These NBA playoffs have been distinguished by two things. One is the unpredictability of outcomes, with both the top seeds in each conference already eliminated, and teams like Milwaukee, Atlanta and the Los Angeles Clippers posting
surprising and historical victories in their various rounds. But the bigger and better trend that’s resulted has been the success of Black coaches. Three of the four teams still in contention for an NBA title have African Americans in charge on the sidelines, and it’s possible both of the clubs vying for the crown will have Black coaches.
That puts a positive spin on an issue that has not always been a good one for the league. According to most recent league stats, at the start of the current season there were seven Black head coaches out of 30 teams in a league with a nearly 75 percent (74.2) Black playing constituency. There were 10 Black general managers and one Latino president of basketball operations, plus one Asian general manager. There were eight women assistant coaches.
During the season there were new Black head coaches in Philadelphia (Doc Rivers) and Atlanta (Nate McMillan, who took over 34 games into the season for Lloyd Pierce, another African American). So far there are openings in Boston, Indiana, Washington, Dallas, Portland and New Orleans, though there may be more by the time the playoffs end. There’s also a general manager opening in Dallas. The league had 14 Black coaches during the 2012-13 season, so they’ve lost half of them over the past nine years. Not exactly a good pattern. There were also 85 assistant coaches out of 185 who were either Black or people of color.
“Those numbers are just disgraceful. It doesn’t make any sense,” NBA Players Association executive director Michele Roberts told USA Today in March. “It’s not as if no one is doing anything at all. It’s not as if teams aren’t uttering the right words. But the players are seeing it. I’m hearing people talk about it both publicly and privately that these numbers don’t make sense.”
“It’s going to take certainly more than we’re doing now,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said when asked about the situation in that same article. “We’ve made progress over the years. But we’re constantly looking at how we can do better.”
The NBA also has the same problem as MLB in terms of the continual takeover in front offices by people more attuned to analytics than traditional scouting and player assessment methods. Such things as player chemistry and locker room interaction aren’t measured as easily as numbers on computer printouts and spread sheets. Still, wins and losses also speak loudly, and hopefully the success that’s now being enjoyed by Black head coaches in the current playoffs will help others get the opportunity.
Nothing has irked the Black coaching community more than the hirings of coaches over the past year in New York, Minnesota and Indiana where the feeling persisted that longtime qualified Black assistants, including in the Minnesota case one already on the staff, didn’t get a fair chance to interview for the positions, and top jobs went to white candidates with little or no pro coaching experience. In Brooklyn, Steve Nash was a first time hire, though he’s proven thus far to be successful. But it’s difficult for Black assistants who’ve worked in some cases for decades to see people who’ve never coached given head jobs when they can’t even get interviews.
Everyone in NBA higher management circles say they want to see more Blacks get head coaching opportunities. However pro sports has always been one where success is widely imitated. Perhaps the track record of Black coaches in this year’s playoffs will be the catalyst that spurs a move towards seeing that there are more African Americans in positions of authority rather than being confined to the court.