The NBA coach paradox is my term for the fact that in the National Basketball Association, few great coaches were great players, and vice-versa. This isn't truly a paradox in the technical sense, but more of a conundrum.
In the National Basketball Association, most coaches were former professional players, although a few (such as Gregg Popovich) entered the NBA through college coaching careers. But most coaches in the NBA entered through playing, sometimes followed by assistant coaching, and then head coaching. And most of them, and possibly all of them, depending on your definition, were second-string players. Not to say they were bad or untalented players, but very few, if any of them, were what we would call a superstar. Before winning 11 championships, Phil Jackson was a reserve forward. Before winning 5 championships,Pat Riley was a reserve shooting guard. More recently, Doc Rivers, the coach of the champion 2008 Boston Celtics, had previously been a starting point guard, but hardly a league leader. Perhaps Lenny Wilkens is the only example of a great basketball player that became a great coach. Further examples can be researched, and I am interested in hearing exceptions to my rule.
But also, lets look at it from the other side. I am going to look at a slice of what is considered to be one of the greatest groups of basketball players ever assembled: The 1992 Olympics Dream Team. Michael Jordan, widely considered to be the best basketball player of all time, never coached, but he was a manager of sorts for a basketball team, something that did not go over as well as his playing career. Magic Johnson has a coaching record about on par with his success as a talk show host. Larry Bird coached for three seasons, and had a good record, but it was hardly what legends are made of. Clyde Drexler had a short career coaching college basketball. Karl Malone worked as the assistant coach at another small college. Although I am taking these examples from one era, this seems to be the general pattern, great players seldom become great coaches.
If I have laid out the problem well enough, we then have to go on to describing possible reasons why this is.
I think one of the most obvious answers is that most great NBA players don't have the need to go on and coach. Coaching is not as exciting and glamorous as playing basketball, and for those who have already made their mark on the sport, there is not as much financial and personal incentive to go into coaching.
A point that has to be considered, unfortunately, is the presence of racism in the NBA. The NBA has been dominated by black athletes for 50 years now, but as in many organizations, the employment doesn't always move smoothly up the pyramid. Since many of the NBA's great players are black, are they being overlooked in favor of journeyman white players? Well, I don't really have the time to turn this into an entire separate history of racism in professional sports, so I will point out that this does not totally fit the facts, because there are great white NBA players who never became coaches, or became coaches and didn't do well at it. And there are some minor black NBA players who have had success at coaches. Instead, I want to look at the third answer, the one I favor myself.
I think that the best explanation is just that any player who becomes truly great might have such an instinctive and automatic understanding of basketball and how to play it, that the process of analyzing game play, and trying to come up with plans and schemes to defeat an opposing team, is often something they don't have to do. This goes both for the strategy and tactics of a game, and for skill development. Michael Jordan and John Stockton have both been stealing basketballs for so long that they have probably forgotten how to explain what they do, and for them to try to teach it would be like a doctorate in physics trying to teach middle school earth science. It is instead the players whose natural skills and talents only reach the professional level with constant practice and cunning that come to a deeper understanding of the game. And it is only the player who is constantly going up against their natural superiors who can understand where the average NBA player, or the average NBA team, is.
Of course, it is also possible that none of these three explanations is true, or that they are true in ways that I didn't mention here. It could also be the case that the entire coach/player paradox is a result of my selection bias. So I just leave this write-up as a way to stimulate discussion for those interested in professional basketball and its many vagaries.