My Coach Is Better Than Your Coach: A Scientific Look at Leadership in the NBA


Yesterday I stepped on an American Airlines flight and was met by the pilot who was standing at the front of the plane greeting passengers as they boarded.  The pilot, who appeared to be in his early 50s with streaky gray hair, wore his tie high and tight.

The pilot, by now I see his name is David, looks a bit too much like broadcast legend Tom Brokaw.  So much in fact that I literally rechecked his name tag.  I don’t mean to turn this column into a diary entry, but there is a point.  This man looked the part.  I want my pilots to appear well experienced.  I want them to look like they’ve dealt with about every scenario that one could encounter in flight.  If I look older than the pilot I start to get nervous.

“Hey, that guy is about my age, does he watch The Family Guy too?”

I need my pilot studying flight manuals at night, not watching cartoons.

I want him to put out the air of confidence that forces me to trust him with my life.  I don’t want to see a fidgety guy up there.  Pilot Dave stood there, back straight, and gave you that look that commanded you to focus in your job of being a rider on this ship, and don’t worry about what goes on up here in the cockpit.  I’ve got this.

The parallel to an NBA coach is pretty obvious.  A coach has to look the part or the experiment won’t work.  The American Library Association, backed by a series of expert references that would make your head explode, put out a list on the physical attributes if leaders.

From that list, this main factor stands out:

A. Vitality – the state of being strong, active and/ or fit; having energy

If we look around the Association and use this study as an initial sifter, can we identify a true leader and HOF head Coach?  Let the experiment begin.

The following coaches fail the leadership experiment:

  1. Stan Van Gundy, Detroit Pistons – While certainly not appearing the most physically fit, Van Gundy also has a history of lacking scene-control (see career in Orlando).
  2. Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls – Thibodeau always appears on the brink of a collapse.  The constant screaming cannot be good for one’s health.
  3. Kevin McHale, Houston Rockets – While a legend in this league, McHale does not always have the appearance of someone currently in a state of life.
  4. Flip Saunders, Minnesota Timberwolves – At 5’11” Saunders projects a bit more Al Bundy than trusted leader.

Furthermore, the study lists several other attributes of leaders, that affect appearance, but are inwardly focussed.  In the following categorical view, we continue sifting through the NBA coaching ranks.

B. Emotional – Courage, not paralyzed by the fear of failure; Not intimidated by superiors; Ambitious; Perceived by others as constant and reliable, picks a position and sticks with it

The following coaches fail:

  • Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics – Stevens is chasing a legacy.  If you’re name isn’t Auerbach or Rivers in Boston, you are going to have a tough time.  He is clearly intimidated by his superiors in Danny Ainge.
  • Steve Clifford, Charlotte Hornets – In his first head coaching shot after a history as an assistant, Clifford looks great as a coach.  However, there is the master-intimidator in Charlotte, Michael Jordan.  When players come to the arena, who has the front parking spot?  Clearly Jordan does, so clearly the authority resides there.  Soon, it will be written all over Clifford’s face.
  • David Blatt, Cleveland Cavaliers – Intimidated by his superior LeBron James.
  • Derek Fisher, New York Knicks – Great player.  Again, great player.  But, he faces the same problem as Clifford.  Fisher looks to the left and sees the winningest coach in history, Phil Jackson.
  • Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz – Snyder has two great things working for him: He played at Duke under Coach K., and he got to work with Doug Collins as an assistant in Philadelphia in 2010.  While you may look at him and think ‘youth-minister’, his career has been anything but calm and stable.  In Missouri, where he was head coach, there was a question of his ability to manage the program, and he left under the shroud of controversy.  How could anyone perceive him to be constant and reliable?
  • Byron Scott, Los Angeles Lakers – One of the great stop-gap coaches in the last 15 years.  However, he is intimidated by the player/GM/coach/Hall of Famer in Kobe Bryant.
  • Frank Vogel, Indiana Pacers – After each loss one can picture Vogel going to Larry Bird’s office to explain himself.

C. Social – Behavior is consistent with values espoused; Able to convert purpose and vision into action, and produce results; Finds common ground with all types of people and builds rapport with them

The following coaches failed:

  • Jason Kidd, Milwaukee Bucks – Kidd is out because of his brief experience in Brooklyn.  A calm demeanor is interrupted periodically by odd fits of rage.  Remember last year when he instructed Tyshawn Taylor to knock his drink onto the court by bumping into him?  His behavior is anything by consistent, and it shows.
  • Jeff Hornacek, Phoenix Suns – Great player, who looks the part.  When it comes down to the conversion of purpose and vision into action, Suns players have to have doubt.  Hornacek was highly successful with the Jazz and Suns as a player, when he was surrounded by outstanding talent, but has no titles.  How could you count him to get you to the promised-land when he couldn’t reach it himself with all that talent?
  • Brian Shaw, Denver Nuggets – This is the opposite problem of Hornacek.  Shaw has great NBA experience as a player with the Lakers.  He won championships in the league.  The issue is, and is transparent to his players, the Lakers didn’t win because of Shaw, they won because of Kobe and Shaq.  Matt Bullard doesn’t claim coaching superiority because he was on the bench and saw Hakeem Olajuwon win two titles.  Shaw’s experience does not position him to communicate on common ground with a true championship contender yet.

D. Intellectual – Asks for more responsibility; Doesn’t react right away, but considers the situation, suspends judgement until all the facts are known; Effectively plans, organizes, and solves problems; Good judgement, foresight, intuition, and creativity; Possesses extensive knowledge used by subordinates to complete the work

The following coach has failed:

  • Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors – Kerr was a wonderful guard with a championship pedigree.  He has been around the best player in the history of the league in Michael Jordan, and one of the best, if not the top, coach in history, Phil Jackson.  He has zero coaching experience.  It is going to show early, and the team is going to notice a physical change.

E. Trust – Staff believe the leader will support them, defend them, and come through for them

The following coaches failed:

  • Jacque Vaughn, Orlando Magic – Vaughn has led the Magic to a losing percentage of 74%.  That is not good.  Magic players, unfortunately, do not trust Vaughn to lead them to the Playoffs.
  • Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City Thunder – Brooks is emotionally flat.  He has been around champions in Houston during his playing days.  The best part of Brooks is Durant.  Brooks was on the block all of last year.  If we heard about it as fans, for sure the players know it too.  That can’t trust in that.
  • Mike Malone, Sacramento Kings – Like Spoelstra, he never played in the NBA, but has a knack for scouting and film study.  Unlike Spoelstra, he has never been to the mountain top.

If we continue to sift the NBA coaches using these categories we arrive at just a few true-leaders in the head coaching position.

  • Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta Hawks – Budenholzer is a winner.  The guy looks the part.  He’s not too old, and not too young to be trusted.  He has a winning history spending time with the Spurs and Gregg Popovich from 1996-2013.  If you are a Hawk and your reading this, trust Mike.  He has literally done this before.
  • Lionel Hollins, Brooklyn Nets – Emotionally and socially, Hollins is as steady as any of our winners.  He can relate to the NBA star, as he himself was a star in this league, drafted sixth overall by the Trailblazers.  He was a stud player earning an NBA Championship in 1977.  As far as the appearance of a leader, he looks like he could lace them up right now and take Kris Humphries in the post.
  • Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat – The Heat coach was very recently on top of Mt. Olympus looking down on all of his subjects.  While he has the ever-present Pat Riley overlooking him on the court, he has managed it away to a non-conversation.  He started in the film room and preparing scouting reports, so he absolutely has a dominate skill that leads the expertise of his team.  I’d look for Spoelstra to remain a candidate for Coach-of-the-Year as he moves forward in his career.
  • Dwane Casey, Toronto Raptors – Casey looks like a coach.  He is physically fit and looks fast.  He has a 45% winning percentage, so the jury is out on his long-term success.  However, he is a recent champion having been a part of the Carlisle coaching tree with the 2011 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks.  He knows hard work, and has an interesting and diverse history, having worked as a coal miner and tobacco farmer during his off seasons as a player at Kentucky.
  • Randy Whitman, Washington Wizards – The winner of the Rudy Tomjanovich look-alike contest.  While he is yet to be overly successful as a coach he looks the part.  He was a high draft pick (22) in 1983 so he can relate to the kind of player Washington seems consistently destined to get: a lottery pick.
  • Rick Carlisle, Dallas Mavericks – When you look at Rick Carlisle you think Jim Carrey, then you think solid NBA coach.  Carlisle is a winner at every stop on his journey, and a champion with the Dallas Mavericks.  He is fiery when needed and appropriate (see Jason Kidd).  He is honest and intense.  There is no question that he wants to win no matter the stakes.  That is a guy players will get behind.
  • Doc Rivers, Los Angeles Clippers – Players love him.  He is a leader on and off the court, respected within the team and around the league.  The ultimate communicator and competitor.  He looks strong and ready to go.  Not to mention he has NBA championship credentials from his days in Boston.  Put it this way, he got traded to the Clippers.  A coach got traded.  He is that important.
  • Monty Williams, New Orleans Pelicans – He is 6’8”, 225 pounds.  If you don’t follow him into battle he will beat you up.  The perfect coach for a developing Pelican team.
  • Terry Stotts, Portland Trailblazers – Another branch of the Carlisle coaching tree.  A champion who looks like he could drive LaMarcus Aldridge in the paint.  Ok, maybe not.  A solid coach with a developing talent.
  • Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs – The first ballot Hall of Fame coach.  Heck, maybe it doesn’t even go to vote.  If you want to talk about our core principles, Pop is in the pole position.
    • In Pop-we-trust.  He has won consistently.  His coaching tree has won consistently.  The league trusts in him so much the Magic gave Jacque Vaughn a job without having any significant experience.  These Spurs players have zero reservations in Popovich’s style or program.
    • Intellectually sophisticated.  He studies Russian literature, is a part owner of a winery, and considered joining the CIA.  What have you done in your life?
    • He is socially and emotionally straight.  He is very Phil Jackson-like as he patrols the sideline.  He only gets excited at key times in a game, and you sometimes wonder if it is all part of the plan.  His players respect him so much, and have such a tight relationship with Popovich, that they allow him to treat them each with the same regard.  You will find Popovich in Tim Duncan’s face as much as he is in Matt Bonner’s.  That is truly a special relationship.

More from Spurs News

Gregg Popovich’s role for the Spurs is clear, there is no superior entity within the organization.  He is the ultimate power and decision maker.  The team is a reflection of Popovich, and there is no greater assessment on leadership than that.

This study started out as feedback on the appearance of an airline pilot and ended in an exhaustive look at the leadership ability of the NBA coaching elite.  Utilizing the chronicles referenced in the American Library Association’s report on leadership attributes, we are able to see that 30% of the league have made great hiring choices.  The rest should wait for a Carlisle or Popovich disciple to become available.