Grading the NBA's Rookie Coaches
It's been something of a rocky season for many of the NBA's nine first-year head coaches, but that was largely to be expected.
Given that Jeff Hornacek's Phoenix Suns have traded their preseason tanking predictions for a possible playoff appearance, things are even better than they could have been.
While you'll find more of these debut decision-makers at the bottom of the standings than the top, you won't find many disappointments in the bunch. With rebuilding clubs eyeing up-and-coming coaches as part of their long-term plans, short-term progress isn't easily captured in the box scores or league standings.
Not all of these coaches, of course, inherited a starting-from-scratch roster.
Jason Kidd took on a gargantuan payroll and minuscule championship window with the Brooklyn Nets. Dave Joerger's Memphis Grizzlies were Western Conference finalists in 2013. Brian Shaw's Denver Nuggets had dreams of making it far after grabbing the No. 3 seed out West last season.
Save for Hornacek's Suns and Shaw's injury-riddled Nuggets, there haven't been a lot of surprises. For the most part, the teams on this list are largely in the range of where we thought they would be.
That's a good thing. At the least, it means none of these coaches have looked in over their heads.
With zero duds bringing down the group and a few studs leading the charge, let's see how this solid set of first-year coaches have fared in meeting the varied list of expectations each has faced.
Brett Brown, Philadelphia 76ers
Offensive Rating: 95.6 (30th)
Defensive Rating: 107.2 (T-26th)
I hate giving this grade; I really do. But it's impossible to assess how Brett Brown has done leading an NBA roster since the Philadelphia 76ers haven't given him one to work with.
By his own admission, Brown started the season with "six NBA players" on his roster, via Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Three of those six (Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes and Lavoy Allen) were shipped out at the trade deadline.
The Sixers rode a 26-game losing streak into the record books (matching the 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers for the longest single-season skid), finally pumping the brakes with a 123-98 win over the Detroit Pistons Saturday. Yet while we're talking about its losses, Philly's only focus is its gains: more ping-pong balls for the draft lottery.
Brown has spent the season developing young talent. Rookie Michael Carter-Williams has flooded the stat sheet (16.5 points, 6.3 assists, 6.0 rebounds, 1.9 steals), but he has never done it with much efficiency (.391/.259/.690 shooting slash). The fruits of Brown's work with Nerlens Noel, out since last February with a torn ACL, might not be seen before next season.
Which is precisely the point at which we'll be able to put a letter grade on Brown's effort. He needs an NBA roster to lead against real teams first before receiving an NBA coaching assessment.
Brian Shaw, Denver Nuggets
Offensive Rating: 103.0 (T-17th)
Defensive Rating: 105.5 (21st)
The Denver Nuggets have three players on the shelf with torn ACLs (Danilo Gallinari, Nate Robinson and J.J. Hickson) and a fourth out for the year with a stress fracture in his leg (JaVale McGee). So the Denver Nuggets' sudden slide from 57 wins last season to 32 (for now) doesn't entirely rest with head coach Brian Shaw.
That said, Shaw hasn't done a lot to help his case. His golden player development touch (the former Indiana Pacers assistant received high marks for his work with Paul George and Lance Stephenson) hasn't made its mark in Denver.
Ty Lawson has raised his scoring average from last season (17.8, up from 16.7) but lost nearly three percentage points off his field-goal shooting (43.2, down from 46.1). Evan Fournier has seen more consistent playing time (18.9 minutes, up from 11.3) but his shooting marks have fallen (.493/.407 last season, .422/.378 this year). Kenneth Faried has been great since the All-Star break (18.1 points, 9.2 rebounds), but struggled before it (10.4 and 7.6).
There's still some disconnect between his philosophies and the roster makeup, but he has shown glimpses of blending the two together.
"He's got this team getting a foundation of running multiple plays and multiple actions while still getting out and running," wrote Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post.
There's been some good, some bad (the Andre Miller fiasco) and plenty of misfortune. That's not all on Shaw, but he's been a bit underwhelming in his debut season.
Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta Hawks
Offensive Rating: 103.0 (T-17th)
Defensive Rating: 104.5 (18th)
Mike Budenholzer is one of five coaches on this list guiding a team currently in the playoff picture, but his team's postseason standing is precarious.
The Atlanta Hawks have dropped five straight games and are only 7-19 since the start of February. If anyone sitting outside the Eastern Conference wanted a way in, the Hawks have been seemingly shopping theirs for months.
These recent woes aren't really that surprising. Not after losing two-time All-Star Al Horford to a season-ending torn pectoral in December.
But the losses aren't what's holding Bud's grade back. Jeff Teague's regression (.451/.359 shooting last season, .428/.303 this season) and the sluggish pace of rookie Dennis Schroeder's development (3.7 points, 1.9 assists) keep the coach from rating as anything more than average.
Give him an offseason to fully implement his complex schemes and a healthy roster to work with, and this Gregg Popovich pupil will be well above average this time next year.
Michael Malone, Sacramento Kings
Offensive Rating: 103.3 (15th)
Defensive Rating: 106.1 (T-23rd)
This one isn't the easiest to figure out.
The Sacramento Kings have a clunky feel to them, but I'm not sure how much that reflects on coach Michael Malone. The front office is shooting for the stars, but the pieces just aren't in place to get off the ground yet.
"I want to basically play a new brand of position-less basketball," Kings majority owner Vivek Ranadive told TrueHoop's Jared Dubin. "... The style of play -- we want to be like the Spurs, but exciting."
See where this gets messy? The Kings, all 25 wins and 47 losses of them, want the Miami Heat's selfless offense and the San Antonio Spurs' consistency—with a roster not built for either one.
Malone's a defensive mind leading an offensively slanted group of players. To that end, he deserves some credit for presiding over DeMarcus Cousins' superstar emergence (22.2 points, 11.7 rebounds), Isaiah Thomas' breakout (20.7 points, 6.4 assists) and Rudy Gay's recovery (20 points on 48.4 percent shooting in 48 games with the Kings).
But Malone's bread and butter is defense, and the Kings don't play a lot of it. He gets a slight boost for playing to his team's strengths, but there's only so high he can go until the club starts playing to his standards.
Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics
Offensive Rating: 99.2 (T-27th)
Defensive Rating: 104.3 (T-15th)
With the Boston Celtics still mapping out their rebuilding plans, it's tempting to drop another "incomplete" grade here. But unlike Philly's Brown, Boston's Brad Stevens has NBA players on his team—a few pretty good ones at that.
Just how good those players are remains more of a mystery than Celtics president Danny Ainge would like.
Jeff Green has been solid (16.8 points, 4.7 rebounds), but it seems like that's where his ceiling stops. Avery Bradley has left a bigger imprint at the offensive end than he has in the past (14.5 points on .440/.374 shooting), but it's hard to say if there's any more room to grow. Rajon Rondo is still finding his assists (9.4 a night), but scoring has become harder than ever (38.1 percent from the field, well shy of his career 47.5 percent mark).
The Celtics are short on talent, but they're high on heart. That's a big-time boost to Stevens' stock.
"Stevens won't be graded on wins and losses this season, but instead on getting guys to buy in and laying the foundation for his tenure," ESPN Boston's Chris Forsberg wrote. "The fact that Boston, even while mired in a nine-game losing streak, kept fighting hard to the end of games shows that he's got his players to buy in despite the struggles."
It'd be nice if that effort showed up with more regularity on the stat sheet, though. With blossoming bigs Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk both struggling with efficiency (42.2 and 44.3 percent field-goal shooting, respectively), there's plenty of work to still be done.
Stevens looks like he could see it through, but this is as high as a grade can go until time comes.
Jason Kidd, Brooklyn Nets
Offensive Rating: 104.3 (14th)
Defensive Rating: 104.3 (T-15th)
This is the perfect pose to capture Jason Kidd's first season as the Brooklyn Nets coach. Keeping calm is imperative: don't get too low on his early season struggles nor too high on his midyear turnaround.
This has to be one of the least exciting roller-coasters in league history: a straight drop through the end of 2013 and a steep rise since the calendar change. Kidd might have bent as a coach (the spilled soda was just sad), but he never broke. Not even when so many people tried to break him themselves.
"He doesn't do anything," a scout said of Kidd in November, via Bleacher Report's Howard Beck. "He doesn’t make calls. ... I don’t know what Kidd does."
Kidd might not have known what he was doing then. Remember, his playing career only ended last May.
What he's doing now, though, borders on miraculous. With his best player out for the season (Brook Lopez) and his top two defenders facing constant attacks from the injury bug (Kevin Garnett, Andrei Kirilenko), Kidd has dialed up a season-saving small-ball attack the rest of the league simply cannot stop.
The same coach who couldn't find an answer has found a formula seasoned minds can't solve. The Nets were 10-21 at the end of December—they're 27-12 since.
"I think a lot of our success, it’s directly related to him," Nets general manager Billy King said of Kidd, via Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News. "... The biggest thing (to the turnaround) I think is with Jason. Now we have a system of how we’re going to play, an identity."
And the Nets have hope, something it seemed was lost months ago.
That sour start can't be expunged from Kidd's record, but Brooklyn's flipped switch can't be ignored either. With an "F" for the first two months and an "A" for the past three, splitting the difference still leaves him with an easily passing grade.
Dave Joerger, Memphis Grizzlies
Offensive Rating: 103.1 (16th)
Defensive Rating: 101.7 (T-8th)
Dave Joerger's Memphis Grizzlies have enjoyed another rise-from-the-dead recovery, but the plot is easier to follow than Brooklyn's.
The Grizzlies stumbled out of the gate, then nearly fell apart when reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol went down with an MCL sprain in late November. Without that interior anchor, Memphis struggled finding offense or keeping opponents from getting theirs.
Gasol returned on January 14, along with all of the Grizzlies' grit-and-grind. Since getting Gasol back, Memphis has the second-most efficient defense in the NBA (98.1 points allowed per 100 possessions).
"He's just so huge," Joerger said of his center, via Sam Amick of USA Today. "I mean it's very wide, all the things that he does for our team both offensively and defensively."
With a roster almost back at 100 percent (swingman Quincy Pondexter was lost to a season-ending foot fracture), the Grizzlies are defending and winning (26-10 since Gasol's return) just as we remember them.
And that looks good on Joerger's part. Lionel Hollins held the coaching seat in Memphis for the last five seasons. That identity could've left when he did last summer.
Joerger kept it alive and kept the Grizzlies in contention. I'm not sure how much of that is his doing and how much comes from the players, but there's a lot to be said for letting a talented team flourish.
Steve Clifford, Charlotte Bobcats
Offensive Rating: 100.8 (23rd)
Defensive Rating: 101.8 (9th)
There are so many things deserving of praise when it comes to coach Steve Clifford's work with the Charlotte Bobcats.
He's orchestrated a defensive transformation that boggles the mind. The Bobcats, dead last in defensive efficiency both last season and in 2011-12, threw major free-agent funds at offensive-minded big man Al Jefferson and snatched up an interior scorer in Cody Zeller on draft night, who had a hard time matching the physicality of the college game. Jeff Taylor, one of Charlotte's few athletic perimeter defenders, was lost to a torn Achilles in December.
Yet somehow, this has become a top-10 defense under Clifford's watch.
It's also been a passable offense built around a low-post big when those players are said to be a dying breed. Jefferson's putting up All-Star numbers (21.5 points, 10.4 rebounds), and the Bobcats are closing on their second playoff berth in the franchise's 10-year history.
But the best part about Clifford? He knows this is only the beginning.
"We've given ourselves a chance to play in some meaningful games, which is great," Clifford said, via USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt. "But we'll see. We'll see if we can keep getting better, if we maintain a good approach whether things go good or bad and we'll see where it leads us."
The Bobcats look like they're arriving, and Clifford has no intention of letting them leave.
Jeff Hornacek, Phoenix Suns
Offensive Rating: 103.5 (8th)
Defensive Rating: 103.8 (T-23rd)
How many surprises can one first-year coach unravel? Jeff Hornacek came across more than he could have ever imagined.
His Phoenix Suns are a) not tanking, b) in the middle of the playoff race and c) the team no Western Conference giant wants to see in the first round. And by the way, d) Goran Dragic has All-Star talent (20.6 points, six assists), e) Eric Bledsoe might be a max-contract recipient (17.6 points, 5.7 assists, 4.7 rebounds), f) Gerald Green is more than a dunk artist (15.4 points, 39.2 three-point percentage) and g) Markieff Morris can make a compelling Sixth Man of the Year case (13.8 points, 5.9 rebounds).
Did the Suns have perhaps a tiny bit more talent than we thought? Absolutely.
Would it have surfaced this quickly without Hornacek? It's hard to definitively say it wouldn't, but it seems like one heck of a stretch.
"The former Phoenix guard immediately instilled a sense of confidence in every player on the team," Fox Sports' Randy Hill wrote. "Assisted by his coaching staff, Hornacek helped accelerate the players' development curve in terms of skill development while giving them the latitude to do what they do best."
He let the players play their game, blended his strengths with theirs, then did what the rest of us have been doing all season—he sat back and enjoyed the ride.
A ride, remember, that was never supposed to happen. A ride that now might be headed for the opening round of the 2014 playoffs and possibly well beyond there.
Statistics used courtesy of NBA.com, unless otherwise noted, and accurate as of March 28.