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The All-Star Game coaching solution? Player-coaches

There are dozens of different ways in which to solve the upcoming NBA All-Star Game’s fascinating first-world problem: Which coaches should coach this game in Toronto?

After Monday night’s resounding win by the Golden State Warriors over the San Antonio Spurs, it’s clear that the Dubs will be ahead of the Spurs on January 31, which should — at least conceptually — enable Luke Walton to coach the game for the Western Conference All-Stars. In the East, the Cleveland Cavaliers would just need to win one more game this week to ensure that they’ll finish ahead of the Toronto Raptors when January 31 comes and goes. David Blatt, of course, is no longer an active NBA coach, however. Tyronn Lue, his replacement, could conceivably be the East’s All-Star coach, but he would enter the event with only 11 regular season games under his belt as Cleveland’s head coach.

What a time to be alive.

This is not a matter of earth-shaking importance, but it is a mess and demands some creative thought. How should one resolve two unique All-Star Game problems?

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Let’s examine the West’s coaching situation first:

Steve Kerr can’t coach in this game, because by rule, he’s not allowed to. Coaches can’t coach this game in consecutive seasons, informally called the “Riley Rule” in light of Pat Riley’s annual presence on the bench for the West in the 1980s. The Los Angeles Lakers had the best record in the West on an annual basis for some time.

Walton served as the Warriors’ coach until last week, but that was in an interim capacity as Kerr’s foremost assistant. The fact that he was the head coach on gamenights makes Walton a perfectly legitimate candidate for the job. The fact that Walton was never the team’s official head coach — in formal title, salary, etc. — represents an entirely reasonable argument against his candidacy.

If you accept that Kerr can’t coach, and that Walton shouldn’t, the only other choice is Gregg Popovich of the second-place Spurs. However, Popovich doesn’t really like this assignment. Multiple solutions exist, but they all are clothed in one deficiency or another.

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In the East, the specific details are different, but the larger reality of a muddled picture remains. Blatt, Lue, or Toronto head coach Dwane Casey could all be considered.

As a fascinating plot point relative to this issue, Lue has suggested that Blatt should be the coach for this game. Yet, Blatt would make the least sense in that he’s a recently-fired coach. Having him work with LeBron James for another game under these circumstances would seem to serve no one’s best interests.

Lue, by dint of his position as the head coach of the best team in the East (by record), probably deserves the post the most, but like Steve Kerr, he will have sat on the bench as a head coach for just a few games going into the All-Star break. It should generally be the case that a man who has performed the duties consistent with the head coach throughout the season (at least a majority of it) should get the nod. Lue doesn’t check that box. This leaves Casey of Toronto as a third choice, and an appealing one, given that the Raptors are hosting the event.

Let’s see, then: You could make an argument for Walton going up against Blatt, Lue or Casey. You could advocate for Pop to take his turn against Blatt, Lue or Casey. Those are six different combinations. Naturally, if your thought process gravitates to certain points of emphasis, you’ll come up with different final answers.

If you think that the best record should carry, you should want a Walton-Blatt or Walton-Lue matchup. If you think that inactive coaches shouldn’t be considered and you still believe that best record should carry, Walton-Lue is your only option.

If you value the “man who has served as a head coach most of the season” principle above all others, you want Walton-Blatt. If you are against the “inactive coach” being eligible, and you think that assistants as fill-in head coaches should not be considered for this position, you thereby think that Pop and Casey should lead the West and the East in Toronto.

All of these claims and wants are valid and legitimate.

I would like to propose a different solution, however: player-coaches.

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First of all, this would remove coaches from facing questions about the allocation of minutes to various players. It does create a conflict of interest among players, but it removes one from the coaching equation.

Second, the NBA — more clearly and profoundly than any other major North American professional sports league — is a player’s league. Why not have players coach themselves in this kind of setting? You could get some fun positional battles out of it. The contest might also acquire something of a pickup-game flavor. If it seems very possible that players would still manipulate minutes — a very legitimate concern — just stop to consider how much of a pariah a player would be if he took (inappropriate) liberties with his position of power. Ideally, allocation of minutes would be arrived at in a consultative manner. LeBron, if coaching the East, would consult Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler. Stephen Curry, if coaching the West, would consult with Kobe and Kawhi Leonard.

The National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) could exert some pressure here, just to make sure no player-coach takes liberties with his powers. Structurally, there’s no reason this can’t work.

Beyond that, just consider how much certain players already coach their teams. LeBron is the Alpha and Omega on this matter. He is a power broker, so having him coach a team — much as Bill Russell coached the late-1960s Boston Celtics — does not feel odd or incongruent at all. Some in the crowd might wonder if this will open the door to a true player-coach situation such as the one Russell had in Boston. That’s an interesting little point of curiosity. The more central point to emphasize is that this is a players’ game. Why not have players run it, thereby ensuring that fans and television viewers get a product presented entirely by the participants. Coaches would all (and always) get a break from this game. They and their assistants would welcome such a change, one would think.

Player-coaches at the All-Star Game. It’s not as out-of-the-box an idea as you might first think.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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