Predicting the Next Wave of Elite NBA Head Coaches

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistAugust 11, 2014

Predicting the Next Wave of Elite NBA Head Coaches

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    Bring on the future of sideline sagacity.

    Coaching is a fickle business at the NBA level. When teams win, they're sometimes an afterthought. When teams lose, they're scapegoats.

    Certain bench barons have established quite a reputation, though—some far bigger than the players they instruct. 

    These are guys like Gregg Popovich, Tom Thibodeau and Doc Rivers. They are their own brand, battle-tested and universally respected.

    Other head honchos aren't so fortunate, and they never will be. A select few will.

    There are plenty of rising sideline stars to appreciate, some of whom will inevitably create celebrated brands of their own. 

    Who are they? Those who aren't seers cannot be sure, though there's enough evidence to make one feel like the NBA has gifted them with a crystal ball.

Honorable Mentions

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    David Fizdale, Miami Heat Assistant

    David Fizdale has been with the Heat for what feels like forever. He's a valued member of their brain trust and has repeatedly generated head coaching buzz.

    During summer 2013, when the Philadelphia 76ers were looking for a head honcho, they apparently inquired about his availability, according to the Sun Sentinel's Ira Winderman. Nothing ever materialized because, well, Fizdale doesn't concern himself with such matters.

    "There have been no contact, no conversations, nothing like that," Fizdale said of the coaching carousel this past May, per Winderman. "Quite honestly, Spo [head coach Erik Spoelstra] gets very annoyed with me, because he's like, 'Why don't you care about being a head coach?' And I'm like, 'Cause we're in the playoffs.'"


    Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors

    Where Derek Fisher seems like an extension of Phil Jackson, Steve Kerr is portrayed as someone who likes to coach to the shrill of his own whistle.

    The Warriors don't figure to run the triangle play for play, nuance for nuance. But's Coach Nick did a wonderful, well, breakdown for Golden State of Mind, during which he illustrated how Kerr is incorporating elements of the triangle and motion weak that the San Antonio Spurs run into his offense.

    Anyone who's borrowing systematic ideals from Jackson and Popovich has the opportunity to do incredible things from the sidelines.  


    Shaka Smart, VCU

    Every one of these lists has to include coaches outside of the NBA, and who better than Shaka Smart to make an appearance here? 

    Smart's teams are incredibly energetic and swarm the opposition consistently. Effort has never been an issue during his time at VCU, and while no team has yet to pry him away, he has the requisite chops to make the jump one day.


    Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics

    If the Boston Celtics buy into the analytics movement more than they already have, Brad Stevens will seem fated for sideline stardom. But they now house a bevy of redundant talent, from Rajon Rondo and Marcus Smart, to Jeff Green and Evan Turner, suggesting they're still a ways off, thus tapering Stevens' potential.

    Anyone who gets Rondo to admit he doesn't despise his coach, though, deserves a mention. 


    Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz

    Quin Snyder is tough to figure out. His basketball acumen is lauded, but there are times when it appears he needs a very specific group of guys to succeed.

    "The sense around the league is that if handed a roster of seasoned, cerebral ballplayers who could relate to his analytical instincts, Snyder could thrive as an NBA coach,"'s Kevin Arnovitz wrote in April. 

    Utah is more of a blank slate than anything, so we'll have to reserve judgment while acknowledging his tenure with the Jazz promises to be intriguing. 

Steve Clifford, Charlotte Hornets

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    Years Experience: 1

    Steve Clifford was almost relegated to honorable-mention duty.

    Then yours truly really looked at what he did for the now-Charlotte Hornets. 

    One year ago, the Hornets ranked dead last in defensive efficiency. Once Clifford got his hands on them, they finished within the top six. True story. 

    Marginal improvements on the offensive end—they went from 28th to 24th in efficiency—despite the addition of a scoring powerhouse in Al Jefferson paves way for concern, but after only a season at the helm, Clifford has the Hornets relevant again.

    And not just because of the logo renaissance.

    The additions of Lance Stephenson, Marvin Williams and Noah Vonleh should help stabilize the offense. If they don't, the Hornets figure to boast an impregnable defensive attack again, all thanks to the rising star that is Clifford.

David Blatt, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Years Experience: N/A

    Guiding LeBron James is no easy task for a rookie head coach. Then again, David Blatt isn't your average novice.

    Blatt has more than 15 years of head coaching experience under his belt stemming from his days in Europe. He also served as head coach for the Russian national basketball team. 

    Praised for his positionless offensive system, Blatt's teams have actually performed better on defense in recent years, according to's John Schuhmann. But it's on offense where his Cleveland Cavaliers teams will thrive. 

    Built around James, Kyrie Irving and likely Kevin Love, Blatt has an array of offensive weapons at his disposal who can thrive on or off the ball and mesh perfectly with his versatility-driven design. 

    "Pete [Carril] taught me that players should be multifaceted, familiar with all aspects of the game..." Blatt told Sports Illustrated's Jack McCallum. "Pete always said: ‘Don’t teach a team plays; teach them how to play.’ I never forgot that.”

    Adaptable talents and systems flourish in today's NBA (see: everything the Spurs have ever done). Requisite arsenal in hand, Blatt's Cavaliers should, too.

Jeff Hornacek, Phoenix Suns

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Years Experience: 1

    Some questioned the Phoenix Suns' initial acquisition of Eric Bledsoe. They already had a point guard in Goran Dragic. This wouldn't work. It couldn't work.

    Jeff Hornacek made it work. 

    After winning 25 games in 2012-13, the Suns looked to get progressively worse over the offseason. They were tankers—unabashed tankers. 

    Turns out they were actually playoff contenders.

    The Suns won 48 games—or 14 more than the actually tanking Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers combined (34)— finishing one shy of a playoff spot in the kill-or-be-killed Western Conference.

    Better still, their dual-point guard lineups spearheaded a top-eight offensive standing. Assuming Bledsoe gets with the restricted free-agency program, it's something they plan to roll with exclusively moving forward on the heels of Isaiah Thomas' arrival.

    "What we ultimately decided is: This is the strength of our team," Hornacek told AZCentral's Bob Young. "Let's bolster it instead of going in a different direction."

    Continued faith in Hornacek's forward-thinking model leaves the Suns, along with their coach, trending in that same direction: up.

Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Years Experience: N/A

    Collegiate coaching crush incoming.

    Fred Hoiberg belongs in the NBA; his offensive system belongs in the NBA. He has saved the Iowa State basketball program, and this past offseason, amid NBA buzz, signed a fat contract extension.

    Newly minted long-term commitments aren't enough to deter yours truly from wagering this guess, though. The systematic fit is too gosh darn perfect.

    Iowa State's sideline sage runs a pace-and-space system that doesn't compromise defensive results the way Mike D'Antoni's famed seven-seconds-or-less philosophy does. It caters to the versatile, demands ball movement and, like Bleacher Report's C.J. Moore explained in January, yields results:

    What has been just as integral to Iowa State's success is a free-flowing, pro-style offense that would be difficult to replicate without Hoiberg's mind.

    The Cyclones were the second-highest-scoring team among BCS conference schools last season and rank third this season. (That's a stat Hoiberg likes to share with recruits.) They led the country in three-pointers made and attempted last season and have attempted more than 40 percent of their shots from deep each of the last three seasons. Assistant coach Doc Sadler says he's never heard Hoiberg tell a player he took a bad shot.

    How Hoiberg's system translates to the NBA is of little concern. It's Association-ready, ages and ages ahead of anything anyone else is running at the collegiate level.

    Opportunities will continue to be there for Hoiberg, too, lending further hope that his contemporary way of thinking and ability to implant work ethic and profound understanding reach the NBA one day.

    And if it does, buy high. Expect big things.

    Watch a spectacular sideline-meandering career unfold.

Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta Hawks

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    Years Experience: 1

    Something about a Gregg Popovich disciple makes you stop and think, "Yeah, this guy is going to be great."

    It's probably the fact that said person is a Gregg Popovich disciple at all.

    There was nothing particularly fantastic about Mike Budenholzer's first season with the Atlanta Hawks. Truth be told, it was Hawks-y to the umpteenth power. Atlanta ranked 15th in offensive and defensive efficiency and barely scraped together a playoff berth before meeting their all-too-familiar first-round doom.

    More perspective is needed when gauging Budenholzer's sideline value, and Peachtree Hoops' Brad Rowland came bearing it back in May while grading Coach Bud's season:

    In examining the roster, the injuries, and the battle with the Pacers, it is a bold conclusion, but one that is justified in my view. Budenholzer is already a top-flight tactician in the game of X's and O's, the team always feels prepared, and there was entire season without a peep from any player in denigration of his performance. It will be easier to see his strengths with a full roster at his disposal, but remember, this team lost 15 of 16 games during the "Injury collapse of 2014," and if it wasn't for that, the Hawks would have soared past the .500 mark even without Al Horford.

    Groundwork has been laid. There is a system in place for the Hawks, one that has already created a tough-to-guard matchup nightmare.

    The ball moves more crisply and frequently than ever; Budenholzer's Hawks ranked first in assist percentage last year. The more you watched them play, the more you wondered what Budenholzer could do with a Hawks team at full strength.

    Though, after seeing him in action, making something out of close to nothing, one is free to assume he'll do great things with a healthy outfit.

Ettore Messina, San Antonio Spurs Assistant

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Years Experience: N/A

    Speaking of Coach Pop disciples...There's a new one in town.

    Ettore Messina is an overseas prodigy who is now one of Coach Pop's top assistants. He was named one of the Euroleague’s "10 Greatest All-Time Coaches in 2008" and has plenty of other distinctions to his name. 

    Oh, and his offensive system is, by no coincidence, so Spurs. Let's defer to Pounding The Rock's J. Gomez for a moment: 

    Messina's coaching philosophy is predicated on floor balance and ball-movement. ...

    Messina's teams have always featured a healthy dose of post-ups but that insistence of getting the ball inside stems from an understanding of spacing. The intention is not necessarily to score from any one point on the floor, but to get the defense moving. Similarly, he teaches his players about the importance of the secondary break. Attacking early and seeing how the defense reacts can create gaps that will lead to easy shots.

    Is Messina the next Gregg Popovich? Don't rule it out.

    Coach Pop cannot continue piloting the Spurs to victory and frowning his way to Coach of the Year awards forever. Contrary to popular opinion, he's not a futuristic, scowling android disguised as a grumpy-looking, bingo-playing retiree who also happens to be one of the greatest basketball minds ever. 

    The Spurs will need a replacement at some point, and Messina can be that guy. His offensive system is eerily similar to that of the Spurs. It's a natural fit. And his stuff works.

    As an assistant with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2011-12, he helped Mike Brown instill a top-10 offense, which, if you know Mike Brown's LeBron-less offenses, says something. 

    All fresh marriages aren't destined to end successfully. This one is.

    This is to say, with Messina watching Coach Pop's six, potentially on deck to be his successor, the Spurs will continue to be not fair. Well that, or some savvy club will poach Messina and commence a not-fair era of its own.