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What Current NBA Coach Was the Best Basketball Player?

NBA coaches
Otto Greule Jr., Jeff Gross, Rick Stewart / Getty Images

With Mike D’Antoni returning to the sidelines as the Lakers coach, he brings with him a long career of basketball acumen, both from his time as a coach and as a player. Kobe Bryant reportedly grew up watching D’Antoni play in Italy. But how does D’Antoni measure up against the competition? Here’s a look at how current NBA coaches fared in their playing careers:

1. Kevin McHale: He was chosen as one of the 50 greatest players of all time in 1996, averaging 17.9 points and 7.3 rebounds during his Celtics career. The team retired his number 32 jersey and he holds some of the team’s all-time records. As the Rockets coach, McHale is trying to solidify a new legacy, as a coach.

2. Mark Jackson: During his point guard playing days, Jackson set all kinds of marks for excellence: he is 13th all-time in games, 26th in minutes played, third in total assists and 23rd in steals. Somehow, he was only an all-star once in his career. The Warriors gain a lot of leadership and experience from the ex-pro.

3. Doug Collins: Before rising up as one of the great current coaches—most recently, he’s turned Philadelphia around—Collins wowed audiences with his 17.9 points per game average. He’s shown the rare ability to take what he had on the court and translated it into winning ways on the sideline.

4. Mike D’Antoni: An all-NBA Rookie Second Team selection in 1974, D’Antoni started his playing career with some distinction. But it soon fizzled out and he wound up overseas for the Olimpia Milano, becoming the club’s all-time leading scorer. There, D’Antoni won five Italian League titles, two Euroleague titles, two Cups of Italy, one Korać Cup and one Intercontinental Cup. His free-wheeling style could suit the Lakers well.

5. Avery Johnson: Undrafted, Johnson started his career in an unconventional way, but he made a 16-year career out of it. He helped the Spurs to a title in 1999, and the team retired his number 6. As the Nets coach, Johnson is helping to forge a new identity for the embattled franchise.

6. Byron Scott: He was the fourth pick of the 1983 NBA draft and became a key player on the Lakers. He won three championships and led the team in scoring in 1987-88, averaging a career-best 21.7 points per game. Now he’s a coach and mentor to the young Cavaliers.

7. Scott Skiles: The Bucks coach played 10 years manning the point. He made a name for himself with the expansion Magic, coming off the bench at first before becoming their everyday starter. In 1990, he set the NBA mark for most assists (30) in a single game.

8. Doc Rivers: He was a starter for Atlanta for many years, playing alongside star Dominique Wilkins. Rivers averaged a double-double in the 1986-87 season and was a centerpiece for the organization. He’s also given the Celtics new direction and leadership since joining the team in 2004.

9. Lionel Hollins: He was the sixth pick of the 1975 NBA draft out of Arizona State University and averaged 10.8 points for the Blazers his first season. He also won a championship and made an all-star team in his career. Now he’s got the Grizzlies rising on up in the Western Conference.

10. Vinny Del Negro: Del Negro made a name for himself as a Spur in the 1990s as a reliable shooting guard to complement the big guys. For his career, he averaged 9.1 points. As the Clippers coach, he’s put together a great team of shooters who undoubtedly challenge their coach at practice to competitions from the floor.

11. Mike Woodson: The current Knicks coach was actually a New York pick in the 1980 draft and stayed there for quite a few years. His best years, though, came with the Kansas City Kings. He averaged 12.2 points per game as a whole with them.

12. Tyrone Corbin: The Jazz coach played in Utah for four seasons where he averaged 9.6 points and 6.2 rebounds, right around his career averages. He also played in 81 NBA playoff games in his career.

13. Monty Williams: A pre-existing heart condition abruptly ended Williams’s career but he’s resurrected it as a coach with the Hornets. He scored 2,884 points in his 10-year playing career. His youth and experience could pay off with his young Hornets team.

14. Larry Drew: Drew’s best year as a player came during the 1982-83 season when he was on the Kings, averaging 20.1 points and 8.1 assists. The Hawks, whom Drew coaches today, have suffered from similar uneven results, as they’ve gone from a rising Eastern Conference team to one that hasn’t quite made the leap to the upper echelons.

15. Scott Brooks: Brooks played 10 seasons in the NBA, winning a championship with the Rockets in 1994. He was more a role player, which has helped him get the most out of his Thunder roster that went to the finals last season.

16. Randy Wittman: Wittman is in Washington, where his career was supposed to start when the Bullets selected him in the 1983 NBA Draft. But the team shipped him off to Atlanta right away, becoming a reliable bench player with 12 points and 3.5 assists in those years. As the Wizards rebuild, they could use a lift from just about anyone.

17. Jacque Vaughn: An NBA champ with the Spurs, Vaughn has turned his attention to coaching. He has a daunting task at hand with the Magic this season. He does have some experience as an underachiever: over his career, Vaughn averaged 4.5 points and 2.5 assists per game.

18. Rick Carlisle: He played with some of the greats in Boston in the ’80s, winning a title in 1986. He didn’t do much for the team, though: Carlisle averaged just 2.2 points, 1 assist and 0.8 rebounds per game during his Celtic years. With his Mavericks, it’s a much more high-profile gig, adjusting to his new role with ease.

19. George Karl: The Nuggets coach is well known to have played at University of North Carolina, but his pro career never really got off the ground. He was picked by the ABA’s San Antonio Spurs in 1973, and he stick with them for two seasons after they joined the NBA several years later.

20. Keith Smart: He was the hero of the 1987 NCAA championship game for Indiana, but his NBA career wasn’t nearly as sweet. After a very brief stint in the NBA, Smart played overseas for many years. Then he switched to coaching, and now he’s landed with the Kings.

21. Terry Stotts: The Blazers coach has the height of a basketball player, but may not look like one. Still, Stotts did play in the CBA and in Europe for a decade in the ’80s. Thanks to his varying levels of success here and abroad, he’s perhaps one of the most equipped coaches for today’s day and age.

22. Rick Adelman: He was a star at Loyola University (now Loyola Marymount University) and was selected in the 1968 NBA draft. Adelman bounced around the league before ending his playing days in 1975. Since then, he’s gone on to become one of the most renowned coaches in the league, now in charge of Minnesota.

23. Dwane Casey: Though he never played in the NBA, Casey was a captain of the University of Kentucky basketball team. When he graduated, he went into coaching instead of playing, and took over as an assistant at the school. Today he coaches the Raptors.

24. Gregg Popovich: With four championships in San Antonio under his belt, Popovich seems like a natural-born winner. As hard as it may be to believe, Pop played ball for four seasons at the United States Air Force Academy, the team’s leading scorer in his final year.

25. Erik Spoelstra: At the University of Portland, he was named the West Coast Conference Freshman of the Year. Spoelstra stayed the team’s starting point guard during his time there and joined the 1,000-point club. He’s got some of the NBA’s best talent on his hands with the Miami Heat.

26. Alvin Gentry: Gentry played college basketball at Appalachian State University, but he was more a student of the game under Press Maravich and Bobby Cremins. So it’s no surprise that when he reached the pros as a coach that Gentry studied under Popovich. He mans the Suns solo today.

27. Tom Thibodeau: Thibodeau played at Salem State University but quickly left the hardwood for the sidelines as an assistant coach at the school. From there, he rose up through the ranks as a coach, before ultimately winding up on the bench with the Bulls. His hard work paying off should be a lesson for the Chicago players trying to make it without their star Derrick Rose early this season.

28. Frank Vogel: The Pacers coach never played ball at a high level, but he did perform on ‘Late Night With David Letterman’ doing a Stupid Human Trick by spinning a basketball on a toothbrush while brushing his teeth. At Division III Juniata College, he started on the basketball team before transferring to Kentucky and to the other side of the game.

29. Lawrence Frank: His experience started as a manager at Indiana University in the early ’90s when he was under the tutelage of Bob Knight. Now he’s got another historic powerhouse behind him in the Pistons. Here’s one coach who gains respect from his knowledge and not thanks to his basketball skills.

30. Mike Dunlap: His lack of experience as a coach was a prime talking point this off-season when the Bobcats signed him out of nowhere. Whatever background Dunlap brings to the game, it’s not as a player. What is clear, however, is that his approach is paying off as the Bobcats are one of the league’s biggest surprises thus far.

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