One of the more interesting coaching names to surface over the last few weeks is both a dark horse and a familiar name.
Assessing a candidate objectively is hard when that figure is as revered as John Stockton, but that’s what we’ll attempt to in this latest profile as part of SCH’s Jazz Coaching Search Central.
Stockton’s credentials as a position-defining, history-making, memory-forging Jazz legend are beyond unimpeachable. Now that, as 1280’s Spence Checketts first reported, Stockton may be asked about directing his old team, it’s time to analyze Stockton the coaching prospect.
Can this guy, engraved in our minds in his short shorts threading the needle on a pass, next be seen in a tie pacing the sidelines?
All-time greats in the player/coach ranks
Stockton as a player was uniquely marvelous, a smart and crafty player who rewrote NBA history because he could find a passing angle on just about any play. He was fearless as a normally-sized human surrounded by giants and he remains peerless in terms of his ability to create. At times taciturn (at least in public), he never equivocated in his quasi-religious devotion to playing the “right way.” He took pride — and still takes pride — in working hard and in unmatched preparation for every battle.
Stock as a coach? Who knows.
Some of those skills translate. Preparation. Hard work. But a quick glance at the history of great coaches and great players makes it obvious that achieving greatness in one of those jobs guarantees absolutely nothing in terms of achieving greatness in the other.
In fact, none of Stockton’s peers1 in the top 18 for career NBA win shares has even attempted coaching2. You have to go all the way to #19 Bill Russell before you start finding all-time greats who tried their luck with a clipboard, and it didn’t always go very well. Here’s a recap of what happened when the best all-time players moved to the sidelines:
If we do the inverse operation — scanning the all-time great coaches and seeing what kind of playing careers they had — we’ll see a similar degree of exclusivity to the lists. Of the 25 winningest coaches, only Lenny Wilkens cracks the top 100 in career WS3. Don Nelson, Doc Rivers and Jerry Sloan had very good careers as defined by WS, but were not all-time greats.
None of this is meant to assert that great players can’t be great coaches, but it demonstrates pretty convincingly that coaching and playing basketball are jobs with very different vital skills, and it is perfectly feasible — even common — to be transcendent at one set of skills and found lacking in the other.
So what are those coaching skills, and does Stock have them? His work ethic and detailed preparation habits are going to be a huge plus for him on an NBA bench. I think he’ll have an instant and almost surgical understanding of the chess match of adjustments and counters because of the studious way he and his peers approached game prep throughout his career.
In fact, from an X-and-O standpoint I think he has as comprehensive and cerebral a relationship with the game as any candidate (although we’ll get into some specific system questions in a minute).
What about communication? As mentioned, Stockton was famously stoic in the public eye, but reports are that he was a very involved teammate, often the guy leading the jokes on the team bus.
Where he may have left questions relative to a coach’s job description is in the ego management & conflict department. Stock was so aligned with his coach and key teammates that he was rarely required to play hall monitor on those teams. When conflict finally appeared in the latter stages of John’s storied career, it prompted him to retreat, as Ian Thomsen wrote in Sports Illustrated:
“There was no question it hurt John, because you could see him withdraw,” says a high-ranking team official. “But he’ll never talk about it, just as he won’t talk about injuries, because then he feels like he’s making excuses for himself.”
Most Jazz fans remember this as the story of “Why Jazz Fans Hate Mark Jackson.”4 Looking at it in the vein of how a prospective coach dealt with his first fundamental interpersonal clash with teammates, I’m not sure that “you could see him withdraw” are the words you want to see. Would Gregg Popovich withdraw if there were hoops-related dissent in his locker room? Would Phil Jackson? The job of NBA coach, for better or worse, is as much about managing the delicate balance of chemistry and egos as it is about the other stuff, and in those moments of discord it can be vitally important to exert the right kind of firm influence.
I’m not even remotely suggesting that John isn’t equipped to be a strong leader of professional athletes. If he walked into my locker room with that basketball résumé, I’d damn sure listen up. But there are things in this area he’ll need to be able to speak to. When has he had experiences in which he has had to deliver constructive criticism, or teach someone a skill they’re struggling with, or resolve conflict between two subordinates? I would imagine those questions, or something like them, will be asked in a coaching interview, and I’m fascinated to know how he’d do in that regard.
Essentially it comes down to that broad philosophical purpose of a coach that I talked about when Ty Corbin lost the job: Can Stockton create and reinforce a culture, an identity, an organizational vision? I would love for the answer to be yes.
What about other head coaching traits? Professionalism/poise? Check. Commitment to putting in the time? Check. Passion for the game? Check. Media savvy? Check. Ability to align strategically with others? check
While his résumé is limited in direct relation to coaching, I think if Stock could answer some of the leadership and culture-related questions, he hits a lot of the “required qualifications” under this position.
The other thing I wonder is what type of X-and-O identity Stockton would bring to the Jazz. Unlike most players-turned-coaches, he played his entire career in basically the same offensive system. Yes, there were minor tweaks and personnel-driven variations along the way, but it was pretty much two decades of a flex system with a lot of pick-and-roll. I’m sure he can coach other sets, but from a basketball belief standpoint, my guess is that he wouldn’t stray too far from the ideologies of Sloan.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but as with any coach candidate, a hypothetical Stockton interview is going to be based around a discussion of how he’d apply his basketball philosophy to this group of guys. The Jazz still ran some flex stuff under Corbin with underwhelming results, so Stockton would likely need to come with a list of proposed adjustments to make it work, or a new offensive system. I believe he could probably do either, but let’s be clear here: Stockton is Stockton, so you’re not going to see some gimmicky departure from the School of Sloan.
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All that makes Stockton’s candidacy intriguing. I’m not 100% sure he’d be the best coach out of those available, but he’d be one of the most fascinated because of the types of questions his name brings to the conversation.
I’d still consider it something of a long shot, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we hear his name mentioned further during this search, or even in connection with other staff positions.