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Age in Coaching and the Epochs in History

Erik SpoelstraSymphony No.9 in C Major

At the dawn of the season, young coach Erik Spoelstra walked into his first Heat practice as coach of the newly formed Big Three with an encyclopedia worth of X and Os, ready to implement the diagrams his anxious basketball genius assembled on sleepless nights since the announcement of The Decision. Shortly after breaking a sweat, he tossed it all away, certain of the absurdity in puppeteering the agile stars in front of him, allowing them creative freedom while only maintaining a focused defensive philosophy.

It worked, somewhat.

Expectations were set high by all, but the regular season can be deemed a success considering the public and player’s vitriol, the constant target on their backs, and the difficulty in blending three franchise players together seamlessly. The young coach had survived the long and winding road of 82 unscathed.

The regular season, however, is merely the preparation for the second season.

The playoffs are considered the battlegrounds for the veteran master minds -- the experienced orchestrators of ball movement, misdirection, anecdotes, motivation, history, aptly paced timeouts, psychology. The ones with the kind of wits necessary in a best-of-7 war, where luck can possibly decide a game or two, but not overcome four calculated battle plans (sorry Sacramento -- or dubious referee calls).

We’re only entering the second round of the playoffs and we’ve already seen coaching masterpieces from the likes Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, and Doc Rivers – the wise elders. We are sure to bear witness to countless more as they continue on their path the championship.

How will the "young" coach Spoelstra fare? Does he have the resume, or the savvy to pull it off? Will the offensive freedom given to his stars come back to haunt him? Does he have the age and experience to outwit the elders?

Knowledge in Youth is Wisdom in Age


Yes, there’s more to winning championships than a good coach, just ask the Sixers. It takes a combination of talented players, chemistry, a little luck and a mighty General to keep it all in check. I use the “General” because of the similar perception to a sports coach of a well-seasoned individual, collector of accolades, tenured veteran. (The average age of generals in the US Army is 51)

Consider the history of NBA Champions from the last 20 years:

Season Champion Coach Age Result Opponent Coach Age
2009-10 Los Angeles Lakers Phil Jackson 64 4-3 Boston Celtics Doc Rivers 48
2008-09 Los Angeles Lakers Phil Jackson 63 4-1 Orlando Magic Stan Van Gundy 49
2007-08 Boston Celtics Doc Rivers 46 4-2 Los Angeles Lakers Phil Jackson 62
2006-07 San Antonio Spurs Greg Popovich 58 4-0 Cleveland Cavaliers Mike Brown 37
2005-06 Miami Heat Pat Riley 61 4-2 Dallas Mavericks Avery Johnson 41
2004-05 San Antonio Spurs Greg Popovich 56 4-3 Detroit Pistons Larry Brown 64
2003-04 Detroit Pistons Larry Brown 63 4-1 Los Angeles Lakers Phil Jackson 58
2002-03 San Antonio Spurs Greg Popovich 54 4-2 New Jersey Nets Byron Scott 42
2001-02 Los Angeles Lakers Phil Jackson 56 4-0 New Jersey Nets Byron Scott 41
2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers Phil Jackson 55 4-1 Philadelphia 76ers Larry Brown 60
1999-00 Los Angeles Lakers Phil Jackson 54 4-2 Indiana Pacers Larry Bird 43
1998-99 San Antonio Spurs Greg Popovich 50 4-1 New York Knicks Jeff Van Gundy 37
1997-98 Chicago Bulls Phil Jackson 62 4-2 Utah Jazz Jerry Sloan 56
1996-97 Chicago Bulls Phil Jackson 51 4-2 Utah Jazz Jerry Sloan 55
1995-96 Chicago Bulls Phil Jackson 50 4-2 Seattle SuperSonics George Karl 45
1994-95 Houston Rockets Rudy Tomjanovich 46 4-0 Orlando Magic Brian Hill 47
1993-94 Houston Rockets Rudy Tomjanovich 45 4-3 New York Knicks Pat Riley 49
1992-93 Chicago Bulls Phil Jackson 47 4-2 Phoenix Suns Paul Westphal 42
1991-92 Chicago Bulls Phil Jackson 46 4-2 Portland Trail Blazers Rick Adelman 45
1990-91 Chicago Bulls Phil Jackson 45 4-1 Los Angeles Lakers Mike Dunleavy 37
Average Age 53.6 Average Age 47.9

Past Notables:

Detroit Pistons 1988-89, 1989-90 – Chuck Daly, age 58 / 59

Los Angeles Lakers 1981-1982, 1984-85, 1986-87, 1987-88 – Pat Riley, age 37 /40 / 41 / 42

Boston Celtics 1983-84, 1985-86 – KC Jones, age 52 / 54

Of Note:

  • Championship coaches are on average older than their runner-up counterparts. Not a compelling difference at first thought, but 5.5 years can be significant when put in perspective. How much wiser are you today, than 6 years ago?
  • Just 7 coaches have been responsible for the last 20 NBA championships. Phil Jackson has won more than half these last two decades with eleven, starting at age 45. I guess he’s kind of a big deal.
  • All but one championship roster has had at least one of the top players of all-time: Shaq, Duncan, Kareem, Hakeem, Garnett, Jordan, Kobe, etc. The only beautiful anomaly goes to the 04’ Pistons, who encompassed the epitome of all that is pure in basketball to defeat the heavily favorited Lakers.
  • Notables: Pat Riley - current Miami Heat GM and mentor to coach Spoelstra - won his first championship with the talent-loaded Lakers at age 37, 3 years younger than Spoelstra’s current age.
  • Phil Jackson was in his second year as a coach when he first won a championship with the Bulls. He had inherited the team from Doug Collins.
  • Tomjanovich was in his 3rd year when he won a championship, as was Popovich, as is Spoelstra this season.
  • Mike Dunleavy once reached the NBA Finals. We’ve collectively chosen to ignore it, but the records show so. He inherited the talented but then aging Lakers team and replaced Pat Riley in LA, ultimately losing to the rising Bulls.

The data isn’t ultimately conclusive in any way, as age itself does not solely determine a coach’s persona. Experience in the NBA as a player (Riley, Rivers, Phil, etc), as an assistant coach (almost all), coaching in other leagues (Phil Jackson was once a coach in Puerto Rico), and life experience (Riley was drafted in the NBA and the NFL in the same year, amongst other things – Rivers is the nephew of a former NBA player, etc) can all mold the generals into majestic leaders of their troops.

The Modern Age

Spoelstra has evolved in the new generation of numbers in statistics, starting as a video coordinator for the Heat in 1995 and as assistant coach since 1997. He took the reins in 2008, and now commands one of the most potent rosters ever assembled. He is young with high potential, his 16 years with an organization that prides itself in loyalty are highly valued, but all eyes are on him to perform.

With the same opportunity as Riley in his youth, the Heat coach has a chance to create a legacy for himself and the organization. A clash with Doc Rivers’ Celtics will be the toughest test yet, one where if there is total collapse, it might just kindly remove him from the historical books.

All signs from the offices have pointed towards faith in the coach, as all fans should as well. But his contract was not renewed (leaving options open) and Miami cannot afford to wait for the guidance to the Promised Land. Hope he’s the one that can take us there.

The weight of the world is on his shoulders.

Good luck, coach.