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How Bill Laimbeer ruined his chances of becoming an NBA head coach

Kate Fagan of ESPN wrote a fantastic on Bill Laimbeer, and she spoke with NBA general managers about him:

When I mentioned Laimbeer, though, the reaction was visceral.

He’s lazy.

He’s a buffoon.

He can’t relate to NBA players.

He treats them like it’s college.

Guys just won’t play for him.

Laimbeer’s tenure with the Timberwolves is seen as a resounding failure, probably the final nail in his NBA coffin. Never mind this is the same league in which losing and getting fired seem like badges of honor for other coaches, something that happens every few years, like the Olympics, or the Sixers making the playoffs.

Unfortunately for Laimbeer, the popular opinion of him as an NBA coach can be crystallized in one key moment when he acted very Laimbeer-like, his behavior confirming for those who witnessed it that the label they have for him — a whiny crybaby no one wants to play for — is not just a stereotype, but God’s honest truth.

Before the 2010 NBA draft, many of the league’s top decision-makers flew to Minnesota to watch a few prospects work out for the Timberwolves, who had a high pick. As one NBA general manager explains it, the purpose of these sessions is usually twofold: "The team is trying to impress the players as much as the players are trying to impress the team. And everyone with half a brain in the NBA understands this."

Laimbeer was on the court that day, running the workout. He set up one drill, telling the players to outlet the ball to him with a crisp chest pass, then run the lane and finish on the other end. Pretty basic stuff. Once the drill started, though, the players occasionally forgot the whole "outlet the ball" part, and Laimbeer, as he is known to do, called them out in a sarcastic manner. The next time around, the players remembered to outlet the ball but forgot about the chest pass. Laimbeer became visibly agitated by their inability to run the drill correctly. "By the end of the workout, we all thought there might be a fight on the court," one GM remembers. "Why make yourself the center of attention like that? For some executives, that day is all they know about him. And everyone left that gym with the same impression, that Laimbeer doesn’t understand how the NBA works."

So how does the NBA work?

Perception is often reality. And in NBA circles, Laimbeer has a perception problem, compounded by his "I-don’t-give-a-s—" attitude about it. He doesn’t care how he’s viewed, even if how he’s viewed is keeping him from achieving the very thing he says is (or at least was) his ultimate goal: a head-coaching job in the league.

"I’ve had to get over that," Laimbeer says. "It hasn’t happened, for whatever reasons. If it does happen, it would be an oh-my-God moment. But I don’t really care what NBA people think. I’ve always been who I am, and I’m not going to change my style to fit their mold. I’m just not a career assistant. I’m not that guy. I had to decide if going into the ladies’ league would hurt my chances to be in the men’s league, and I came to the conclusion that I didn’t care. I thought, ‘Coaching basketball is coaching basketball.’"

Laimbeer grew up in Los Angeles as the rich kid, spoiled at every turn. Playing at Notre Dame certainly didn’t end his entitled attitude.

Now, if Laimbeer is ever going to become an NBA head coach, he’ll have to work twice as hard as the competition, because he’s not being given any benefit of the doubt.

Even I can see the irony – and I like Laimbeer.

Laimbeer probably hasn’t gotten a fair shot at becoming an NBA head coach. If someone like Gregg Popovich had run that Minnesota workout the same way, the narrative would have been how meticulous he is. Because NBA people are predisposed not to like Laimbeer due his playing career, he gets tagged as a buffoon.

In reality, Laimbeer can makes a decent argument for deserving an NBA head-coaching job. He was a smart player, and he’s had success coaching in a lesser league. But it’s not an airtight case – he’s not exactly outsmarting the world’s best coaches in the WNBA, and his abrasiveness probably wouldn’t please NBA stars – and there are constantly other candidates with intriguing, though flawed, credentials. What has Laimbeer done to separate himself from them?

Maybe Laimbeer could bridge the gap, working to show NBA decision makers he’s changed, but apparently he has no interest in doing that, and at this point, he has nobody to blame for his stalled NBA-coaching career but himself.

Laimbeer didn’t get his way, so he took his ball and went home (to the WNBA). Perhaps, Laimbeer should have gotten his way, but his stubborn response when he didn’t has only shown NBA general managers they were right about Laimbeer all along.


  • Sep 16, 20131:28 pm
    by EMan


    After reading the article, I was kind of wishing we actually had coaches like that in the NBA, but that’s fantasy. Of course, I’m biased. Laimbeer may be my favorite NBA player of all time.

  • Sep 16, 20132:27 pm


    So the player can’t do a simple workout, and gets called out? BILL IS HORRIBLE!


  • Sep 16, 20133:36 pm
    by Bob


    To be fair the drill sounded pretty difficult… Get a D rebound AND outlet it to half court!! Can see how that gets confusing for a projected lotto pick

    • Sep 16, 20136:12 pm
      by Mark


      Not just a pass but a chest pass.  You’re leaving out crucial facts

  • Sep 16, 20136:47 pm
    by Mel


    Bullshit ! You can’t be a winner and lazy at the same time.

    • Sep 17, 20138:59 am
      by tarsier


      Really? That’s your argument? Lots of lazy people have won lots of things. It certainly helps to not be lazy, but your statement is simply factually wrong.

  • Sep 16, 20139:00 pm
    by Ozzie-Moto


    Silly hatchet job… opinion is based on one event … Hell if the can’t take a little criticism,  Bill might have whined to get a call but he was all man underneath.  Watched him coach the Shock many times, Related to his players, they played hard for him and his rotation were excellent. (New how to put a balanced team on the floor) Something that i have not seen in Detroit under JD and his list of silly coaches … . Not high on Cheeks either … more old boy comfort zone than the younger coaches that are leading good teams … 

  • Sep 17, 201312:39 am
    by Max


    It’s shameful on the part of the league collectively that Bill hasn’t gotten a shot and probably the worst case of not giving a chance to a possible great head coach since Rick Barry and Kareem were similarly blackballed for similarly bullshit reasons.   


    Great comparison regarding how the people would react if Popovich acted the same way.   Citing Laimbeer for taking things too seriously during drills and using it as some kind of justification for him not getting a shot is basically spinning exactly what anyone would expect of Laimbeer in the most negative light.   I guess a lot of teams are too petty and political to put winning first.   

  • Sep 17, 20138:42 am
    by Jeremy


    I read Fagan’s article when it came out last week and thought it was very well written. While Laimbeer certainly may have shot himself in the foot in terms of becoming a head coach in the NBA, I also think that teams, GMs, etc. are afraid of him. He is that coach that would bench a star player for things that people may think are irrelevant to the larger game. He has that coaching style that could cripple a rookie – especially one like Andre Drummond, who everyone gave the potential of the moon and the downside of flipping burgers in 3 years. He is an intelligent, demanding, no bullshit coach. The best way to get a person to conform is public shaming (I don’t mean through the media, I mean calling a guy out in front of others) in front of one’s own peers and Bill is willing to do that with players.
    All that being said, I think Bill would be a great hire. I like the fact that he is willing to challenge players. I like the fact that it is his way or the highway. I like the fact that he is a tough and abrasive son of a bitch. Ultimately, if he wants to coach in the NBA, I think he has to take the jump to the men’s college game first. He needs to show that he can coach guys – folks that aren’t physically intimidated by him. He needs to show that he can build a legion of players that support his coaching style and that want to play for him – even knowing they will be ridiculed if they make a mistake. 

    • Sep 17, 201311:25 am
      by MIKEYDE248


      I would love to see Bill coaching in the NBA some day…hopefully for are beloved Pistons, but I’m not sure the college route would be any better.  How many great college coaches have tried moving to the NBA and failed?  I think there will still be just as many people saying that the college game is too different then the NBA, just like they are saying with the WNBA.

  • Sep 17, 20139:19 am
    by Brian


    A good example of why the No Brains Allowed league continues to recycle mediocre coaches like Maurice Cheeks.

    • Sep 17, 201311:20 am
      by MIKEYDE248


      I completely agree with the recycling of mediocre coaches.  At the start of the Pistons search, I almost didn’t care who became their next coach, because none of them seemed like they were any better than the next one.  I was more in favor of giving a new coach a try and hoping they would find a another Rick Carlisle.  I think Joe was too afraid of loosing his job, if this plan wouldn’t have worked out, so in comes another recycled mediocre coach.

    • Sep 17, 20132:31 pm
      by Max


      “No brains allowed league” is priceless and right on.   It’s just unbelievable how bad and mediocre coaches continue to get jobs with guys like Laimbeer out there.  

      • Sep 17, 20134:35 pm
        by tarsier


        What bugs me about the Pistons’ past couple season is that they endures coaches with an upside of mediocre.

        If you have a good team, I understand playing the safe route and making sure you have someone competent, even if he’s below average, rather than taking a flier on an unknown.

        But if you suck anyway, you’ve got nothing to lose, may as well swing for the fences. 

  • Sep 17, 20139:11 pm
    by Max


    I agree but to be fair, Frank had some early success in the league, was still pretty young and had just been the assistant for the Celtics when Joe hired him.  That said, you were right that he was endured once he proved to be not so great and inexplicably failed to play Drummond more minutes or even start the game with more than three of his top five best players.  He should have been fire mid-season.  

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