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Which NBA coaches have never played basketball? Do any have no court experience?

With the league fairly evenly split, we take a look at whether NBA playing experience necessary or even helpful, as an asset in a head coach

With the league fairly evenly split, we take a look at whether NBA playing experience necessary or even helpful, as an asset in a head coach
Dale ZanineUSA TODAY Sports

The most persistent of lies is the famous George Bernard Shaw line, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” No matter how many times it is shown to be simplistic tripe, it keeps bubbling up. Inhabiting our collective subconscious like a fungal infection. We automatically assume that our teachers were a failure in their chosen fields. Our society undervalues knowledge in a lopsided exchange for experience to a degree that has, on more than one occasion, left us handicapped and stunted. We are not, as the old advertisement goes, being all that we can be.

NBA coaching is one area that falls into the often-ignored grey area between teaching and doing. Some players would argue that they can only respect someone who knows the grind, and has been in the trenches as a player at the highest level. But there is a fly in the ointment here in that the truly great players are as great as they are, usually, by instinct. They can do things naturally that others can’t. But when you have that kind of ability, it is virtually impossible to put into words the mechanics of how your extraordinary feats are accomplished. You just “grip it and rip it.”

And this is why the best former-player-turned-coach tends to be, not stars, but guys who were fairly middling professional players. Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, George Karl, Rick Adelman, Rick Carlisle. All of these had solid playing careers, usually coming off the bench and usually with limited playing time. As coaches, they have definitely fared better. Phil Jackson won one NBA title as a player and 11 championships as a coach.

The league is fairly evenly split on the issue, with 16 current head coaches having spent time in the NBA as players against 14 who haven’t. It would be a mistake to suppose that those 14 had no playing experience at all, though. In fact, with the notable exception of Memphis Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins, who last played organized basketball in high school, every other man on this list has experience playing at NCAA level or in some cases international professional leagues.

Former Orlando Magic guard Arron Afflalo said, “It’s more of a communication thing. Sometimes former players relate to other players and sometimes guys who didn’t play in the NBA are just really great communicators and motivators. They know the game and know how to teach the game. Communication and accountability will always be the key with any coach.”

2022 NBA head coaches with NBA experience (14)

  • Nate McMillan (Atlanta Hawks)
  • Darvin Ham (Los Angeles Lakers)
  • Jacque Vaughn (Brooklyn Nets)
  • Tyronn Lue (Los Angeles Clippers)
  • Larry Drew (assistant coach Clippers)
  • Jason Kidd (Dallas Mavericks)
  • Dwane Casey (Detroit Pistons)
  • Steve Kerr (Golden State Warriors)
  • Rick Carlisle (Indiana Pacers)
  • Willie Green (New Orleans Pelicans)
  • Billy Donovan (Chicago Bulls)
  • Jamahl Mosley (Orlando Magic)
  • Doc Rivers ( Philadelphia 76ers)
  • Monty Williams (Phoenix Suns)
  • Chauncey Billups (Portland Trail Blazers)

2022 NBA coaches who never played in the NBA (16)

  • Joe Mazzulla played college basketball for West Virginia University (Boston Celtics)
  • Michael Malone played at Loyola University Maryland Greyhounds (Denver Nuggets)
  • Stephen Silas played at Brown University (son of coach Paul Silas) (Houston Rockets)
  • J.B. Bickerstaff played at Oregon State and finished his career at the University of Minnesota (Cleveland Cavaliers)
  • Taylor Jenkins played in high school in Dallas (Memphis Grizzlies)
  • Erik Spoelstra played at the University of Portland (Miami Heat)
  • Mike Budenholzer played at Pomona College before a professional career in Denmark and Scotland (Milwaukee Bucks)
  • Chris Finch played at Franklin & Marshall College before a professional career in Britain (Minnesota Timberwolves)
  • Tom Thibodeau played at Salem State College (New York Knicks)
  • Steve Clifford played at the University of Maine at Farmington (Charlotte Hornets)
  • Gregg Popovich played at US Air Force Academy and later on the US Armed Forces Basketball Team (San Antonio Spurs)
  • Will Hardy played at Williams College (Utah Jazz)
  • Wes Unseld Jr. played at Johns Hopkins University (Washington Wizards)
  • Nick Nurse played at University of Northern Iowa before a professional career in Britain (Toronto Raptors)
  • Mike Brown played at the University of San Diego (Sacramento Kings)
  • Mark Daigneault never played college basketball (Oklahoma City Thunder)

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