Does Race Matter in NBA Coaching?

Thanks to Joe Price and Chandler Phelps from Brigham Young University for the race data for NBA players. A huge thanks to Ben Noah for collecting all the race data for NBA coaches.

One of the problems we've noticed is what Arturo calls the "lanky white guy syndrome." In the NBA white players who don't fit a particular mold are called unathletic. Larry Bird is the classic example, and I call BS. There's a scary second part of this syndrome. Dave Berri at the Wages of Wins has looked at factors that impact pay in the NBA. Race, shockingly, does not seem to cause management to pay players less. In short, GMs may call Kevin Love unathletic, but they are willing to pay him top dollar. And this shows off a subtle bias that may be scarier. If white players are often thought of as less athletic, but still worth the value, then perhaps something else is being valued. I think it's fair to say there's another bias that white players are smarter. And a way to show this is by looking at NBA coaches.

Coaches are middle management in the NBA. When players can no longer play, coaching is really the only "promotion" available to them. Let's do a quick breakdown by race from players in the NBA to coaches on the sidelines.

It should come as no surprise that the NBA is comprised predominantly of black players. Thus, the coaching situation becomes very skewed, very quickly.

It's not even close, the NBA coaching chair has been filled by white coaches. There's one last piece of data that makes this even more interesting.

To be a white NBA head coach does not require an NBA pedigree. Of the 104 white coaches from 1991-2013, only 42 of them played basketball on the toughest stage. In fact, despite having 51 fewer coaches, more black coaches played in the NBA!

Summing up

The optimist in me wants to believe this trend is changing. Currently thirteen of the thirty active NBA head coaches are not white. Of course, this is a far cry from the 80% of NBA players that are African American. Additionally, All but Erik Spoelstra, Mike Brown, and Dwane Casey have NBA experience -- most of them guards and none of them big men. There is definitely a subtle undertone about the intelligence and leadership ability of a typical NBA player. Frankly, it's more than a little uncomfortable. I believe there are undertones in the NBA that do impact how we treat players and hire coaches. And I only hope looking at the data can help change that.