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Are Rookie Head Coaches With No Experience Kerr-sed?

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

Let me apologize in advance for the awful Steve Kerr pun headline, I couldn’t help it. Anyway, the Golden State Warriors hiring of now-former TNT analyst raised a number of questions about Kerr’s previous coaching and player development experience — which is none, absolutely no prior coaching at any level.

It’s staggering to some that Kerr, a TV commentator, would be openly courted by two major franchises (New York and Golden State) and hired by one who recently let go of someone who was in Kerr’s position just a few short years ago in Mark Jackson.

Jackson, like Kerr, came to the Warriors with absolutely no prior coaching experience but performed fairly well until his termination after the Warriors’ were eliminated for this year’s postseason.

It may appear rare that a rookie NBA coach gets to the seat with no previous experience, but it’s actually happened quite often and perhaps more surprising, they haven’t performed terribly.

Looking at just the last 25 years, there were over 15 first-time head coaches with no prior coaching experience (assistant, college or high school) and 13 of them coached an entire year their first go-around: Jason Kidd, Vinny Del Negro, Doc Rivers, Mark Jackson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Mike Dunleavy Sr., Chris Ford, Allan Bristow, Garry St. Jean, Quinn Buckner, Butch Beard, M.L. Carr and Johnny Davis.

It should come with little surprise that of those 13 rookie head coaches, only one (Garry St. Jean) was not a former NBA player. Obviously, a few names in there stick out as guys who were brought on as first-timers but ended up having great careers. Rivers, who was hired by the Orlando Magic has become on the NBA’s legendary head coaches and a well-respected member of the coaching fraternity. Dunleavy had a long tenure near the top of the NBA’s coaching ranks and unbelievably, may find himself back on an NBA bench.

There are some duds in there too — Del Negro had a good overall record coaching an upstart Chicago Bulls team and a Los Angeles Clippers team featuring budding star Blake Griffin but he was obviously overmatched coaching wise during most of his career. Davis spent parts of four NBA seasons in the head ranks including one season with Philadelphia, two years with Orlando (once replacing the fired Rivers) and two games in Memphis.
Carr had a shaky two-year tenure in Boston including a 96-97 Boston team that featured David Wesley as their 2nd leading scorer.

So, let’s look at these coaches as a whole. How do these first-year, no coaching experience coaches perform, most notably how do they perform in their first year? Kerr is heading to a Warriors team with tremendous expectations. Anything short of a long playoff run will be seen as a huge disappointment, so does history tell us first-time coaches like Kerr struggle?

To do this I looked at a few different things including their first-year Win Percentage and compared that with their Pythagorean or Expected Win Percentage. I also looked further at their first year and focused on their teams Offensive and Defensive Efficiency and how it measured against the league average.

Win Percentage

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The average win percentage of these rookie, no experience head coaches is 45.43%, which falls right in line with the 45.1% averaged by rookie NBA coaches regardless of experience. Even better, these coaches don’t seem to have an adverse effect on their team’s play as the average difference between Actual Wins and Pythag Wins is only -1.35% which is the difference of roughly a game. While one game in the NBA is significant as far as playoff contention, it’s far below what you’d expect from a head coach learning on the job. A few coaches stand out among the pack including Jason Kidd, current head coach of the Brooklyn Nets who may have coached his team to more wins than they deserved.

Garry St. Jean and Quinn Buckner are the two coaches with the most disparity between Pythag. Wins and Actual Wins. Both men coached horrendous teams in the early 90s, St. Jean had the 92-93 Sacramento Kings featuring Lionel Simmons and Walt Williams as his 2-3 scorers while Buckner countered with a talented but still super young Mavericks team in 93-94.

Offensive Efficiency 

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Much like Win Percentage, we don’t see any evidence that these head coaches have a significant negative effect on their team’s Offensive Efficiency. The average difference in OffRtg between these coaches team’s and the league average was a mere -0.3% a completely insignificant number. Looking at a few coaches that stood out, Mike Dunleavy immediately pops out falling into the right spot, coaching the Western Conference champion Los Angeles Lakers. Chris Ford was also the beneficiary of a nice landing spot, in the very same season as Dunleavy, taking over for the playoff-bound Boston Celtics. Not a bad first gig for either.

Welp, there’s Buckner again.

Defensive Efficiency

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Much like Offensive Efficiency we see a small decrease from these coaches’ teams to league average, a different of only -0.7. The aforementioned Mark Jackson-led Golden State Warriors stand out, these teams would be known for their defense in subsequent years but this was not one of them. Allan Bristow‘s 91-92 Charlotte Hornets and Johnny Davis‘ 96-97 Philadelphia 76ers nearly break the chart with Defensive Efficiency numbers in the low 110s.

What can we gather with all this? Admittedly, it’s a very small sample size but the effect of first-year, no experience head coaches seems rather minimal, which can be seen both positively and negatively. On one hand, they have little effect on the team so they don’t seem to take your team over a hump and seem to coach them right up to where they’d be anyway. Positively, hey, they don’t kill your team and chances are they are either one of your team’s ex-players, a smiling former color commentator or a team ambassador.

Once more, their average first-year win percentage (45.43%) is pretty much exactly the same as any other first-year head coach (45.1%), so who cares? I can’t predict how Kerr will do in Golden State, my initial reaction was one of confusion on why Golden State wouldn’t go to a veteran NBA coach but they seem to believe in Kerr, just as they believe in Jackson previously.

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