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Does A Star Point Guard Really Need A Former Point Guard As His Coach?

When NBA teams hire head coaches, they’re not just looking for a person to organize the practice schedule and call the plays on game day. They’re also looking for a specific type of leader. Maybe they want a demanding tone-setter, like Tom Thibodeau. Perhaps they want a cheerful, measured type, like Mike D’Antoni. Maybe they think the best move is to hire someone steeped in the organizational culture and filled to the brim with corporate knowledge, like Erik Spoelstra. Or they might be after a youthful, teacher type who can focus on development, like Stephen Silas or James Borrego.

A lot of times, though, what they’re really searching for is a point guard.

Case in point: the Brooklyn Nets. General manager Sean Marks, in introducing Steve Nash as the team’s head coach last offseason, noted that the Nets “were looking not only for a connector, but for a conductor.” The implication was that the Nets wanted an off-the-floor point guard of the organization.

Other times, teams are more explicitly looking for a point guard. As in, an ex-NBA player who played the point during his career. Both Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Portland Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey specifically noted their new coaches’ experience as NBA point guards in explaining their respective hires of Jason Kidd and Chauncey Billups.

“Jason’s been a player’s coach. And he’s a point guard,” Cuban said during a podcast appearance. “You want somebody who can tell Luka [Dončić] where things are going to happen.”

“Chauncey checked a lot of the boxes. “We were looking for leadership, he’s renowned as one of the great leaders we’ve had in the NBA,” Olshey said during Billups’s introductory press conference…. “Obviously our two best players are guards like Chauncey. He can relate to them.”

It’s notable that both Dallas (Dončić) and Portland (Damian Lillard) have star point guards, and both teams zeroed in on former point guards as their preferred coaching candidates. Even as each team has faced scrutiny for their hires — Kidd pleaded guilty to charges of domestic violence, and Billups was accused of sexual assault — the Mavs and Blazers seem to believe that it’s essential to hire former point guards to elevate the play of their current point guards. It’s worth examining, then, whether there’s any evidence that ex-NBA point guards actually raise the game of the point guards they’re hired to coach.

To do this, we looked at all 239 NBA coaching hires since the 1999-2000 season, of which ex-NBA point guards accounted for 76, and the 599 point guards who played for them. And, well, there’s ample evidence that teams think ex-point guards are the best candidates to coach high-level current point guards, whether those players are early in their career or veterans. There’s just not much evidence to suggest those ex-point guards do any better than their non-point guard peers. In fact, there might be more evidence for the opposite conclusion.

On average, ex-point guards have taken over teams whose point guard units during the previous season outperformed the units of teams that hired a non-point guard as their coach, according to FiveThirtyEight’s overall RAPTOR metric. But while the incumbent point guards on teams that hired ex-point guards saw almost no change in their production the following season, the point guards on teams that did not hire an ex-point guard as their coach saw a bit of a bump. There was a similar trend among point guards who played on a different team, then came to a team coached by an ex-point guard. Players who went to a team not coached by a point guard saw less of a performance decline the following season.

PGs don’t see immediate gains under PG coaches

Year-over-year change in overall RAPTOR for point guards under newly hired coaches, by whether the player was new to the team and whether his coach had been a point guard himself, 2000-21

On team the year before Previous-year RAPTOR Year 1 RAPTOR Change
Coach was a point guard +1.47 +1.45 -0.01
Coach was not a point guard +0.61 +1.33 +0.72
New to the team Previous-year RAPTOR Year 1 RAPTOR Change
Coach was a point guard -0.15 -0.73 -0.58
Coach was not a point guard -0.70 -0.77 -0.07

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

Even limiting the scope to young point guards (age-25 and under in their first season under a new coach) reveals that ex-NBA point guards have been entrusted with better floor generals, but have not guided those players to as significant an improvement in performance as their non-point guard counterparts.

Young PGs gained more under non-PG coaches

Year-over-year change in overall RAPTOR for point guards in their age-25 season or younger under newly hired coaches, by whether the player was new to the team and whether his coach had been a point guard, 2000-21

On team the year before Previous-year RAPTOR Year 1 RAPTOR Change
Coach was a point guard -0.19 +0.20 +0.39
Coach was not a point guard -0.72 +0.81 +1.53
New to the team Previous-year RAPTOR Year 1 RAPTOR Change
Coach was a point guard -1.28 -1.20 +0.08
Coach was not a point guard -1.55 -0.31 +1.24

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

Of course, teams aren’t hiring coaches for just one season — at least, not ideally. They want those leaders to shepherd the team over the longer term. Still, even zooming out to examine point guard performance over a five-year span, the trends hold.

Whether we’re looking specifically at a team’s primary point guard or just at young point guards, ex-floor generals have taken over teams with better point guard play than their non-ex-point guard brethren. And yet, the point guards with whose development they’ve been entrusted have not shown as much Year 1 improvement — according to RAPTOR wins above replacement prorated to 82 games — as current point guards coached by non-ex-point guards, whether those coaches are ex-players at a different position or coaches who never played in the NBA at all. In the players’ Years 2 through 5 after that coaching hire — regardless of whether the player was still with the same coach — player improvement and decline moved at similar rates among young point guards, while primary point guards declined faster after the hiring of an ex-point guard coach than with any other coach.

There are outliers among each group, of course. Stephen Curry (under both Mark Jackson and Steve Kerr), Raymond Felton (Larry Brown), Ty Lawson (Brian Shaw) and John Wall (Scott Brooks) made big leaps under former point guards. But Chris Paul (under Monty Williams in New Orleans), Baron Davis (Tim Floyd), Kyrie Irving (Mike Brown) and Derrick Rose (Thibodeau) all did the same when coached by non-point guards. We can account for those most-improved PGs by using the median primary point guard, rather than the average, as our baseline, but that shows the same trend.

Perhaps that helps explain why in recent seasons, the share of leaguewide games coached by ex-NBA point guards has been steadily declining. Back in the 2001-02 season, ex-point guards coached 43.7 percent of all NBA regular-season games. By the 2019-20 season, that share of games plummeted all the way to just 17.2 percent. It ticked back up to 21.8 percent this season thanks to the hirings of Nash in Brooklyn and Ty Lue in Los Angeles, as well as the midseason promotion of Nate McMillan in Atlanta.

It’s notable, though, that this season, ex-point guard coaches saw more success than one might expect. While former NBA point men coached only 21.8 percent of all NBA regular-season games this season, their teams accounted for 25.5 percent of leaguewide wins. That differential of 3.7 percentage points is the largest (positive or negative) gap between the share of games and share of wins accounted for by ex-point guards this century.

Point guard coaches won more often this season

Different in share of regular-season wins over share of games coached for NBA head coaches who also played point guard in the NBA, 2000-21

Season Share of Games Share of Wins Diff
2020-21 21.76% 25.46% +3.70
2016-17 26.67 30.33 +3.66
2017-18 21.95 25.37 +3.41
2000-01 37.30 40.54 +3.24
2007-08 41.02 42.85 +1.83
1999-00 25.82 27.00 +1.18
2009-10 35.69 36.83 +1.14
2004-05 40.04 40.73 +0.69
2018-19 20.00 20.57 +0.57
2001-02 43.73 44.16 +0.42
2002-03 39.28 39.61 +0.34
2019-20 17.19 17.47 +0.28
2008-09 35.57 35.69 +0.12
2015-16 30.04 29.92 -0.12
2006-07 33.33 32.93 -0.41
2013-14 28.70 28.13 -0.57
2012-13 37.43 36.62 -0.81
2010-11 41.14 40.24 -0.89
2011-12 38.49 37.17 -1.31
2005-06 37.89 36.10 -1.79
2014-15 29.07 26.91 -2.15
2003-04 34.78 31.46 -3.32

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

With McMillan being elevated from interim to full-time head coach, plus Kidd and Billups landing in Dallas and Portland, ex-NBA point guards now hold eight of the 30 available head coaching jobs in the league. If they all last the full season, ex-point guards will have coached their greatest share of leaguewide games since the 2016-17 campaign.

The New Orleans Pelicans, Washington Wizards and Orlando Magic all still have open jobs as well. Each of the three teams has either a star point guard (Russell Westbrook) or a young point guard (or two) whose game needs to reach another level for the team to achieve its potential (Lonzo Ball, and Markelle Fultz and Cole Anthony). When deciding whether it’s necessary to hire a former point guard to shepherd that development, those teams may want to look at the track records of those who have been hired before.  

Neil Paine contributed research.



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