Ranking the Top 10 Coaches of the Modern NBA

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBAFeatured Columnist IVSeptember 10, 2022

Ranking the Top 10 Coaches of the Modern NBA

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    Talking about the modern NBA typically involves marveling over the absurd skill sets possessed by today's players.

    What we probably don't discuss enough, though, is the way coaches have ascended to a similarly sky-high plane.

    Case in point: George Karl, who's headed for Hall of Fame enshrinement this weekend, wasn't the best coach of his era. Not even close, actually.

    To crown that coach and rank the best nine behind him, we're evaluating all skippers from the modern era—defined simply as the 2000-01 season to the present—based on everything from team success and accolades to adaptability, technical savvy and the ability to connect with locker rooms. Bonus points are added for longevity, but those who have taken the fast track to towering triumphs will be acknowledged, too.

Honorable Mention

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    Rick Adelman

    Limiting Adelman to his post-2000 work erases his biggest successes (two Western Conference titles with the Portland Trail Blazers), but he still deserves a mention for making the Sacramento Kings playoff regulars and helping the 2008-09 Houston Rockets secure their first postseason series victory in over a decade.

    Larry Brown

    Brown packed a ton of activity into the eight-plus seasons he coached during this time frame. He led the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons to a title, and he picked up Eastern Conference championships with the 2000-01 Philadelphia 76ers and the 2004-05 Pistons. He also had a disastrous single-season stint with the New York Knicks and failed to gain traction over two-plus seasons with the then-Charlotte Bobcats.

    Nick Nurse

    Nurse has proved wildly successful over his first four seasons as the Toronto Raptors skipper. He locked up the franchise's first world title in his first year at the helm, posted a .736 winning percentage in the second and has a .604 winning percentage overall. The small sample size hurts him just enough to squeeze him out of our top 10, though.

    Brad Stevens

    Before Stevens jumped from the Boston Celtics' sideline into their front office, he wowed with his on-court schematics and player development. While he couldn't quite help the Shamrocks break through and win the big one, he did take them to three Eastern Conference finals in four years.

    Tom Thibodeau

    Thibodeau does defense as well as anyone, and he has taken three different teams to the postseason since 2011. He hasn't quite had the same success in the playoffs—had Derrick Rose stayed healthy, maybe that'd be different, but who knows?—and he seemingly wore out his welcome with both the Chicago Bulls and the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Nos. 10, 9 and 8

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    10. George Karl

    Karl's best coaching work came before 2000, as he helped the then-Seattle SuperSonics race atop the Western Conference in the mid-1990s. That club was responsible for the three 60-win seasons and lone conference championship on his resume.

    He still enjoyed ample success during our time span, too, though. In 2000-01, he guided the Milwaukee Bucks to 52 wins and brought them within one victory of a Finals trip. Later that decade, he joined the Denver Nuggets and turned them into a Western Conference power. He took them to nine consecutive playoff appearances, although the 2008-09 team was the only one to advance beyond the opening round.

    9. Mike D'Antoni

    D'Antoni's legacy might outweigh his actual accomplishments, as his offensive innovations helped change the way basketball is played. Between the frenetic pace of his "Seven Seconds or Less" Phoenix Suns team to the analytically inclined style he orchestrated with James Harden and the Houston Rockets, he paved the path for today's pace-and-space game.

    His teams won at least 53 games seven different times (four in Phoenix, three in Houston), and three of them reached the conference finals. The problem is his system wasn't for everyone, and he struggled to adapt when it didn't fit his personnel. During five-plus seasons with the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers, he only managed two winning records and zero playoff wins.

    8. Tyronn Lue

    Lue has the shortest coaching resume of anyone in this top 10, and the relatively small sample size (365 games scattered over six seasons) keeps him from climbing any higher. Still, the fact he even snagged a spot speaks to the level of success he has already enjoyed.

    In his first season at the helm, he navigated the 2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers to the franchise's first (and only) world title. They won 101 games over the following two seasons, both of which ended in the Finals. He left Cleveland shortly after LeBron James did 2018, latched on with the Los Angeles Clippers and produced a .653 winning percentage and conference finals appearance during his first season behind the wheel.

Nos. 7, 6 and 5

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    7. Mike Budenholzer

    Budenholzer spent a decade-plus handling in assistant role on Gregg Popovich's staff in San Antonio, and the influence of his mentor shows.

    The egalitarian approach he crafted with the Atlanta Hawks of the mid-2010s felt deeply rooted in the Alamo City. The squad lacked a superstar, but the individual pieces joined together to make a superstar impact. The Hawks had a 60-win season, four playoff trips and three postseason series wins across his five years at the controls.

    Since moving to Milwaukee in 2018, Budenholzer has established a Big Three, fueled Giannis Antetokounmpo's rise to all-galaxy status, captured a world title and built 50-win seasons with suffocating defenses or relentless attacks.

    6. Rick Carlisle

    A tactical genius, Carlisle has coached both the unstoppable force and the immovable object and won big either way.

    He twice won 50 games and claimed three playoff series wins during his two seasons in charge of the Pistons. He produced a 61-win effort during his debut campaign with the Indiana Pacers and may have kept up those winning ways had that core not been torn apart by the Malice at the Palace. He then moved on to the Dallas Mavericks and procured their first (and only) title by leading them past LeBron James and the superstar-laden Miami Heat.

    Carlisle has overseen a few lean years (dragging his career winning percentage down to a good-but-not-great .536), and he hasn't always connected with players. Still, if you were desperate for a bucket over the last 20 years, you wanted Carlisle to be the coach drawing it up.

    5. Doc Rivers

    In Rivers' first season as an NBA head coach (1999-00), he took home the Coach of the Year trophy. Now, that doesn't factor into this ranking, since it lands just outside of our study size, but it goes to show he's a natural on the sideline.

    He is a clear and direct communicator, and that has allowed him to connect with his locker room, even as he has changed locker rooms four times since 2000. But there are reasons players follow his lead. Reasons like: the 14 playoff trips he has led in the last 15 years; the 2008 title he delivered to the Boston Celtics; the 2010 conference championship he secured in Boston; the 16 postseason series wins he has overseen since 2008.

    He is, simply put, a winner. He is one of 10 NBA coaches with 1,000-plus career victories, and his .510 playoff winning percentage ranks fifth-best among that uber-exclusive group. He might have a few rough patches on his resume, and his teams haven't always maximized their potential on the biggest stage, but his track record is mostly tremendous.

4. Erik Spoelstra

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    Erik Spoelstra just wrapped his 14th season as head coach of the Miami Heat. His teams have posted a losing record in just two of them: once in 2014-15, when they lost LeBron James to free agency and Chris Bosh to blood clots; and later in 2018-19, when they had Dwyane Wade's farewell tour.

    Otherwise, all of Spo's squads have gone at least .500—including the 2016-17 iteration, which rallied from an 11-30 start to go 30-11 in the second half with cast-offs like Hassan Whiteside and Dion Waiters leading the charge.

    No matter what kind of roster Spoelstra has been given, he consistently pushes it toward its competitive ceiling. When he's had the requisite star power, he has seized the moment with two world titles and three more Eastern Conference crowns. When he hasn't, he has squeezed out every last drop of success he can extract from it. Either way, he's made sure his group has fully bought into the franchise's culture.

    Spoelstra is a shape-shifting wizard. He's just as comfortable directing superstars as he is turning undrafted free agents into rotation regulars. He brings meticulously thought-out game plans into contests, then abandons them on the fly with some of the best in-game adjustments in the business. He is stubborn in his pursuit of maximum competitiveness but flexible in the journey to get there.

    If you're at all surprised to see Spoelstra land this high, you haven't paid enough attention to his achievements in the non-Heatles. If anything, the real surprise is that he didn't land even higher.

3. Steve Kerr

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    Steve Kerr only started coaching the Golden State Warriors in 2014. You might think that wouldn't give him enough of a runway to launch all the way into this era's top three, but he apparently doesn't need much time to leave a lasting legacy.

    This past February, fewer than eight years removed from his hiring, the NBA named Kerr one of its 15 greatest coaches ever. He was already a three-time champion by then, and he'd go on to collect a fourth ring in June, flashing a deft touch while balancing an aging core with a batch of up-and-comers who weren't necessarily ready for the limelight.

    "The success he's had at the helm, it's been incredible," Klay Thompson said in March, per NBC Sports Bay Area's Taylor Wirth. "Steve just has a brilliant mind for the game, he's an ultra competitor, which we all respect."

    Kerr has crafted an offensive system that somehow maximizes Stephen Curry's impact and keeps everyone involved around him. On defense, Kerr's Warriors have wrecked the opposition with switch-heavy system that always appears one step ahead.

    All of the above adds up to a wildly successful run that so far features four championships (and two more Finals appearances) in eight years and a .682 career winning percentage that ranks fourth all-time. If his resume stretched just a few years longer, he could've cracked the top two and maybe made a run at the No. 1 spot.

2. Phil Jackson

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    Phil Jackson hasn't had to settle for many silver medals during his coaching career.

    He's the only NBA coach with a career winning percentage north of .700. He's also the only one with a double-digit championship count (11). Between his stints with the Bulls and Lakers, he was head coach for 20 seasons. He never produced a losing record—his winning percentage was .600-plus in all but three of them—and put a ring on more than half of them.

    While it's true that he did his best work with some of the Association's all-time talents (Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant), their best work also happened to come under his direction.

    "The best way to sum it up is just that Phil’s belief in his own players far outweighs that of any coach I've ever played for in terms of his willingness to allow the players to be players and make the plays," Derek Fisher told reporters following the 2009 NBA Finals.

    So, why isn't Jackson getting his customary No. 1 spot? Because starting with 2000-01 season means wiping out half of his resume, including his entire Bulls' tenure and his first championship campaign in L.A.

    He still engineered a dominant decade-plus, but he couldn't quite match the longevity and versatility of our No. 1 coach.

1. Gregg Popovich

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    The story of the modern NBA can't be told without at least a chapter dedicated to Gregg Popovich, the incredible run he's enjoyed with the San Antonio Spurs and his monstrous impact on the league at large.

    While his head coaching career predates our study sample, his track record is rich enough that he can afford to lose a pair of 50-win seasons and his first championship. Between 2000-01 and 2016-17—an era largely otherwise defined by player empowerment and landscape-shifting moves in trades and free agency—Popovich made small-market San Antonio the Association's model of sustained success.

    The Spurs won at least 50 games in all 17 of those seasons, even during the 2011-12 campaign that was cut to just 66 contests by a lockout. They raised four championship banners during that stretch, made another Finals appearance and won at least one postseason series in 14 of those 17 years.

    He collected three Coach of the Year awards and was named one of the 15 greatest coaches in NBA history. His coaching tree became a forest, his win total reached historic heights and he won with everything from defense-first plodders to pace-and-space offensive machines.

    As former NBA head coach and current ESPN analyst P.J. Carlesimo explained, Popovich's professional success is deeply tied to his personal connection with his players, assistants and their families:

    "As good of a coach [as] he is, to me, it's more his ability to relate with his players both on and off the court. And he spends way more time off the court in terms of his relationships with his players than I think most coaches, it's his ability to connect with people and the fact that he genuinely cares about them, and their family and them as individuals–that comes across, and players know that. I think that also enhances his ability to be demanding at times —because he is demanding. But he's way more of a positive guy than a negative guy."

    The Spurs were permanently changed for the better by Popovich, and so was the entire NBA.


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