Not often rookie NBA coaches win; can Unseld Jr. be different?


In hiring Wes Unseld Jr., the Wizards found someone about as qualified as possible to be an NBA head coach without having actually done the job before. He is a longtime NBA assistant, who also worked as an advanced scout, with ties to the organization. He most recently served as the lead assistant on one of the NBA's best teams. And, as a narrative bonus, he's the son of the most decorated legend in franchise history.

Still, as prepared for this as he is, Unseld Jr. will be a rookie head coach and that comes with a learning curve. He will be running practices and controlling the strategy in games to a degree he hasn't done before.

Recent history shows most rookie NBA head coaches struggle in their first year. NBC Sports Washington looked at the last five NBA seasons to pool together data on how rookie head coaches fare.

There have been some very successful first-time coaches, like Nick Nurse who led the Raptors to a title in 2018-19. There were others who won to a lesser degree right away, but there were also far more that didn't have much success at all.

In the last five years, there have been 17 rookie NBA head coaches. Only four of them had winning records; Steve Nash (Nets) in 2020-21, Nurse (Raptors) in 2018-19, Joe Prunty (Bucks) in 2017-18 and David Fizdale (Grizzlies) in 2016-17. Prunty was an interim coach who took over for Jason Kidd after he was fired midseason.


In total, the 17 rookie head coaches in the last five seasons went 452-677 in their first year. That equals a .400 win percentage, or about a 33-49 season on average. 

In those five years, only Nurse led his team to the conference finals or further as a rookie coach. That is one out of 20 total teams that made the conference finals during that span.

The caveat here would be that there are many different situations rookie head coaches can find themselves in. While Nash and Nurse took over championship contenders, most first-time coaches aren't afforded that luxury.

Many rookie coaches lead teams far less talented than the one Unseld Jr. is assuming. They are often brought in to oversee rebuilding teams and grow with a young roster in the early stages of a long and patient process.

That said, there have also been recent cases of inexperienced coaches failing to win with teams that had been proven capable of doing so. Lloyd Pierce struggled with the Hawks before being fired last season, while they made the conference finals with his replacement. The Pacers also plummeted last season under rookie head coach Nate Bjorkgren after making the playoffs the year before. Nate McMillan would be the common denominator in both cases.

Unseld Jr.'s situation is somewhere in between. He is taking over a Wizards team that made the playoffs last season as the eight-seed in the East. They traded away Russell Westbrook and overturned much of their roster, but it's still a team that appears capable of making the playoffs with star guard Bradley Beal and a veteran supporting cast.

When it comes to the rookie head coaches who did not win in Year 1, sometimes great coaches need time to figure it out. Gregg Popovich went 17-47 in his first year, Mike Budenholzer went 38-44 and Michael Malone, who Unseld Jr. served under in Denver, was 28-54 his first season. Even if Unseld Jr. has a rocky start, he could end up an excellent head coach.

What may also be interesting to note is the history of rookie head coaches leading the Wizards/Bullets franchise. The last time the Wizards hired a full-time head coach (so, not an interim) with no prior head coaching experience was Leonard Hamilton in 2000. That didn't work out too well, as he went 19-63 in his lone season before resigning from the job.

There was a first-time head coach for Washington who found early success before that, however. That would be Wes Unseld Sr., Unseld Jr.'s father. He took over in 1987 after the team fired Kevin Loughery midseason. Unseld Sr. led the Bullets to the playoffs with a 30-25 record to close the year.

Maybe Unseld Jr. can start out like his father did, with a playoff appearance. Unseld Jr. has all the preparation necessary for the job. He just has yet to actually do it.