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Top 5 NBA Players Who Became Coaches

Publish Date: 03.06.2024
Fact checked by: Emily Carter

Playing professional basketball is extremely difficult. Coaching it can be just as hard. While both take different skill sets, the roles each require a mind for the game and understanding of its inner workings. That’s why some players who excel on the court also do well on the sidelines.

Though it doesn’t happen often, there are times where an NBA star will go on to be an incredible, well-rounded coach. That’s typically due to the fact that they see the game in a unique way that other players don’t.

In fact, quite a few NBA players have successfully made that transition. More than half of the current coaches played at one point or another, and there’s a long history of players-turned-coaches. Even so, only a few are known for doing both.

1. Bill Russell

There have been many NBA players who became coaches after their career ended. However, only a few have ever managed to fill the role of player-coach, meaning they coached the team while still being on the active roster.

There have been 40 player coaches throughout NBA history, but Bill Russell was the first. He pioneered the position during the last three seasons of his career from 1966 to 1969, where he took over the Celtics, won a ring, and became the first black coach in NBA history.

What made the center so special was his general basketball knowledge. The five-time MVP won 11 championships while in the NBA, which enabled him to see the game in a unique way and spur his teammates on.

2. Larry Bird

It’s extremely rare for players, even great ones, to see widespread success on the court and the sidelines. Larry Bird did just that. The Celtics hall of famer is widely considered to be one of the best guards of all time, and that greatness didn’t stop during his playing years.

Shortly after retiring with three rings, 3 MVPs, and 12 all-star appearances, Bird returned to his home state of Indiana to coach the Pacers. While he only took the position for three years, something he planned from the start, he took them to an entirely different level.

He won Coach of the Year for pushing them to a 58-24 record, a franchise best, and going all the way to game seven in the Eastern Conference Finals. Under Bird’s guidance, the Pacers went to back-to-back Central Division titles and made tthe NBA Finals in 2000.

He also took over as the Pacers’ president of basketball operations, and earned NBA Executive of the Year after the 2011-2012 season. To this day, he’s the only player to win an MVP, Coach of the Year, and Executive of the Year. That shows a deep understanding of the game.

3. Magic Johnson

As any fan knows, it’s almost impossible to mention Larry Bird without Magic Johnson. As such, it should come as no surprise that the Lakers great also tried his hand at running a team after his time in the NBA came to a close.

After bringing a staggering five championships and 3 MVP awards to Los Angeles, Johnson decided he would try to do even more for the city as a coach. He took over at the end of the 1993 to 1994 season with championship aspirations.

Unfortunately, where Bird excelled at planning and strategizing for a shifting league, Johnson didn’t have the same ability. He was an incredible talent on the court, but couldn’t quite see how to raise other players to his level.

That became apparent as the guard always struggled to get a rhythm going. After a quick five game losing streak he announced he would only coach for one season. The Lakers finished the year on a ten-game losing streak and Johnson stepped away from coaching for good.

4. Jerry Sloan

Most big time players who became coaches are more known for their time in the NBA than they are for what they do with their team. That’s not the case for Jerry Sloan, who had so much success with the Utah Jazz that he’s now remembered almost purely for his coaching ability.

He had a rather mild career, netting just two NBA all-stars and 4 All-Defensive First Teams, but the ex-guard proved to be one of the best and most consistent coaches of all time.

He started out slow, going a measly 94-121 with a small three year stint with the Bulls in 1979, before eventually landing on the Jazz. There, he took over the head coaching role in 1988 when Frank Layden became the team president in December of that same year.

Once he had the reins, Sloan never looked back. He coached many hall of famers during his time with the Jazz and would go on to win six division championships, make the Finals twice, and get into the playoffs sixteen years in a row.

He also netted 1000 wins during his career, only one of five coaches to ever reach that mark, and consistently succeeded with different rosters. While he eventually retired in the early 2010’s, his legacy still stands.

5. Isaiah Thomas

All NBA fans know Isaiah Thomas as a tough, no-nonsense point guard with a quick shot, strong defense, and unmatched quickness. However, few know that he tried his hand at coaching as well.

The shifty guard went to the sidelines in 2000, when the Pacers hired him to replace Larry Bird. Coming off an eastern conference title, the franchise has extremely high hopes. Unfortunately, such expectations were not met.

Thomas had a great eye for the game while on the court, but that didn’t quite translate to coaching

He made the playoffs during his first three years with the team, but the Pacers were kicked out each time. After he couldn’t take the roster to the next level, the Pacers fired Thomas. He then went away from the sidelines before coming back to coach the Knicks in 2006.

As with before, the hall of fame player didn’t see the game well. He only won a few games, and only lasted a few years, before moving on.

Historical Context

As with so many NBA aspects, coaches have undergone frequent shifts over time. Bill Russell made history by inventing the player coach, and he also made it possible for players to take over teams after retirement.

It’s not an easy road, and very few players have been successful at the change, but some of the most notable coaches did play on the hardwood. That includes Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, and Rick Carlisle. That shows it is possible to succeed at both levels, especially for those who serve as role players rather than stars.

Conclusion

Being a coach is not easy, but playing the game first does make it easier. The above players all had large followings while in the league, and they used their connections to come back. It didn’t always work out, but it set a precedent for so many others to do the same.

There are currently quite a few ex-NBA players who turned coaches, including the likes of Steve Nash and Jason Kidd. While most superstars are set in their ways, a few big names from the 2000’s like Lebron James and James Harden could make the change at some point too.

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