Shaking the NBA Coaching Trees

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 23, 2013

December 19, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich instructs against the Golden State Warriors during the first quarter at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

You often hear that great NBA coaches don't grow on trees. That's true in a literal sense, of course. But figuratively, a huge number of the accomplished coaches stalking today's sidelines can trace their lineage back to one of a select few prominent root systems.

So, when you think of it that way, the league's coaches—both good and bad—actually do grow on trees.

A look around the league reveals some striking common traits among coaches who have a shared heritage. Plus, it lends a little historical perspective on some of the most influential minds ever to carry a clipboard.


Jeff Van Gundy

HOUSTON - OCTOBER 12:  (L-R) Head coach Jeff Van Gundy and assistant coach Tom Thibodeau of the Houston Rockets talk during the preseason game against the Orlando Magic on October 12, 2005 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. The Rockets won 84-80. NOT
Bill Baptist/Getty Images

Despite spending just over a decade as an NBA head coach, Jeff Van Gundy's tutelage has spawned three highly accomplished disciples.

That Charlotte Bobcats' Steve Clifford started his NBA coaching career under Van Gundy with the New York Knicks, then followed him to the Houston Rockets until 2007. Clearly indoctrinated into Van Gundy's coaching philosophies, Clifford jumped to the Orlando Magic, serving until 2012 under Stan Van Gundy.

Incredibly, he has the Bobcats playing some of the best defense in the league.

Mike Malone spent years as a highly valued assistant coach and well-regarded defensive mind before landing his first head coaching gig with the Sacramento Kings this season. He, like Clifford, got his start with Van Gundy's Knicks in 2001.

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Most notably, Tom Thibodeau—resident defensive genius and probably the best carbon copy of Van Gundy's no-nonsense attitude—was also among JVG's top assistants with the early 2000s Knicks. After further honing his skills with the Boston Celtics, all Thibs has done in four years with the Chicago Bulls is run up a remarkable .652 winning percentage.

As you might expect, the Van Gundy coaching tree is marked most strongly by its devotion to defense. Perhaps more than any other tree we'll discuss, this one has a consistent approach that hardly ever wavers.

That's both good and bad, though, as there's also a decided lack of offensive inventiveness in Van Gundy's former assistants. Thibodeau's Bulls had a couple of decent offensive years, but those had more to do with a healthy Derrick Rose than anything else. And neither Clifford nor Malone was hired for his forward-thinking offensive philosophy.

The gritty, occasionally blunt tones you hear from guys like Malone and Thibodeau are so close to the way Van Gundy used to speak that it's scary.

Consider Malone's recent diatribe on the Kings' woeful defensive effort, per Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee:

Obviously, the message is not getting through. They're not accepting it, they're unwilling to accept it ... I'm not sure what the problem is. I have to find five guys starting (Saturday night) in Orlando that are willing to compete on the defensive end of the floor, because I'm getting tired of looking up at the scoreboard and seeing teams score well above 100 points and shoot well above 50 percent against us.

I question how many guys we have on this team that take pride in their defense. A lot of guys are worried about their numbers and their offense, and they're not committed to the defensive end of the floor. That's apparent every night you watch us play.

Honest, unapologetic and solely focused on defense. Sounds like a Van Gundy man to me.


George Karl

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 15: Terry Stotts of he Portland Trail Blazers talks with George Karl of the Denver Nuggets on January 15, 2013 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or u
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

George Karl's coaching tree looked a lot fuller just a few seasons ago. A couple of branches are missing now, though, since Nat McMillan and Sam Mitchell are out of work.

If we stopped there, you might not be all that impressed by the coaches whom Karl has influenced in his illustrious career. And as a matter of fact, there are two current coaches who studied under him who are in serious trouble right now.

Mike Woodson might have the most unenviable job in the league. He seems to have lost control of the Knicks after guiding them to one of the best seasons in decades just last year. Once thought of as a stout defensive mind who connected well with today's players, Woody has become little more than a punching bag these days.

He probably longs for the time he spent on Karl's bench with the Milwaukee Bucks in the late '90s.

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Dwane Casey got his start with Karl's Seattle Sonics, and he isn't faring much better with the Toronto Raptors than Woody is with the Knicks. His old-school style will almost certainly result in a pink slip sooner or later—especially now that Masai Ujiri, a man who worked closely with Karl in Denver, is looking to take the Raps into a new era.

Terry Stotts is the Karl disciple currently enjoying the most success. His free-flowing offense has the Portland Trail Blazers firmly situated as the season's most surprisingly exciting club. After spending years under Karl with the Sonics and Milwaukee Bucks, Stotts might be the coach whose style most closely resembles Karl's.

The curmudgeonly attitude isn't there, but the reliance on an equal-opportunity, fast-paced offense certainly is. Like many of Karl's teams, Stotts' Blazers aren't among the league's defensive elite. But they score with such great efficiency that it hardly matters.

If we lean way out on a limb, it might also be possible to include Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks in Karl's tree. He spent one season under Karl with the Denver Nuggets in 2005. Adding him certainly ups this tree's collective winning percentage; the Thunder have gone 256-151 under Brooks.

If you're looking for a common trait here, it's probably an emphasis on offensive basketball. Overall, though, Karl's offshoots lack the uniform character that Van Gundy's army of defensive minds possess.


Gregg Popovich

SAN ANTONIO, TX - NOVEMBER 15: Head Coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs, right, speaks with assistant coach Mike Budenholzer during a game against the New York Knicks on November 15, 2012 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: U
D. Clarke Evans/Getty Images

We've saved the biggest tree for last.

More current head coaches have their roots in Gregg Popovich's San Antonio Spurs than any other. That makes sense when you think about it; the most consistently successful franchise is bound to produce the highest number of in-demand coaches.

As Bleacher Report's D.J. Foster wrote: "It's almost impossible to be a player or coach in the NBA without some degree of connection to Popovich, and seeing as he's one of the most brilliant and hilariously surly coaches alive, we wouldn't have it any other way."

The quality of Pop's proteges has been all over the map. So have the individual styles they've brought to their new teams. Sadly, none of them have managed to match his golden touch with the media.

Mike Budenholzer spent nearly two decades as a Spurs assistant before taking over the top job with the Atlanta Hawks. He's currently enjoying the most success of any Spurs "branch."

Elsewhere, Jacque Vaughn and Brett Brown are presiding over rebuilding efforts with the Orlando Magic and Philadelphia 76ers, respectively. Brown's willingness to embrace a relentless pace might have something to do with a front-office mandate to lose games entertainingly, but it's also indicative of his time with the Spurs over the past half-decade or so.

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San Antonio has embraced a more wide-open, uptempo attack lately, and Brown is very comfortable running a similar system.

Mike Brown also cut his teeth under Popovich, serving as an assistant with the Spurs from 2000-03.

Then there's Monty Williams, head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans. Williams spent time as both a player and an assistant coach with the Spurs before McMillan snatched him up to join his Blazers bench in 2005. In 2010, the then-38-year-old Williams became head coach of the New Orleans Hornets.

Even Mike D'Antoni was a scout under Popovich during the 1999-00 season, per

And if we really want to give Pop extra credit, we could also attach Doc Rivers, who played his final seasons with the Spurs before retiring in 1996.

In an odd way, the sheer variety of coaching styles to have come out of the Spurs system is its most consistent trait. San Antonio has been a remarkably adaptive team under Popovich, so it's not surprising that his leadership would yield coaches with such varied plans of attack.

Remember, the Spurs used to be a slow-it-down snoozefest that could hardly score enough to keep its fans awake. That style worked well for San Antonio's first couple of title runs, but Popovich made changes to open up his team's offense over the past few years. Now, San Antonio has made a complete stylistic turnabout.

Knowing that, it's not all that strange that there isn't really a defining characteristic shared by coaches who've come from Popovich's tree.


The Ancient Oaks

If you dig deep enough, you'll find most NBA coaches come from one of two major trees.

Pat Riley is the man who gave both Van Gundy brothers their first big breaks, and he's also responsible for Erik Spoelstra.

PHILADELPHIA - MAY 27:  Former University of North Carolina men's basketball coach and Hall of Fame inductee Dean Smith poses with  2001 NBA Coach of the Year Larry Brown on May 27, 2001 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowl
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Even more impressive is Dean Smith's influence. The former North Carolina head coach helped mold both Karl and Larry Brown. Brown is directly responsible for shaping Popovich, as the two worked together in Pop's early days with the Spurs during the late 1980s.

Riley and Smith are the dual Godfathers—nobody has had more influence on today's coaching ranks than they have.

I suspect if we looked even further back, we'd eventually wind up tracing every coach's lineage to whoever first gave James Naismith the idea to hang a peach basket and toss balls through it. But that might be overkill.


The New Wave

BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 06: Head coach Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics communicates with his team in the first quarter against the Denver Nuggets during the game at TD Garden on December 6, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ackn
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

What's particularly interesting about today's crop of NBA coaches is that there's an exciting bunch of unaffiliated outliers working alongside the guys with "royal" bloodlines.

Brad Stevens isn't remotely related to any of the major coaching trees, but he's having immense success in his first season with the Celtics. Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel doesn't have strong ties to Popovich, Karl or Van Gundy, and he's viewed as one of the most innovative and capable young coaches in the league.

Even older guys like Rick Adelman of the Timberwolves have racked up wins without being part of one of the major pedigrees.

In a way, the combination of new thinking and time-tested experience that comprises the coaching ranks of today's NBA is appropriate. The league is at a crossroads where old ideas and fresh analytics are colliding in an exciting way.

No amount of statistical analysis can substitute for generations of accumulated "feel," but even the most gut-driven coaches are learning to rely on the numbers. Whichever current coach manages to cultivate the best combination of analytical thinking and old-school principles will likely end up establishing the next great tree.

Of course, it's also possible that Popovich will just coach until he's 100, populating the league with one former assistant after another. The Spurs don't seem to age, so it's not crazy to assume Pop doesn't either.


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