Once the province of ex-players and few others, the ranks of NBA head coaches have recently opened up to include a large number of coaching lifers, young upstarts who work their way from the video room to the top, and even one guy who went through that same process overseas. While many of the league's best coaches wore NBA uniforms for at least a few seasons each, it's far from a requisite. In some cases, that experience may even be a hindrance to getting a job.
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If front offices have no qualms about hiring coaches without playing careers to their names, then it's less clear what active players think about the situation. But at least one specifically asked his agents to seek out a team with a player-turned-coach.
Roy Hibbert, who was traded this month from the Indiana Pacers to the Los Angeles Lakers in a pure salary dump, says he was attracted to his new squad in part due to the presence of head coach Byron Scott, a 14-season NBA veteran who won three titles with the franchise. From an interview with David Aldridge of NBA.com (via PBT):
[Hibbert:] And I wanted to play for a coach who actually played in the league if I had my own choice. Not to say that Frank (Vogel) wasn't great. I had some real good times with Frank and we played well. But I told my agent that I possibly wanted to play for a coach that played in the league.
[Aldridge]: Why is that important to you?
RH: Just playing for BShaw (Brian Shaw, the Pacers' former associate head coach under Vogel), he went through the things that a player has gone through. He had a lot of real good insight to help myself, my game, with other guys on the court. Because he went through those things. And when you had two sets of four games in five nights, he was real with us. He would say, if I'm tired, you're tired. It's not a huge thing, but I'm really lucky to be in this position.
It's difficult to read these comments without assessing the coaching style of Scott, a notorious old-school thinker whose methods border on the cruel and absolutely venture into the unusual. The fact that Hibbert's agents could only find him a spot with Scott and the Lakers says more about the reputations of each party (a fallen All-Star and a downtrodden marquee franchise) than the merits of playing under a coach with a long and successful career as a player.
So, instead of mocking Scott and questioning the resume of respected Pacers coach Frank Vogel, let's take a look at what could possibly attract a player to a coach with the experience of the Lakers coach. Hibbert calls attention to the idea that Scott can empathize with his experiences during long road trips or after particularly taxing nights, both things that Vogel could understand intellectually but maybe not identify with on a personal level. The presence of Shaw on the Pacers staff for two seasons apparently gave Hibbert (and presumably others) an authority figure with some experience of their situations, even if he didn't serve as an outright confidant. Vogel, for all his talents (and Hibbert acknowledges them), could not partake in that conversation at quite the same level.
That's not to say that coaches with the experiences of Scott and Shaw are more qualified than non-athletes like Vogel, who has done much better than either member of that duo as a head coach. Rather, it seems that it is important to have someone on the staff who can identify with professional athletes, because they often need an outlet or someone who can understand them via an athlete's shorthand. At the same time, people like Vogel may bring an overarching tactical or strategic view of the game that players cannot always match.
To Hibbert's credit, he doesn't act as if one approach is necessarily better than the other. But his comments do express the need for some degree of balance.
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