Patrick Ewing: Debunking Myth That NBA Legends Make Poor Head Coaches

One of the most repeated myths in the NBA is great players make poor coaches. It’s felt great players grow too frustrated with players with limited skills and their inability to play to the legends’ standards. With the general apathy in hiring legends as coaches, legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Patrick Ewing have spent years as assistants unable to be head coaches. In NBA history there have been legends that have proven their worth as coach, and maybe one team will reap the rewards by taking a chance on a Patrick Ewing. This article looks back on former greats who became great coaches.
Bill Sharman

Regular Season Playoffs
Season Age Lg Tm G W L W-L% W > .500 Finish G W L W-L% Notes
1966-67 40 NBA SFW 81 44 37 .543 3.5 1 15 9 6 .600
1967-68 41 NBA SFW 82 43 39 .524 2.0 3 10 4 6 .400
1968-69 42 ABA LAS 78 33 45 .423 -6.0 5
1969-70 43 ABA LAS 84 43 41 .512 1.0 4 17 10 7 .588
1970-71 44 ABA UTS 84 57 27 .679 15.0 2 18 12 6 .667 ABA Champions
1971-72 45 NBA LAL 82 69 13 .841 28.0 1 15 12 3 .800 NBA Champions
1972-73 46 NBA LAL 82 60 22 .732 19.0 1 17 9 8 .529 WC Champions
1973-74 47 NBA LAL 82 47 35 .573 6.0 1 5 1 4 .200
1974-75 48 NBA LAL 82 30 52 .366 -11.0 5
1975-76 49 NBA LAL 82 40 42 .488 -1.0 4
Career TOT 819 466 353 .569 56.5 97 57 40 .588
NBA 573 333 240 .581 46.5 62 35 27 .565
ABA 246 133 113 .541 10.0 35 22 13 .629
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 1/23/2013.

During his playing career on the Celtics, Sharman was considered to be half of the greatest backcourt in NBA history during the 50’s alongside Bob Cousy. Sharman retired once it was clear that he would not be able to coach the Celtics and went to the new ABL. As a player/coach Sharman coached the LA Jets to a 24-15 record before the Jets disbanded during the season. Sharman then went to the NBA where he led the surprising San Francisco Warriors to a Finals appearance in 1967. The Warriors were poised to be the league’s next dynasty but Rick Barry jumped to the ABA in the summer of ’67. Sharman would join the ABA in 1968 as well winning an ABA title in 1971 with the Utah Stars. Sharman would join the Lakers the very next season leading the Lakers to their 1st title in Los Angeles in 1972. Sharman revolutionized the pro game as a coach by instituting the practice of the morning shootaround. Sharman is in the Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach.
Lenny Wilkens

Regular Season Playoffs
Season Age Lg Tm G W L W-L% W > .500 Finish G W L W-L% Notes
1969-70 32 NBA SEA 82 36 46 .439 -5.0 5
1970-71 33 NBA SEA 82 38 44 .463 -3.0 4
1971-72 34 NBA SEA 82 47 35 .573 6.0 3
1974-75 37 NBA POR 82 38 44 .463 -3.0 3
1975-76 38 NBA POR 82 37 45 .451 -4.0 5
1977-78 40 NBA SEA 60 42 18 .700 12.0 3 22 13 9 .591 WC Champions
1978-79 41 NBA SEA 82 52 30 .634 11.0 1 17 12 5 .706 NBA Champions
1979-80 42 NBA SEA 82 56 26 .683 15.0 2 15 7 8 .467
1980-81 43 NBA SEA 82 34 48 .415 -7.0 6
1981-82 44 NBA SEA 82 52 30 .634 11.0 2 8 3 5 .375
1982-83 45 NBA SEA 82 48 34 .585 7.0 3 2 0 2 .000
1983-84 46 NBA SEA 82 42 40 .512 1.0 3 5 2 3 .400
1984-85 47 NBA SEA 82 31 51 .378 -10.0 4
1986-87 49 NBA CLE 82 31 51 .378 -10.0 6
1987-88 50 NBA CLE 82 42 40 .512 1.0 5 5 2 3 .400
1988-89 51 NBA CLE 82 57 25 .695 16.0 2 5 2 3 .400
1989-90 52 NBA CLE 82 42 40 .512 1.0 4 5 2 3 .400
1990-91 53 NBA CLE 82 33 49 .402 -8.0 6
1991-92 54 NBA CLE 82 57 25 .695 16.0 2 17 9 8 .529
1992-93 55 NBA CLE 82 54 28 .659 13.0 2 9 3 6 .333
1993-94 56 NBA ATL 82 57 25 .695 16.0 1 11 5 6 .455
1994-95 57 NBA ATL 82 42 40 .512 1.0 5 3 0 3 .000
1995-96 58 NBA ATL 82 46 36 .561 5.0 4 10 4 6 .400
1996-97 59 NBA ATL 82 56 26 .683 15.0 2 10 4 6 .400
1997-98 60 NBA ATL 82 50 32 .610 9.0 4 4 1 3 .250
1998-99 61 NBA ATL 50 31 19 .620 6.0 2 9 3 6 .333
1999-00 62 NBA ATL 82 28 54 .341 -13.0 7
2000-01 63 NBA TOR 82 47 35 .573 6.0 2 12 6 6 .500
2001-02 64 NBA TOR 82 42 40 .512 1.0 3 5 2 3 .400
2002-03 65 NBA TOR 82 24 58 .293 -17.0 7
2003-04 66 NBA NYK 42 23 19 .548 2.0 3 4 0 4 .000
2004-05 67 NBA NYK 39 17 22 .436 -2.5 5
Career NBA 2487 1332 1155 .536 88.5 178 80 98 .449
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 1/23/2013.

Wilkens was a 9-time NBA All-Star as a player and began his coaching career while he was still an All-Star with Seattle in 1969. As a player/coach Wilkens never made the playoffs, but his team record improved every year in Seattle. After his retirement as a player Wilkens returned to Seattle during the 1977-78 season and had his most successful years. Wilkens led the surprising Sonics to a Finals berth in 1978 and a championship in 1979. Wilkens coached until 2005, winning NBA coach of the year in 1994 with Atlanta. Wilkens was the only player named to the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players list and 10 Greatest Coaches list in 1996. Wilkens is in the Hall of Fame as both player and coach.
Billy Cunningham

Regular Season Playoffs
Season Age Lg Tm G W L W-L% W > .500 Finish G W L W-L% Notes
1977-78 34 NBA PHI 76 53 23 .697 15.0 1 10 6 4 .600
1978-79 35 NBA PHI 82 47 35 .573 6.0 2 9 5 4 .556
1979-80 36 NBA PHI 82 59 23 .720 18.0 2 18 12 6 .667 EC Champions
1980-81 37 NBA PHI 82 62 20 .756 21.0 2 16 9 7 .563
1981-82 38 NBA PHI 82 58 24 .707 17.0 2 21 12 9 .571 EC Champions
1982-83 39 NBA PHI 82 65 17 .793 24.0 1 13 12 1 .923 NBA Champions
1983-84 40 NBA PHI 82 52 30 .634 11.0 2 5 2 3 .400
1984-85 41 NBA PHI 82 58 24 .707 17.0 2 13 8 5 .615
Career NBA 650 454 196 .698 129.0 105 66 39 .629
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 1/23/2013.

Cunningham was a former ABA MVP and 5-time NBA/ABA All-Star as a player. He took over as the Sixers head coach with no previous coaching experience in 1977. As a head coach Cunningham never had a losing season. Cunningham’s boldest move as coach was his instigation of the trade of superstar George McGinnis from the Sixers for defensive standout Bobby Jones. The addition of Jones helped the Sixers to rank among the league’s top defensive teams in every year of Cunningham’s tenure. Billy Cunningham led the Sixers to the 1983 NBA title and Finals appearances in 1980 and 1982. Cunningham has the 3rd highest winning percentage of any coach in NBA history.
Larry Bird

Regular Season Playoffs
Season Age Lg Tm G W L W-L% W > .500 Finish G W L W-L% Notes
1997-98 41 NBA IND 82 58 24 .707 17.0 2 16 10 6 .625
1998-99 42 NBA IND 50 33 17 .660 8.0 1 13 9 4 .692
1999-00 43 NBA IND 82 56 26 .683 15.0 1 23 13 10 .565 EC Champions
Career NBA 214 147 67 .687 40.0 52 32 20 .615
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 1/23/2013.

As a player Larry Bird won three MVPs and led the Celtics to three NBA championships. Bird took over the head coaching job of the Indiana Pacers in 1997 with no previous coaching experience. The Pacers were an aging team that had missed the playoffs in the 1996-97 season. In his 1st season as coach, Bird led the Pacers to a 58-24 record and was named NBA coach of the year. In the playoffs Bird led the Pacers to the Eastern Conference Finals where they played a tough 7 game series falling to the Michael Jordan led Chicago Bulls. Bird led the Pacers to the #1 overall seed in the East in ’99 where they again went to the Conference Finals, this time losing to the Knicks. In his last season as coach Bird led the Pacers to a NBA Finals appearance. Bird is 5th all-time in winning percentage in NBA history.

The success of the coaches above proves that being a great player is not an impediment to being a good or great NBA coach. Other greats like Bill Russell and Jerry West have experienced success as head coaches. The team that gives Patrick Ewing a chance as head coach could find themselves stumbling onto the next Billy Cunningham or Lenny Wilkens.

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Tags: Bill Sharman Billy Cunningham Larry Bird Lenny Wilkens Patrick Ewing

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