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Power Ranking NBA Coaches: Why Gregg Popovich Is No. 1

Dan SchultzContributor IMarch 6, 2012

Power Ranking NBA Coaches: Why Gregg Popovich Is No. 1

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    In the NBA, having a dependable coach might be the most important aspect to being a powerhouse title threat outside of locking down a franchise player for the long haul. Luckily, the San Antonio Spurs were somehow able to snag both. 15 years later, they are still a contender out West.

    There is a reason that many franchises have said they want to model themselves after the Spurs, both from a personnel and roster standpoint.

    With Phil Jackson stepping down after last season and Jerry Sloan leaving in disgust after Deron Williams continually rebelled against his play-calling, Pop is clearly considered to be the best in the league at this point. With the amount of turnover of coaches in the league, Pop is not only the longest-tenured coach in the NBA, but of all professional sports.

    Here, we rank the other 29 coaches before him, while also providing more evidence as to why our No. 1 could be adding No. 5 to his collection very soon.

30. Randy Wittman (Washington Wizards)

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    This might be a little unfair of me, seeing Wittman has posted a 6-14 record so far, which is definitely better than Flip Saunders' 2-15 start with the team. Wittman’s overall coaching record is 106-221, good enough for a .325 winning percentage. Ouch.

    Granted, some of those teams were bad ones, such as the '99-'00 and '00-'01 Cavaliers, but any coach that has been in and out of the league as much as Wittman has is an immediate red flag.

    The Wizards really have no excuse to be as bad as they are, given the amount of athleticism they possess top to bottom. In a weak Eastern conference, they could be a fringe playoff contender.

    They are not, however, and it is up to a coach with a rough record to try to inspire players like John Wall and Andray Blatche to play to the best of their abilities.

29. Paul Silas (Charlotte Bobcats)

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    Silas has had a decorated career in the league, including ushering a new king to his temporary throne in Cleveland with LeBron James. However, as good a coach as he has been in the past, the team he has now really cannot be saved by any coach at this point.

    The Bobcats are just a miserable team who are currently geared towards the future. Then again, that's how they have been ever since they entered the league.

    Silas has garnered a less-than-stellar 4-31 record with the team so far, in addition to being the victim of a poor defensive strategy that saw Deron Williams light up his team for 57 points this past Sunday.

    Perhaps the 68-year-old Silas should call it a career, as his departure from the team at this point seems imminent. Owner Michael Jordan will have to fire him for the cliched, sometimes inexplicable "we need a change" mindset.

    It would be a wise decision to step down soon and go into retirement knowing he left on his own terms.

28. Mark Jackson (Golden State Warriors)

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    Jackson’s game plan before his first season as a head coach was to take an offensive-oriented team and turn them into a defense-first club. This experiment could not have gone more awry so far, as the Warriors have amassed a 14-20 record through the first half of the season.

    Some of that has to do with Stephen Curry’s injury woes, but every team in the NBA has injuries right now, so in large part it all cancels out.

    Jackson needs to play to his team’s strengths until he gets more of what he wants. That is offense. The Warriors have one of the fastest backcourts in the league in Curry and Monta Ellis. Let them run, let them take bad shots. It is how they play and how they have done so for years and years. You are not going to change them now.

    If the Warriors trade or draft for more defense, then a defense-first mentality fits. For now, Jackson should adapt his game plan to a more offensive one if he has any hope of getting his team to the playoffs.

27. Monty Williams (New Orleans Hornets)

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    This feels a little unfair, given that the Hornets surprised everyone last year with a fast start and Williams is definitely doing the best he can with a very distracted and confused team. But they currently have the worst record in the West at 9-28.

    As said, a lot of the team has to feel like pawns of the NBA front office after seeing the Chris Paul trade vetoed before he finally got clearance to the Clippers. How can you be motivated to play if the fear of being disrespected like that is in the back of your mind at all times?

    However, Williams definitely has the talent to remain at least somewhat competitive. Add in a confusing “we are going to trade you, wait, just kidding” dialogue session with Chris Kaman, and the team’s chemistry really could not be any worse.

    It is up to Williams to get his Hornets back on track and worrying about the game on the court, not the politics that take place behind closed doors.

26. Keith Smart (Sacramento Kings)

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    Smart achieved a huge victory for the team in getting DeMarcus Cousins under control and focusing about basketball. However, the Kings still find themselves near the bottom of the Western Conference despite possessing two of the most exciting young talents in the league in Cousins and Tyreke Evans.

    Smart, like Paul Westphal at the beginning of the year before he was dismissed, could be doing a better job to try to get his rookie Jimmer Fredette more involved in his game plan. As of now, Fredette is happy with any look he gets and chucks up a high quantity of poor shots.

    Smart should really focus on developing plays to get Fredette wide open. Since he has a masterful penetrator like Evans in his backcourt, getting Jimmer and Evans on the same page offensively could work wonders.

    The Kings have shown their confidence in Smart already by extending him for one more year, and Smart must prove he is a coach to be held on to for a long time given the threat of losing his job will not be on his mind at this time.

25. Tyrone Corbin (Utah Jazz)

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    The Jazz can no longer use the gutting of Deron Williams from their game plan as an excuse, or the sudden departure of longtime coach Jerry Sloan.

    This is a new era of Jazz basketball, and right now Ty Corbin has his hands full.

    Like the Warriors, you could make the case that Corbin has the talent to have his team be a No. 7 or 8 seed. Right now they are not even in the playoff race. The Jazz have two megawatt talents in the post in Al Jefferson and Derrick Favors. The former has the confidence to dominate when he wants to, while the latter is still trying to find himself in the league.

    Corbin should focus his abilities into bringing out the inner beast in Favors and having Jefferson take a mentor role to training the young forward, since they traded their franchise player in Williams to get him.

    If Corbin can construct some effective offensive play calls that get his low post utilizing their polished footwork, the Jazz are tough to stop inside. As of now, no one takes them seriously at all, and that does not sit well with the history of the franchise.

    That is not sitting well with those in the front office who remember the glory days of the team and wish to see all the potential they have start to mature and win consistently.

24. Avery Johnson (New Jersey Nets)

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    Once upon a time, Avery was considered to be one of the best in the business when he led the Dallas Mavericks to the NBA Finals in 2006. Now, nobody has any idea. The Nets are comprised of Deron Williams, a beat-up giant in Brook Lopez, an ex-reality star in Kris Humphries, a promising rookie in MarShon Brooks and a variety of spare parts.

    Avery comes from the Doug Collins school of “every game is the most important game EVER” in the sense that he is very intense and adamant as to what he wants his team to do. This is not a bad thing, but perhaps Avery is starting to learn to give his power over to his star point guard and let the rest work itself out.

    For now, I put him here, but this could change. If he gets a certain Dwight Howard tossed his way, he could definitely go up.

23. Dwane Casey (Toronto Raptors)

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    These rankings are not necessarily saying that the coaches in the bottom half are bad at their jobs. Casey has done probably as good a job that he can do given the talent he has. The Raptors still stand at a 12-25 record, but most NBA fans will remember them as Jeremy Lin’s first victim in the “game-winner” slot.

    Casey has done a fine job with a team without their best player, Andrea Bargnani, who has been sidelined for a large chunk of this season. In fact, can anyone name one player on the Raptors outside of Bargnani or Jose Calderon? Only die-hards could, really.

    So for that, Casey gets a little respect here, being that it is his first season with a new team and they have performed adequately despite not having their go-to guy.

22. Mike D'Antoni (New York Knicks)

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    Undoubtedly the first shock pick of the piece, no?

    My reasoning for placing D’Antoni this low is actually defensible, although I admit perhaps a tad too harsh. He was one miracle away from being fired from the Knicks and out of the Big Apple. He gave a third-string point guard a shot out of dumb luck and somehow struck gold.

    Lin has put the Knicks right back in the playoff picture, going 10-4 and giving Knicks fans hope that all hope is not lost.

    D’Antoni is an offensive mastermind, giving his very European playbook that relies on quick shooting guards and mid-range shooting bigs. He is not known for possessing any sort of defensive smarts that his teams feel motivated to replicate, and thus the Knicks suffered tremendously at the start of the year.

    In fact, while they are getting better, one could make the case that Tyson Chandler is still the only Knick playing any sort of defense out there.

    If the Knicks want to make more than just noise in the playoffs this year, D’Antoni must go against his comfort zone and aggressively pursue a defense that applies pressure on the ball instead of allowing penetration and wide-open shots.

21. Lawrence Frank (Detroit Pistons)

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    Frank, another intense coach who treats every game like his life is on the line, is definitely the perfect fit for a struggling Pistons team. The Pistons are still reeling from one of the worst offseasons in the history of the league in 2009, when the team signed Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva to outrageous contracts that have hampered the team’s attitude and outlook going forward.

    Frank remains one of the bright spots of the team, being that he is young, full of energy, defensive-minded and can definitely motivate his guys to play well. Detroit has a good future ahead of them if they give Frank a year or two to work into his role and develop exciting young players like Brandon Knight.

    Give him time, Detroit. He did a fine job with the Nets, and the Pistons are obviously a team that needs time to develop.

    I would say in two to three years, Frank will be ushering them back into a new era of hard-nosed defense which will result in winning.

20. Rick Adelman (Minnesota Timberwolves)

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    Adelman has done a very good job with his team thus far, but given the amount of talent Minnesota has, it is somewhat surprising that they are having difficulty cracking .500.

    Kevin Love is arguably the best power forward in the league right now, and Michael Beasley can be electrifying every once in a while. Throw in the emergence of both Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic and the Wolves should be pouncing on a No. 6 or 7 seed or so.

    Instead, they are on the outside looking in as the second half of the regular season starts.

    Like D’Antoni, Adelman is a more offensive-minded coach. The Wolves need a lock-down defender either in the post or on the perimeter to come in and give them quality minutes, and they need a coach who can utilize that player well.

    Due to Wesley Johnson’s struggles to be a megawatt scorer, perhaps Adelman should look into converting him into a Bruce Bowen-esque defender. He has got the length and the size to hassle perimeter shooters.

    The question is, can his coach motivate him to be a force around the arc on the defensive side of the court?

19. Nate McMillan (Portland Trail Blazers)

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    All things considered, McMillan has done a quality job with his squad this year given the amount of off-court distractions and an inescapable feeling of “We’re cursed” looming over the franchise after the early retirement of Brandon Roy and the loss of former No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden for yet another season.

    The Blazers started out hot, but they are beginning to fade. Despite all their problems off the court, they still have the talent to be a No. 4 or 5 seed out West. They are currently out of the playoff picture and falling fast. With a dynamic duo of Gerald Wallace and LaMarcus Aldridge, the Blazers certainly have the ability to be a scary team.

    McMillan has a tall task at hand: getting their minds back on basketball. He is a talented defensive coach who should be getting more out of his team, but I will cut him a break given the amount of bad luck that he has had to deal with over the last few years.

18. Alvin Gentry (Phoenix Suns)

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    Being that I am a Spurs fan, I have not forgotten the stinging sweep the Suns handed them in the 2010 playoffs. While Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire were unstoppable, it was Alvin Gentry’s clever play-calling and well-constructed game plan that effectively put the locks on the Spurs offense. By taking away a lot of their penetration and living with contested outside shots, the Suns made quick work of a team they had been chasing after for years.

    Gentry has given Marcin Gortat a chance to shine and he has taken advantage of it while playing alongside one of the best point guards to ever play this game in Steve Nash. Gentry’s realization of his strengths have kept his team somewhat competitive out West despite being a two-man team fretting the departure of their franchise player this coming offseason when Nash will be a free agent.

    The Suns have been impressed with Gentry’s coaching so far, and once they surround him with a capable team in a few years down the road, he might be talked about as one of the best coaches in the game.

    That is my prediction, at least.

17. Byron Scott (Cleveland Cavaliers)

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    Scott has the resume to back up why he should still be coaching in the big leagues. Given that he took the New Jersey Nets to the Finals twice many years ago, as well as nearly leading the New Orleans Hornets to the Western Conference Finals in 2008, Scott has proven time and time again that he is a more than capable coach.

    The Cavaliers, who seem to look more at ease with the state of their franchise than they did last year, look like a confident group of youngsters out on the floor. Scott’s leadership might somehow guide this team to the playoffs this year, as the squad is currently only four games out of the eight seed.

    Scott has done a stellar job allowing Kyrie Irving to do his thing, and once Cleveland gets some more pieces their way, you could definitely see this team being a consistent No. 6 or 7 seed out East very, very soon.

16. Scott Skiles (Milwaukee Bucks)

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    With an annual devastating injury to Andrew Bogut already having taken place, Skiles has shifted his team into a more finesse, jump-shooting squad that has continued to hang around out East.

    Just last night, the Bucks bested the Sixers and Skiles showed that he can get a lot of production out of players like Drew Gooden and Mike Dunleavy.

    Brandon Jennings' comments about leaving Milwaukee when he becomes a free agent certainly does not help their case of making a serious push to the playoffs, but Skiles has dealt with off-court issues before and will keep his team competitive, especially in the Eastern Conference, where one game below .500 is good enough for the No. 8 seed as of now.

15. Larry Drew (Atlanta Hawks)

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    Yet another team that has seemingly battled off-court issues and disappointments an uncountable number of times, Drew has kept his Hawks from falling completely off the edge. The Hawks are considered to be a very good regular-season team, but once the playoffs begin they crumple under the pressure.

    Somehow, Josh Smith has not been traded yet. Somehow, Drew has kept Joe Johnson from being the poster boy for bad contracts for the next five years. Despite this team ready to implode, they are in the playoff hunt yet again.

    Whether they will do anything this year is another story, but for now, Drew gets major props for keeping this team together...for now.

14. George Karl (Denver Nuggets)

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    Karl, who triumphed over cancer and lost a ton of weight, certainly looks more at peace with everything in his life, which translates well to the basketball court. The Nuggets lost two big pieces this past offseason with Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith deciding to part for other teams, but Karl has expertly handled what he has been given.

    Despite the nagging injuries to players like Timofey Mozgov (who re-injured his ankle again Sunday against the Spurs), Danilo Gallinari and Nene, the Nuggets are currently sitting at No. 8 overall out West.

    If Karl can convince his defensive stopper in Wilson Chandler to re-sign with the club, the Nuggets will have length, defense, outside shooting and speed they can throw at you.

    Look out, West, you have your dark horse for the playoffs.

13. Kevin McHale (Houston Rockets)

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    No one expected the Rockets to be even remotely close to the playoff picture. After the soul-crushing loss of Yao Ming and his subsequent retirement last year, everyone would have understood if the Rockets had a “we are rebuilding, not going for the playoffs” message to their fans.

    Instead, McHale has done wonders for this squad, giving them an enthusiastic supporter on the bench who has the coaching skills to teach his big men pivotal low-post moves.

    Whether or not McHale did a good job GM’ing the Timberwolves some years back is another question, but there is no doubt this guy can coach.

12. Frank Vogel (Indiana Pacers)

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    I still have to see some mettle from the Pacers in the playoffs before I make my decision on Vogel. As of now, there is a lot to be impressed about. The Pacers are playing fantastic ball, and Vogel is masterfully using his depth to get his squad the third-best record in the Eastern Conference.

    But will it last? Will Darren Collison ever find the motivation to take that next step most NBA fans think he still has? How far will the Pacers make it in the playoffs with good seeding?

    There are still a lot of questions.

11. Vinny Del Negro (Los Angeles Clippers)

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    What!? He has one of the best records in the West right now!

    Yes, but Del Negro has almost too much talent not to stink at this point. There was a reason Vinny was fired from the Chicago Bulls and why they have taken off since his departure: He is a pretty average coach.

    With that said, a lot of credit has to be given to him for the job he has done thus far with the Clippers, but like his team, I have serious questions about his confidence and leadership abilities going into the playoffs.

    Will the Clippers just be the West's version of the Hawks? A good/great regular season team that goes away easy in the playoffs?

    I am just not quite ready to say Vinny is a top-10 coach in this league. Are you?

10. Stan Van Gundy (Orlando Magic)

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    While it is a reappearing topic in this piece, a coach’s ability to keep his team competitive despite an elephant or two in the room is a huge feat to accomplish.

    Van Gundy, on the verge of a heart attack or stroke nearly every game he coaches, has done as good a job as anyone can given the immaturity of his best player. The fact that the Magic are a top-four team in their conference right now is nothing short of a miracle, and a lot of credit has to go to Van Gundy for keeping them on pace to be a team to be noticed in the playoffs.

    If Dwight Howard can shut his mouth about where he wants to go and what teams are “on his list,” then just imagine how good a refocused Magic team can be. Dwight is surrounded by capable outside shooters who have delivered for him consistently, thanks to a coach who has perfected his game plan.

    Van Gundy deserves major credit for the job he has done thus far.

9. Lionel Hollins (Memphis Grizzlies)

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    As his team showed last April, the Grizzlies are a team to be taken seriously. Throw in the fact that they are currently the fifth seed in a loaded Western Conference and they are bringing back their best player in Zach Randolph soon from injury, no one would be surprised if the Grizzlies reached the Western Conference Finals this year.

    It is all because of Hollins developing a balanced game plan in which his big men get to do their damage on the inside, his lock-down defender in Tony Allen gets to use his energy on one side of the court and Mike Conley effortlessly runs his offense while giving some of the best point guards in the league fits on defense with his speed.

    For Hollins to be thrust into “Best Coaches” discussion, his Grizzlies need to evolve into a beast once Randolph returns. If they can get home-court advantage for a round or two, watch out, West.

8. Doug Collins (Philadelphia 76ers)

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    While the Sixers have skidded recently, Collins has definitely done a sublime job with this team so far. Instead of having Andre Iguodala be the go-to guy and star player that the team relies upon, Collins has developed a game plan that gets everyone involved and anyone can be the star on any given night.

    Sometimes Elton Brand has stepped up big, other times it is Jrue Holiday and sometimes it is Iggy.

    This team-first approach has made the Sixers not only one of the most lethal teams on the fast break, but also one of the most dangerous half-court defenses in the league. With a loss to the Milwaukee Bucks last night, the Sixers need to rediscover their magic again.

    With Spencer Hawes returning to the lineup soon, hopefully Collins can get his athletic, super energetic team back on track and keep Philly excited about basketball.

7. Erik Spoelstra (Miami Heat)

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    Chew me out, Heat fans.

    I actually like Spoelstra and thought he handled the pressure of last year very well. That is, until the Finals, where he was clearly outcoached by Rick Carlisle and the team that was supposed to win “not four, not five, not six” championships could not figure out how to win one first.  

    If Spoelstra can snag the crown this year, then he immediately gets consideration for the top five. As of now, he is kind of like Del Negro. He has loads of talent and any coach at this point could probably do very well with the team the Heat possess.

    It is the coaches that perform well under pressure and make sharp adjustments in the biggest stages of the game that separate themselves from the rest of the pack. This could be Spoelstra’s defining year as a coach, or it could be his last on the Heat sidelines if they do not win it all.

6. Scott Brooks (Oklahoma City Thunder)

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    Before you start rioting, hear me out.

    Brooks is currently coaching the best team in the Western Conference. He has two of the most skilled players in the league and has performed well ever since he was given head coaching responsibilities.

    One thing I can not dismiss, however, is his play-calling at times. Too often it seems like all he says in the huddles when games are tight is, “Okay, let’s give Kevin [Durant] the ball, everyone else iso and let’s hope he makes something happen.” This is all Durant did against the Mavs last year and it is one of the only things that kept the Thunder from representing the West last year.

    Brooks does a very good job with his game plan for the most part, but like Spoelstra, he needs to discover his backbone in the playoffs. Draw up some plays to get your guys open, make some adjustments under pressure and now we are talking.

5. Mike Brown (L.A. Lakers)

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    Brown’s likable personality and down-to-earth demeanor beautifully offset the glorious pretentiousness that is always surrounding the Lakers. Leading the Lakers to a crucial victory over the Miami Heat on Sunday restored the team’s confidence completely.

    Brown has done an outstanding job keeping his big men useful on both sides of the court and using any one-on-one advantages he can find. Toss in a good amount of Kobe doing his thing and Brown showing faith in his bench, the Lakers are as good a team as any out West.

    He was not able to win it all with LeBron in Cleveland back in 2007, but he might be able to win it all with L.A., against LeBron, this coming year.

    I would not be surprised if it happened.

4. Rick Carlisle (Dallas Mavericks)

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    While I still have not decided if Carlisle is the same guy who gave a masterful turn in the unforgettable Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I know the guy can coach. He looks like Jim Carrey, but his calm, cool personality is what kept his Mavericks grounded through an emotional series with the Miami Heat last year.

    As already mentioned, thanks to crucial coaching decisions last year in the Finals such as inserting J.J. Barea into the starting lineup, which increased Dallas’s speed and penetration and opened up the floor for Dirk to shine even brighter, the Mavs shocked the Heat and much of the world, winning their first title.

    Carlisle is working wonders again this year. Despite Dallas and owner Mark Cuban being obviously focused on this coming offseason where Deron Williams and Dwight Howard will be free agents, the Mavs are still competing at an extremely high level out West.

3. Doc Rivers (Boston Celtics)

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    I counted the Celtics out after their bad start.

    Goes to show I am an idiot. But I guarantee I was not the only idiot.

    Somehow the Celtics are only a game-and-a-half back of the Atlantic Division-leading Philadelphia 76ers, and it is all because of Rivers sticking to his guns and trusting that his system would see his team through.

    With all the trade rumors concerning Rajon Rondo’s future and if the “Big Three” should stay together, Rivers’ raspy voice has continually bellowed the importance of sticking together and trusting in each other.

    Yes, the Celtics are still hanging around. It is because they have one of the best coaches in the league currently leading the way.

2. Tom Thibodeau (Chicago Bulls)

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    We have heard it is impossible to beat the Heat this coming year. With another year under their belt and an angry LeBron seeking vengeance for a legendary Finals collapse, the Heat are destined to be champions this year.

    Coach Tibs and his Bulls beg to differ.

    Currently, the Bulls own the best record in entire NBA. Every player on the team buys into the system of defense first and Derrick Rose is still playing at an MVP level.

    Thibodeau might repeat this year for Coach of the Year, given his excellent leadership in guiding the Bulls to an Eastern Conference appearance last year. This year, the Bulls want to win that series, and then some.

    In only two years, Tibs has transformed the Bulls from intriguing first-round opponent to conference titan and a force to be taken seriously. Do not be totally shocked if LeBron and co. are sent home packing earlier than they were last year.

1. Gregg Popovich (San Antonio Spurs)

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    Surprised? Did the title of the article give it away? Whoops.

    Let us forget for a second all of Pop’s accomplishments and just look at this year. With Manu Ginobili, arguably the Spurs’ best player at this point, out for a good chunk of the year already (returning this past Sunday against Denver after being out mostly since January 2), the Spurs still somehow managed to win 11 straight games before the All-Star break, all while keeping Tim Duncan in good shape.

    The Spurs are currently second in the Western conference, thanks to an onslaught of outside shooting and the occasional dump down low that Duncan or DeJuan Blair cash in on a routine basis.

    The Spurs are not the same defensive team they were when Bruce Bowen was with them, and Pop recognized this, changing the team into essentially what the Mavericks were back eight or nine years ago. They are more offense-oriented, but players like Duncan and Ginobili can still make the crucial game-sealing defensive stop that many teams lack.

    With a sly smile, a sarcastic response to an interview question and a common sense approach to the game, there is a reason Pop has hung around the longest out of all the coaches in the league currently.

    He is one of the best to ever coach the game.

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