Steve Kerr and Derek Fisher are the latest in a new trend of NBA head coaches receiving the keys to the car without the need for a learner’s permit. Both have not served apprenticeships on NBA benches despite their lengthy time in the league. While each have multiple rings and logged a lot of minutes in the NBA, does that equate to coaching success for their respective teams?
Compare Kerr and Fisher’s appointments with that of new Utah Jazz Head Coach Quinn Snyder. The former Dukie from Mercer Island, Washington was a coach on the rise when he was at the helm at the University of Missouri. Young, dynamic and with boyish good looks (and great hair), Snyder’s first two years at Missouri endeared him to the fans. Defeats of Kansas in consecutive years and NCAA tournament runs had Snyder a shooting star. However, problems with his managing of the program came to surface. He chose to resign amid controversy. He was jettisoned to coach the Austin Toros of the NBA’s Developmental League. Snyder traded in packed college arenas and hobnobbing with boosters for long bus rides and coaching in front of an empty gym.
Snyder re-emerged 3 years later as an assistant coach in the NBA in Philadelphia and Los Angeles before taking a job as a head coach…in Russia. Exiled to Siberia? Far from it as Snyder coached in the top league in the country and brought his team to the Final Four of its league championship. Snyder was brought back stateside to help on the Hawks bench before an opening with the Jazz.
We may also compare Kerr and Fisher with Chicago Bulls’ head coach Tom Thibodeau. His coaching career started as an assistant with Salem State University in 1981. He was not given a head coaching job in the NBA until 2010. That is a span of almost 30 years. Thibodeau spent over 20 of those wearing a suit as the guy behind the guy in the NBA. Talk about someone paying dues. For his toiling, Thibodeau was rewarded by being named NBA Coach of the Year in May 2011. Obviously, having a healthy Derrick Rose on your squad kind of helped. Still, Thibodeau is an example of paying dues, perseverance and hard work.
While not as green as the head man, David Blatt was made the next coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Despite having no NBA experience, the former Princeton Tiger, Blatt has served 20 years coaching in Europe including Israel, Greece, Russia and Turkey. Notably, Blatt coached Macabbi Tel Aviv to a EuroLeague title and the Russian National Team to a bronze model in the Summer Olympics in 2012. Suffice it to say, Blatt knows coaching and his credentials reflect his success. So, what does that say about Kerr and Fisher?
Kerr’s post-NBA career is known for being an NBA analyst on TNT broadcasts. He was a likeable on-screen persona alongside Marv Albert and offered good snippets of game analysis. Kerr served as consultant for one of his old teams, the Phoenix Suns. The Suns must have been impressed as the organization made Kerr its GM in 2007. As a result, Kerr left the comfy confines of a headset, to the daily worry of an NBA General Manager.
While Kerr may be green with the Xs and Os of in game coaching, he has ensured himself to be surrounded with knowledgeable counsel. Recently, he brought on board former-Suns/Clippers/Pistons and Heat head coach Alvin Gentry. A familiar face in an unfamiliar position, its likely Kerr will rely on Gentry, who was the Suns head coach during Kerr’s stint as the team’s GM for game preparation and in-game adjustments.
As for Fisher, having Phil Jackson as your boss has its advantages. He’ll be able to consult with Jackson on who should assist Fisher as coaches and which players will fit the triangle offense. And of course, try to persuade Carmelo to stay. As for disadvantages, the first questionable coaching decision or the first 3 game losing streak will likely have Knicks fans calling sports radio requesting the "Zen Master" return to the bench.
But does that mean Kerr and Fisher are undeserving of their new positions? Frankly, no one would turn the gig down if offered to them and if you can skip ahead of the line why wouldn’t you do it. Kerr actually had both Golden State and New York competing for his services. Fisher’s name surfaced to the top of New York’s list after Kerr chose the Warriors.
Next season Kerr and Fisher will experience their first time on an NBA bench but that does not mean they cannot do well. Recent history reflects that they can have instant success.
Mark Jackson coached the Golden State Warriors without the need to serve an apprenticeship. Jackson left his analyst gig with ABC where he became a household name with former Knicks head coach Jeff Van Gundy. The two were on-air magic and provided a "Kornheiser-Wilbon" like banter with Mike Breen often serving as the lead oar to steer the broadcast back to the game.
Despite the success as an analyst, which has to be less stressful than coaching an NBA team, Jackson was rumored to be in talks for the New York Knicks head coaching job. While it was not to be, he was named head coach of the Warriors in June 2011. Jackson had a down first year due to injuries and perhaps adjusting to the post. But, his second year proved to be a breakthrough as the Warriors were 47-35 and the Dubs had a successful playoff run. The team was one of the most exciting in the league and rode the wave of Stephen Curry’s sharp shooting. Jackson’s return to MSG that season exemplified why the Warriors were one of the hottest teams to watch. Curry was in a proverbial zone on his way to 54 points against the Knicks. Cameras captured Jackson’s in-game encouragement to his team and the world saw why, despite his lack of time as an assistant, he was the head guy.
But, as bold a passer Jackson was as a player, it did not translate to coaching as he rubbed people the wrong way. Instead of hiring assistants with an analytical coaching background, he chose to hire other recently retired players to his bench. This past season, he had run-ins with coaches and issues with management as a long-term deal with the club never came to fruition. Despite turning around a perennial loser, Jackson was out.
Last year, Jason Kidd was appointed as head coach of the New Jersey Nets. In the history of the ABA/NBA, Kidd became the third player to retire as a player and then be made head coach next season. With Fisher retiring this year from the Oklahoma City Thunder and coaching the Knicks next year, he will be the fourth. Unlike Jackson’s stay with the Warriors, Kidd had veteran players to help guide his team. Deron Williams, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett led the team and Kidd made the playoffs with a 44-38 record in his rookie year at the head of the bench. Kidd had his share of ups and downs as coach. Notably, Kidd displayed a forgettable display of poor sportsmanship and bad cover-up. In a regular season home game against the Los Angeles Lakers in which he was out of timeouts, Kidd asked his player Tyshawn Taylor to hit him while he walked passed his coach. In his hand, Kidd had a Diet Coke (or some other soda, although a Diet Coke seems best for this retelling). As Taylor passed, Kidd did a pratfall as if he was taking a charge. Ice and soda were on the floor and as ball boys and personnel attempted to clean up the mess, Kidd sought the stoppage to talk to his team. Kidd denied the allegation, but the NBA did not buy his accidental spillage and levied a $50,000 fine on him. In addition, he was ridiculed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg for the incident.
Despite this lack of professionalism in the one episode, Kidd displayed glimpses of effective coaching as he rallied his team from a poor start to the playoffs. Apparently, the Milwaukee Bucks were so impressed with Kidd that it decided to wrestle the first year coach away from the Nets. Not only did Kidd not have to spend time as an assistant coach, it only took a year for him to be "highly sought after." Of course, it is Milwaukee.
So what are we to make of the future of Kerr and Fisher? The NBA is a player’s league and the hiring of Kerr and Fisher is another example. Despite their lengthy playing careers and championships, neither has paid their dues like Snyder, Thibodeau or Blatt. But each are leaders and have the ability to communicate with players. There’s no coincidence that Kerr, Fisher, Jackson and Kidd were all point guards. Ok, Kerr was a shooting guard but you understand the point. Each set the floor for others while players; why not see if they can do it on the bench in a suit.