Thursday, July 14, 2011

Should Short Guys Rule Coaching?

It seems that the Detroit Pistons are planning to hire either Mike Woodson or Lawrence Frank as their new head coach.

Detroit's management interviewed Bill Laimbeer and Patrick Ewing, former All-Star centers who are currently NBA assistant coaches, but neither one seems likely to receive an offer. Meanwhile, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been a "special assistant" for the Lakers in recent years, but never received an offer to be a head coach anywhere. Laimbeer won three championships as head coach of the WNBA's Detroit Shock; Ewing and Abdul-Jabbar have helped to develop Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum into the league's best centers. But assistants they will remain.

NBA coaches tend to be former point guards: Maurice Cheeks, Scott Skiles, Scott Brooks, Avery Johnson, Jeff Van Gundy, Erik Spoelstra, Flip Saunders, Larry Brown, Doc Rivers, Mark Jackson, Nate McMillan, and the like. Occasionally shooting guards like Byron Scott or Rick Carlisle (or Woodson) do well as coaches, but we don't see many small forwards manning the sidelines (though Larry Bird did a good job in the last three years of the last millennium). And big men turned into coaches are rare: Phil Jackson and Bill Cartwright are the only two I can think of (there are surely more, which reveals my relative youth and the attendant limits of my hoops knowledge).

As active players, point guards tend to be the guys who direct an offense, orchestrating screens, cuts, dives, curls, and nifty passes. They also are primarily tasked with the intangible mission of convincing teammates to play together. These surely sound like skills that make a good coach. But consider the following points: First, the average NBA player is about 6'7"; a 6-foot-nothing point guard, as a coach, will have a difficult time relating to most of his roster. Second, while point guards know their O, defensive anchors are rarely guards, Kobe Bryant excepted. A team's defensive positioning tends to be directed by its most agile big man: Tyson Chandler, Kevin Garnett, Dwight Howard, Andrew Bogut, or in an earlier era, Olajuwon, McHale, Rodman, Oakley, Robinson. Why shouldn't one of these guys get to coach a whole team?

It's telling that a former power forward / center, Phil Jackson, won 11 of the available 20 championships from 1991 through 2010. To be fair, he was coaching Hall of Fame talents, but his success is at least not inconsistent with the idea that a big man can be a great coach. Why, then, cannot more tall ex-players get offers to coach? Perhaps the historic lack of interest by tall guys in basketball coaching contributes to a stigma when a Laimbeer or Ewing try to get into the game. Or perhaps there is substance behind the stereotype: Small guys who succeed as players in the NBA are likely there because they have been selected, in part, for their smarts and their leadership (Jameer Nelson hardly would be picked first in a streetball game); the pool of tall cagers is, perhaps, more randomly distributed in brainy attributes. Bigs can get by on sheer mass alone. But Laimbeer, Ewing, and Abdul-Jabbar are known as smart guys: Laimbeer ran a packaging company, Ewing led the players' union, and Abdul-Jabbar has written several books. So why not give them a chance? Those guys have 13 championships among them as players and coaches, and Ewing came close to nabbing two more.

Let the tall men reign!