Power Ranking Each Coach in the 2014 NBA Playoffs
While breaking down the different matchups of each postseason series, one thing often gets left behind: coaching.
Just a few timely adjustments or personnel decisions can completely alter the course of a series, tipping the scales between two evenly matched teams or perhaps leading a team to an unexpected upset. We've seen it plenty of times before, but yet the battle on the sidelines doesn't always get the attention it deserves.
Because coaches can impact the playoff picture so heavily, let's rank each remaining team's head man, using the following criteria: Coaches will be ranked heavily on this year's performance, but they will also be ranked on their previous playoff track records as well as overall ability and acumen.
With that in mind, here's the power ranking of the 16 playoff coaches entering the 2013-14 NBA postseason.
16. Randy Wittman, Washington Wizards
Kicking off the list is Washington Wizards head coach Randy Wittman, a guy who many thought wouldn't even still have his job.
After the Wizards jumped out to a slow start, it certainly appeared that Washington would be better off with an available coach such as George Karl or Lionel Hollins, but Wittman was able to stay alive and help get the Wizards on track.
That certainly bought him this season, but how the Wizards perform in the playoffs will likely dictate whether he'll be brought back next year. Wittman's has a career winning percentage as a head coach of just .367, and this will be his first time coaching in the playoffs.
The biggest effect Wittman has probably had on the Wizards has come on the defensive side of the ball, but offensively he leaves a lot to be desired. With that in mind, Washington's first-round matchup against the Chicago Bulls could really be very slow and low-scoring, as Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is of the same ilk, albeit significantly more effective and more accomplished.
Although he's at the bottom of the playoff power rankings, it's still impressive that Wittman is even here.
15. Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta Hawks
This might be an unfair rookie bias, but we just haven't seen enough of Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer to really measure him up against some of the league's mainstays.
That said, I'm a big believer in Budenholzer's system, and it's a testament to his abilities that the Hawks didn't implode once Al Horford went down for the year. There's a very good chance that in three years, we consider Budenholzer one of the best coaches in the game.
Still, it's hard to give him accolades before any accomplishments. If the NBA conference system wasn't broken, Atlanta would be a lottery team at 38-44 and watching the playoffs from home. That's awfully hard to ignore, even if luck certainly factors into coaching just like it does playing.
In a first-round series against the league's best defense, Budenholzer's offensive system, borrowed from years under Gregg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs, will certainly be put to the test. I'm a believer in Budenholzer's acumen, but we'll need to see some better results before we launch him higher up the rankings.
14. Mark Jackson, Golden State Warriors
A little low? Perhaps. Golden State Warriors head coach Mark Jackson has certainly had some nice success in the league, leading the Warriors to the second round of the playoffs last year. After a 51-win campaign this year, you're probably wondering why he's so low on the list.
The primary reason is that Jackson isn't maximizing the talent available to him properly, both in terms of lineups and schematically.
The Warriors have maybe the best shooter in NBA history in Stephen Curry, another sharp shooter in Klay Thompson, great passers all over the floor and athletic players coming off the bench, but yet Golden State ranks just 12th in offensive efficiency, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
Part of the reason for that is Jackson's stale, isolation-heavy offensive sets. While the Warriors make up for that on the other end, Jackson will be tested without Andrew Bogut healthy. Will Draymond Green get more of the minutes he deserves? Will the offense bog down to David Lee post touches late in games? There are lots of questions here.
There's also the chance that Jackson is let go if the Warriors flame out in the playoffs, although Bogut may be a built-in excuse. It's hard to put someone potentially on the hot seat too high in the rankings, but this series against the Los Angeles Clippers should tell us a lot about Jackson's ability as a game manager.
13. Dave Joerger, Memphis Grizzlies
With all the first-year head coaches in this year's postseason, perhaps we'll start to see even more turnover in the upcoming years as teams follow suit.
Memphis Grizzlies head coach Dave Joerger was one of the more controversial hires of the offseason, as Lionel Hollins had just led the Grizzlies to the Western Conference Finals. That doesn't happen very often, but Joerger has stepped in, and the Grizzlies haven't seen much of a downfall, even though Marc Gasol missed a good chunk of the season.
The Grizzlies are pretty much the same team they were before, which means they are still very dangerous. The offense looks a little better and slightly faster, but this is a team that knows who they are.
Joerger's lack of experience doesn't help his cause in the rankings, but he's done a nice job managing the roster and keeping veterans happy to this point. We'll see if he dials back Tayshaun Prince's minutes and skews younger in the postseason, which could probably make the Grizzlies a little more dynamic.
Joerger did a lot as an assistant for this team in the past, but the responsibility is much greater now. Let's see how he holds up in the postseason.
12. Jason Kidd, Brooklyn Nets
It's funny how quickly things can change in the coaching world. Brooklyn Nets head coach Jason Kidd went from looking like a disastrous hire to a pretty solid coach by season's end. Coaching is truly a business based on results, and Kidd started getting that from his veteran team.
Like a few other coaches on this list, plenty of adversity was thrown Kidd's way via injuries (Brook Lopez, for examples) but few were under the microscope like Kidd was. While the veterans in Brookyln deserve a lot of credit for turning it around, Kidd's use of guys like Shaun Livingston and Mason Plumlee has been solid.
Again, it's hard to rank rookie coaches much higher than veteran coaches, just because the sample size is so much smaller and because we haven't seen them in the playoffs before. It's not a whole different ballgame from the regular season, but there are differences, and game management becomes more important than ever.
It could help that Kidd has lots of playoff (and championship) experience as a player heading into the offseason, and the veteran roster won't hurt either. It's hard to tell how much of an impact Kidd is having with that in mind, but it's harder to argue with the results he's gotten as of late.
11. Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City Thunder
It may be a little strange to see the head coach of one of the most dominant teams in the league this low, but Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks has failed time and time again to maximize the massive potential of this roster.
While Brooks has certainly improved in multiple areas, he still makes baffling lineup decisions (hello, Kendrick Perkins) and fails to have his team run any great sets late in games. Brooks probably doesn't hurt the Thunder as much as he's made out to, as this is still a team that always has a top offense and defense, but he might not help much, either.
Even though the Thunder have reached the Finals under Brooks, there's a lot left to be desired in the way he uses his stars and the players he chooses to put on the floor with them. Derek Fisher shouldn't be playing more than Jeremy Lamb, but there's a good chance we see that.
We'll also have to see Brooks make better use of his timeouts and opportunities to have a positive impact on the game to rate him much higher than this. Perhaps no coach's reputation would benefit more from winning a title than Brooks, but until that happens, there's plenty of reason to leave him low on rankings such as this.
10. Kevin McHale, Houston Rockets
Kevin McHale is one of the more difficult head coaches to evaluate. He's done a great job embracing the front-office's vision and implementing it on the court, as the Houston Rockets are built almost entirely on free throws, three-pointers and layups at the rim.
But while that side of the ball is all good, it's a little perplexing why the Rockets aren't a better defensive team, especially with Dwight Howard manning the middle. While James Harden is certainly not a bad defender, you would think that Houston would be able to get more out of the defensive talent it does have. Ultimately, that falls on McHale's broad shoulders.
The defense of the Rockets will certainly be tested against the explosive Portland Trail Blazers, and it will be interesting to see which coach can get their team to buckle down on that end first.
This could be a big test for McHale, as Houston has some elite talent in place and really should be considered a dark-horse candidate to emerge from the Western Conference. If McHale gets outcoached, it's not hard to envision a scenario where he's ousted for a bigger-name coach at some point down the line.
9. Steve Clifford, Charlotte Bobcats
The highest rookie coach in the power rankings was probably working with the highest degree of difficulty as well. Charlotte Bobcats coach Steve Clifford was tasked with taking one of the league's very worst teams and turning them around, and the fashion in which he did it was incredibly impressive.
Just about no one could have predicted that frontcourt combination of Josh McRoberts and Al Jefferson would be so good, particularly on the defensive end. The Bobcats have the league's fifth-ranked defense in efficiency, according to Basketball-Reference.com, which is quite the accomplishment and perhaps the most important measure to evaluate a coach with.
While the fun probably won't last long against the Miami Heat, Clifford has undoubtedly vaulted his name up the ranks of the league's best coaches. Eventually, he'll need to have playoff success to keep it there, but this is a very promising start.
Considering what he's done with such a young team that looked completely hapless in prior years, Clifford deserves all the recognition he receives.
8. Terry Stotts, Portland Trail Blazers
Although they eventually cooled down, the Portland Trail Blazers started this season as the league's hottest team, taking the entire NBA by storm and virtually securing a playoff spot nice and early.
In his second year on the job, the improvements and offensive philosophy installed by head coach Terry Stotts was pretty evident. More than ever before, the Blazers were sharing the ball, and the talents of guys like Nic Batum were being utilized properly.
A big part of that was embracing the three-pointer as the team's primary weapon, which makes sense because LaMarcus Aldridge shoots more mid-range jumpers than anyone in the league.
Stotts would probably be higher on this list if it weren't for his lack of playoff success and his inability to turn Portland into a good defense team thus far. While the Blazers have made strides on that side of the floor, there hasn't been enough progress to take them seriously as a title contender quite yet.
That being said, Stotts has helped save the Blazers franchise. If LaMarcus Aldridge is now happy and stays long-term, Blazers fans will have the offensive system Stotts put in place to thank.
7. Dwane Casey, Toronto Raptors
Let's continue our run on "coaches who weren't supposed to be here" with Toronto Raptors head man Dwane Casey.
Even though he had the appearance of a lame-duck coach in the last year of his contract under a new general manager, Casey kept grinding away and making the Raptors better and better on the defensive side of the ball. Once some balance was restored to the offense with the Rudy Gay trade, the Raptors instantly became one of the very best teams in the Eastern Conference.
Even though it took some time, Toronto's steady growth under Casey has been impressive.
Although he leaves something to be desired as a game manager at times, this team has clearly bought into Casey's plan. Everyone expected the Raptors to rebuild and start over but give credit to Casey for holding everything together and guiding the Raptors back to a long-awaited postseason berth.
6. Frank Vogel, Indiana Pacers
Would Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel be higher on this list if his team didn't implode in the second half of the season? Most likely, even though not having a championship ring might keep him out of the top five.
Still, with that being said, you can certainly make the case that Vogel belongs with the coaching elite. Indiana has had the top-ranked defense in the league the last two seasons under Vogel, which has helped establish its identity and give even the most potent offensive teams nightmares about facing the Pacers.
There's some solid postseason success here that a few other coaches behind him in the rankings don't have, either. Indiana has taken Miami to the brink in the postseason with Vogel, which is a testament to his ability to "coach up" lesser talent.
While Vogel has established that he's great defensively, how the Pacers respond this postseason will say a lot about him as a motivator. Did he wear his players down? Is he not a good enough offensive coach to make this core productive on that end? We should have more definitive answers pretty soon on that front, and so this spot in the rankings seems safe for now.
5. Doc Rivers, Los Angeles Clippers
If we were ranking coaches strictly on motivational skills, Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers would top the list. What Rivers has done with DeAndre Jordan this year has been incredible, and Rivers' past success in Boston managing egos and getting everyone on the same page shouldn't be taken for granted.
Perhaps one of Rivers' biggest strengths is his willingness to delegate. In Boston, he let defensive guru Tom Thibodeau handle that side of the ball. Now in Los Angeles, there's clear evidence that both Chris Paul and assistant coach Alvin Gentry have been given a lot of input.
Don't sell Rivers short on his game-planning or ability to make adjustments either, an aspect in which he's dramatically improved over the years. There have been very few complaints about Rivers' rotations over the years, save for the fact that he usually skews toward playing veterans instead of rookies.
All around, though, Rivers is one of the most complete coaches in all of basketball. He's a great manager of personalities first and foremost, but he's not liable to get outcoached, either. There's a reason why the Clippers traded a first-round pick just to get him, and further playoff success separate from Boston's "Big Three" will only increase his positive reputation around the league.
4. Rick Carlisle, Dallas Mavericks
How different would the opinion on Rick Carlisle be if he hadn't won a championship with the Dallas Mavericks? Would it be something similar to George Karl, a great regular-season coach who can't get over the hump?
It's interesting to think about, but let's not take anything away from Carlisle. He's unquestionably one of the most creative and smartest coaches from a schematic standpoint in the league, and his ability to take seemingly mismatched talent and blend it all together is pretty remarkable.
Very few coaches throw as many looks at a team in a single game, as Carlisle is always trying to confuse opposing teams and swing the tide of the game.
Basically, if your life was on the line and you had to win one game with an inferior roster, Carlisle might be the very top choice. He's a great tactician. There's a reason why he's only had one losing season in his 12 years as an NBA head coach, and this year has been one of his most impressive coaching jobs yet. This honestly might be too low for him.
3. Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat
Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is the idol for everyone working in the video room right now watching game tape. You can see what Spoelstra's background is in when observing his coaching ability, as his ability to make adjustments on the fly and really grow alongside LeBron James and company has been a treat to watch.
Spoelstra gets more credit for his ability to manage talent and keep everyone on the same page more than his chalkboard skills, but there really isn't much of a weakness in his game at this point.
Whether it's because he's not far removed from calls to have him fired when the Heat didn't find instant success or because LeBron gets most of the credit, we should probably view Spoelstra in an even more favorable light than most already do.
Winning back-to-back championships is no easy task, and that Spoelstra is this young with this much success already could mean he's on track to have a legendary career.
Of course, it helps to have James and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all on your team, but give Spoelstra credit for finding a way to make everything work and really take advantage of his roster's biggest strengths. He's an excellent coach, and he's not just a caretaker.
2. Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls
Again, probably the most important measure in evaluating a head coach is how his defenses perform. Offense is primarily about the type of talent you have on the floor, but defense requires so much more scheming and motivating. It's not uncommon to see the best coaches in the league often have the best defenses as well.
That's certainly true in Tom Thibodeau's case. No one has squeezed more out of the talent available to him than Thibodeau has over the years, and his ability to keep the Bulls strong defensively, even as talent has been lost or shipped away, has been remarkable.
Rarely can you say a coach is as valuable as some of the team's best players, but Thibodeau is as important to the Bulls as anyone else. He's helped turn Joakim Noah into an absolute force, and he's made defenders who were previously uncapable become more than passable over time.
The one knock on Thibodeau is that his offenses are regularly ranked toward the bottom of the league, but that's more of a reflection with the talent he's working with than anything else. If Derrick Rose was healthy, this would be a frightening team on both ends.
Regardless, Thibodeau is absolutely one of the very best coaches in the league. Although a championship ring has eluded him thus far, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him earn a few before his coaching career his done. His defenses are just that good.
1. Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs
Gregg Popovich is the best coach in the league, and he's maybe the best coach in the history of basketball.
That may rub Phil Jackson or Red Auerbach supporters the wrong way, but Popovich's sustained success with just one franchise during some of the league's most competitive eras has earned him that status.
Popovich has had 17 straight winning seasons in San Antonio, winning four titles and compiling a career winning percentage of .686, despite coaching for a small-market team without financial advantages over other teams.
In the process, Popovich's coaching tree has branched out all over the league. His legacy is going to carry on long after he retires, as it should.
The numbers speak for themselves, but the kind of culture Popovich established in San Antonio should be one every sports franchise looks to emulate.
The Spurs won so much because they were smart, because they cared for each other and because everyone was held accountable for their actions regardless of their status. Popovich isn't easy to play for, but his players love to play for him. That's the sign of a truly great coach, and until he leaves the game, he'll hold court as the top-ranked coach on any list like this one.