There is a wide belief among sports fans that basketball would be the easiest sport to coach as a player. The assumption that a player could play major minutes on a professional basketball team while playing productively and controlling the ego of million dollar players does not seem like an easy thing for a person to do. This becomes incredibly important when you remember the amount of video that coaches watch to reinvigorate stagnant offenses and to keep defenses strengthened.
That line of thinking is an insult to all of the great coaches that are in the NBA, coaches that make a difference in the win columns and can swing a playoff series. We’ve seen coaches fail to make adjustments at critical junctures during games, but we’ve also seen coaches call the perfect play in a prime spot to win a playoff game (think Erik Spoelstra in the first game against the Pacers). These are the kinds of plays that make you a great coach and land you on a list alongside the best coaches in the game.
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15. BRAD STEVENS
The man hasn’t even coached a game in the NBA, yet he made the list. I’m not claiming that coaching Butler to two different NCAA championship appearances has anything to do with his coaching ability in the NBA, but I do feel that he has a lot of the qualities that would ease his transition into coaching at the pro level. Stevens has a great connection with his players and understands how to tailor his philosophy to his roster’s talent. He may struggle in his first season, but that may have more to do with the talent of the Boston Celtics than his actual ability to coach in the NBA.
14. BRIAN SHAW
After waiting in the wings of Phil Jackson, it seemed highly likely that Shaw would get a chance to take over for his predecessor, but to his chagrin that would not be the case. Mike Brown would be hired and fired within a little over a year and Shaw would go on to be promoted to the assistant coach of the Indiana Pacers. He received rave reviews from head coach Frank Vogel for helping with the development of Lance Stephenson and Paul George this past season. Shaw will be able to show off that ability as he takes over for a Denver Nuggets team that finished third in the Western Conference last season.
13. DAVE JOERGER
Many were shocked and surprised that Lionel Hollins wasn’t brought back for the 2013-14 season, but it looked as if management and coach may have had conflicting strategies on running a team. Hollins approached the game with an old-school mentality and Joerger seems to be a bit more of the new-school mentality. Joerger has already stated that he is going to make offensive adjustments, such as bringing the ball past half court with at least 20 seconds on the shot clock. The idea is to run multiple offensive sets in order to maximize the chance of getting the best shot off, something the Spurs â€” the team that eliminated the Grizzlies in the WCF’s last season â€” emphasize. He has also suggested the use of stressing the three-point shot and using Zach Randolph in more sets at the high post. The ideas are great in theory, but it’ll be important for him to execute these plays in order to maximize their effectiveness.
12. MIKE D’ANTONI
He may receive a lot of heat for the lack of success he had in New York and, currently, the Los Angeles Lakers, but he still has proven his worth as an NBA coach when he has the right players around him. Not every coach can change styles to fit their personnel and that clearly is not a strength of D’Antoni. He needs specific players to fit an open offense that pushes the ball and underlines pick-and-roll play. Was spotting Pau Gasol in the corner to shoot 3-pointers a good idea? Probably not, but you can’t deny the success he had during his Phoenix Suns days. He made the Western Conference Finals twice and could have gone further if not for a technicality that suspended both Boris Diaw and Amar’e Stoudemire in a critical game five. D’Antoni will have the chance to make some changes this season, which will most likely determine the length of his stay in Los Angeles.
11. SCOTT BROOKS
Most would expect Brooks to be higher on this list after making an NBA Finals appearance in 2012, but the coaching decisions he makes are, at times, hair-pulling. Brooks had an infatuation with giving Derek Fisher major minutes, even though his defense and offensive efficiency were dreadful. He mishandled the minute distribution for Serge Ibaka before the 2012-13 season, playing him similar minutes to Kendrick Perkins. Not all is bad with Brooks. He made great adjustments in the series against San Antonio, but followed that with an inconsistent NBA Finals against the Miami Heat. Brooks will have to prove his worth in order to show he can win an NBA title with two of the five best players in the NBA on his roster.
10. MARK JACKSON
Not too long ago Jackson was in the broadcast booth, doing games with Jeff Van Gundy and coming up with clever (?) lines. Most of the coaches on this list are known for their ability to enact unique ideas and create innovative strategies. That isn’t what Jackson is known for. Early on in his coaching career, it appears that Jackson may be one of the best motivational coaches in the NBA. The ability to inspire players is a large part of coaching in the NBA, and we’ll find out more about him as a tactician after his top assistant, Mike Malone, moved on to coach Sacramento.
9. KEVIN MCHALE
If you want to talk about an offense that doesn’t have a set system, it might be best to take a look at Houston. Under Kevin McHale the Rockets have pushed the tempo and played with a freestyle system that looks for matchups of pick-and-rolls for James Harden and emphasizes efficient shots. They rated as the sixth most efficient scoring team in the NBA, and were able to make the playoffs as an eight seed, pushing the Thunder to six games.
8. MIKE WOODSON
Woodson helped lead the Hawks to the playoffs in each of his last three seasons coaching in Atlanta, improving their record every season. Woodson has been an exemplarily head coach during the regular season for the past five seasons. During those five seasons, Woodson has accumulated a record of 209-143, which equates to a winning percentage that is just a shade under 60 percent. The past season and a half the New York Knicks have flourished under Woodson, embracing an odd style of slow paced high volume 3-point shooting. The Knicks had the third best offensive rating in the league, scoring over 108 points per 100 possessions. Woodson adjusted the team’s strategy due to Anthony’s presence and understood how necessary it was to start ‘Melo at the power forward position in order to create enough spacing for an onslaught of 3-pointers that put them in the history books.
Not only was the offense as efficient as ever, but Woodson was pretty innovative on a few different defensive concepts, especially the idea of switching someone off the ball to take on a penetrating guard. The idea was praised by other coaches and worked well, for the most part. The only step Woodson has to take is better playoff adjustments. Even with some extenuating circumstances in the past two playoffs, he has shown some poor decisions in minute distribution and dependency on Anthony’s isolation play.
7. RICK ADELMAN
Adelman has been around the block a few times and is most notable for his coaching of the Sacramento Kings during the late 90s-early 2000s. Every Kings team he coached made the playoffs and he nearly went to the NBA Finals in 2002. But a controversial game seven against the Lakers ended their season prematurely. Adelman is most known for his offensive emphasis on the corner set, which is called the “Sacramento” in NBA circles after his success pushing the offense during his tenure in the city. Most NBA teams run a version of the offense that focuses on a big man playing at the free throw line and passing to a cutting guard. We haven’t seen the full extent of what Adelman can do in Minnesota due to injuries to Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love but the brief stints of high pick-and-roll are enough to justify excitement.
6. RICK CARLISLE
Carlisle nearly got the Dallas Mavericks in playoff position with a lineup that had Troy Murphy, Mike James, and Derek Fisher receiving more than 18 minutes per game. He has a free flowing idea of an offense, essentially eliminating an exact offensive system and giving more precedent to the decisions made by players. This doesn’t exclude him from coaching his players on what to do. He attempts to put them in position to take the proper shot at the right time, considering their limitations. For instance, much of his faith was placed in the hands of Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowtizki when they played together in Dallas.
His ability to coach to his roster is what makes him a special coach. The coaching changes he has made â€” from his time in Detroit and Indiana, to his current digs in Dallas â€” is quite astonishing. The defensive-oriented, half-court offense is something that doesn’t seem to be an identifying feature of the Mavericks, even if they do value a good defense. Carlisle proved his worth when he won an NBA Championship in 2011.
5. DOC RIVERS
A championship ring always boosts up the credence of a coach, but Rivers doesn’t have to lean on that to prove his worth as one of the best in the business. Rivers was able to avoid his ticket getting punched when the “Big Ticket” arrived in Boston. Ok you may not be a fan of clever puns but Rivers’ seat was seriously hot coming off a season in which the Celtics were able to win only 24 games. In came Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett and in came the wins.
The Celtics would make the playoffs every single season from that point forward. They won a championship in 2008, forced a game seven in the 2010 NBA Finals, and were a LeBron James shooting bonanza away from making the Finals in 2012.
Boston has been a top-10 defense for the past five seasons, according to the defensive efficiency rating at ESPN. Rivers has consistently been great at calling plays coming out of timeouts, a typical barometer for reading the quality of a coach. It’ll be interesting to see how Rivers does in Los Angeles without a defensive presence as dominate as Garnett. Rivers constantly praised Garnett for his helpfulness in coaching players and leading the defense, which may force more defensive responsibility upon the Doc’s shoulders this season in Los Angeles.
4. FRANK VOGEL
His genius may not have been noticed until the NBA playoffs, but that seems like the best time to get noticed. Vogel hasn’t been the first to push forward the idea of clogging the lane but nobody has been so emphatic on stressing the discipline needed for his center to take on contact without fouling. Watching Roy Hibbert alter shot after shot was pretty astounding and demoralizing, considering my affinity toward the Knicks. The strategy to force Hibbert to stand upright without moving his arms doesn’t seem that easy when taking on a charging 250 pound missile, but Hibbert seemed more than willing to oblige.
The Pacers allowed an NBA low 35.5 points in the paint and did so with the menacing presence of Hibbert and the pesky play of their guards. The length of Paul George and George Hill was key in playing the pick-and-roll because they were able to get off screens quickly and trail the point guard. This forced the man holding the ball to make a split decision between getting rid of the ball past the towering Hibbert, or try to take a shot at the risk of getting blocked from behind. Vogel’s offense will begin to transform once George begins to bud into the playmaker that most analysts are projecting him to be, including a scout who says he can be a top three talent.
3. ERIK SPOELSTRA
Talk about pressure. Spoelstra took the Miami Heat to the NBA Finals in 2011 yet faced rumors â€” which would prove to be false â€” of his possible dismissal as head coach. Spoelstra would emerge from the lockout as a changed coach that had the pieces to fit his ultimate strategy. The slight change in usage of LeBron James, along with an emphasis on ballhawking defense, gave the Miami Heat an identity which utilizes their strengths of athleticism and speed.
His offensive methodology has a lot to do with a player referenced as “The King.” The job of coaching the best player on the face of the planet may seem eas,y but if that were the case James would have more than two NBA Championships by now. Spoelstra focuses on a fast-paced offense that uses James in a variety of positions that create open men and easy corner 3-pointers. They surrounded their team with so many good 3-point shooters and had so many good looks last season that they scored 1.32 points per shot attempt from the corner three. The team shot a combined 38.1 percent from 3-point range, which easily led the NBA. Spoelstra also pushed to add Chris Andersen during the season, a move that helped provide the Heat with a rim protector who could take on some of the responsibility of rebounding from James and Bosh.
2. TOM THIBODEAU
He seems to be forgotten when talking about the best coaches in the NBA but that shouldn’t be the case. Thibodeau has done an excellent job coaching the Bulls during his tenure. He has a winning percentage of 68.3 during the regular season and has won sixteen playoff games, six of those without Derrick Rose. His defensive strategy of packing the paint and overloading the strong side with hybrid zones is incredibly effective and has placed the Bulls in the top five on defense for three years in a row. The playoff success will come over time, especially with Rose coming back strong.
1. GREGG POPOVICH
He is the best coach in the NBA and it really isn’t that close. Popovich has had the luxury of coaching with possible hall of famers but you can’t define a coach’s success due solely to the quality of his players. Recognition is deservedly given to Popovich based on his ability to make in-game adjustments while providing the greatest in-game interviews.
Popovich has a total of four NBA titles and has made the playoffs every single year since 1997. The Spurs have won a total of 133 playoff games over that time and they have repeatedly shown they can still compete, even with a core nucleus that has been around for over ten years. In-game adjustments might be his best quality, but he also isn’t afraid to mix up lineups. During the NBA finals, Popovich inserted Manu Ginobili into the starting lineup after playing him off of the bench for most of the season.
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