It’s easy to forget that while Michael Jordan became a cultural phenomenon the moment he stepped foot in Chicago’s United Center, he failed to win a championship until Phil Jackson took the reigns. In sports, we get so enamoured by stardom that we often dismiss the importance of those outside the spotlight. In Game 2 of the 1986 Bull-Celtics opening-round series—three years before Jackson became head coach—Jordan scored 63 points against a storied Boston defence in a 135-131 loss. After the game, Bird told reporters, “It’s just God disguised as Michael Jordan.” The next game, the Celtics completed the sweep and sent God back to Chicago empty-handed.
In basketball, the superstar is the fuel that keeps the vehicle moving forward, but the right coach is the map sitting in the glove compartment; one might keep the wheels turning, but a great team still needs direction. So naturally, it makes sense that once NBA executives discovered the basic formula for a competent NBA coach, they clung to that assurance desperately.
Lenny Wilkens, Pat Riley, Phil Jackson, Doc Rivers—for decades, the league has valued a certain subset of former players defined by their on-court tenaciousness and pedigree. But now, an enlightened few have begun to shift their priorities. Graduates of lesser-known positions with virtually no professional playing experience are now valued for their time spent as video coordinators and assistant coaches on obscure Division II liberal arts colleges. Forced to analyze the game from an entirely different perspective, the NBA’s next generation of coaches offers superstars and franchises an alternative route to championship success.
This past NBA season quickly became emblematic of the league’s changing coaching landscape. Highlighted by two coaches in particular—Toronto’s Nick Nurse and Miami’s Erik Spoelstra—the NBA has become a league that lends itself to those once relegated to the fringes of the basketball world.
Over the past 18 months, one would be hard-pressed to think of someone riding a greater high than the Raptors’ head coach, which is an unusual thing to say about a man who spent over a decade coaching in the British Basketball League. But Nurse’s unorthodox approach eventually led him to an assistant coaching position in the United States Basketball League, where he would parlay that opportunity into becoming the head coach of the then–D-League’s Iowa Energy. A mere six years later, he got the call from Dwane Casey to become an assistant on an NBA bench. Immediately, he instilled a new offence predicating on threes and rapid ball-movement. Two years later, Casey—a respected relic of a coaching era long since past—was let go, Nurse was handed the reigns, and, well, the world knows what happened next.
During Nurse’s championship season, the team ranked top-five on both sides of the ball, but after Kawhi Leonard’s departure, few—if anyone—thought the Raptors would remain nearly as competitive the following year. Yet, once again, Nurse beat the odds. By granting a once-undrafted Fred VanVleet offensive freedom, harnessing the potential of Pascal Siakam, and nurturing largely unknown talent on the bench, Nurse offered the league a new blueprint for success. His .707 regular-season winning percentage is the highest all-time of any NBA head coach, with the Heat’s Spoelstra sitting fifth amongst active coaches at an impressive .591 mark.
Upon taking the mantle from Pat Riley—one of the most decorated coaches in league history—Spoelstra faced a near-impossible assignment. For a new coach, whose introduction to the league was as a mere video coordinator, attempting to fill Riley’s Dolce and Gabbana leather shoes was a daunting task, especially seeing as LeBron James—his newly-inherited star—wished the old-guard never left. Still, Spoelstra was accustomed to standing on the outside looking in and soon found himself ascending to the top of the coaching ranks with two quick championships under his belt.
Initially, it was difficult to differentiate Spoelstra’s success from LeBron’s, but the basketball world soon came to understand that winning with superstars isn’t as simple as it sounds and successfully convincing them to make personal sacrifices for the sake of the team has been the downfall of many an NBA coach. But similarly to Nurse, when Spoelstra’s star left for greener pastures, the public waited for him to come back down to earth. After all, he didn’t fit the established mould of a Doc Rivers or a Pat Riley, so it was assumed that his success would be rented, never bought. Yet with a fractured lineup, he managed to consistently string together .500 seasons and, last year, with the injection of a new star in Jimmy Butler, led an unlikely Heat roster to the NBA Finals.
Now, new hires are looking to follow the blueprint set by Nurse and Spoelstra, with the Indiana Pacers hiring Nate Bjorkgren this offseason—a coach largely mirroring Nurse’s nomadic journey to the NBA—after relieving NBA veteran Nate McMillan of his duties.
So why this sudden change in priorities? After all, within the NBA’s top-10 rankings for total coaching wins, only one coach, Gregg Popovich, failed to play for either the NBA or ABA. For decades, former NBA players were relied upon to set the course towards an NBA championship, so why should executives value the Bjorkgrens of the world over veterans like Doc Rivers?
Because they’re outsiders, underdogs by definition, trailblazers.
While the Phil Jacksons and the Jerry Sloans of the league soon became reliant on the established order they had grown accustomed to after years in the league, those who were forced to adapt to the many shades of international basketball learned the values of innovation and flexibility.
We often look at underdogs like Spoelstra and Nurse and wonder how they could have possibly overcome such insurmountable odds to graduate out of lowly positions on the fringes of the basketball world. But the truth is, this remarkable minority of coaches hasn’t thrived despite their nomadic careers, but because of them.
When Spoelstra started with the Heat as a video coordinator in 1995, he had no idea how to edit video, a shortcoming that becomes quite glaring when your entire job revolves around editing game footage. So, he improvised, became familiar with every aspect of the job seemingly overnight, and spent countless hours breaking down game tapes and evaluating young talent. It was a thankless job, but one that granted Spoelstra a unique perspective on the intricacies of the game, culminating last season in one of the most dynamic playoffs runs of the past decade.
Similarly, Nurse took the lessons learned overseas with Canada Basketball and translated them into his own NBA Finals game plan. International basketball is largely defined by its unpredictability, whether that be the countless qualifying games strung closely together, the foreign venues, or the fact that coaches often don’t know which players are going to opt-in during any given offseason. Nurse faced similar obstacles during his first two playoffs runs, just in a far less literal sense, as Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, and Fred VanVleet all received criticism for their vanishing acts during various moments in the postseason. But a student of adaptability, Nurse continued to radically adjust his allocation of playoffs minutes to help reconfigure the Raptors’ offence from game-to-game.
In advance of that fateful Game 7 against the Sixers during their championship run, Nurse was asked about his travels and what it meant to be part of such a moment on the greatest stage. He replied that coaching the Manchester Giants against the Birmingham Bullets for the BBL championship back in 2000 “meant a lot to me in that moment” and that he couldn’t imagine Game 7 versus the Sixers meaning any more. I doubt that answer would have passed a polygraph test, but Nurse made it clear that Spoelstra, himself, and coaches of the same vein aren’t so much underdogs as they are innovators.
Of course, some franchises still cling desperately to the status quo of hiring practices. The Sixers—a team desperately trying to capitalize on their generational talent—chose to hire Doc Rivers this offseason, one of the great relics of a coaching era struggling to survive. This decision came after Rivers blew a 3-1 series lead for the third time in his career, a feat no other NBA head coach has managed to do more than once. Of course, it might work out. Philadelphia has looked like one of the best-run teams in the league so far this season, but the playoffs are the true test of a coach’s flexibility, a test which Rivers has struggled with time and again.
To those who have watched Rivers coach over the years, the cause of his continued playoff failures shouldn’t be a secret. It lies in his inability to adapt—the very trait that makes coaches like Nurse and Spoelstra so successful. And he’s not alone. Phil Jackson, Lenny Wilkens, even Don Nelson: each was a maverick in their own right during a bygone era of the league, but eventually the game became unfamiliar to the brand of basketball they’d always known.
We’re entering a new decade of basketball and one that appears to be evolving quicker than ever before with the assistance of advanced analytics. Some franchises will embrace the shift, understanding that the very traits that made Spoelstra and Nurse so undervalued are indeed the very traits that have allowed them to succeed in the modern era. Others will inevitably cling to the past, yearning for the days when selecting an NBA coach was a simple science known universally. But, of course, that’s not the case.
The future of any given franchise might be nomadically wandering the European basketball leagues, searching for the next great opportunity and learning to adapt along the way, or perhaps toiling away in a closet-sized office as a video coordinator. Radical change is tough to stomach, particularly regarding a task as crucial as finding the right coach to navigate your franchise, but the more willing teams are to accept an alternative route, the closer the destination becomes.