NBA History: Is early career success necessary for Head Coaches?

"Did you know they invented sweat pants? WHAT ELSE ARE YOU NOT TELLING ME???" - Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Tyrone Corbin is having a bad time right now, but it's not the end of the world, right?

I wanted to apologize to the readers, active participants, lurkers, my team, my cohorts, my fellow bloggers, and to all the national writers who read SB Nation sites like this one. I'm going to post better articles. Hopefully starting with this one. Right now the Utah Jazz are struggling, starting the NBA season at 0-5. There are some good reasons to explain away the record (playing playoff teams for the most part, and being injured); but invariably some people will point to the head coach as a primary factor. I don't know how valid it is, I have my own beliefs -- but I don't really have any quantitative evidence to support my beliefs. What I do have is two-fold: we have the idea that for this season we should look beyond wins and losses to evaluate the progress of the Utah Jazz; and secondly, we have decades of data on ABA/NBA head coaches.

At the end of the season we can figure out if our players are playing better. And at the end of the season we can figure out if head coach Tyrone Corbin is better too. (N.B. The Jazz also did not extend HIS contract, so he may be looking for a new job in 77 games) Part of what will help evaluate him would be to evaluate him against the vast history of NBA coaches who have come before him. So that's precisely what I searched for. The following is a very long (n=130+) list of coaches who have held their job for at least part of three seasons. It's not an all inclusive list because, c'mon, the data gathering for this thing started at 3:30 am today. For these coaches I calculated their Win / Loss record for their first 3-4 seasons, cumulative with their regular season and playoff careers to that point. (3-4 yrs because Ty is in his 4th season as head coach, but came into it halfway through one season, then had to coach in a lockout shortened year. I'm trying to give you the benefit of the doubt here, dawg.)

What I've found is that, well, Tyrone may or may not be right where he needs to be in W/L this year to stick around in the NBA for a few years longer. I've also broken down the win% by era of head coach start, and well, that's where some of the data is less forgiving. While I've felt like wins and losses this year are not the point -- if Ty does want to keep stride with his peers I've also calculated just how many wins Ty needs to keep, in order to keep his head above water.

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Tyrone Corbin:

Tyrone Corbin was 3rd in line to the throne back when Jerry Sloan was the head coach. For decades the coaching helm was supposed to go to Phil Johnson, Jerry's XO. But Phil decided to ride off into the sunset with his longtime friend and colleague. Ty was selected to succeed them. But has he succeeded as an actual NBA head coach? That depends on which side of the media veil you sit on (some say no, others vehemently claim the opposite). I have a feeling that Corbin was to be a sacrificial lamb, but the Jazz could not justify moving beyond Ty after he made the playoffs in that lockout year (when the Jazz moved up from 12th in the West to 8th due to teams ahead of us tanking).

I am frustrated by the mistakes Corbin makes as a head coach, but I am also frustrated by the situation he was put into. But, it's not about the present now that we've scuttled the mercenary roster that Kevin O'Connor cobbled together in the aftermath of moving Deron Williams. It's, really, about the future. So can Tyrone Corbin be the head coach of the future? Because we endeavor to be rational empiricists before we can project the future we have to build a quantitative frame of reference from historical facts.

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BEHOLD:

This is the cumulative win/loss record of NBA/ABA head coaches who coached for at least three different years in their coaching careers -- but limited to just their first three (or four if available) seasons at the helm. It's a combined regular season and playoff record, because things like the playoffs matter in the real world. (The point, by the way, is to win the title, not be happy with an 8th seed)

Head Coach 1st season # Season # Games W L %
1 Phil Jackson 1989 - 1990 4 402 295 107 73.4%
2 Pat Riley 1981 - 1982 4 386 273 113 70.7%
3 Avery Johnson 2004 - 2005 4 311 217 94 69.8%
4 John Kundla 1948 - 1949 4 304 209 95 68.8%
5 Billy Cunningham 1977 - 1978 4 375 253 122 67.5%
6 Paul Westphal 1992 - 1993 4 323 216 107 66.9%
7 Larry Bird 1997 - 1998 3 268 179 89 66.8%
8 Rick Adelman 1988 - 1989 4 343 228 115 66.5%
9 Tom Thibodeau 2010 - 2011 4 267 174 93 65.2%
10 Joe Mullaney 1969 - 1970 4 387 247 140 63.8%
11 Rudy Tomjanovich 1991 - 1992 4 333 212 121 63.7%
12 Mike Brown 2005 - 2006 4 388 247 141 63.7%
13 Brian Hill 1993 - 1994 4 334 209 122 63.1%
14 Erik Spoelstra 2008 - 2009 4 368 228 140 62.0%
15 Kevin Loughery 1972 - 1973 4 315 194 121 61.6%
16 Tom Heinsohn 1969 - 1970 4 352 214 138 60.8%
17 Rick Carlisle 2001 - 2002 4 384 233 151 60.7%
18 Stan Van Gundy 2003 - 2004 4 305 185 120 60.7%
19 Bill Russell 1966 - 1967 4 373 226 147 60.6%
20 Frank Vogel 2010 - 2011 4 224 133 91 59.4%
21 Jeff Van Gundy 1995 - 1996 4 285 166 119 58.2%
22 Paul Westhead 1979 - 1980 4 262 152 110 58.0%
23 Danny Ainge 1996 - 1997 4 247 143 104 57.9%
24 Scott Brooks 2008 - 2009 4 342 198 144 57.9%
25 Gregg Popovich 1996 - 1997 4 323 185 138 57.3%
26 Jerry West 1976 - 1977 3 268 153 115 57.1%
27 Fred Schaus 1960 - 1961 4 362 206 156 56.9%
28 Butch Van Breda Kolff 1967 - 1968 4 361 204 157 56.5%
29 Chris Ford 1990 - 1991 4 353 199 154 56.4%
30 Jack McMahon 1962 - 1963 4 297 167 130 56.2%
31 Doug Moe 1976 - 1977 4 334 186 148 55.7%
32 Joe Lapchick 1947 - 1948 4 270 149 121 55.2%
33 Mike D'Antoni 1989 - 1999 4 310 170 140 54.8%
34 K.C. Jones 1972 - 1973 4 365 199 166 54.5%
35 Doug Collins 1986 - 1987 4 361 196 165 54.3%
36 Larry Drew 2010 - 2011 4 257 139 118 54.1%
37 Slick Leonard 1962 - 1963 4 307 166 141 54.1%
38 Dave Cowens 1978 - 1979 4 259 140 119 54.1%
39 Lawrence Frank 2003 - 2004 4 324 175 149 54.0%
40 Cotton Fitzsimmons 1970 - 1971 4 334 180 154 53.9%
41 Babe McCarthy 1967 - 1968 4 356 191 165 53.7%
42 Jim O'Brien 2000 - 2001 4 284 152 132 53.5%
43 Dick Motta 1968 - 1969 4 344 184 160 53.5%
44 Mike Schuler 1986 - 1987 4 301 160 141 53.2%
45 Maurice Cheeks 2001 - 2002 4 311 165 146 53.1%
46 Byron Scott 2000 - 2001 4 328 174 154 53.0%
47 Gene Rhodes 1967 - 1968 4 262 138 124 52.7%
48 Ray Scott 1972 - 1973 4 291 151 140 51.9%
49 Jack Ramsay 1968 - 1969 4 345 179 166 51.9%
50 Chuck Daly 1981 - 1982 4 305 158 147 51.8%
51 Gene Shue 1966 - 1967 4 313 162 151 51.8%
52 Doc Rivers 1999 - 2000 4 343 175 168 51.0%
53 Nate McMillan 2000 - 2001 4 318 162 156 50.9%
54 Don Nelson 1976 - 1977 4 326 166 160 50.9%
55 Scott Skiles 1999 - 2000 4 272 138 134 50.7%
56 Bill Sharman 1966 - 1967 4 367 186 181 50.7%
57 Allan Bristow 1991 - 1992 4 341 171 170 50.1%
58 Mike Fratello 1980 - 1981 4 263 130 133 49.4%
59 Isiah Thomas 2000 - 2001 4 343 169 174 49.3%
60 Rick Pitino 1987 - 1988 4 309 151 158 48.9%
61 Bernie Bickerstaff 1985 - 1986 4 355 173 182 48.7%
62 Alvin Gentry 1994 - 1995 4 187 91 96 48.7%
63 Lenny Wilkens 1969 - 1970 4 328 159 169 48.5%
64 Kevin McHale 2004 - 2005 4 248 120 128 48.4%
65 Vinny Del Negro 2008 - 2009 4 335 162 173 48.4%
66 Tom Nissalke 1971 - 1972 4 252 121 131 48.0%
67 Matt Goukas 1985 - 1986 4 306 145 161 47.4%
68 Jerry Sloan 1979 - 1980 4 289 136 153 47.1%
69 Tyrone Corbin 2010 - 2011 4 185 87 98 47.0%
70 Dan Issel 1992 - 1993 4 292 137 155 46.9%
71 P.J. Carlesimo 1994 - 1995 4 340 159 181 46.8%
72 Dolph Schayes 1963 - 1964 4 343 160 183 46.6%
73 Phil Johnson 1973 - 1974 4 310 144 166 46.5%
74 Flip Saunders 1995 - 1996 4 288 133 155 46.2%
75 Mike Dunleavy 1990 - 1991 4 351 162 189 46.2%
76 Buddy Jeannette 1947 - 1948 4 228 105 123 46.1%
77 Bob Hill 1986 - 1987 4 299 136 163 45.5%
78 Terry Porter 2003 - 2004 3 220 100 120 45.5%
79 Jim Pollard 1959 - 1960 4 306 139 167 45.4%
80 Dick Versace 1988 - 1989 3 163 73 90 44.8%
81 Sam Mitchell 2004 - 2005 4 339 151 188 44.5%
82 John Lucas 1992 - 1993 4 321 142 179 44.2%
83 Charles Wolf 1960 - 1961 4 335 148 187 44.2%
84 Eric Musselman 2002 - 2003 3 246 108 138 43.9%
85 Wes Unseld 1987 - 1988 4 306 133 173 43.5%
86 Del Harris 1979 - 1980 4 359 156 203 43.5%
87 Butch Carter 1997 - 1998 3 168 73 95 43.5%
88 Dick McGuire 1959 - 1960 4 301 130 171 43.2%
89 Frank Layden 1981 - 1982 4 329 142 187 43.2%
90 Larry Staverman 1967 - 1968 3 135 58 77 43.0%
91 Jim Lynam 1983 - 1984 4 267 114 153 42.7%
92 John MacLeod 1973 - 1974 4 347 148 199 42.7%
93 Stu Jackson 1989 - 1990 3 146 62 84 42.5%
94 Bob Weiss 1986 - 1987 4 336 142 194 42.3%
95 Donnie Walsh 1978 - 1979 3 145 61 84 42.1%
96 Bones McKinney 1950 - 1951 3 165 69 96 41.8%
97 Jack McKinney 1979 - 1980 4 262 109 153 41.6%
98 Bobby Wanzer 1955 - 1956 4 236 98 138 41.5%
99 Jimmy Rodgers 1988 - 1989 4 283 117 166 41.3%
100 Red Holzman 1953 - 1954 4 211 87 124 41.2%
101 Dwane Casey 2005 - 2006 4 270 110 160 40.7%
102 Monty Williams 2010 - 2011 4 240 97 143 40.4%
103 Terry Stotts 2002 - 2003 4 288 116 172 40.3%
104 George Karl 1984 - 1985 4 309 124 185 40.1%
105 Eddie Jordan 1996 - 1997 4 269 107 162 39.8%
106 Garry St. Jean 1992 - 1993 4 332 132 200 39.8%
107 Willis Reed 1977 - 1978 4 212 84 128 39.6%
108 Andrew Levane 1952 - 1953 4 218 86 132 39.4%
109 John Calipari 1996 - 1997 3 187 72 115 38.5%
110 Lionel Hollins 1999 - 2000 4 185 71 114 38.4%
111 Jay Triano 2008 - 2009 3 229 87 141 38.2%
112 Slater Martin 1956 - 1957 3 98 37 61 37.8%
113 Don Chaney 1984 - 1985 4 271 99 172 36.5%
114 Dave Wohl 1985 - 1986 3 182 65 117 35.7%
115 Paul Silas 1980 - 1981 4 281 100 181 35.6%
116 Keith Smart 2002 - 2003 4 263 93 170 35.4%
117 Scotty Robertson 1974 - 1975 4 205 72 133 35.1%
118 Johnny Davis 1996 - 1997 4 219 73 146 33.3%
119 Randy Wittman 1999 - 2000 4 288 96 192 33.3%
120 Bob MacKinnon 1974 - 1975 4 187 62 125 33.2%
121 Darrell Walker 1996 - 1997 3 169 56 113 33.1%
122 Jerry Reynolds 1986 - 1987 4 170 56 114 32.9%
123 Mike Woodson 2004 - 2005 4 335 109 226 32.5%
124 Red Kerr 1966 - 1967 4 291 94 197 32.3%
125 George Irvine 1984 - 1985 4 211 68 143 32.2%
126 Bill Fitch 1970 - 1970 4 328 99 229 30.2%
127 Ron Rothstein 1988 - 1989 4 328 97 231 29.6%
128 Gene Littles 1985 - 1986 4 155 44 111 28.4%
129 Kurt Rambis 1998 - 1999 3 209 59 150 28.2%
130 Sidney Lowe 1992 - 1993 4 299 79 220 26.4%
131 Bill Musselman 1975 - 1976 4 131 34 97 26.0%
132 Tim Floyd 1998 - 1999 4 239 49 190 20.5%
133 Brian Williams 1995 - 1996 3 184 36 148 19.6%
Totals 37929 18660 19265 49.2%

It's a big list. Obviously, first, some of these coaches inherited crappy situations, and some of them went to teams with great players. Some teams won a lot, and others did not.  There is a relationship between being a 'winning' coach and having a super star on your team. But the teams that have won the most do seem to be led by good coaches, even legendary coaches started off from somewhere. And some of these legendary coaches started off winning from the get-go.

Ty is below average, but if you look in his neighborhood there are a few guys around him who turned out okay. But thankfully we can break it down a bit more than that.

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Eras of Coaching:

It's apples and pad thai to compare some coaches from the era directly after WWII to coaches of today. The game is vastly changed. So here we'll see the differences between the eras, and their respective winning percentages.

Coaching period n = G W L %
All NBA/ABA 133 37,929 18,660 19,265 49.2%
Started in 1980 --> 83 23,578 11,462 12,112 48.6%
Started in 1990 --> 59 16,759 8,338 8,417 49.8%
Started in 2000 --> 27 7,952 4,091 386 51.5%
Started in 2010 --> 5 1,173 630 543 53.7%
Ty Corbin 1 185 87 98 47.0%

Oh, well, for whatever reason these coaches that stick in the league (3+ seasons) who are in recent times seem to be coaches that have increasing winning percentages. This. Does not. Look good. For Ty.

Let's go deeper and just look at the last section, coaches who got their start in 2010 or later...

Head Coach 1st season # Season # Games W L %
1 Tom Thibodeau 2010 - 2011 4 267 174 93 65.2%
2 Frank Vogel 2010 - 2011 4 224 133 91 59.4%
3 Larry Drew 2010 - 2011 4 257 139 118 54.1%
4 Tyrone Corbin 2010 - 2011 4 185 87 98 47.0%
5 Monty Williams 2010 - 2011 4 240 97 143 40.4%
Totals: 1173 630 543 53.7%

Wow. Okay. That's good company if you can keep it, but these teams the coaches are responsible for are going in vastly different directions.

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Keep up with the Joneses:

Let's remember that Ty is in the middle of his 4th season, just like a bunch of other head coaches. His record today (which honestly isn't that hurt by the 0-5 cumulative start) isn't the record that it's going to be when the season is up, and his contract is also up. The Jazz players are not going to be really judged on wins this year. Hopefully Ty is able to show us some non-win related coaching behaviors that make the front office like him. Wins may be hard to get this year . . . but if he wanted to keep up with his era of coaches in his situation . . . how many wins would the team need to get this year?

  • The whole historical selection (n=133) has an average win% of 49.2%; for Ty to reach that this year the Jazz would need to win 41.904 games this year
  • For the 80's and up selection (n=83), the Jazz would have to win 40.332 games
  • 90's (n=59)? Reaching that win% would need for Ty to guide the team to 43.476 wins
  • 2000's era coaches (n=27) are winning 51.5% of their games, and for Ty to keep up with them he'd have to have a Coach of the Year season and have the team win 47.930 games
  • For Ty to reach AVERAGE (and remember, these are the averages of these groups) for the 2010 and later starting coaches (n=5) he would have to coax the Jazz to 53.694 wins this year.

For the record, there are only 77 games left this year. How many of the following 77 do you think we're going to win? That's hard to tell because of the inherent factors that have influenced our 0-5 start -- which are mainly due to issues of a) who we have to play, and b) roster makeup (injuries, etc). How much of it is the coach? We don't know.

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But is it the team that makes the coach, or the coach makes the team?

Obviously you can create a relationship between successful coaches and successful teams, when both categories share a common factor of wins. (Aka the "Duh" Syllogism) How do you evaluate a coach's influence upon a team when a stated doctrine for the season is to look beyond wins and losses? That's the tricky part this season for Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey. A coach and still lead his team to good play, or failing that, evolve during the season to adjust to changing situations.

Ty is dealt a rough hand right off the back by taking away his best point guard, Trey Burke, and starting the season with such an imbalanced roster. The offense looks really rough,and the team has to get better. If it does part of the props will have to go to the players and the coach. It can't all be Ty's fault, after all, he's not the one getting scored on.

But does the team make the coach, or vice versa? In a season beyond wins and losses it has to be a combination of both. Effectively, in a way, the very players have a very active on-court say in how successful Ty's season is this year. The youth core of Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter, and Alec Burks are all in much more secure situations than Ty. If they play hard for him, they can help "make him". It's a good thing Ty didn't monkey around with their minutes over the last three seasons, preventing them from getting regular playing time, eliminate possible comfort on the court, sequester them from national recognition (guess how many made the rookie/soph game), or potentially limit the value of their future contracts as a result of systematic biases and/or random DNP-CDs.

Oh wait.

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So (*looks at watch*) . . . let's wrap this up:

Ty is below average for a group of 130+ NBA/ABA head coaches who coached for at least 3 seasons. Right now he looks worse than he is when compared to people of his era. But it's not about the present that matters, but the future. You don't have to exhibit early success in your coaching career to become a well respected, tenured NBA/ABA head coach. Household names like Mike Fratello, Lenny Wilkens, Jerry Sloan, Flip Saunders, and George Karl all started their careers off on the wrong side of .500 as NBA head coaches. Are these guys examples of early coaching success not mattering, or just exceptions to the rule? After all, if you win early you develop this winning aura that makes it way easier to stick around in the league. Some times this is related to being in a good situation, part of a strong franchise, or inheriting a once in a generational talent. Other times it's just because a guy is just a damn fine coach.

No one honestly thinks that Ty Corbin is a damn fine coach right now. Can he become one? Time will surely tell, but his performance this season will definitely give us a lot of hints on which way his legacy is leaning. It would be awesome if he succeeds. But it's not likely that he will keep pace with his immediate, or historical, colleagues in terms of winning percentage at the end of this season.

It's not likely.

But if Ty wants to go out with a bang, expiring contract in hand, and win 40 of the next 77 games he'll surely find a home in the NBA next season. That would not guarantee that he becomes a Hall of Famer, but it would for sure establish him as a legit NBA head coach who did a damn fine coaching job this year.

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