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November 21, 2008
Coaching Trees
Tracing Everyone's Lineage

by Kevin Pelton


I began thinking about coaching trees last weekend, having read a Seattle Times column that traced the lineage of the seven finalists for the Seattle Mariners' vacant managerial job filled Wednesday by former Oakland A's bench coach Don Wakamatsu. You hear a lot about coaching trees in football, a little in baseball, but very little when it comes to the NBA.

In researching this article, my tentative conclusion was that part of the reason is that coaching trees seem to have fewer common traits in the NBA than their NFL peers. In part, this might be explained by the schematic complexity of football. A Tony Dungy disciple surely coaches a "Tampa-2" defense, but few NBA defensive schemes are so uniquely distinct. Even when it comes to the aspects of the game an NBA coach can control, like pace, there's not always unanimity amongst coaching trees. Still, coaching trees and stylistic influences are an interesting way to look at the league's sideline generals.

Dean Smith Coaching Tree

Trademarks: Above-average pace, underrated defenses, depth
Current Head Coaches: Larry Brown, George Karl
Other Notables: Billy Cunningham, Matt Doherty, Doug Moe, Roy Williams

Brown Branch: Maurice Cheeks, Gregg Popovich
Karl Branch: Nate McMillan
Popovich Sub-Branch: Mike Brown, P.J. Carlesimo

One way or another, nearly a quarter of the NBA's head coaches can trace their lineage back to the legendary North Carolina coach, which is not surprising given that Smith coached more NBA talent than any of his peers during his time on the sidelines. Smith's direct influence seems to be waning, at least at the NBA level. Few of North Carolina's alumni from the '80s and '90s have turned to the sidelines, with several instead going into broadcasting (Brad Daugherty, Hubert Davis and Kenny Smith, most prominently). The notable exception is Milwaukee assistant Joe Wolf, a potential future head coach.

Where Smith's coaching tree continues to grow is from something of a rogue offshoot--Brown, who shares few common traits with the other Carolina guys. If Brown was considered the head of his own coaching tree, which might make more sense stylistically, he becomes more influential than his mentor and has arguably the league's strongest tree. Brown disciple Popovich has built a strong tree in his own right, one which in addition to Brown and Carlesimo includes Avery Johnson and up-and-coming Portland assistant Monty Williams.

Karl's coaching tree is also stronger than his lone current protégé would imply; Dallas assistants Dwane Casey and Terry Stotts, both of them former head coaches, worked under Karl as assistants in Seattle.

Bob Knight Coaching Tree

Trademarks: Reliance on man-to-man defense
Current Head Coaches: Lawrence Frank, Randy Wittman, Mike Woodson
Other Notables: Quinn Buckner, Butch Carter, Mike Krzyzewski, Isiah Thomas

A year ago, the General had more charges in the league as head coaches than anyone else. Tons of Indiana players have gone into coaching, and Knight also gets credit for a former Indiana team manager, New Jersey's Frank. The funny thing about the Knight disciples is that none of them is particularly known for being hard on their players. Whatever lessons they internalized from Knight, his bombastic style wasn't apparently one of them.

Pat Riley Coaching Tree

Trademarks: Slow pace, focus on defense, physical play
Current Head Coaches: Marc Iavaroni, Byron Scott, Erik Spoelstra, Stan Van Gundy
Other Notables: Kurt Rambis, Jeff Van Gundy

Scott Sub-Tree: Eddie Jordan

Riley illustrates one of the difficulties of pinning down the trademarks of NBA coaching trees, since he had two totally different incarnations as a coach between the Showtime Lakers and the '90s Knicks. You could even argue that his more balanced Miami teams of recent vintage represent a third different incarnation. The styles of Riley's disciples represent, to some extent or another, those different eras. Scott played for Riley in L.A., while Jeff Van Gundy coached under Riley in New York, and they took contrasting lessons away from those experiences. Stan Van Gundy and Spoelstra have generally taken the balanced approach from Miami (to the extent we can say much about Spoelstra's tendencies after a dozen games).

Overall, five current NBA head coaches can be traced back to Riley, an impressive number. We might someday see a sixth and a new sub-tree if some team gives Boston assistant Tom Thibodeau (a Van Gundy protégé) a chance to run his own team.

Rick Pitino Coaching Tree

Trademarks: Heavy usage of three-pointer, pressure defense
Current Head Coaches: Jim O'Brien, Reggie Theus
Other Notables: Billy Donovan, Tubby Smith

Pitino's coaching tree is much more impressive at the college level, where Donovan and Smith are two of many former assistants who have gone on to run their own teams. In the NBA, Pitino's style has been effectively copied by O'Brien, his assistant and successor in Boston. O'Brien's teams, like Pitino's, are known for taking a ton of threes, and his defenses generally employ heavy trapping if not as much full-court pressure. In his second NBA season, Theus--a Pitino assistant at Louisville--has yet to firmly establish his coaching philosophy, but the buzzword seems to be "aggressive," which is very much in keeping with Pitino's influence.

Jack Ramsay Coaching Tree

Trademarks: Measured approach
Current Head Coaches: Rick Adelman, Jim O'Brien

Adelman Sub-Tree: Terry Porter

Dr. Jack continues to wield influence in the league a full two decades after he last paced an NBA sideline. O'Brien is the first coach to make an appearance in two coaching trees. Stylistically, he belongs much more in the Pitino tree, but it's hard to deny his relationship with Ramsay--his father-in-law. Adelman started his NBA coaching career as an assistant to Ramsay in Portland, and can trace his even-keeled style to his mentor. In turn, Adelman influenced long-time Blazers point guard Porter, who spent his first year on the sidelines assisting Adelman in Sacramento.

Mike D'Antoni Coaching Tree

Trademarks: Fast pace, emphasis on point guard
Current Head Coaches: Vinny Del Negro, Marc Iavaroni

The D'Antoni tree is the first new one in the NBA in many years, reflecting the success enjoyed by the Suns under D'Antoni the last five years. In fairness, Del Negro is a little bit of a stretch in this group, having never actually coached under D'Antoni. Iavaroni has had two very different influences, assisting Riley in Miami and D'Antoni in Phoenix, and his style in Memphis reflects aspects of both mentors.

Hubie Brown Coaching Tree

Trademarks: Slow pace, color commentary
Current Head Coaches: None
Other Notables: Richie Adubato, Mike Fratello, Brian Hill, Ron Rothstein

Fratello Sub-Tree: Doc Rivers

At times in the '90s, as many as three NBA head coaches were Brown protégés, but now his only tie to a head coach is Boston's Rivers through Fratello in Atlanta. While Brown is their unquestioned leader, this group also shares a geographic tie to New Jersey. These are coaches' coaches, the kind who tell stories about going out to dinner and using the salt shakers to draw up plays. That passion for the game has translated into successful careers as broadcasters for Brown and Fratello in particular (Adubato is also a local color analyst). Stylistically, this group tends to coach a very slow pace (a philosophy taken to its logical extreme by Fratello in Cleveland) and have overrated defenses and underrated offenses as a result.

Who has influenced the NBA's coaches as they have developed their philosophies? Let's look individually at each coach to find key influences during their playing or coaching careers.

Mike Woodson - Bob Knight, Larry Brown. Woodson played for Knight at Indiana, and the two have remained close. Despite a long NBA playing career, he doesn't seem to have taken much from his NBA coaches, Cotton Fitzsimmons and Don Chaney being the most prominent influences. After starting his career as an assistant coach under Chris Ford in Milwaukee, Woodson caught on Larry Brown's staff and worked with Brown for three seasons, winning a championship as an assistant in Detroit and enhancing his attractiveness to the Hawks.

Doc Rivers - Mike Fratello. Rivers was drafted by the Hawks just as Fratello was stepping in as head coach, and they stayed together for a remarkably long time for player and coach--seven full seasons. Later in his career, Rivers would go on to play under both Larry Brown and Pat Riley. Rivers is unusual to the extent that his playing career is about the sum total of his influences, as he was hired by Orlando with no coaching experience.

Larry Brown - Dean Smith, Alex Hannum. As noted above, Brown technically belongs to the Smith tree but has somehow managed to create a style entirely his own during his peripatetic coaching career. While a player in the ABA, Brown was as much a nomad as he has been as a coach, playing for five teams in as many seasons. He finished his career under Hall of Famer Hannum, then joined Hannum as an assistant before ultimately replacing him.

Vinny Del Negro - Mike D'Antoni. The Del Negro/D'Antoni comparisons are something of a matter of convenience. Besides that and college coach Jim Valvano, it's hard to find strong influences on the Bulls' rookie head coach. During his playing career, Del Negro never played under the same coach for more than two full seasons. His lengthy tenure in San Antonio included a revolving door of coaches--John Lucas, Bob Hill (whom Del Negro considered at length for his staff in Chicago) and Gregg Popovich.

Mike Brown - Gregg Popovich, Bernie Bickerstaff. The Cavaliers' head coach is most strongly associated with Popovich, having spent three years as an assistant in San Antonio. Certainly, Brown's system bears much similarity to the Spurs', and Popovich's own mentor (Hank Egan) serves as an assistant in Cleveland. However, it was Bickerstaff who was responsible for getting Brown into the NBA in Denver because of their connection via the University of San Diego. Brown has also cited the influence of Rick Carlisle, having worked with him as associate head coach in Indiana just before getting the job in Cleveland.

Rick Carlisle - Chuck Daly. I would have guessed that Bill Fitch was the biggest influence on Carlisle, who played for Fitch with the Celtics and started his career as an assistant to Fitch in New Jersey. However, in a Q&A with the Mavericks' Web site, Carlisle cites Daly (under whom he continued as a Nets assistant) first, followed by Larry Bird (whom he played with in Boston and coached under in Indiana) and then Fitch.

George Karl - Dean Smith. Karl is as loyal as any member of the Carolina family, frequently referring to coaching the Tar Heels as his dream job. Another formative influence was a fellow member of the Smith tree, Doug Moe. Karl started his coaching career as an assistant to Moe. To the extent that Karl's style differs from other Carolina guys, it's a fondness for smallball that presumably dates to his time in the CBA.

Michael Curry - Doug Collins. Seemingly, Curry has been groomed to be a coach--or a front-office executive, had he so chosen--since the early portion of his playing career. Always taking notes, Curry learned a lot from Collins with the Pistons and was also tight with Carlisle, playing for the Mavericks' head coach in both Detroit and Indiana.

Don Nelson - Red Auerbach. Like Brown, Nelson has a style all his own. Certainly, Nellie-ball carries specific implications--incredible offenses, fast paces and lineups with little or no regard for traditional positions. If Nelson belonged in a tree, it would surely be with Auerbach. While the Celtics icon retired from the bench after Nelson's first year in Boston, it was still very much Auerbach's organization and the coaches Nelson played for (Bill Russell and Tom Heinsohn) were extensions of him.

Rick Adelman - Jack Ramsay, Pete Carril. Following his NBA career, Adelman was coaching at a local community college when Ramsay made him an assistant in Portland. A little more than five years later, he was the Blazers' head coach. Along the way, Adelman's offense has evolved with influence from Carril, the mentor to Adelman's close friend and sponsor Geoff Petrie.

Jim O'Brien - Rick Pitino, Jack Ramsay. O'Brien is one of the most orthodox disciples you'll find, his style (threes and traps) heavily influenced by Pitino after several years together first at Kentucky and later with the Boston Celtics. Ramsay has surely had an influence as well as O'Brien's father-in-law.

Mike Dunleavy - Del Harris. At South Carolina, Dunleavy played for Frank McGuire, giving him a connection to the Carolina tree (McGuire preceded Smith at North Carolina and influenced Smith's use of per-possession statistics years before anyone else used them). However, his mentor in the NBA was Harris, first as a player in Houston and then as an assistant coach in Milwaukee. Harris is a follower of Don Nelson, but something got lost in the translation, as evidenced by Baron Davis' difficulty going from playing for Nelson to playing for Dunleavy.

Phil Jackson - Red Holzman. When we talk about "philosophy" for Jackson, the meaning goes well beyond the basketball court. In hoops terms, however, Jackson learned much from his coach on the great Knicks squads of the early '70s. What's interesting here is that, for all his success, there is no Jackson coaching tree. Jim Cleamons got a brief trial in Dallas back when everyone who coached the Mavericks washed out; that's been about it.

Marc Iavaroni - Mike D'Antoni, Pat Riley. We discussed in the "coaching tree" section Iavaroni's odd combination of D'Antoni's run-and-gun system and Riley's defensive-oriented mentality. The third coach Iavaroni cites as an influence is Jerry Sloan, for whom he played in Utah. I'm not sure what the common thread is there, besides success and maybe teams led by strong point guards.

Erik Spoelstra - Pat Riley. Spoelstra has spent his entire coaching career with the Heat, so he presents one of the most linear paths from mentor to protégé. As to how that plays out in terms of his style, we're still waiting to see.

Scott Skiles - Jud Heathcote. I wasn't able to find much of anything in terms of Skiles' influences. Heathcote, his college coach at Michigan State and very influential in Skiles being able to get past his youthful indiscretions, is the most logical choice. During his NBA career, Skiles' longest association was with Matt Guokas in Orlando, while he was an assistant coach under Danny Ainge in Phoenix. A lot of Skiles' style seems to be his own, reflecting his bulldog mentality as a player.

Randy Wittman - Bob Knight. Wittman remains closely tied to Indiana University and was mentioned as a possible replacement for Kelvin Sampson last spring. During his playing career, he spent several years learning under Fratello before finishing his career and starting out as a coach under Bob Hill. He also spent an extended period as an assistant to Flip Saunders in Minnesota before ultimately getting the head job with the Timberwolves.

Lawrence Frank - Bob Knight, Kevin O'Neill. Famously, Frank enrolled at Indiana so that he could be a team manager and learn from Knight. The General's recommendation helped the young Frank catch on as an assistant to Kevin O'Neill and work for him for several years. Somehow, despite coming up with two of the game's most notorious screamers, Frank isn't known for being hard on his players.

Byron Scott - Pat Riley. As Scott told a New Orleans paper when he was first hired by the Hornets, "Pat Riley's determination and his drive made me who I am as a coach. I carry all those same traits from watching him and learning from him, and it's served me well so far." Scott also played for Larry Brown late in his career and started out as an assistant under Adelman in Sacramento.

Mike D'Antoni - Dan Peterson. This excellent Men's Journal profile sheds some light on the development of D'Antoni's unorthodox philosophy, which he traces all the way back to his high school days, if not earlier. As far as a mentor, that's more challenging. I'm not sure I see one in his career at Marshall University or in the NBA (where he was briefly coached by Bob Cousy) or ABA. That leaves D'Antoni's Italian career. Peterson, a one-time University of Delaware head coach coached D'Antoni for nearly a decade with Olimpia Milano.

P.J. Carlesimo - Gregg Popovich. Saying Popovich influenced Carlesimo is a little strange, given that by the time he arrived in San Antonio Carlesimo had already coached two NBA teams and been highly successful at the NCAA level. Working with Popovich tended to reinforce Carlesimo's philosophies, I would say. Also, it's hard to find an NCAA mentor. Obviously Carlesimo's father Peter (a football coach and occasional basketball coach at the University of Scranton before becoming AD at Fordham and later running the NIT) had an influence, and Carlesimo was surely influenced by the fraternity of New Jersey-area coaches.

Stan Van Gundy - Pat Riley. Van Gundy and his brother Jeff drew their first influence from their father Bill, a head coach at several small colleges. At the NBA level, however, both are clear descendants of Riley. Van Gundy spent eight years assisting Riley before replacing him on the sidelines.

Maurice Cheeks - Larry Brown. Sometimes, the research is relatively simple: "The person I learned the most about coaching from is Larry Brown," Cheeks told Blazers.com when he was first named head coach. During his career in Philly, Cheeks played for Billy Cunningham and Guokas. He played a half a season under Brown in San Antonio, the joined back up with him as an assistant with the 76ers before getting his own head job and eventually returning to Philadelphia.

Terry Porter - Rick Adelman. Porter found a home in Portland playing the point for Adelman's great Blazers teams, then started out his coaching career by assisting Adelman in Sacramento. Another key influence has been Flip Saunders, for whom Porter played in Minnesota and coached with in Detroit, and college coach Dick Bennett and Popovich are also worth mentioning. The common areas between Adelman and Saunders are their cool demeanors and well-executed offenses.

Nate McMillan - George Karl. During college, McMillan played for Valvano for two years, and he started his career under Bickerstaff. Still, there's no doubt Karl has had the most influence on McMillan's style, from his fondness for small lineups to his willingness to trap defensively. (Somehow, the fast pace Karl favors didn't carry over.) If anyone else has influenced McMillan, it's actually Sloan from afar because of the Portland coach's immense respect for his long-time rival.

Reggie Theus - Rick Pitino. During his NBA career, Theus played for revolving turnstyles of coaches in both Chicago and Kansas City before becoming a journeyman later in his playing days. He then was away from basketball (unless you count coaching on "Hang Time") before being hired to assist Pitino at Louisville.

Gregg Popovich - Larry Brown, Hank Egan. As a player at Air Force, Popovich was coached by Egan, and the two struck up a long-running connection that ultimately brought Egan to become an assistant on Popovich's staff in San Antonio for eight years. Later, while a head coach at Pomona-Pitzer, Popovich took a year off to serve as a volunteer assistant and learn under Brown at Kansas, later joining him with the Spurs in his first NBA job.

Sam Mitchell - Flip Saunders. I couldn't find a lot from Mitchell referencing influences on his coaching style, but the obvious relationship is with Saunders, his coach in Minnesota for nearly seven seasons. While we're here, since this is the only time Saunders is featured in this article, it's worth noting that his mentor was another former Timberwolves coach, Bill Musselman. At one point Musselman had his own mini-branch between his son Eric and Saunders, while Mitchell also played under Musselman.

Jerry Sloan - Dick Motta. The motion offense run by the Jazz is said to have originated with longtime NBA coach Motta, who had Sloan as a player in Chicago in the '60s and '70s. That makes it only slightly younger than Sloan's other staple, the high pick-and-roll. Sloan has also had a close relationship with lead assistant Phil Johnson that defies the mentor-protégé framework, since Sloan played for Johnson when he assisted Motta with the Bulls.

Eddie Jordan - Byron Scott, Pete Carill. In conventional terms, Jordan is best placed in Scott's tree, having coached under him for several years in New Jersey before getting the Wizards' head job. However, stylistically Jordan's defining characteristic is his use of the Princeton offense, learned from Carill when the veteran coach was an assistant to Jordan in Sacramento. Jordan is also close with his college coach at Rutgers, Tom Young, who was on the Washington coaching staff before his retirement.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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