After a much-publicized dalliance with Memphis’ Dave Joerger, the Minnesota Timberwolves decided to go in a different direction in their head coaching search. Rather than go the traditional route and keep their player personnel decision-makers separate from the highly-emotional ranks of coaches, the Wolves decided to dive right in and name Flip Saunders as their new head coach.
Just a month ago, Saunders was brought back to Minnesota as President of Basketball Operations, and this is his first major move since joining the front office. Obviously, he’s betting on himself being able to turn around a team that has been quite bad over the last decade; 2013-14’s 40 wins were the most the team has had since the 2004-05 season, and he’ll be the team’s sixth head coach in the last nine years.
Saunders certainly isn’t the first head coach who held a dual front office role. Sometimes things work out really well for these guys, but oftentimes these experiments (and the subsequent divided attention) spell disaster for the franchise. Here’s a look at several different NBA Executives Who Have Also Named Themselves Coach.
Talk about great timing. With David Robinson on the shelf and the 1996-97 Spurs an abysmal 3-15, Gregg Popovich decided to fire coach Bob Hill and put himself in charge. It was a forward-looking move. The season didn’t go well; Robinson came back but immediately got hurt again, and key players Sean Elliott, Chuck Person and Vinny Del Negro all missed a lot of time en route to a 20-62 finish. But their crappiness helped land the first pick in that summer’s NBA Draft. They took some center out of Wake Forest named Tim Duncan and things have gone pretty well since then.1 of 9
In the summer of 2007, Kevin McHale traded Kevin Garnett to the Celtics and left the Timberwolves roster decimated. That did not mean he couldn’t hold coach Randy Wittman accountable, though, and with the team at 38-105 on Wittman’s watch (including 4-15 that year) McHale decided they’d be better off with him at the helm. The T-Wolves finished out the year at a barely-better 20-43, and owner Glen Taylor decided not to bring McHale back the following season.2 of 9
Bill Russell took over the Seattle SuperSonics as General Manager in 1973 and decided to also name himself as coach. After winning just 26 games the year before, Russell led them to 36 wins in 1973 and 43 (and the franchise’s first playoff berth) in 1974. The team began to decline after that, though, and Russell’s rigidity and demanding attitude pushed him out the door after four seasons in charge.3 of 9
Isiah Thomas was hired to run the Knicks’ basketball operations in December of 2003, and by the summer of 2006 things were a complete mess. So, obviously, the solution was to make Thomas coach the players he had made ill-advised moves for to see if he could make his vision come to life on the floor. It didn’t work. Thomas clashed with players (most notably Stephon Marbury) and he was fired before end of the 2007-08 season.4 of 9
Many would argue the only reason Rick Pitino even agreed to come to the Celtics was because he thought he was going to get the No. 1 pick in the 1997 Draft (and with it, Tim Duncan). The Celtics ended up with No. 3, which they used to select Chauncey Billups, only for Pitino to trade him 50 games into his rookie season. Things never improved under Pitino (after all, Larry Bird wasn’t walking through that door), and he was fired in his fourth season at the helm after compiling a 102-146 record overall.5 of 9
With NCAA sanctions looming and a huge offer from New Jersey, John Calipari bolted UMass for the Nets in 1996, taking over both personnel decisions and coaching duties. The high point of his stint was a three-game sweep at the hand of the Bulls in the first round of the 1998 playoffs, and when the Nets started the lockout-shortened 1999 season at an abysmal 3-17, Calipari returned to the safe haven of college basketball.6 of 9
As director of basketball operations and head coach for the Detroit Pistons Doug Collins got his team to the playoffs in both 1996 and 1997, although they failed to get out of the first round both times. Finally, with his players disgruntled and the team no longer winning games, he was fired during the 1998 season and replaced with Alvin Gentry.7 of 9
Mike Dunleavy, Sr.
Dunleavy joined the Bucks prior to the 1992-93 season in a dual front office/head coaching role, and he was not terribly successful with either. He took over a team that won 31 games the year before and won 28, 20, 34, and 25 games over the next four years before he fired himself following the 1995-96 season. He moved on up into the front office full time and hired Chris Ford as his successor.8 of 9
Bonus: Michael Jordan
Kwame Brown. That kind of says it all right there about Michael Jordan’s legacy as a GM. The 38-year-old Jordan decided to step from the front office right onto the court, playing two years with the Wizards team he helped construct. So how did Jordan do as a GM? Well, even with him on the team, they went 37-45 in each of his two seasons and did not make the playoffs either year.9 of 9