Ranking Tom Thibodeau and the 15 Best Coaches in the NBA

Branden FitzPatrickCorrespondent IFebruary 7, 2012

Ranking Tom Thibodeau and the 15 Best Coaches in the NBA

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    It did not take long for Tom Thibodeau to become one of the top 15 coaches in the NBA. After winning NBA Coach of the Year as a first-year head coach, Thibodeau has his Chicago Bulls right where they left off last regular season: in first place.

    The job Thibodeau has done this season is arguably more impressive than last year's. With a lockout-shortened season, Thibodeau has had to adjust on the fly after injuries to key players like last season's MVP Derrick Rose and Luol Deng.

    Coaching in the NBA is tough already. The shortened season has made the job even tougher. Players around the league are getting injured left and right, and coaches have had to manage their teams without throwing their "A" roster out every night. The shortened season has also resulted in a crazier travel schedule and very little practice time.

    Coaching a professional team is much different than coaching in the college ranks. In the pros, coaches don't get to pick their players. On top of that, pro coaches have to manage the egos of the athletes that ultimately decide if they're going to be successful or not.

    It's less about "teaching" and more about "managing." In the end, the players usually win the battle for power in the NBA, as seen earlier this season when the Sacramento Kings fired Paul Westphal.

    Coaching in the NBA has never been more difficult. Yet the league has some of the best coaching minds in all of sports. Here is a list of the top 15 head coaches in the NBA today:  

15. Byron Scott

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    In case you haven't noticed, Byron Scott has the Cleveland Cavaliers playing solid basketball this season. The Cavaliers are only 10 wins away from matching their win total from last year. Two of their wins this season have come recently against the Dallas Mavericks and the Boston Celtics.

    That's pretty impressive for a team with so many young players.  

    Scott has done a wonderful job with rookie sensation Kyrie Irving. Irving leads the Cavaliers in scoring—18.1 points a game—and assists, with five a game. 

    A year ago, Cavalier fans experienced one of the biggest gut punches in sports history. The departure of LeBron James left the fans with little hope. Fast forward a year, and now the Cavaliers once again look like a bright young team. They have three rookies and four players who have only been in the league for a year.

    If the players continue to develop, the Cavaliers could be a playoff team as soon as this season. The Cavaliers are currently only one game out of the No. 8 spot in the eastern conference. 

    Scott has the Cavaliers playing feisty, inspired basketball—an impressive feat for such a young roster.   

14. Frank Vogel

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    If you don't know who Frank Vogel is, it's time to catch up. After taking over as head coach of the Indiana Pacers midseason last year, Vogel led the team to the playoffs for the first time since 2006. Though the Pacers lost in five games to the Chicago Bulls, they played tough. Three of the losses were decided by six or less points. 

    The Pacers have been impressive this season under Vogel. The team is currently in second place in the central division, behind the Bulls. The Pacers are also the second-best rebounding team in the NBA, allowing only 90.7 points a game.

    Because of their size and young talent, no eastern conference team should take the Pacers for granted; they could be this year's surprise team in the playoffs, like last year's Memphis Grizzlies. 

13. Lionel Hollins

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    Last year, with no Rudy Gay, the Memphis Grizzlies were a win away from making the western conference finals. This season, playing without Zach Randolph for most of the year, the Grizzlies have managed to stay around .500.

    The Western Conference is incredibly tough. Missing arguably your best player and staying in the playoff race is credit to good coaching. Hollins has also done something no other coach has ever accomplished: turned Randolph into the player he's always had the skill to become.

    When Randolph returns from his injury, it will be interesting to see if the Grizzlies can make another postseason run.  

12. Doug Collins

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    Interesting fact: the Philadelphia 76ers are statistically the best defensive team in the NBA. According to 82games.com, the 76ers allow a league low 86.9 points a game. Even more impressive, the 76ers only allow 95 points per 100 possessions. Where teams that rely heavily on their offense to win games can have off nights, defense never takes a night off. This is why having a good defense is crucial to winning a championship.  

    Collins said he would get the 76ers to play solid defense when he was hired. His promise has seen results. The 76ers are currently near the top of the standings in the eastern conference. They have impressive wins over the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, and the Atlanta Hawks already under their belt.

    Not only are the 76ers statistically the best defensive team in the league, they also rebound extremely well, averaging 43.2 a game.

    One issue Collins will have to address later in the season is who takes the last shot on this team? The 76ers have a lot of good players on their roster, just not a go-to guy you would feel comfortable taking the last shot.      

11. Mike Brown

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    One of the hardest jobs in professional sports is coaching the Los Angeles Lakers. An even harder job is to follow Phil Jackson, the best NBA head coach of all time.

    Mike Brown has been criticized about the state of the Lakers offense, but the lockout shortened-season hasn't done him any favors. With very few practices, teaching a team—that had been playing triangle offense under Jackson for years—a completely new offense is beyond difficult.

    What Brown has done is make the Lakers a better defensive team. The Lakers allow 90.8 points a game, down from 95.4 a game from a season ago under Jackson. Without a competent point guard and little depth, the Lakers have to win with their defense now.

    As Brown gets more time to incorporate an effective offense, the Lakers will once again be a dangerous playoff team. 

10. Stan Van Gundy

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    Every year Stan Van Gundy has coached the Orlando Magic, the team has made the playoffs and won over 50 games. Twice, the Magic have won 59 games. In 2009, the Magic made the NBA finals, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games. 

    The Dwight Howard "I want to be traded" situation has made this a difficult season for Van Gundy. Even with Howard halfway out the door, the Magic are still a decent team in the eastern conference. Magic GM Otis Smith hasn't done a great job providing Van Gundy with the players necessary to compete for a championship, the main reason why Howard wants out of Orlando.

    Van Gundy has been a great head coach throughout his career. This season, with all the hoopla over Howard, Van Gundy is once again showing why he's a great coach by keeping the Magic competitive.  

9. Scott Brooks

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    The likely favorite to become the next NBA dynasty isn't the Miami Heat, it's the young Oklahoma City Thunder. Two superstars—Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook—along with the emerging James Harden has the new Thunder franchise looking good for years to come.

    The Thunder have increased their win total every year under Brooks. Already this season, the Thunder look like the early favorites to represent the western conference in the NBA finals.

    What has been impressive about Brooks' job as head coach for the Thunder is the improvement not only the team has shown, but the individual players. Every year Durant has become better with Brooks as head coach. Same with Westbrook and Harden. If Brooks can keep the Thunder in this upward direction, the Thunder will dominate the NBA for a long time. 

8. Rick Adelman

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    The Minnesota Timberwolves have been a laughing stock around the NBA for years. Not many people are laughing at them anymore. With Adelman as head coach, the Wolves have shown significant progress. Now the team looks like they may be a few key players away from becoming a perennial playoff team. 

    Adelman has once again done a great job coaching a young point guard. 10 years ago, Adelman coached the exciting Jason Williams of the Sacramento Kings. Now he's doing a great job with rookie sensation Ricky Rubio.

    Adelman has been a great coach throughout his career. His Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings teams were both close to winning a championship. It's no surprise that he somehow righted the ship of the Timberwolves franchise.

    Under Adelman's coaching and the emergence of Kevin Love, the Wolves have a chance to become one of the best young teams in the NBA.  

7. George Karl

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    No Carmelo Anthony? No problem. 

    If you look at the Denver Nuggets roster, they don't look like a team that could compete for the top spot in the western conference. Yet they are, and it's by no means a mistake. They play great team basketball, leading the league in assists per game and points per game. 

    Since the Nuggets traded Anthony to the New York Knicks, George Karl has done a tremendous job getting his basketball team to play the way basketball was meant to be played: as a team.

    It doesn't matter if the Nuggets don't have a bona fide superstar anymore because they've all bought into Karl's coaching. It's hard to coach a superstar player in the NBA. It's even harder to stay a contender after you trade away a superstar. Just ask the New Orleans Hornets.   

6. Erik Spoelstra

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    Many wanted Erik Spoelstra to be fired after the Miami Heat struggled out of the gate early last season. Then, the Heat made finals. While there are still some who want Spoelstra to be fired, I believe that he has done a good job as head coach of the Heat.

    If coaching a superstar was easy, then why did three head coaches (Kevin Loughery, Stan Albeck, Doug Collins) fail to win a championship with Michael Jordan before Phil Jackson was hired? Last season, Spoelstra had to find a way for three players that have always been the go-to guy to play together as a team.

    Many will say that the pure talent of the Heat is the reason the team made the finals a season ago. However, it can't go unnoticed that even though the Heat were scrutinized night after night, they always brought their "A" game and were ready to compete. The Heat could have easily quit on Spoelstra when things were not going as planned. 

    This season, Spoelstra has looked more comfortable coaching. The team is deeper, which has helped the Heat and Spoelstra overcome the injuries that have hampered Dwyane Wade all season. Say what you want about Spoelstra, but not all of the Heat's success is because of LeBron James and Wade.  

5. Nate McMillan

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    Things have not exactly turned out the way the Portland Trail Blazers were hoping when they got the No. 1 pick a year after Brandon Roy won Rookie of the Year.

    However, the Blazers are still a great basketball team. The reason? Nate McMillan. He's managed the team through very tough times and has kept them playing like a contender in the western conference amongst all the detrimental injuries that have occurred.

    Losing an all-star of Brandon Roy's caliber would be tough for any franchise. Yet, the Blazers are still playoff contenders. Whiffing on a number one pick like the Blazers did with Greg Oden should have set the franchise back years.

    The Blazers are still a good team with some nice young pieces. It doesn't make sense how the two guys the Blazers drafted to be the centerpieces of the franchise aren't currently playing for them, but the team is still doing fine. McMillan has done an excellent job in the development of LaMarcus Aldridge. When Roy went down, Aldridge stepped up and took leadership of the team. 

    McMillan has to get credit for his coaching job with the Blazers. Franchises don't just lose their all-star shooting guard and No. 1 draft pick to injuries and stay competitive. 

4. Tom Thibodeau

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    As I mentioned earlier, it didn't take long for Tom Thibodeau to become one of the top head coaches in the NBA. His first year as a head coach in league, he won Coach of the Year. He turned the Bulls from being a young, up-and-coming team to an instant title contender. 

    What Thibodeau has done this season is arguably more impressive than what he did last year. The Bulls have had injuries to key players, notably last season's MVP Derrick Rose and Luol Deng. Even with all the injuries, the team is still in first place in the eastern conference.

    The Bulls play some of the best team basketball in the league. Their defense is stifling, allowing the third fewest points in the league. The Bulls are also the best rebounding team in the league, averaging 44.9 a game. Thibodeau has installed a championship winning recipe: strong rebounding and suffocating defense.

    The Rose/Thibodeau combination is here to stay. 

3. Rick Carlisle

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    Rick Carlisle has been a good coach in the NBA for while. Now he has a championship ring to prove it. Dirk Nowitzki was the key to the Dallas Mavericks NBA championship run last season, but Carlisle deserves a lot of credit for out coaching the opposing team's head coach in every playoff series.

    This season has been a whole new challenge for Carlisle. Coaching a team to win a NBA championship is one thing. Coaching the defending champions, when every opposing team brings their "A" game against you night after night, is a whole different challenge.  

2. Doc Rivers

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    There's not a lot of depth on the 2012 Boston Celtics roster.

    Kevin Garnett is a shadow of his former self. Other than the core four from the 2008 championship team, this year's Celtics team is largely unrecognizable. After a slow start, the Celtics have crawled their way back to over .500. Doc Rivers deserves 100 percent of the credit. He didn't let the Celtics quit this year when things didn't look good, and he won't. He shows too much pride for them to just to lay down and quit.

    The current core of the Celtics may be coming to an end, but with Rivers as the coach, the Celtics will at least have one of the best coaches at the reigns.  

1. Gregg Popovich

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    Gregg Popovich was arguably the best head coach in the NBA when Phil Jackson was still in the league. With Jackson no longer coaching, there isn't much debate who the best coach in the NBA is anymore. Popovich is the longest tenured coach in the NBA, winning four championships along the way. 

    With Tim Duncan as his franchise player, Popovich turned the San Antonio Spurs into a dynasty. Under his coaching, the Spurs have won over 50 games in all but two seasons. One of those years was the lockout shortened season, when the Spurs won their first championship.

    A sure lock for the basketball Hall of Fame, Popovich will go down as one of the best coaches in basketball history.