Good games, weird data

The rare challenge of inheriting a young NBA superstar

The rare challenge of inheriting a young NBA superstar

Few players in NBA history boast Luka Dončić’s youthful pedigree. Dončić won Rookie of the Year and topped that with All-NBA first team nods in his second and third seasons. He nearly took down the favored Los Angeles Clippers in a seven game masterpiece last playoffs, and starts the 2021-22 season as the betting favorite for Most Valuable Player, per Odds Shark.

Dončić and his Mavericks moved on from longtime head coach Rick Carlisle in the offseason. Dallas elected to hire Jason Kidd amid serious reservations about his past behavior and qualifications as a head coach—I recommend this Mavs Moneyball editorial for more details. Despite these concerns, Dallas still moved forward with Kidd, who joins a franchise at a pivotal moment.

Kidd walks in with the hardest bit of his job accomplished, as Dončić represents the ideal starting point for an incoming head coach. A superstar on the rookie contract scale represents a gigantic mismatch between value and cost. Dončić's supermax contract will kick in following this year, but the Mavericks will enjoy his services this year for slightly less than they’ll pay Dwight Powell.

This is an enviable position for Kidd to be in, equipped with the young MVP favorite while he's still young enough to develop. How often does this type of opportunity occur, and how did this transition work in the past?

Past examples of the NBA golden tickets

After MVP, All-NBA first team might be the most significant award to win. There's occasionally some positional oddities that force a center or a forward ahead of a deserving guard, but this award serves as neat shorthand for determining the five best players in the league that year. Joining that group so early in your career is rarified air.

In the modern era (1979-80 and onward), only three players managed to win ROY and make an All-NBA first team within their first two seasons, per Basketball Reference. Tim Duncan and Larry Bird managed to snag their spot as rookies, while David Robinson grabbed his place in his second year.

Michael Jordan probably would have made the list had his second year not been cut short by a broken foot; he soon joined the crew by his third year.

While 70% of Rookie of the Years went on to eventually make any All-NBA team, only 17 of them made an All-NBA first team. That leap to superstardom usually required a longer ramp up period. The graph below looks at the number seasons played by a Rookie of the Year before being named to first team All-NBA.

Even all-time greats like Kevin Durant and LeBron James needed a longer developmental period before reaching this pinnacle.

Duncan, Robinson, and Bird end up the only counterparts to Dončić. Their stories offer a roadmap for what happens when you inherit the golden goose.

Two Versions of the Spurs Experience

We have three examples to work with, but somehow, the San Antonio Spurs snagged two of them. Tim Duncan and David Robinson immediately contributed to winning basketball, but experienced two wildly different franchises along the way.

Robinson joined the Spurs in the 1989-90 season, coached by Larry Brown. Brown lasted one more full season before getting fired 38 games into the 1991-92 season. The Associated Press coverage of the firing included a fun quote from one of the remaining assistants, who might stick around a bit.

"We had a lot of people today say a lot of things that needed to be said," assistant coach Gregg Popovich said. "You've got to face problems before you solve them. It was an unbelievably candid, honest and sensitive meeting and afterward we had our best practice of the year."

After an interim stint from Bob Bass, the Spurs hired college coach Jerry Tarkanian. Tarkanian lasted all of twenty games before getting canned, replaced at first by Rex Hughes for one game and then Jerry Lucas for the rest of the season and the entire subsequent year.

In his sixth season—four years after his first team All-NBA nod and fully into his prime as a top flight center—David Robinson welcomed his sixth head coach, Bob Hill. Like most Spurs coaches of this time, his tenure ended prematurely. Kelly Dwyer, then of Yahoo, recapped the uncomfortable circumstances of Hill’s firing in a piece on Hill and the Spurs dynasty. He explained:

On the afternoon of the return of a healthy David Robinson to the San Antonio Spurs lineup on Dec. 10, 1996, Spurs general manager Gregg Popovich decided to fire coach Bob Hill and install himself as Spurs head man after a Robinson-less Spurs squad sputtered to a 3-15 start.

The assistant coach who popped up in the very first midseason firing debacle now stands alone as Spurs head coach, and he's been standing there ever since. Popovich's fill-in season as the Spurs’ head coach struggled to gel after another David Robinson injury, but a year of losing would earn them the #1 overall pick. That pick became Tim Duncan, who arrived fully formed as an MVP candidate and league superstar.

Robinson enjoyed seven coaches in his first eight seasons. Duncan would play for Popovich his entire career.

Echoes across time

No one would compare Dončić's actual game—a playmaking genius equally content to roast an opponent with strength or guile—with the big man brilliance of Tim Duncan or David Robinson. Instead, he usually gets the Larry Bird treatment. Marc Stein, writing then for the New York Times, contrasted the two in an early season piece on last year's Mavericks. He interview Bird's teammate Cedric Maxwell, who insisted that had Bird arrived in 2021, he would be playing just like Dončić.

The similarities extend beyond on-court tendencies.

Bird, like Duncan, is the only other ROY in NBA history to make all-NBA first team faster in his career than Dončić. He helped turn the 29-53 Celtics of 1978-79 into Eastern Conference finalists his rookie year, and went on to win the title in his second season.

Bird's early career includes a coaching change that sounds nearly identical to Dončić's current situation. After four years of Bill Fitch as head coach, Bird's Celtics bristled under his stern and unrelenting coaching style and parted ways. Thomas Bonk of the LA Times, writing about Fitch's return to Boston in 1986 as the Rockets head coach, contexualized the breakup.

What Fitch did was everything he could. No detail was too small to forget, no job was large enough to take for granted. One of the first coaches in the NBA to use videotape, Fitch drove the Celtics hard when they won, which they didn’t appreciate, so many deserted him when they lost.

Fitch's authoritarian approach eventually grinded down his players in Boston, and Bird's team replaced him with K.C. Jones, former Celtics point guard turned Celtics head coach.

You barely need to swap the names for this storyline to echo today's situation. The departing Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle also employed a managerial style that wore on his players. In their detailed piece revealing the offseason turmoil in Dallas, Sam Amick and Tim Cato of The Athletic explained the occasionally strained relationship between Carlisle and his star.

Doncic’s greatness, so evident so early on, clearly compelled Carlisle to consider the changing hoops politics at hand. Since being hired in May of 2008, Carlisle has had his fair share of friction with key players, in large part because of his well-known tendency to be controlling. But Rajon Rondo, this was not.
In truth, it was far closer to the difficult dynamic that he’d successfully navigated with then-point guard Jason Kidd en route to winning the franchise’s first and only title in 2011

The article also captures some of the angst felt by other Mavericks, who bristled at Carlisle's communications and felt underutilized and unsure how to win back approval.

And so, just like the Celtics three decades ago, the Mavericks moved on from their strict head coach and placed the future success of the franchise and their young superstar in the hands of a former point guard and franchise legend.

Inheriting the supernova

Like my good friend Willy Wonka intended, each of these golden tickets produced wildly different results. David Robinson played for seven coaches in his first eight seasons, all but Popovich fumbling the opportunity in some way. Tim Duncan showed up, placed fifth in MVP voting as a rookie, and played for one coach his entire career. Larry Bird made the first team in his first season and improved immensly under a stern head coach before his franchise rebelled and forced out the disciplinarian four years later.

These stories offer precedent for what might be a tumultous Jason Kidd tenure in Dallas. He inherits a ready-made MVP candidate early in his career, a rare combination in NBA history. No one expects Kidd to enjoy a Popovich-level reign of sustained brilliance, but will he mirror Boston's K.C. Jones or the parade of short-lived Spurs coaches? We'll find out soon enough.

Thanks for reading! The 2021-22 NBA season tips off tonight, and we'll be back covering the odd and the fun of this wonderful sport. Hope you and yours are happy and healthy.

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Jamie Larson