When the Minnesota Timberwolves fired head coach Ryan Saunders last month and made the rare in-season move to hire Toronto Raptors assistant coach Chris Finch — bypassing Wolves associate head coach David Vanterpool, who is Black — it renewed the conversation about the NBA’s hiring practices for coaches.
“It’s discouraging,” one Black NBA assistant coach told Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated.
The NBA’s shift away from Black head coaches has been well-documented. Better representation in management was among the issues Miami Heat guard Avery Bradley, as leader of a coalition of concerned players, wanted the NBA to address ahead of its restart last summer.
Less discussed, however, has been another trend reflected by the Timberwolves’ decision to hire Finch — who, like Saunders, is white and did not play in the NBA — over Vanterpool, who played briefly with the Washington Wizards.
The NBA has long had a double standard when it comes to how much playing experience is required for coaches of different races. Even as the league embraces nontraditional paths to the sideline, that double standard is hindering Black candidates from breaking through.
Coaching ranks trending away from ex-NBA players
As recently as the 2012-13 season, 14 of the NBA’s 30 head coaches to start the campaign were Black — a high point in league history. Within three years, that number had dropped by half. It remains at seven now, having been slightly higher at times in the interim.
The decline in Black head coaches is best understood by looking at the trend in another category: head coaches who also played in the NBA. During the 1990s and 2000s, a majority of the NBA’s head coaches had played in the league. In 2008-09, that figure was 77% (23 of 30). Since then, however, that number has steadily trended downward. The nine head coaches with NBA playing experience at the start of this season tied for the lowest percentage at any point since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976.
Looking at first-time head coaches, the change in the NBA’s thinking is even starker. Since the start of the 2017-18 season, Finch is the 14th newcomer to be hired as a head coach. Of those, only Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash played in the league and just two (Lloyd Pierce and Stephen Silas) are Black.
It’s not at all clear that NBA playing experience is necessary to be a successful head coach. Gregg Popovich, the league’s winningest and longest-tenured active head coach, never played in the NBA. Neither did Erik Spoelstra or Frank Vogel, the coaches of the two teams that met in last year’s NBA Finals, nor the coach of the team with this season’s top record (Quin Snyder of the Utah Jazz).
Yet it is clear that the move away from valuing NBA playing experience has hurt Black coaches, who have historically been disproportionately likely to have played in the NBA.
Different standard for Black coaches
Since the merger, 237 head coaches have walked the NBA sidelines on a full-time or interim basis. I researched the playing background of these coaches, and the racial disparities are striking.
While former NBA players who become head coaches are about equally likely to be Black and white, the same is not true for head coaches who did not play in the NBA. Put another way, 81% of Black NBA head coaches played in the league, as compared to just 39% of all other head coaches.
The disparities grow even more extreme as we look at head coaches who were less accomplished as players. Here’s a breakdown of head coaches with no NBA playing experience by the highest level at which they played:
It’s possible for Black players who reached Division I or played professionally overseas to become NBA head coaches, but for those who topped out at lower levels, the door has historically been closed. Although some of the NBA’s most accomplished white head coaches played at the Division II (John MacLeod), Division III (Bill Fitch, Brad Stevens, Jeff and Stan Van Gundy) and NAIA (Del Harris) levels or not at all in college (Mike Fratello and Dick Motta), their Black counterparts have not received those same kind of head-coaching opportunities.
Remarkably, there have been just two Black NBA head coaches who did not play at least Division I college basketball or professionally, both of them serving in an interim role. Ed Tapscott, who played at Division III Tufts and coached at American University before beginning a career as an NBA executive, was working in the Wizards’ front office when he was asked to finish the 2009-10 season as interim head coach. Draff Young, who played Division II basketball at HBCU Johnson C. Smith University, coached four games for the Kansas City-Omaha Kings in 1973-74 before the team hired Phil Johnson as a replacement for Bob Cousy.
Fewer Black NBA players become head coaches
So far, we’ve been discussing coaching backgrounds without considering the size of those pools. While Black candidates making up 50% of head coaches with NBA playing experience seems superficially balanced, it’s worth remembering that the league’s players are predominantly Black. To account for this, I took a look at all American NBA players who saw action in the 1990s, then determined the percentages who have become either head coaches or front-office decision-makers to date.
During the 1990s, Black players outnumbered their white counterparts nearly 4 to 1. In that context, the fact that there have been nearly twice as many Black head coaches as white head coaches from this pool — actually an improvement from previous decades, based on our data about all coaches since 1976-77 — still makes white NBA players twice as likely to become head coaches.
The disparity is even greater when it comes to front-office lead decision-makers, where an even split means white players in the 1990s have been almost four times more likely to attain those positions. All told, better than one in seven American-born white players in the 1990s has gone on to hold a top spot in either coaching or management in the NBA. For American-born Black players, it’s less than one in 16.
More opportunities for non-players
One way in which the decrease in hiring ex-NBA players as head coaches can be explained is the increasing size of coaching staffs over the past two decades. During the 1999-2000 season, shortly before then-new Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban innovated by adding three “player development” coaches to nearly double the size of his team’s staff, NBA teams had an average of 1.4 assistant coaches who had played in the NBA and 1.8 who had not.
Some two decades later, the average team in 2019-20 had slightly more assistant coaches who had played in the NBA (1.7, up 21%) but dramatically more who had not (4.4, a whopping 248% increase).
(Note that these figures neither include “player development” coaches without assistant in their title nor assistant coaches with other full-time duties, most notably assistant coach/video coordinators and advance scouts.)
As a result of this shift, the percentage of NBA assistant coaches with playing experience in the league dropped from 45% in 1999-2000 to 28% in 2019-20 — similar to the percentage of head coaches with NBA experience at the start of this season (30%). Larger coaching staffs have given more coaches without high-level playing experience the opportunity to grind their way up through the ranks.
Relatively fewer of those positions have gone to Black coaches. According to annual reports from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida (TIDES), the percentage of Black NBA assistant coaches peaked at 46% in 2013-14, before dropping to 37.1% in 2018-19 — the lowest percentage in the previous 14 seasons.
The new path to the sidelines
In the NFL, progress on diversifying the sidelines has been stymied by the league’s search for the next Sean McVay or Kyle Shanahan — young coaches with offensive backgrounds who quickly led their teams to the Super Bowl. Nick Nurse, who led the Raptors to a championship in his first year as head coach before being voted Coach of the Year in his second season, might be the NBA equivalent.
Nurse’s winding road from coaching in England to the NBA, which featured an extended stint in what is now the NBA G League, has been well-documented, so it’s perhaps no surprise that many new first-time head coaches have similar backgrounds. Two of this year’s five new head coaches (Finch and Nate Bjorkgren) were previously assistants to Nurse with the Raptors, and though Finch was in Toronto less than half a season, his path to the NBA also includes coaching overseas and in the G League — experience Timberwolves president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas cited in explaining the hire.
Thunder executive vice president and general manager Sam Presti was more explicit when introducing G League veteran Mark Daigneault as the team’s new head coach last fall. “He has the rare combination of youth and experience,” Presti said of the 35-year-old Daigneault, one of two NBA head coaches not to play college basketball at any level. By definition, that combination isn’t possible for those who enjoy a long NBA playing career and don’t begin coaching until their mid-30s.
Even more than Nurse, who did play at the Division I level and served as a player-coach in the British Basketball League, no individual exemplifies how the NBA’s coaching pool has changed better than Memphis Grizzlies second-year head coach Taylor Jenkins, who unexpectedly led his team to the NBA play-in game last season. Jenkins is the other NBA coach who didn’t play basketball in college, and he wasn’t involved in coaching as a student manager like Daigneault.
Jenkins — who, like Daigneault and Bjorkgren, is white — wasn’t imagining the NBA as a possibility when he fell in love with coaching while helping run a league for kids in West Philadelphia as a student at the University of Pennsylvania. He got his foot in the door by interning for the San Antonio Spurs before and after his senior year of college thanks to a family connection to then-Spurs chairman Peter Holt. From there, Jenkins began his coaching career as an assistant to Snyder with the Spurs’ G League affiliate in Austin, Texas. After four years as an assistant in Austin, Jenkins became the team’s head coach at age 28, making him younger than many of his team’s players.
When San Antonio assistant coach Mike Budenholzer got the Atlanta Hawks‘ head-coaching job, he plucked Jenkins to join him. Jenkins later followed Budenholzer to the Milwaukee Bucks and had six years as an NBA assistant coach for some of the league’s best teams by the time the Grizzlies hired him as head coach in the summer of 2019, when he was 34.
Given Jenkins’ successful debut, the NBA should be asking: What Black coaches without playing experience is the league missing out on because they don’t have the same opportunities?
Jenkins was fortunate to have a family relationship to ownership and was able to spend years as a low-paid assistant coach in the G League. (Jenkins estimates he made between $25,000 and $30,000 a year at the time, living in housing provided by the team.) The systemic inequities that make aspiring white coaches more likely to have those advantages aren’t the NBA’s fault, but if the league is serious about having coaching staffs that reflect its players, it must confront them head-on.
NBA must diversify coaching pool
Undoubtedly, diversity is an important commitment for the NBA. The league has a legacy as a trailblazer when it comes to Black leadership, starting when Bill Russell became the first Black head coach in a major American professional sports league in 1966 — some nine years before MLB’s first Black manager and 17 years before the first Black head coach in the NFL’s professional era.
To its credit, the NBA continues to earn high marks in the TIDES annual diversity report cards, scoring an A-plus for racial hiring in the most recent update last week.
Looking for nontraditional candidates has made the NBA a pioneer with better representation of female coaches. Ten women held assistant coach titles in 2019-20, a number that has decreased slightly to eight this season. Jenkins’ first staff in Memphis included WNBA veteran Niele Ivey. After Ivey left to become head coach of the women’s basketball team at her alma mater (Notre Dame), the Grizzlies made the unconventional move to reach into the Division III women’s basketball ranks to hire former MIT head coach Sonia Raman, who became the third assistant coach of Indian descent to work in the NBA.
It’s also more realistic than ever before for Black coaches who did not play in the NBA to become head coaches. Of the 14 Black head coaches in the past 4½ decades without NBA playing experience, four (J.B. Bickerstaff, Dwane Casey, Pierce and Silas) were on the sidelines this season. (Pierce was fired by the Hawks last week and replaced by Nate McMillan, a Black former NBA player.)
Still, there is ample evidence opportunities aren’t equally distributed by race among players with the same experience. And the Timberwolves’ overnight coaching change, which was denounced by the NBA Coaches Association for failing “to conduct a thorough and transparent search of candidates from a wide range of diverse backgrounds,” was the latest reminder.
Asked about how to improve diversity and inclusion in the league’s management ranks during his annual address prior to Sunday’s All-Star Game, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said, “We’re constantly looking at how we can do better,” and that the NBA Coaches Association is part of the process. Silver also highlighted part of why he thinks that remains an issue with head coaches.
“I think in certain cases you have a network of relationships that go back many years,” Silver said. “To the extent that people aren’t part of those networks, they’re clearly at a disadvantage in the process.
“One of the things the league can do in working with our teams, therefore, is focus on a better process that ensures that everyone has an equal opportunity to sort of join the fraternity, so to speak. You’re not going to get to be a head coach in this league unless you serve most likely as an assistant coach first or you’ve been a top player in the league.”
To Silver’s point, it’s imperative the league do more to diversify the pool of coaches from the bottom up given there’s no reason to assume the trend against hiring former NBA players as head coaches will reverse itself.
The NFL’s Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship program might be a useful model to emulate. Supporting aspiring Black coaches with opportunities as paid interns or with stipends for entry-level roles, particularly during the NBA summer league and in the G League, could help create greater numbers of promising candidates who haven’t played in the league.
Since there are plenty of qualified Black head-coaching candidates right now, including both those with NBA playing experience and coaches who have worked their way up, it’s ultimately up to the team owners and front-office decision-makers in charge of hiring to give them a chance. But addressing the inequity in the coaching pool would ensure that when a team is searching for the next Nick Nurse, it considers a group that looks more like Nurse’s players.