Should the NBA Learn About Coaching from the NFL?

When the Brooklyn Nets hired Steve Nash, there were questions about what kind of system Nash would bring in to make the best use of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and the rest of the talent on that team as they worked their way back from a disappointing 2020 campaign riddled with injury.

The Nets then brought in Mike D’Antoni after MDA’s departure from the Houston Rockets, and Nash immediately declared that D’Antoni would be the architect of Brooklyn’s offense.

Then Nash went a step further, describing lead assistant Jacque Vaughn explicitly as his “defensive coordinator.”

If this sounds familiar, it should; the NFL has been arranging its coaching staffs this way for decades. Indeed, there’s an entire narrative line in football about how guys can make “excellent coordinators but terrible head coaches”—Dave Wannstedt, Romeo Crennel, Josh McDaniels, Gregg Williams, anyone with the last name Ryan—that informs the idea that football is a complicated sport that requires a hierarchy and separation of powers in order for a team to function as its best possible self on Sunday.

Meanwhile, more and more basketball coaches are being seen as “offensive masterminds” and “defensive gurus”—in addition to D’Antoni’s famous revolution in NBA offense, guys like Indiana’s Dan Burke and the well-traveled Tom Thibodeau are well-known as guys whose best NBA role is as the architect of the defensive switches, rotations, helps, double-teams, and everything else that makes up the defensive side of the ball in the sport.

The Nets are the first team to come right out and say that their model is based on football, using NFL terms to describe their coaching staff and NFL responsibilities to delineate the lines between the roles of the various assistants on the team, finally starting to do away with the idea of the one-size-fits-all “assistant coach” term.

But why stop there?

After all, just like how football teams have a special teams coach, a position coach for every major positional responsibility (quarterbacks coach, offensive line coach, special teams coach, etc), it’s easy to envision a world where the NBA brings in a ball handlers coach, a wing player coach, and a rim protection coach—there’s no reason why traditional positions need to apply here. As Zach d’Arbeloff among others has written, while we’re moving to a flowing “positionless basketball” model in the NBA, there are still roles on the court, and having someone whose job it is to coach those roles can make starter and bench player alike more effective in their primary position in these new offenses.

By having those guys report to the offensive coordinator, every possession on that end can have a flow within and between the guys who play those positions. The same is true on defense.

The difference between basketball and football is this needs to happen in real time, and that means a lot more active collaboration between those position coaches during practice. It will take longer to teach NBA players how to function in these more complex schemes and can lead to more intelligent, cerebral players having roles that overcome raw athleticism.

It is, functionally, the difference between Allen Iverson and Stephen Curry and the eras they represent, the difference between me-first isolation ball and team-first ball movement with lots of cuts and screens.

There’s also the bigger point that we’re going to have to see Brooklyn win something before we see broad adoption of NFL-style coaching principles around the league.

After all, Mike D’Antoni is famously compared to guys like Marty Schottenheimer when it comes to NFL guys—a great regular-season coach whose style never worked in the playoffs.

Likewise, Daryl Morey, D’Antoni’s former boss, has drawn comparisons to MLB’s Billy Beane. He revolutionized the game, sure, but count the rings; Houston couldn’t win a title with James Harden and Chris Paul as their backcourt. The Rockets lived by the sword—threes and layups—and then died by the sword in Game 7 in 2018 against the Warriors.

But anything that keeps the NBA from getting stagnant is a good thing. Watching this experiment in Brooklyn—where one of the best offensive coaches the league has ever seen is solely responsible for the offense, a guy who’s known for understanding defensive principles coaches the defense, and the head coach is the guy bringing it all together on the floor on game night—could be witnessing the future of basketball.

This could be the biggest revolution in the league since Seven Seconds or Less.

It’s going to be fun to watch.