This season I plan to do a weekly post of NBA Coach rankings 1-30, sliding coaches up as they prove competence and down as they show utter lack or the same. A few ground rules for how I will be rating things:
1. Rookie Coaches start at the bottom alphabetically. Frankly, whatever David Blatt or Quinn Snyder has done overseas or whatever Derek Fisher or Steve Kerr did as players (and General Managers) basically tells us absolutely nothing about how they will be as NBA head coaches. Sorry Quinn SNyder, you will have to show it to move up out of the dog house.
2. No credit for adequately achieving or under achieving with talented rosters. This is going to be aimed mostly at coaches like Erik Spoelstra now that Mike Brown is once again fired. Sorry, but when you have the best player on the planet the standard of “great coach” raises up a bit. Things like “having no offensive (or defensive) system still matter, and if in any game there are more than a handful of possessions where the play call was obviously “just let player X do whatever” coaches will not be getting credit for the times when that works. Which leads us to. . .
3. Having no system on either end of the floor is absolutely unacceptable. I call this the “Vinny Del Negro Corollary”. As someone who watched the Bulls struggle to mediocre results and first round exits for two years under Vinny, its painfully obvious when a team has no plan. Plan is the coaching staff, and by extension the head coaches purview. I don’t care if you are defensive (or offensive) minded coach– your squad has to have a plan on the other end of the floor. Mike Brown and Mike D’Antoni are two serious former abusers of this. Hire a good assistant who is an expert with the opposite end if you simply cannot fathom how to coach defense (or offense). Coaches who break this rule are bad coaches. Period.
With those guidelines down, lets take a look at this years starting ranks!
Group 1: The OG
1. Greg Popovich San Antonio Spurs — At this point this is pretty much an unassailable choice– beautiful offensive system, defense capable of shutting down the best offensive players in the world, long term plan that has resulted in back to back finals trips despite aging Stars and a rag tag band of role players. Until someone takes the crown, Pop is still the King.
Group 2: Defense Wins. . . Championship Singular?
2. Doc Rivers Los Angeles Micro-Softs
3. Tom Thibodeau Chicago Bulls
You could argue these two to go either way, and its hard for me to separate their achievements from each other. Thibs is the architect of the system, but he only won the ring with Doc running the show (2008 Boston Celtics). Doc is clearly a leader/motivator/player’s coach, but his handle on the Boston-Chicago defense is strong enough to improve middling defenders to fairly competent levels. Meanwhile the Bulls have basically suffered Limony Snicketts Series of Unfortunate Events the last few seasons and still won a playoff series in the span. I’m giving the nod to Doc because of how he handled the crisis with his former ownership last season.
(Side note– I will not be using the current nick name of this franchise. It is going to be changed as soon as legal battles are done. Until further notice I will refer to them as the LA Micro-Softs after their soon to be new owner, Steve Ballmer.)
Group 3: Respekt
4. Rick Carlisle Dallas Mavericks
Beat the heat for a championship in 2010; continuously reinvents a rotating cast of throw aways into quality NBA players around a superstar who he uses without ever asking him to simply be half the floor by himself. Turned Jason Kidd (a guy who couldn’t shoot when he was good enough to drag a team to the Finals twice) into a sharpshooter and Monta Ellis into a team player. With a refreshed roster I will not be surprised if I have Carlisle rated too low here and we see that this season.
Group 4: Hope for the Future
5. Mike Budenholzer Atlanta Hawks
6. Jeff Hornacek Phoenix Suns
7. Jason Kidd Milwaukee Bucks
8. Brad Stevens Boston Celtics
This group features several coaches who overachieved last year– the Hawks made the playoffs, despite losing their best player for the season, and reinvented themselves into an innovative three point machine that almost beat the first seeded Pacers. The Suns drastically over achieved in the West and narrowly missed the playoffs. Stevens’ squad in Boston flirted with overachieving early, before the miserable realities of that roster without Rajon Rondo reasserted themselves, and the fact that the front office wants to lose games won out in the long run.
Kidd is a bit of an enigma coming off one year in Brooklyn– but the way he reinvented that roster and put together a winning, playoff team based around obviously aging players in pierce and KG with Brooke Lopez out, and Deron Williams not the player he was advertised to be when the Nets swing for the fences on him a few years back shows that he has the basketball mind to achieve.
These four coaches have a lot to prove coming into this season, and their promising starts last year may have been false starts. They could also easily be bumped by any of the next group. . .
Group 5: Playoff Coaches With Questions
9. Frank Vogel Indiana Pacers
10. Terry Stots Portland Trailblazers
11. Kevin McHale Houston Rockets
These three coaches have helmed perennial playoff entreats the last few years. Vogel has had the most success there of the three, but after last season’s inexplicable collapse there has to be an amount of blame laid at his feet. Questions also linger about whether his pacers have simply taken advantage of injuries to better coached teams ahead of them the last few years. These questions should be answered definitively this year– without George if the Pacers can show the defense that made them a good team the last few years, and find ways to score, and salvage Roy Hibbert’s career, and. . . well that’s a lot of ifs. If things go the other way and the Pacers aren’t in contention for a playoff spot (without roster intervention) don’t be surprised if Vogel is looking for a job next off season.
Stots got a lot of work out of the middle of the floor– the analytically “bad” area for shots. He put together a strong team in the west, seems to have developed LMA into a superstar, has Damian Lillard rolling, and resurrected the other Lopez brother. There are still questions lingering however– “Was having LMA and Co take all those bad 20 footers genius counter programming, or was it just a lucky bad decision?” for instance.
For McHale, he looked like a good coach with one star in Hardin two years ago; then limped into the postseason and got trounced by the Blazers with two. To be fair, he is saddled with the two most one-sided superstars in the game– Hardin plays no defense, and Dwight plays no offense. He has found a gem in Patrick Beverly, and developed Parsins from a second round pick into a genuine NBA player. But the time has come that McHale needs to show he can bring it together– a truly great coach would get more D out of Hardin and more O out of Dwight, and if he continues to allow them to underachieve both individually and collectively it will be an indictment of his work.
Group 6: Veteran Jobbers
12. Dwayne Casey Toronto Raptors
13. Steve Clifford Charlotte Hornets
14. Brian Shaw Denver Nuggets
Clifford and Shaw have light resumes; Casey has coached more games and ended up just under 500. This is basically the line I set for “minimum level of competence for an NBA coach”, which makes sense that its right in the middle.
Group 7: Memphis In Memphis Out
15. Lionel Hollins Brooklyn Nets
16. Dave Joerger Memphis Grizzlies
Hollins got done dirty when he was let go two years ago. Joerger came in and appeared to have been a slight downgrade. Either could still prove to be absolute geniuses or absolute flops, and only the season will tell.
Group 8: Retread City
17. Stan Van Gundy Detroit Pistons
18. Flip Saunders Minnesota Timberwolves
19. Byron Scott Los Angeles Lakers
Three re-hash hires from coaches with varying levels of success in the past. Van Gundy is the most “accomplished” with a trip to the Finals under his belt– but he failed to develop Dwight Howard, a player with the tool set to have been a dominant player on both ends akin to Shaq/Hakeem/Kareem especially against a weakened center position, but failed to do so. His three point reliant system was innovative and forward thinking at the time, but he simply cannot be forgiven for developing one of the two most one-sided superstars of the past 20 years and be given credit for winning with the same.
Flip Saunders is the best coach to ever coach the T-Wolves. But coaching a set of most likely Love-less young players into a low seed while serving as a place holder for a job that no coach would touch with a 10 ft pole until he can hand over a fresh lottery pick laden roster 2-3 years from now I wonder just how much he will be giving this year.
For Scott, he’s coached 10 years and made the playoffs just four times– two Jason Kidd era Nets finals losses, and two disappointing Chris Paul playoff trips. Allowing players to not develop skill sets? Jason Kidd’s jump shot says check! Underachieving with superstars? Chris Paul’s two playoff series wins with the Hornets says yes! Festering locker rooms and young players who stagnate and fail to develop? the Cavaliers of 2010-2013 were so bad this guy was fire to be replaced by Mike Brown! I may be wrong, but I do not expect the Lakers stay to be a good one.
Group 9: Incomplete
20. Monty Williams New Orleans Pelicans
21. Jacque Vaughn Orlando Magic
22. Brett Brown Philadelphia 76ers
23. Michael Malone Sacramento Kings
You want me to evaluate coaches off last years Magic or 76ers seasons? No thank you! These three coaches has terrible records thanks to basically coaching lottery squads. They will need to earn their way up from here. Monty Williams is on his last year of lee-way in the rankings– if the Pellies don’t start to achieve, there is a problem with his coaching. Interesting side note– the Kings were so forgettable last year I got to the end of this column and didn’t have Malone listed, despite working off a list of all the coaches. Like Monty Williams, he has a roster with enough talent on it that lack of serious improvement probably spells doom for his coaching prospects going forward.
At least three three aren’t actively making their teams worse, which leads us to our next groups–
Group 10: Actively Making Teams Worse and Holding Back Their Players
24. Erik Spoelstra Miami Heat
25. Scott Brooks Oklahoma City Thunder
26. Randy Wittmann Washington Wizards
I don’t want to hear arguments about Brooks or Spoelstra’s records. Miami’s offensive system the last four years has been “Lebron– go score, and sometimes dish the ball to an open player, and let Wade have a few possessions once in a while”. Their defensive system has been worse. With anything less than the best player on the planet, another superstar, and hall of fame role players in Lebron/Wade/Allen-Miller-Bosh respectively the Heat would not have msade the playoffs much less the Finals. Make no mistake, the Heat suceeded the past four years in spite of coach Spoelstra not because of him.
Brooks it the same but with a half step worse players– his offense is to let Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant take turns at random. His defensive system has been exposed as consisting of essentially, “Well Serge can block everything, right?” The fact that those are enough to win does not change the fact that a good coach would be having more success here.
Both Spoeltra and Brooks violate my rule #2 having only adequately or under achieved (to be clear, for the Heat of the last four seasons anything less than a three peat that included a 70+ win regular season was underachieving. That’s what happened the last time the best player on the planet, another superstar, and set of HOF role-players came together.) They both also violate rule #3 on not one but BOTH ends of the floor, relying on nothing but better players to win.
Never forget– Mike Brown seemed to be a competent coach when he was coaching Lebron. Since then, he has only proven worthy of being fired three times in four years, twice by the same team.
Wittmann has coached over 500 games, has a .367 winning percentage and last year marked his first ever playoff experience. May have been bad beats with his teams. . . but you don’t coach 500 games in the NBA and only show a hint of coaching potential in your last 30 games by accident.
Which leaves us with. . .
Group 11: Rookie Coaches
27. David Blatt Cleveland Cavaliers
28. Derek Fisher New York Knicks
29. Steve Kerr Golden State Warriors
30. Quinn Snyder Utah Jazz
Again– these four were automatically placed last, and are listed alphabetically. Check back after the season starts.