Bill Russell is already one of those figures we don’t fully understand, because we weren’t there. Age doesn’t prevent anyone from anointing Jordan as the greatest player of all time, but where do we slot Russell (and, for that matter, Wilt? or even Kareem?). Above or below Kobe Bryant? Above Karl Malone? How about Tim Duncan, or Shaquille O’Neal? Statistics are a dead-end in comparing players of different generations, and time tends to skew in both directions—the best get better, and everyone else fades into obscurity.
The fact that Russell coached and played at the same time pushes his legend into the stratosphere of imagination. Even the logistics are something to grapple with: did he take himself out when he wasn’t shooting well? What did he say to the other players if he was out of breath during a time-out? Did he call his number for every game-winning shot? Did his teammates ever resent him?
Finally, let’s add one more layer of impossibility: Russell’s Celtics won two NBA Championships in the three years he was a player-coach.
There aren’t player-coaches anymore, like there used to be. The collective bargaining agreement prohibits it, since it lends an opportunity to work around the salary cap by paying the individual less as a player, and more as a coach (coaches’ salaries don’t count under the salary cap). It’s true that a player could take on a coach’s responsibilities, but it would have to be that alone—likely no official title change, and definitely no salary adjustment. Still, it’s possible.
The last time we saw a player-head coach was turning back the clock to 1979, when Dave Cowens did both for the Boston Celtics. He didn’t start any of those games but still averaged almost 17 points per game in what turned out to be an unremarkable year in Boston. The team finished 29-53, with Cowens picking up the coaching reins after Tom Sanders was ousted with the team at 2-12. To tie the past to the present, we can also acknowledge that the universally-beloved (right?) Mike Dunleavy Sr. came out of retirement for seven games to give the Milwaukee Bucks some backcourt depth in the 1989 and ’90 seasons, while serving as an assistant coach.
But that’s it. It’s been a full 20 years since a coach donned a uniform, and 30 since it was a head coach.
It doesn’t seem likely that we’ll see player-coaches again anytime soon; outside of Russell (162-83 from 1966-’69, .661 overall, with those two championship rings), they’ve been historically a bad idea. Even Lenny Wilkens, the Hall of Fame coach who took the Seattle Supersonics to their only title, had a sub-.500 record as a player-coach: 159-169 (.485) in three seasons with Portland and one just up the way in Seattle.
But if you’re looking for a player-coach, you’re looking for someone with appropriate depth of experience, plus that kind of fanatical student-of-the-game knowledge that only comes from being dedicated to the craft for that long. I’m talking about guys like Sam Cassell in his later years, or even Derek Fisher on the current Lakers squad. Oh, and it’s got to be someone that can command the respect of his teammates, enough that they’ll put up with him.
As I see it, there are only two players that really have the grooming for this kind of work: Kobe Bryant, and Tim Duncan.
They’re similar in a handful of ways. They’ve both been around a long time (14 years for Kobe, 13 for Duncan), they’ve both been diligently molded over a long career by genius coaches, and they both play on teams with strong systems and a lot of talent.
Nobody really knows who’s in line to take Phil Jackson’s job when he decides to give it up, but there’s likely nobody in the world, save himself and Tex Winter, that knows the triangle offense better than Kobe Bryant. He’s always been individually brilliant on the court, but it’s in the last few years that he’s shown a drastically above-average understanding of team dynamics. It’s this intelligence that he’s developed and displayed that’s set him apart from other pure scorers—Allen Iverson and Vince Carter built careers out of being superlative executors on the court, but I wouldn’t trust either to assemble a 5-man playbook.
Tim Duncan is one of the few players that has always put intelligence in front of sheer athletic superiority, and he has a few rings to prove that it works. He’s the player incarnation of Gregg Popovich, and I don’t think anyone can disagree that, should Pop take off, Timmy could fill his shoes so well that we might not notice he’s gone. We can all sleep knowing that any Duncan-coached team would be an absolute model of fundamental mastery.
Tim Duncan is the basketball equivalent of Peyton Manning; there’s a new coach in Tony Dungy’s place, but it seems to be understood that Peyton is running the show. He certainly calls at least his share of the offensive plays.
Beyond Bryant and Duncan it’s hard to pick out anyone in the league who could be a top-tier player-=coach. Both LeBron James and Kevin Garnett have their emotions as a liability; it makes them fiery on the court, but I don’t think either would have a level-enough head to direct a team through intense on-court showdowns (I don’t think LeBron would ever take himself out of a game, and that’s coming from an LBJ fanboy; he’s much too young anyway). Jason Kidd could probably handle the job, and perhaps even his Dallas Mavericks teammate Dirk Nowitzki.
With the littany of assistant coaches, scouts, personnel managers, and other sundry help that coaches get these days, it’s actually not unfathomable that Kobe or Duncan would be more successful than player-coaches tended to be in the ’70′s. With assistant coaches presiding over offense and defense—like coordinators in football—there would be experience enough to run practices effectively. A director of player personnel takes responsibility for filling the court with talent, and then the head coach can be concerned most with what’s taking place on the floor each night—and he leads his team by example, by leading the charge in battle.
Most of the teams that employed player-coaches in the league’s earlier decades did so out of necessity. Money was tight in the young league, and doubling-up kept one more salary off the books. Most player-coaches were place-holders, doing both gigs for only a season or less. Bill Russell and Lenny Wilkens are the most recognizable names, but Al Cervi deserves a strong mention for keeping the Syracuse Nationals over .600 for 3+ seasons in the 1950′s, and another shoutout goes to Cliff Hagan for player-coaching the ABA’s Dallas Chapparals to a +.500 record from 1967-’70.
Gregg Popovich already has Tim Duncan sitting on the second half of back-to-backs—why doesn’t he make some use of his bench time and draw up the next in-bounds play? He’s practically an assistant coach already. And what if Phil Jackson stayed home during away games, and Kobe coached the Lake Show on the road? It’s not an impossible idea—last year the Lakers floated the idea of having Jackson not travel because of his health, with then-assistant coach Kurt Rambis taking charge at away games.
And when Jackson or Popovich finally hang it up, would there really be an appreciable fall-off the next year with KB24 or The Big Fundamental at the helm?
If we didn’t see Bill Russell do it, we’re probably never going to see it. But if there’s anyone today that could fill both roles at Bill’s level, that has deep knowledge of the game and similarly deep respect from their teammates, that can put together that kind of transcendent performance both on and off the court…
They’re both players I love to hate, but I’d trust Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan to do it.