching hire.
Don't hire an ex-Lakers player.