Weekly Countdown: Coaches' keys
Doc Rivers, Byron Scott and Nate McMillan dish on transition from player to coach
Coaching cues: Believe in yourself; understand players but don't behave like them
More topics: Mark Cuban on Jason Kidd; readers debate midseason awards
5 Ways for a retired player to become a winning NBA coach
Boston's Doc Rivers, New Orleans' Byron Scott and Portland's Nate McMillan are among the league's three most successful coaches from the recent generation of players. Here each offers advice on how to make the transition.
5. Above all, believe in yourself. "You can't coach to the way the GM wants you to coach, you can't coach to the way the fans want you to do it, you can't change your style because of criticism,'' Rivers said. "You've just got to stick with what you do and what you believe in, and if it's good enough, it's good enough. And if it's not, you'll find that out too.
"You learn that you change from experience. But you don't change your personality or who you are.''
Coaching a team to the NBA championship is perhaps the most difficult job in pro sports: Only four active coaches have done it, and the league's 62 championships have been hoarded by a small group of 28 coaches. Rivers didn't look likely to join that club as recently as two seasons ago when he was losing 18 straight games. He entered last season -- the Celtics' championship year -- with a career coaching record of 273-312.
"All I know is that I hung in there,'' he said. "I've said it when we were bad, and I said it last year when we were good -- there are a lot of great coaches in our league who have never had talent enough to show that they could coach. And they've been judged on their talent instead of on their coaching ability.''
Rivers, McMillan and Scott all exhibited obvious coaching qualities while they were playing. They knew they could coach long before they earned the chance.
"When Pat Riley tells you you can be good at it, and Larry Brown tells you, then you have to start taking a pretty good look at it,'' Scott said. "Riley told me when I was 26 or 27 years old. I told him he's crazy: 'You're out of your mind, I'm never coaching.' Then at 32 years old, Larry Brown told me the same thing. It just seemed to fit. I started taking notes and trying to concentrate on that as my second life.''
4. Understand -- but don't behave like -- the players. "Once you're a coach, you're no longer one of the guys and you've got to move out of that,'' Rivers said. "I tell Sam [Cassell] that right now, because I think Sam has a chance [to become a coach] -- that nothing you've done in the past has anything to do with what you're doing in the future. No one cares that you were a good player. You can bring that up to your players as a joke, and that's what I do. I always joke about it -- 'Man, when I played I was awful,' or 'When I played I kicked your ass' -- and they know I'm joking about it. Because they couldn't care less. They want to know what you can do for them now.
"When players who want to coach ask me for advice, I say, 'You've got to work. I don't care that you worked as player. You've got to work as a coach. This is not a tour of you being a great player, so now it's residual that you can coach. It doesn't work that way. They don't care. They want to see what you can do.' "
Said Scott: "The fact that all three of us have been very successful as basketball players -- Nate and Doc and myself -- I think that gives you the respect from the start when you're talking to these guys about what it takes to be successful in this league. I have a feel for situations on the basketball court. But that's just half of it; the other half is being able to relate to these guys. I've been blessed with having a team in [New] Jersey that wanted to play for me -- at least for a couple of years -- and then I have a team here that you know these guys, they play hard for me, and that's all I can ask.
"It has to be a business relationship with the players when you're on the court, but when you're off I think it can be any type of relationship you want it to be. I don't think you can be a coach all the time. Sometimes these guys need some guidance from a friend, from a parent, from a mentor.''
Scott has developed a close relationship with All-Star point guard Chris Paul.
"When his mother and dad are not here, I look at him as a son. I have a son older than him,'' Scott said. "It stays fresh because we keep it that way when we're not out on the court. He calls me about his fiancee, he calls me about his things in the summer, he calls me about guys that we drafted. So we talk all the time, which I think is great. And it's the same thing with Tyson [Chandler] and with Hilton [Armstrong], Rasual [Butler], a bunch of the guys. I spend a lot of time in the summer trying to see how they're doing, how their lives are with their families, with their wives, with their girlfriends. And it's genuine, it's not something I'm doing because I have to. It's just something I do because I love these guys as people.''
McMillan has a team of young stars in Portland and he clearly has their trust -- the Trail Blazers improved annually from 61 losses in 2005-06 to their current 28-17 -- but he is aware that the relationship may burn out as he continuously urges them to improve.
"I've made the comment that I may not get there with you,'' he said of his players. "Meaning I'm going to have to push you and coach you and develop you, and you're going to have to grow, but I know that players come before coaches. And my time may run out before you are really ready to win, and maybe the next guy who gets you is going to get a hell of a crew. But they'll be ready to take that next step.''