It was a delightful idea in the moment. When news broke Friday that Nick Nurse and the bulk of his coaching staff would miss that night’s game against the Houston Rockets on account of NBA health and safety protocol, it didn’t take long for the social media hive mind to brainstorm the ideal replacement.
Surely it’d only make sense for Kyle Lowry, the point guard who’s long been identified as a coach on the floor, to step in as player-coach. Perhaps Fred VanVleet, Lowry’s teammate and protégé, could act as his assistant.
Alas, the NBA hasn’t had a player-coach since Dave Cowens held down both jobs for the Boston Celtics more than 40 years ago. All these years later, the NBA’s collective agreement doesn’t even allow for such novel arrangements.
“You can’t really pay a player to do anything outside of his contract,” Bobby Webster, the Raptors general manager, explained to reporters.
And even if you could, in a league in which the highest-paid coaches earn north of $10 million (U.S.) a season — more than $100,000 a game — Webster joked that adding “coach” to a player’s job description wouldn’t be in the budget. VanVleet, for that matter, made it clear he wouldn’t be interested in a pro bono cameo.
“I don’t believe in doing other people’s jobs for free,” he said.
And Lowry, as much as he was intrigued by the notion, acknowledged an obvious downside: “I probably wouldn’t sub myself out.”
Still, let’s face it: The NBA’s elite players have long realized the truth of the matter. You don’t need to be anointed the coach of a team to essentially coach a team. While there’s nobody in the league who’s officially identified and compensated as a “player-coach,” there are players who do more than their share of coaching. As Los Angeles Lakers forward Jared Dudley told Newsday last season, it’s all well and good for coaches to want players to fit their system, but in the NBA “superstars are the system.”
Dudley cited the example of Kevin Durant’s two-championship tenure as a member of the Golden State Warriors, when the Warriors, once masters of ball movement, bent their offence to Durant’s iso-ball whim. But Durant clearly isn’t the best example.
“Our thing here (with the Lakers) is that LeBron (James) is the system,” Dudley said. “The coach might call plays, but LeBron is calling 80 to 90 per cent of the plays when he’s in there. Now coach (Frank Vogel) is really great on X’s and O’s out of timeouts.”
Dudley’s peek behind the curtain hardly amounts to the first time James has been characterized as his team’s de facto coach. Or maybe that’s the wrong phraseology. On Friday, when the Raptors announced assistant coach Sergio Scariolo would take over the head duties in what turned out to be a 122-111 win over the Rockets — a possibility because Scariolo had just finished quarantining after a leave to coach Spain’s national team in a EuroBasket qualifier in Poland — Webster characterized both Lowry and VanVleet as “de facto coaches” on the floor. But both Lowry and VanVleet have become mostly known as respectful extensions of Toronto’s coaching staff in short pants.
James’s history is filled with instances in which he’s exerted his considerable power in less collaborative ways. There was the time in the 2015 playoffs when he nixed a play called by then-Cleveland coach David Blatt and self-engineered a buzzer-beating win over the Chicago Bulls. That was the same post-season that saw longtime NBA reporter Mark Stein compile a laundry list of James’s chronic insubordination of the soon-to-be-deposed head coach. “LeBron essentially calling timeouts and making substitutions. LeBron openly barking at Blatt after decisions he didn’t like. LeBron huddling frequently with (associate coach Tyronn) Lue and so often looking at anyone other than Blatt.”
There was also the time when James first arrived in Los Angeles and infamously ignored then-coach Luke Walton’s play calls as he brought the ball up the floor as point guard, preferring to call his own schemes. The list goes on. And it’s long enough that James has more than once felt obliged to counter the notion that he’s had a history of undermining bench bosses.
“People get it so misconstrued because I’m a smart basketball player and I’ve voiced my opinion about certain things … but (head coaches) still have the final call,” James has said. “What do you guys want me to do? Turn my brain off because I have a huge basketball IQ? If that’s what they want I’m not going to do it, because I’ve got so much to give to the game.”
James isn’t the only NBA player who’s clearly of the belief that coaching, if it’s not technically in their job description, would be in their wheelhouse. When VanVleet was asked Friday who’d be the superior NBA coach, him or Lowry, VanVleet identified himself.
Lowry, said VanVleet, has “his sights on bigger things.” And also: “(Lowry’s) too emotional sometimes.”
To which Lowry, not surprisingly, offered a contrarian view.
“Freddy gets a little crazy. He gets aggressive and angry,” Lowry said. “So yeah, me.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with a passionate back and forth between a couple of huge basketball IQs. After Friday’s victory, when Lowry took the occasion to present Scariolo with the game ball to commemorate the coach’s first NBA win, Scariolo acknowledged the reality of his first experience as a head coach of a team led by a six-time NBA all-star.
“(Lowry is) very active. But at the same time, he’s extremely respectful,” Scariolo said. “I like these kinds of players who are really challenging you in a positive way, making you think, giving you a view from the court which sometimes is different from the view a coach can have from the sideline.”
Even VanVleet had to bow in deference to Lowry’s coach-on-the-floor savvy.
“Obviously his leadership has been a big part of what this organization has become,” VanVleet said of Lowry. “People always think it’s like he’s dictating every play and every coverage, and it’s not always that.”
Not always. But this being the NBA, perhaps more than occasionally.