The Coaches Get a Report Card: Grading All 30 NBA Sideline Chiefs
Pro basketball players are often handed graded performance reviews by columnists and analysts. What about the sideline bosses who tell them what play or offense to run and how to run it?
Those guys should get report cards, too. Some fail at the job worse than Mel Gibson does at his family life, while others prosper in the face of adversity and undue stress.
What constitutes superb coaching varies as much as the landscapes, skylines, and populations of the NBA's 28 markets. Some rosters require a micromanaging hardass whose style resembles Arlee Armee.
Sometimes, a franchise can even justify hiring the equivalent of Major Payne. Some of the best coaches, though, avoid the spoon fed diet and encourage players to police their own consumption habits.
An NBA coach must determine what leadership method works best for his unit. He must also design offensive and defensive schemes that maximize his players' talents and strengths and guard, as best as possible, their weaknesses.
While assistants may develop specific areas of a player's game or install the preferred offense, the head honcho decides whether his versatile guard-forward should occupy most minutes at the two or three spot.
He gets final say on timeout frequency and how each huddle is conducted.
Hoops execs ask coaches to make the most of their shoddy or spectacular work. Owners celebrate unexpected successes with contract extensions and miserable failures with early terminations.
The coaching carousel rides more than it stops. Even Donald Trump could not keep up with the number of owners who deliver the dreaded "you're fired" pink slip each year.
Coaches often get too little credit and too much blame. If disaster unfolds within a franchise, the helpless coach always gets the axe before the multi-million dollar earning player whose egotism or underachievement wrecked the ship. The captains, in this case, can replace navigators much easier than ship mates.
Or so these CEOs think.
Meeting an expectation can prove more difficult than exceeding one. No NBA-level coach has ever won a title or anything else of merit with crappy ballers.
All great coaches need great players to hoist championship trophies. Not all coaches can win with great players.
With the above primer in mind, I decided to place each of the 30 sideline chiefs into one of six categories.
THE INCOMPLETE category includes recent hires with no lead experience. They have not done anything that merits a grade. New Orleans' new bench boss Monty Williams, for example, cut his teeth as a player and then a primo assistant. No one can judge his head coaching faculty before he tackles the job this fall.
This report card does not speculate on what a coach might do. I prefer to examine a bench boss's track record over guesswork. Williams, and a few others, have yet to establish one.
Those in the FLUNK EM' category should be shown the door before they can cash their next paycheck.
The MIDDLING ASSISTANTS deserve their own category, since they often snag the roughest, most unattractive jobs.
The AVERAGE JOES survive thanks to their sheer mediocrity. Results may vary.
The B-LISTERS are A-ok. They get the job done, sometimes under the toughest of circumstances, and merit praise for their reliable efforts.
The A-LISTERS comprise the creme of the crop. These guys can boast limitless job security for a reason.
In which category does your team's coach fall?
MONTY WILLIAMS (New Orleans Hornets)- All the Hornets' summer hire has to do is convince franchise star Chris Paul to stay in the Big Easy and guide an uneven roster back to the throes of Western Conference contention.
TOM THIBODEAU (Chicago Bulls)- The near 20-year assistant finally gets a crack at a lead gig. He was the master architect of some of league's best defenses in the last decade, helping usher the Houston Rockets and Boston Celtics from soft and sepulchral to stingy and sturdy.
His task: Get Carlos Boozer to embrace the idea of interior resistance. Jerry Sloan should tell him not to hope for much in that department. Can he transform a first-round combatant into a fringe contender?
LARRY DREW (Atlanta Hawks)- As with Thibodeau, Drew's first shot has been a long time coming. Hawks' management did not have to leave Atlanta's city limits to find an ideal replacement for Mike Woodson. As a Woodson assistant, he comes cheap and loaded with knowledge of the current roster.
Drew will need to look beyond Georgia, maybe to the skies, or another galaxy, to summon the magical powers necessary to keep Joe Johnson and company from getting whacked in the second round again.
DON NELSON (Golden State Warriors)- He ranks as the all-time winningest coach—if you like stand-up comedy. The small-ball pioneer spent several years chasing down Lenny Wilkens victory record, while his team lost more dignity than Larry King in a divorce court and more shine than a toilet in an Alcatraz cell.
The passion is gone. His Picasso-like offense doesn’t win squat when it’s time to get serious.
What kind of coach would play Stephen Jackson at center with four undersized guards? While that may look humorous on the court, it doesn’t win games.
The Warriors new ownership group should can him ASAP.
MIKE D'ANTONI (New York Knicks)- I know now that Steve Nash helped D'Antoni reach the Conference Finals more than vice versa. He pays lip service to defense but does not preach it on an acceptable level.
His squads come with a guarantee: They will run more than Carl Lewis but defend less than the French army. The first shot is always the right one, even if it's not.
Alvin Gentry's recent success with an expanded rotation serves as another D'Antoni indictment. Until he proves me wrong, he earns a resounding "F."
The Middling Assistants
KURT RAMBIS (Minessota Timberwolves)- He wants a roster devoid of athletes or adept post passers (save for Kevin Love) to run the triangle offense. I pity the man.
Rambis' boss, David Kahn, brings down the IQ of any room the minute he enters. He handed Darko Milicic $20 million and then compared the draft bust to Chris Webber in a live TV interview with Webber.
JOHN KUESTER (Detroit Pistons)- His genius as an offensive schemer did not shine through in his inaugural Motor City campaign. His dilapidated roster features precious few willing defenders and even fewer reliable scorers.
Much of the blame should rest with GM Joe Dumars, who tossed $90 million mega deals at Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon.
JAY TRIANO (Toronto Raptors)- He embodied panache in his playing days, but his Raptors play with a damning dispassion. The Downy Dinos have been constructed with more tissue paper by GM Bryan Colangelo than a grocery store aisle.
The Average Joes
JIM O'BRIEN (Indiana Pacers)- He has been fired more than a George Steinbrenner intern. As his stints in Boston and Philadelphia show, he can steer underwhelming squads to the postseason. His teams have also lacked the direction and stability required to do consistent damage once there.
The 2001-2002 Celtics finished 49-33 and lost in the Eastern Conference Finals. He has not managed to duplicate that success. The Pacers, under his questionable stewardship, have been a certifiable catastrophe, with a playoff berth and an identity out of sight.
Indiana can score in bunches but rarely does so against elite clubs. Most of the players would struggle to keep a parked car in front of them. Not all of these shortcomings, of course, are O'Brien's fault.
VINNY DEL NEGRO (Los Angeles Clippers)- He jumped right into a lead position with no previous coaching experience, so that makes his performances more difficult to evaluate.
Doc Rivers called the Clippers' new head coach "kerosene" when both balled in San Antonio because the reserve often entered the game to slow the opposing role player, who was torching Del Negro. It makes sense then, that Del Negro struggled to get consistent defensive efforts from his Bulls' squads.
One weekend last season, Chicago handled Phoenix, Houston, and San Antonio in succession. Another night, it blew a 35-point lead at home against woeful Sacramento. Embarrassing.
He remains a rookie in so many vital coaching areas that hiring him in L.A. ranks as riskier than allowing Lindsay Lohan to drive herself to a party with an open bar.
Depending on whom you ask, he underachieved with plus-.500 talent or overachieved with a rookie guard who couldn't shoot and role players too rough around the edges to post a winning record.
How he handles what amounts to Blake Griffin's rookie year will be key.
FLIP SAUNDERS (Washington Wizards)- He will probably stay home the next time a traveling gun show heads to D.C. His work in Detroit suggests he belongs on the B list. The nerve-wracking embarrassment of a freak show he chaperoned in our nation's capitol last year says otherwise.
John Wall, a top-flight athlete and potential franchise changer, gives the Wizards and Saunders a much-needed chance at redemption.
PAUL WESTPHAL (Sacramento Kings)- His career 57 percent winning percentage, even after last year's gussied up, gross failure, still looks as impressive as his run with the Phoenix Suns in the early 90s.
Then, he guided a Charles Barkley-led team to the doorstep of an NBA championship. He lost that Finals series and blew a 3-1 series lead two years later because he had to coach against Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon, respectively.
Now, it's hard to discern whether he merits praise for coaching the rebuilding Kings to seven more wins, or scorn for how he helped foster a losing culture based on Tyreke Evans' inflated statistics.
His team must make greater strides this year and reach, at least, the 30-win plateau for the 2010-2011 season to become a successful venture.
LIONEL HOLLINS (Memphis Grizzlies)- No coach was harder to place than Hollins, given that his roster both exceeded and failed to meet expectations. The Grizzlies, given their incessant lottery trips post-Pau Gasol and even during his tenure there, should be a playoff team.
Then again, with former malcontent Zach Randolph starting and Rudy Gay still the franchise face, they shouldn't.
The Grizz came close to the postseason this spring, but not close enough. Hollins did a masterful job of getting Randolph to become a team-first, attention-to-defense forward.
Another step up, say a playoff trip, will make Memphis' sideline chief a slam dunk for the next rung.
ERIK SPOELSTRA (Miami Heat)- This might seem high for a relative youngster with zero playoff series' victories on his resume. Not in my book.
He meshed Dwyane Wade and a bunch of spare parts into a first-rate regular season defense. All he did was show how much he could do with proper talent. LeBron James, Wade, and Chris Bosh, paired with an appropriate and useful supporting cast, qualifies as such.
His rich scouting background showed in how the Heat prepared for most opponents. Miami suffered from a talent deficiency, not a coaching one, in the previous two seasons.
Pat Riley should not renege on his promise to let Spoelstra coach this monstrous creation.
NATE McMILLAN (Portland Trail Blazers)- How in the world did McMillan's Blazers qualify for the playoffs when the absurd rash of injuries that befell the roster would have made a small-town emergency room look like a day-care center?
Even the coach spent much of the season on crutches!
In short, this guy knows what to do in compromising situations. He does not allow his players to make excuses, even if they are understandable ones: both centers on the sidelines, half of the rotation in flux each night, and Juwan Howard in a featured role.
And Howard was a standout, too, so much so that Pat Riley signed him up to the join the aforementioned star trio in Miami. While the organization reels from a front office in disarray and an owner handicapped by his ego, Blazers fans can appreciate the steady McMillan.
He has earned the chance to improve on his paltry postseason record, which includes just one series triumph.
LARRY BROWN (Charlotte Bobcats)- How does the only coach with both a college and NBA title fail to make the A-List? His disgraceful showing in New York and his roster indecision in Charlotte cost him too many grade points.
When Brown calls a youngster his new "favorite player," expect him to be shipped out in a few months. His relentless tinkering crushes any hope of continuity.
His glory years, the ones that made him a Hall of Fame head coach, came when he took over veteran squads packed with stand-up citizens and self-policing competitors. That he won a 2004 title at the Lakers' expense sans a standout superstar still ranks as an ultra-impressive feat.
His track record with adolescent teams lacking a victorious history, a la the Bobcats? Not so hot.
RICK CARLISLE (Dallas Mavericks)- His lame-duck, six-year playing career, in which he totaled a whopping 422 points, pales in comparison to his above average stints as a head coach.
He studied dutifully under Bill Fitch and Chuck Daly, which explains his ability to find gainful employment after numerous unceremonious layoffs.
Carlisle rallied his Indiana troops after the devastating Malice at the Palace brawl in Detroit. The Pacers eventually lost that year, in fitting fashion, to the Pistons.
His best move in Dallas was handing the keys to the offense and play calling to Jason Kidd. That helped maximize the productivity of a solid, versatile playoff entrant.
SCOTT SKILES (Milwaukee Bucks)- His rampant screaming and ranting wears on players after a year or two. Can his grace period in Milwaukee continue?
What his stern demands do produce, though, is notable: feisty, laudable defensive units that compete, even when it seems to defy common sense to do so. The pressure is on for Skiles, now that the retooled Bucks are expected to do more than just snag a playoff berth.
Starting center Andrew Bogut looks more like a No. 1 pick, and the roster-wide productivity still eclipses the sheer quality of the talent pool.
STAN VAN GUNDY (Orlando Magic)- Shaquille O'Neal called Van Gundy the "master of panic." He agitated his Magic squad, then, to the franchise's second NBA Finals appearance and its lone victory in a championship series. Orlando won 59 games last season but was bushwhacked and mutilated by Boston's buzzsaw.
O'Neal's critical assessment isn't far off in some respects. He has made some critical endgame coaching mistakes and has been marked by some of his players as an overly profane loudmouth. Dwight Howard asked his coach to tone it down.
Maybe next he'll ask Van Gundy to smile, or wake up on the right side of the bed.
No one can argue that his squads' recent results are impressive, considering it lost to the NBA's two storied franchises in consecutive years. He also still gets props from this writer for the would-be, game-winning lob pass he drew up during that timeout that preceded the buzzer of a Finals thriller.
ALVIN GENTRY (Phoenix Suns)- Liking Gentry's Southern charm is as easy as appreciating how he convinced a lottery squad with supposed mismatched pieces to coalesce, play more defense than ever, and reach the Western Conference Finals.
Gentry's scrappy Suns were closer to a championship than any of D'Antoni's previous outfits. He relates with his players but does not hesitate to deride them for slacking. He did a marvelous job with Amar'e Stoudemire.
The GM-less Suns could not come to an agreement with Stoudemire and instead signed Hakim Warrick and traded for Hedo Turkoglu and Josh Childress.
To paraphrase his huddlespeak, the Suns are going to be alright. OK?
SCOTT BROOKS (Oklahoma City Thunder)- He molded a burned out, inexperienced lottery squad with franchise talent Kevin Durant into a team with a future so bright that the players need to wear sunscreen.
A 23-win to 50-win turnaround is only part of the story. The roster now has the direction and the athletic core necessary to continue its auspicious climb out West.
Like Durant, the rookie sideline chief must improve his heat-of-the-battle decision making. Is there another young coach better suited to take the Thunder to the next level of that battle?
AVERY JOHNSON (New Jersey Nets)- Despite boasting the best winning percentage in NBA history, some would argue Johnson should rot with the Average Joes. I disagree.
He possesses the ambition and the veteran know-how to become the next great tactician. What he must do in New Jersey (that he could not do in Dallas) is to separate the former floor general in him from the sideline commander.
He too often ran the Mavs the way he did the Spurs offense. That hindered the progress of Devin Harris and led to underwhelming, head-scratching results just after the blockbuster Kidd exchange.
In Jersey, he gets a second chance with Harris and a Russian billionaire owner whose expected liberal spending habits will mirror those of Mark Cuban. He will shake up and work the 12-win Nets into proper defensive shape.
Great hire, even better coach.
DOUG COLLINS (Philadelphia 76ers)- The Sixers' slam-dunk choice beats a Soviet lay-up any day. His mere playoff record might stain his resume a bit, but his uncanny ability to turn a laughingstock into a winning outfit with a verifiable identity remains an asset.
Philadelphia's sad sack pro hoops squad could use some invigoration and a plan. Collins will lay out a reasonable road map and bench any louse unwilling to run hard or defend.
Maybe the Philly boo birds can spare a favorite son while he repairs the team's broken volume knob.
BYRON SCOTT (Cleveland Cavaliers)- Hornets' management made him the fall guy and poster boy for the roster's below-par performance. The word "par" fits, though, since he seemed more interested in his tee time last year than Xs and Os. He did have an important ally in Chris Paul, but George Shinn and Hugh Webber spoke loudest in the Big Easy.
The reclamation project he agreed to tackle in Cleveland will be anything but. The franchise player bolted for Miami, the owner shamed the organization with an online rant about said player, and well, it's Cleveland.
Kidd pushed Scott out in New Jersey. Paul begged management to keep him in New Orleans. That dichotomy explains his mixed-bag reputation.
His consecutive Finals appearances in the early 2000s and division title with the Hornets keep him safely on the B-List. If he guides the barren Cavs to more than 30 wins, he might merit consideration in the A group.
GEORGE KARL (Denver Nuggets)- Nuggets fans witnessed the team's precipitous and frightening fall from the would-be elite ranks after Karl's throat cancer forced him to trade the sidelines for chemotherapy.
As Denver found out, there was no cure for his more than six-week absence.
PHIL JACKSON (Los Angeles Lakers)- The late Red Auerbach denigrated Jackson by dismissing him as the lucky guy who coached Michael, Scottie, Shaq, and Kobe. Auerbach failed to mention in those apprehensive diatribes that some of the Celtics rosters he oversaw boasted as many as five Hall of Famers.
I will repeat what I wrote earlier: Coaches never win titles with crappy players. Ever.
Could Auerbach win a title with Smush Parker and Kwame Brown in the starting lineup? No chance in a frozen hell.
Jackson remains the NBA's gold standard because his unorthodox methods work. He allows his players to play themselves out of double-digit deficits instead of calling what he deems unnecessary timeouts.
He plays mind games with opponents and his own underperforming employees. He wins when he's supposed to win, which as I said before, is often the toughest mandate in sports.
A few other numbers highlight his greatness: His teams are 48-0 when they win Game One of a playoff series. He has never lost with a top-seeded roster and only surrendered home-court advantage once.
Maybe "zero" is the finest of them all. That represents the number of titles Jordan and Bryant won with their previous coaches.
GREGG POPOVICH (San Antonio Spurs)- I was once within an earshot of a Pop timeout. He asked his players if they cared to play any defense in a manner that would make Christian Bale look like a capable peacemaker. It was more like, "when the f*** are you going to play some f****** defense, godd*****?"
Moments later, he said something to Tim Duncan, and the two laughed. The Spurs beat the Rockets that day, 88-81, in the meat-grinder defense, no-nonsense manner that has defined San Antonio's lone pro franchise for more than a decade.
He knows when to push ("our defense sucks") and when to back off, an unappreciated skill for a coach to possess. He manages to connect with his players but never coddles them.
Before he heads to the press room to drown those poor beat reporters in cynicism, sarcasm, and bluntness, he usually wins.
He has constructed stability in a city that once fathomed relocation. Here's hoping he sticks around after Duncan retires.
JERRY SLOAN (Utah Jazz)- Utah's head coach has lasted longer in his familiar role than some popular car companies and a number of legendary entertainers. If the world ends in 2012, and Sloan survives, he'll coach Keith Richards and whatever else remains of the planet until they can set adequate screens and run a pick-and-roll.
He has crossed his arms, scowled, and won the same way for more than 20 years. Do not let his ringless fingers fool you. He milks the optimal output from all of his squads, and his clear-cut demands stand the test of time like death and taxes.
Sloan would be the first to tell you that he hasn't won anything. That might be the one time you can afford to ignore him.
RICK ADELMAN (Houston Rockets)- He could mine gold on a beach covered with tar balls and dead jellyfish. His best work qualifies as moving art. Unlike Nelson, his Rembrandt-like rotations and schemes make sense and lead to victories. He puts players in comfortable positions while also testing their limits.
Adelman does not push or prod. He instead asks players where they want to go and tells them how to get there. "What kind of season do you want to have?"
He ranks right up there with Sloan as the best NBA coach without a title. Phil Jackson, the guy I just showered with praise above, has blocked his path more than any other bench boss. Only three times in Adelman's 18-plus years have his teams failed to qualify for the playoffs.
He is consistency personified, a defining quality that earns him an easy A.
DOC RIVERS (Boston Celtics)- In a now famous motivational ploy, Rivers asked every member of the Celtics basketball operations staff and the players to fork up $200. He hid the dough in a ceiling panel of the Staples Center's visiting locker room and told the confused employees they would have to come back in June to get it.
The players obliged and fell a few minutes short of a second title in three years on the Lakers' court. The job he did in meshing Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce in 2008 alone merits an 'A' grade. He did it again in 2010 and still has not lost a series with his full complement for an entire seven-game series.
Bostonians should rejoice after his decision to return to the bench for one more run.