2017 was a phenomenal year for the NBA. A cupcake won a championship. Anger (or just sheer talent?) fueled a historic triple-double season. We watched Kobe talk to a snake. All the while a spectacular occurrence occurred on the NBA sidelines: not a single coach was fired. For the first time since the 1970-71 season, all 30 individuals employed under the moniker “head coach” were still employed after 82 games at the helm.
This accomplishment is more significant for some than others, particularly in the cases of coaches Tom Thibodeau, Gregg Popovich, Stan van Gundy and Doc Rivers. All four of these sideline superiors hold the effective title of “President of Basketball Operations.” Until May 5 of this year there was a fifth member of this troupe, Mike Budenholzer, coach of the Atlanta Hawks.
Although the fact that at one point in the season one-sixth of all Presidents were coaches does not seem too alarming, whether this becomes a trend in the future is questionable. The role of a “President of Basketball Operations” can be a messy considering each team also employs officers holding a “General Manager” title. On one hand, the GM can determine everything from how to fill seats over the course of 41 home games, to which player to sign for the upcoming season. On the other, the President holds the higher ranking role and has final say on GM decisions, namely those involving roster spots.
The problem arises when the role of President of Basketball Operations is assumed by the same person as the head coach.
Head coaches have an intrinsic bond with their players. Coaches are the first to vouch for players on an alleged miscall, just as they endure the humiliation of losing streaks and relish the pride of championships alongside their rosters. In a relationship that can brush elbows with that of a father-son dynamic, an increase in coaches holding roles as presidents could be detrimental to league operations.
Ignoring the quite obvious case of Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who also has to manage having his son play for him, the Minnesota Timberwolves Tom Thibodeau stands out among the group of hybrid Pres-Coaches. Thibodeau, first known for his defensive prowess dating back to his days as defensive coach for the Houston Rockets from 2004-07, rose through the coaching ranks, eventually landing a spot as head of the Chicago Bulls in 2010. In that role, he both led his teams to the playoffs for five consecutive years (and one Eastern Conference appearance in 2011) as well as garnered a reputation for quite literally running his players into the ground.
Often blamed for aggravating the ACL and torn meniscus in former NBA MVP Derrick Rose’s left and right knees, Thibs has most recently pushed the Timberwolves to acquire Jimmy Butler, who was 6th in minutes played this season. The Wolves already had two players leading the league in minutes – Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins – despite their unsuccessful season.
Just as important however, is that Thibs has consistently been linked to acquiring former players. Throughout the season he took interest in requiring the Knicks’ (and former Bulls) Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose and more recently had forward Taj Gibson ink a two-year $28 million dollar deal. While rejoining former players has no doubt changed the playoff outlook for Thibodeau and the Wolves (a team that hasn’t seen the post-season since 2004), trying to recreate the magic of years past could prove detrimental to the team’s success.
When Butler, Gibson and Thibs started their journey to the playoffs in Chicago from 2011-2015 (though Butler had a limited roll until 2013), they were all six years younger, and existed in a league free from the reign of the Warriors. While the Wolves have the luxury of young players like Towns and Wiggins, it’s no guarantee that their first outing is a collaborative success. Assuming the new-look Wolves don’t work out, Thibodeau would once again be in charge of determining how to retool around the same players he failed to win a ring with some 400 miles south of Minneapolis.
Whether Butler can make the love-hate relationship work with Thibodeau is almost a moot point, as Thibs could just as easily trade him again, making the seven-year forward another expendable piece as the President/Coach tries to find a winning combination.
In another sense, uniting the President and head coach roles creates tension considering the influx of money in today’s league. Since the salary cap increased to $94.14 million last season and is projected to hit $99 million in 2018, and increasing amount of once average or mediocre players are making bank. While teams like Philadelphia fly under the radar by stocking up on inexpensive rookie contracts, many teams are negotiating with non-all stars to reach exorbitant deals, none more egregious than Timofey Mozgov’s 4-year $64 million, or Mike Conley’s huge 5-year $153 million deal.
Having a coach involved in ironing out the details in how much to give a player in his role as president almost indirectly tells the player his worth to the organization. “Is Player A not part of [team]’s long-term future? Give him a 2-year deal, with a team option. Is Player B going to be a franchise cornerstone? Let’s lock him down for 4-years with a player option.”
Trying to instill confidence, and more importantly gain the trust of the individuals tasked with running a coach’s offensive and defensive schemes could be a difficult process if the player-coach relationship isn’t properly established. Just as former Knicks President Phil Jackson was adamant on his coaching staff to run the triangle offense, much to Carmelo Anthony’s displeasure, trying to bridge the gap between two roles in a multimillion – and in some cases billion – dollar organization can cause more harm than good.
Ultimately, for the same reason players employ agents to separate the monetary, business side of basketball from the sport, coaches as presidents should be treated the same, separating the final product from the cutting room floor.
What are your thoughts on NBA Coaches serving as team presidents? Email me at email@example.com or find me on Twitter @bjtripleot.