Power Ranking All 30 NBA Head Coaches Going into 2014-15 Training Camp
The coaching vacancies are all long since filled, and the rosters are all but set. All that's left is for the sneakers to start squeaking on the practice floor.
The ball will get rolling on NBA training camp in a matter of days, which presents a perfect opportunity to lock in all your preseason judgments and predictions. Here, we'll be taking a look at the league's head coaches.
Four rookie coaches will be manning the bench for the first time ever, and all come from very different classifications of the basketball realm.
Derek Fisher will be making the immediate shift from player to head coach with the New York Knicks. Steve Kerr will be hopping over media row to join the Golden State Warriors, while David Blatt flew in from Europe to land the Cleveland Cavaliers' sparkling vacancy. Quin Snyder took the more traditional route, progressing from Atlanta Hawks assistant to Utah Jazz head man. With neither of the four having any NBA head coaching experience to judge, they'll be exempt from these rankings—for now.
The other 26 men are all included—from the Gregg Popovich vets to the Brad Stevens babyfaces and everyone in between.
The order that follows is not only determined by win-loss record, but how each coach has fared with his given roster and, in the case of veteran coaches, how they've assimilated to modern league trends.
Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz
After dismissing Tyrone Corbin following a 25-57 campaign, the Utah Jazz will be entrusting Quin Snyder with their young core. Snyder was most recently a top assistant with the Atlanta Hawks and has assistant-coaching experience with the Los Angeles Clippers, Duke University, the Los Angeles Lakers and CSKA Moscow in Russia. He was the head coach at Missouri for seven seasons in the Big 12, compiling a 128-96 record from 2000 to 2006 and also with the D-League's Austin Toros from 2007 to 2010.
After resigning from the Missouri job, though, Snyder had serious doubts about whether he'd continue his coaching path. According to USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt, he said in 2012, "I re-evaluated some things in my personal life. It was a reflective time, and I realized, stepping back, how much I still liked basketball."
After stops all throughout the basketball world, Snyder, 47, has made it to the NBA scene. He's spent time under Mike Krzyzewski, Mike Brown and Doug Collins. His roles in the D-League and as the player development coach with the Philadelphia 76ers seem to fit the Jazz's needs, with Trey Burke, Dante Exum and Alec Burks all molding into future starters in the backcourt and Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Rudy Gobert doing the same in the paint.
After months of speculation surrounding Phil Jackson's courting of Steve Kerr to take the Knicks' position, Kerr spurned his mentor and took a more favorable job with the Dubs.
Kerr hasn't coached at any level but came off as articulate and wise during his tenure as a TNT broadcaster. He's mentioned including elements of the triangle offense into his game plan with Golden State but won't fully commit to the Zen Master's ideology just yet. He said, via Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News:
It will be influenced by the triangle, but it will not look like the Bulls of the '90s, I can tell you that. The game has changed and I think my philosophy would reflect that. For instance, I would be crazy to do away with the screen-and-roll with Steph—he's devastating in it. We'll do plenty of that.
In Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, Kerr has two of the finest shooting backcourt players in the league. He's facing a roster decision of whether to include Andre Iguodala or Harrison Barnes in the starting five, but judging by Kerr's overall intelligent takes on the game as a whole, it's reasonable to believe he'll find a way to win in Golden State.
With the Knicks, Derek Fisher seems to be more fully dedicated to running Phil Jackson's triangle, and for good reason. The man who made the system famous is right upstairs, and Fisher ran the offense as a point guard for a combined 10 of his 18 NBA years.
Throughout the summer league, the Knicks operated almost exclusively out of the triangle with decent results considering all of the summer Knicks were freshly introduced to the system just days beforehand.
After averaging 18 minutes per game for the Oklahoma City Thunder just last season, it's fairly safe to assume that Fisher has a firm grasp on the current NBA landscape and how to relate to his players. The triangle is a system that will benefit Carmelo Anthony, who was seemingly bred to star in Jackson's offense. This year's Knicks may struggle with several clunky pieces at this stage of a short-term rebuild, but Fisher has the makings of a solid coach moving forward.
The most unique of all "rookie" NBA head coaches is David Blatt, who was lucky enough to snag the Cavaliers head coaching job before LeBron James announced his return to Ohio last July.
Blatt is a coaching superstar overseas, amassing a combined record of 182-53 over the last four years with Maccabi Tel Aviv, including playoffs and Eurocup play. His teams have historically featured intricate, movement-based offenses and have been tremendously successful. Still, Blatt has never faced the task of coaching two of the game's brightest stars in James and Kevin Love.
I'm not a young guy in this (coaching) business. Yes, I'm new to the NBA. There are a lot of great coaches in the NBA. But I have been doing this for a long while. I have more head coaching experience then a number of guys in the NBA—it's just not in the NBA. I have no discomfort or worries about coaching a great player like LeBron who has such a tremendous appreciation of the game.
Blatt's coaching acumen and overall outlook on the game make him far different than just another rookie head coach. But he's facing expectations far greater than any first-year coach has had to deal with.
26. Jacque Vaughn, Orlando Magic
Career Record: 43-121
He's still only two years deep into his career, so this isn't an indictment on Jacque Vaughn's future prospects as an NBA coach. But based on his body of work so far, the Orlando Magic coach hasn't set himself up for a whole lot of praise.
After the Magic totaled 20 and 23 wins, respectively, over his first two years, the team's rebuilding has been a slow process, to put it kindly. Orlando hasn't been stocked with the most talented rosters during this time, but with developing young players and a few new additions this summer, the team should probably be a bit more competitive in the East.
To his credit, he has presided over Nikola Vucevic's emergence as a top prospect at center, as well as Tobias Harris' impressive stint with the team.
With Elfrid Payton and Victory Oladipo set to start in the backcourt and Channing Frye in to help space the floor, Orlando may finally have a set identity. If Vaughn can't get it to translate into legitimate development for the future, though, his stint with the Magic could come to an end.
25. Brett Brown, Philadelphia 76ers
Career Record: 19-63
Admittedly, it's nearly impossible to gauge a coach's ability to coach when he's presented with a dumpster fire of a roster in his rookie campaign. But the Philadelphia 76ers went 19-63 under his watch. It would be difficult to justify a much higher placement.
In terms of development, the majority of Philadelphia's current roster won't be around when the ship eventually turns around, so there's not much to judge there, either. Brown does deserve credit for Michael-Carter Williams' emergence as a Rookie of the Year lock and for several shot-in-the-dark players buying in and contributing positive minutes—Henry Sims, Tony Wroten and Hollis Thompson, among others.
Brown's decade with the San Antonio Spurs organization prior to his Philly hiring leads you to believe he has the makeup to lead a team to greater heights than he did last season. With Nerlens Noel part of the mix this season, things should get marginally better and can only progressively improve with the additions of Joel Embiid next season and Dario Saric in 2017—hopefully, for Brown's sake.
24. Mike Malone, Sacramento Kings
Career Record: 28-54
It seems a bit harsh to be penalizing younger coaches for subpar records in rebuilding years. Mike Malone is generally liked by his players with the Sacramento Kings and seems interested in building a winning culture. For several reasons, though, the results just weren't there last season.
The roster underwent a great deal of turnover during the season, with the Rudy Gay trade in December and the exchange of Marcus Thornton for Reggie Evans and Jason Terry later on.
Malone did preside over DeMarcus Cousins' outstanding season—he averaged 23 points and 12 rebounds and posted a player efficiency rating over 26. Isaiah Thomas also earned a starting role under Malone and, by averaging 20 points and six rebounds, was rewarded with a new contract from the Phoenix Suns.
The overall situation in Sacramento wasn't favorable, as Sactown Royalty noted:
Sacramento's ridiculous amount of roster turnover didn't allow for much stability. About half of the players that were in training camp with the Kings were gone by December, starting a whole new learning process. It also seemed clear that Malone wanted to bring the younger guys along slowly, but terrible effort and performances by guys like Marcus Thornton for example forced his hand and made him put the young McLemore into the starting lineup much earlier than he would prefer.
But even the notoriously combustible Cousins has taken a liking to Malone, according to Cowbell Kingdom. "I think the future is bright," Cousins said following Sunday's game. "I'm with Malone until the end—he knows that. He has my back; I've got his. You're going to be seeing him for a while until he gets rid of me because it won't be my choice."
Though the results aren't there yet, the pieces are in place—pieces that seem to enjoy Malone's presence on the sideline each night. With any luck, there's a good chance the coach creeps up this leaderboard before the end of the season.
23. Kevin McHale, Houston Rockets
Career Record: 172-152
Kevin McHale has Daryl Morey to thank this summer for shouldering the vast amount of negative attention among Houston Rockets higher-ups, because after the team failed to improve this summer with ample cap room, McHale's shortcomings as coach have temporarily been swept under the rug.
Given the talent Houston has on the roster—including one of the league's most gifted offensive weapons in James Harden and perhaps the best rim protector in the NBA in Dwight Howard—the team's middle-of-the-road status in the West is far from tolerable. From his unimaginative offense to the mishandling of the bench unit, McHale's missteps have gone largely unpunished.
Kevin Sanchez of HoopsHabit outlined several of the coach's failures:
Kevin McHale isn’t without flaws as he does have some pretty commonplace problems that fans and NBA observers like to point out. First and foremost is his problem with rotations. McHale often times uses his players in some head-scratching situations. A good example of this was during last season’s playoffs, when Kevin McHale had James Harden in the game to play defense, with only 0.9 seconds left on the game clock. McHale is also not good a drawing up set plays, as he rarely uses them, opting instead to go with the brilliance of Harden and his stellar offensive game. There’s also the very valid complaint that McHale and the Rockets use the pick and roll between Harden and Howard too little.
During last season's playoffs, Chris Baldwin of Culturemap Houston touched on an issue that McHale will no longer have to face: his handling of Jeremy Lin and the Rockets' bench unit:
McHale's marginalizing of the one true point guard on his roster—Jeremy Lin—from day one doomed the Rockets to failure once the playoffs hit, the games became tight, and ball movement and precise spacing started trumping all. The false-ringing, supposed reasoning behind benching Lin for Patrick Beverley from the first game of the season—the desire to create a powerhouse bench—is exposed (again) in a Game 2 that McHale and the Rockets absolutely needed to win.
Coaching to have anything more than a long shot, wild puncher's chance in this series, perhaps coaching for his Rockets career, McHale completely abandons that bench principle.
He only plays eight guys. Lin gets a mere 24 minutes of court time after his stand-out Game 1 finish. Omer Asik is also given 24 minutes. And Francisco Garcia...he's on the court for all of four minutes and 19 seconds.
With Trevor Ariza replacing Chandler Parsons and no established backup point guard, Houston struggling out of the gate wouldn't be a huge shock. And if it does, expect McHale's seat to get hotter with each loss.
22. Byron Scott, Los Angeles Lakers
Career Record: 416-521
When the Lakers finally landed on Byron Scott after a months-long coaching search, it was a little predictable. Hiring a member of the Lakers family wouldn't ruffle any feathers among the fanbase. Scott also has coaching experience and can be viewed as someone who knows how to get the job done.
But without any extended success since two Finals appearances with the Nets more than a decade ago, he's disposable. Just like much of the current Lakers roster.
Glancing at the depth chart, the team has added a number of pieces that seem to make Los Angeles a much more competitive group than last year. Jeremy Lin is a legitimate starting point guard, and Carlos Boozer—at a reasonable cap number—is a worthwhile talent in the frontcourt. But CBS Sports' Matt Moore explains exactly what Scott is dealing with here:
Scott has a near-lock to keep his job, because despite the optimism you can manufacture, this team's third-best player might be Swaggy P. They purposefully didn't really go all out to build a playoff team because they wanted to keep cap room. Scott is dealing with the temp guys here, the replacements. The locker room would have to turn on him something fierce.
As Moore notes, Scott has established himself as a defensive-minded coach who can help a young team mature—but that wasn't the case in his last stop with the Cavs, who finished no better than 26th in defense over his three years.
Scott hasn't coached to a winning record or appeared in the playoffs since 2008-09 with New Orleans. Since leaving the Nets in 2003-04, he has posted a winning record just twice and has gone 8-9 over two playoff runs.
It wasn't necessarily a bad hire given the lowly expectations, but expecting Scott to lead a future Lakers team to great heights is questionable.
21. Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics
Career Record: 25-57
Brad Stevens seems firmly planted in Boston's head coaching chair throughout however long the rebuild takes. He's brought a new energy and a fresh perspective to one of the oldest franchises in the league and has the coaching mind to develop a young team out of a rebuilding phase, given the right amount of talent.
With Jordan Crawford, Jeff Green and Jared Sullinger as Boston's primary focal points as Rajon Rondo played less than 1,000 minutes last season over 30 games, the team won 25 games, and its offense came in 27th in efficiency. The defense was respectable given the talent level, though, at 18th best per 100 possessions.
The year was just one step in a lengthy process, but the organization seems to be thrilled with the strides, according to CSN New England, via NBC Sports and Yahoo Sports.
'At the start of the year, guys were great outwardly and guys were great to me,' said Stevens. 'But without question, there's going to be a little bit of [a] feeling-out process.'
It didn't take long, however, for that feeling-out process to end.
'[The veterans] bought into Brad, and they did everything that Brad asked them to do,' said second-year man Jared Sullinger. 'I think that was huge.'
And by the end, the Celtics—on and off the court—knew what they had in Brad Stevens.
'He wants to be great,' said Celtics basketball boss Danny Ainge. 'He wants his teams to be great.'
Stevens is analytically minded and has coached young Butler teams to two Final Fours. In Marcus Smart and James Young, Boston drafted two players who can help out right away. Rondo's future with the C's, though, will determine the final blueprint for the team's rebuild—which Stevens will almost certainly be in charge of.
20. Flip Saunders, Minnesota Timberwolves
Career Record: 638-526
Flip Saunders surely hoped for a much different roster to handle when he named himself head coach last June. Of course, Minnesota was still clinging onto hope that Kevin Love would return to a team that hadn't reached the playoffs over his six NBA years, and perhaps Saunders believed his experience on the bench would help lure Love back.
Clearly, Love already had two feet out the door in Minnesota. After the trade that made Love a Cleveland Cavalier, Saunders, a 16-year coaching vet, is now in charge of one of the league's youngest rosters.
Saunders' 638 wins were largely a product of his time spent with Kevin Garnett in his prime and three seasons with the Detroit Pistons teams of the mid-to-late 2000s. Looking more recently at his 51-130 stretch with the young Washington Wizards from 2009 to 2011, though, there's reason to be skeptical about his current gig.
He has young pieces in Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Ricky Rubio, Anthony Bennett and Gorgui Dieng, while Thaddeus Young, Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin are all above-average contributors. Saunders will be in charge of this multiyear process to get Minnesota competing again. Hopefully, it goes better than the last time he was dubbed with handling a group of young talents.
19. Randy Wittman, Washington Wizards
Career Record: 191-329
Going into last season, Randy Wittman's coaching future was at a crossroads. He'd never made a postseason in his seven pro seasons as head coach with Cleveland, Minnesota and Washington. John Wall was entering his prime, and Bradley Beal was shaping up to be a real contributor. In addition, the team had just traded a first-round pick to land Marcin Gortat.
Washington was all-in on getting to the playoffs. And under Wittman, the Wizards did just that.
But even while the Wiz impressed and stood out in a brutally weak East—winning a playoff series against Tom Thibodeau's Bulls—there seems to be the underlying sentiment that they could be better with someone else in charge.
From CBS Sports' Matt Moore:
Night by night, the Wizards could be a smart, savvy team that exploited team's weaknesses and made the right plays, which made you think 'You know, maybe Wittman really just clicks with this team.'
And then some nights, they would look like they just rolled in off the lobotomy table. They put together enough to make a run, and legitimately played great vs. Chicago.
You just always get the feeling that this roster could do more, do better, with another coach at the helm.
Whether it was coming away with long Drew Gooden two-pointers out of timeouts in the playoffs or just flat-out disinterested performance from the team, Wittman's successful season seemed to have its negative moments.
Apparently, the organization didn't believe so, since it granted the coach with a five-year extension this past summer. Not a bad deal for a coach with a career .367 winning percentage.
18. Brian Shaw, Denver Nuggets
Career Record: 36-46
Brian Shaw had the odds stacked against him in his first season as Nuggets head coach, filling the shoes of reigning Coach of the Year George Karl. Several key Nuggets contributors missed much of the season with injuries, and the team finished well outside of the Western Conference playoff mix.
Through most of the year, the Nuggets locker room had its problems with the changes Shaw had been making. It cost the team Andre Miller, who had a sideline confrontation with Shaw and was then suspended and traded. It almost cost them Kenneth Faried's confidence, as Shaw was determined to put the Manimal on the block several times per game, when that clearly wasn't his strength.
But soon, players came around to Shaw, who had been an assistant with the Lakers and Pacers since 2005. Faried averaged 20 points and 11 rebounds over his last 24 games, and the team's veterans began to defend their coach from blame after losses.
This year, with Danilo Gallinari, Nate Robinson, Javale McGee and J.J. Hickson all returning from injury, the expectations will surely be raised. Now that he has the support of the locker room, we can truly see how skilled Shaw is at directing his players.
17. Monty Williams, New Orleans Pelicans
Career Record: 128-124
After he won just 34 games in his fourth season as New Orleans Pelicans head coach, Monty Williams' seat may begin to heat up with a slow start to 2014-15. It seems as if he'll have Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson all healthy to start the year.
Many are expecting Anthony Davis to truly break out as an elite talent this season, which would only make Williams' job easier. He'll need to figure out a winning formula with Holiday, Evans and Gordon, though, and the defense, 27th in efficiency last season, must improve.
Williams just spent the summer with Coach K's Team USA staff during the FIBA World Cup and picked up valuable experience when it comes to coaching a talented roster. With a healthy Pelicans team this season, there's reason to believe he should have them competing for a playoff berth, at the very least.
But there's still the looming possibility that Williams is out of a job if things don't get cleaned up quickly, as CBS Sports' Matt Moore explains:
The assumption on Williams is that because the team has failed to win anything, he must not be good. But we have to see what this team looks like when its considerable talent is actually on the floor before that decision is reached. But make no mistake about it. Williams and GM Dell Demps were hired before new owner Tom Benson took over. And often times new owners want their guys in place. If the healthy Pelicans still can't fly, Williams might get kicked out of the nest.
With an injury or two or a start similar to last year's 2-8 finish, Williams' stint in the Big Easy could be over.
16. Dwane Casey, Toronto Raptors
Career Record: 158-194
Fresh off a three-year extension, coming after an Atlantic Division title and a third seed in the East last year, Dwane Casey responded well to the team's 9-14 start. He escaped the hot seat, rallied his guys and surged to the top of the standings.
With the aid of career years from Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, Casey quickly climbed the ladder of most-respected coaches in the league. Coming from a defensive background as an assistant in Dallas, Casey has been preaching on that end since he took the job in 2011. Toronto posted a top-10 defense last season for the first time since 2003-04. The offense was 10th-best in the league as well.
The Raps are returning all key players from last season, and with the Knicks and Nets failing to dramatically improve this summer, the division is there for the taking once again. This Toronto group has shown it's willing to get behind Casey and buy what he's selling—even Lowry, who has feuded with coaches, including Casey, before.
With another season like 2013-14, Casey can boost himself into the next tier of the coaching ranks. But first, he'll need to prove that last season was for real.
15. Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City Thunder
Career Record: 234-147
Scott Brooks' shortcomings as an NBA head coach have become a constant punch line around those who follow the league closely, and much of it is deserved. The argument can be made that in a more imaginative offense, the team with two top-10 talents would thrive much more. Playing Kendrick Perkins 25 minutes per night in itself is capable of warming Brooks' seat.
But while his stellar career record doesn't give you the full story of his coaching credentials, it can't simply be discounted, either. Brooks has posted .700-plus winning percentages in each of the last three seasons, and his .633 clip is good for 11th all-time among coaches with at least 200 games coached.
Part of Brooks' struggles stem from a failure to adjust, but this year's Thunder team may eliminate that concern for him. Perkins is still under contract, but Steven Adams emerged as a legitimate talent last season and Mitch McGary is in the mix after being selected 21st overall in June. With no enticing options at shooting guard, Jeremy Lamb finally seems destined for an extended shot. Several rotation issues that Brooks has previously been guilty of shouldn't exist this year, mainly because of how the roster is constructed.
Brooks has also been a part of the Thunder core for roughly as long as they've been together. He was named coach before the 2008-09 season—Westbrook's rookie campaign and Durant's second season. He has the backing of that locker room, and the players perform for him.
Here's Durant speaking after last season, according to Trisity Miller of FanSided: “That’s our guy. I’m riding with him. I’m riding with him. It’s easy for everybody on the outside to criticize, but once you’re in the fire, once you’re in that arena, those are the guys that matter.”
With Durant's free-agent status looming, the organization will do whatever necessary to lure him back long-term. If Brooks is the man KD wants on the bench, he won't be going anywhere.
14. Jason Kidd, Milwaukee Bucks
Career Record: 44-38
Sketchiness surrounding his failed power play in Brooklyn and subsequent defection to the Bucks aside, Jason Kidd was a fine pickup for Milwaukee. After a brutal beginning to the season in 2013-14, he made several necessary adjustments—like going small and giving Shaun Livingston extended minutes—and coached the Nets to a 44-win season after starting out 10-20.
Kidd showed in Brooklyn that he's capable of handling personalities and adjusting to injuries on the fly. But the Milwaukee job may suit him better as a coach. The expectations there are next-to-nothing, and being a younger, more relatable coach will only help him develop the Bucks' young talent.
He's shown the necessary creativity to out-coach opponents with an already proven roster, but in Milwaukee the task will be far different. Development will be valued more highly than win totals, so if Kidd can set a promising foundation this season and broaden his coaching resume, there's reason to believe he can jump up a few spots on this list by next season.
13. Lionel Hollins, Brooklyn Nets
Career Record: 214-201
A year removed from the NBA sidelines, Lionel Hollins is back in the league after taking the Brooklyn Nets job this summer. And although he and the Memphis Grizzlies didn't see eye-to-eye on ideologies, he remains one of the more successful coaches currently employed.
In Memphis, he instilled the famous "grit-and-grind" mantra that led the team to a Western Conference Finals appearance in 2012-13. The Nets have two traditional bigs in Brook Lopez and Kevin Garnett and a point guard who attracts defensive attention—all aspects that Hollins valued in Memphis. The Raptors pose the only real threat to take the Atlantic Division, so while the Nets' expectations aren't high, there's an outside chance of them making some noise if all goes right.
CBS Sports' Matt Moore explained his new situation:
He's in a sweet-spot of expectations vs. talent...but there's also the fact of how his stint in Memphis ended. The people he clashed with are gone now, too, except for John Hollinger, but it's pretty firmly established that Hollins has zero patience for anyone. It would take a nuclear disaster for him not to be coach at year's end, but Hollins' temper carries with it a certain degree of radioactivity.
It's widely known that Hollins isn't the most analytically inclined coaching mind, but he knows how to take control of a team and have the players buy into the atmosphere. We'll see how much he can get out of this Nets roster, which is essentially locked in through 2017.
12. Dave Joerger, Memphis Grizzlies
Career Record: 50-32
Following a hectic offseason that almost shifted him over to the Minnesota Timberwolves bench after just a year in Memphis, Dave Joerger is back with the Grizzlies after all—and on a new extension, to boot. It was a strange process for sure, but Memphis has to be thrilled with the result after locking up one of the league's brightest young coaching minds long-term.
Joerger led the Grizz to a 50-win season and the seventh seed in the West. The team nearly eliminated the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round before a Zach Randolph suspension derailed its chances in Game 7. The offense improved from 17th in 2012-13 under Lionel Hollins to 15th last season, while the defense remained in the top 10.
The team went through clear growing pains early in the season, when Joerger set out to instill a faster offensive pace and a tweaked ideology on that end. When the team was 14-18 in January and players were airing out playing-time frustrations to the media, Joerger's future was momentarily up in the air. That was until the team went 36-14 to finish the regular season.
To recap a full season's worth of Joerger at the helm, Grizzly Bear Blues graded out the coach's performance:
A first year NBA coach will make mistakes, and Joerger made his share. I could write 10,000 words talking about end of game scenarios he clearly botched. And every minute Tayshaun Prince played is an indictment in its own right.
But when word of his potential exit leaked last week, I was not eager for Joerger to leave. Joerger performed admirably in his first year as an NBA head coach, in a season rife with injuries and overflowing with expectations. We were talking, un-ironically, about tanking—in January. By February, that talk was a distant memory. Joerger could be a great coach some day. Perhaps soon.
Every coach makes mistakes, and first-year coaches are typically a bit more vulnerable. But the overall proficiency that Joerger showed, as a rookie coach, with this Grizzlies team was incredibly promising.
11. Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta Hawks
Career Record: 38-44
Last year's Hawks team managed to slide into the playoffs despite tanking efforts from the front office, which is a testament to Mike Budenholzer in his first year as head coach. After Al Horford went down with a season-ending pectoral muscle injury in December, Budenholzer constructed a three-point-laden offense that nearly eliminated the Indiana Pacers in Round 1 of the postseason.
It's also easy to forget that before Horford's injury, Atlanta was off to a surprising start—the Hawks were 17-13 and sitting at third place in the Eastern Conference on Dec. 28. After 17 seasons on San Antonio's bench, Budenholzer is a Gregg Popovich disciple, which is encouraging for Hawks fans.
After the season, Bleacher Report's Dan Schultz graded out Budenholzer's performance.
Basically, cut him a little bit of slack. Yes, maybe he relies on guards too much and does not throw enough size into his rotations at times. However, given the state of his team, overall I would have to give Bud a fairly high grade.
Given the intricacies of his detailed offense and how well the team has executed this high-energy motion offense so far, I would have to think Atlanta would still be third in the East if Horford, Millsap and Teague were not missing so much time due to injuries.
With a healthy Hawks team next season, Budenholzer should prove that he's one of the brighter minds on an NBA bench.
10. Frank Vogel, Indiana Pacers
Career Record: 167-100
The Indiana Pacers completely crashed and burned to end the 2013-14 season but somewhat managed to save face by reaching the Eastern Conference Finals. Still, last year's overall collapse shouldn't completely tarnish what Frank Vogel has managed to build in Indiana.
Much of the Pacers' success has been a product of player development, which can be traced directly to the coaching staff. Paul George has evolved from a middle-of-the-road first-round pick to one of the league's brightest stars, and Lance Stephenson emerged as one of the league's top all-around threats after spending the early portion of his career riding the bench.
The defensive system Vogel has instilled is still responsible for the team's prowess on that end—this was true even during the worst moments last winter. Indiana has finished with the league's best defensive efficiency the last two years running.
There's of course the notion that Vogel lost last year's team and was largely responsible for the epic drop-off in the second half. While it could be true to an extent, it's impossible to blame the coach for players simply failing to perform. With last year's disappointment in mind, maybe a one-year refresher of lowered expectations, with George and Stephenson out of the picture, could play to Vogel's advantage.
The Pacers have gotten better every year under Vogel since 2010-11 in terms of win totals, which can't be discounted. Last season's dysfunction is definitely a concern, but it could also act as a learning experience and help Vogel grow as a leader moving forward.
9. Terry Stotts, Portland Trail Blazers
Career Record: 202-245
In just one offseason, Terry Stotts' reputation has morphed from "just another retread head coach" to "retread head coach who has willingly and successfully adapted to modern trends." The latter has become an exceedingly rare breed in the NBA and is responsible for Stotts' top-10 placement on this list.
For context, let's take a look back at Bleacher Report's Bryan Toporek's rendition of this very list a year ago:
Nothing about Stotts' head coaching career to date should inspire much confidence in his ability to lead a team to the promised land. He failed to last more than two years in both of his previous coaching stints in Atlanta and Milwaukee; time will tell if he'll go 3-for-3 in Portland.
This was completely spot-on: Stotts' future as an NBA head coach essentially rode on his 2013-14 campaign. Fortunately for him and the Trail Blazers, he knocked it out of the park.
He presided over LaMarcus Aldridge's monster offensive 2013-14 year—months after the star forward wanted out of Portland—and Damian Lillard's ascension up the point guard ranks. He constructed an offensive attack stocked with three-point shooting but primarily funneled through a focal point near the paint. It amounted to the second-best offense in the league per 100 possessions.
This season, the Blazers bench, the team's clear weakness over the last few campaigns, should improve with the additions of Chris Kaman and Steve Blake. If Stotts manages to keep most of last year's principles on order, there's reason to believe the core five can replicate last year's offensive prowess.
8. Steve Clifford, Charlotte Hornets
Career Record: 43-39
One of the league's most pleasant surprises a year ago came in Charlotte, where rookie head coach Steve Clifford led the Bobcats to the postseason, two years removed from the team winning seven games in a season.
Now the Hornets, Charlotte is expected to finish almost certainly within the East's playoff picture. Lance Stephenson is on board to shoulder some of the load on both ends of the floor, and the team's young nucleus will only benefit from more time playing together.
Last season, Charlotte finished fifth in defense, a year after finishing dead last. This is what Clifford vowed to bring to the team from Day 1, and his plan was executed even better than he could have planned. Via The Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell in a story dated May 29, 2013:
If you’re a Charlotte Bobcat, you might want to spend the summer perfecting your back-pedal and change of direction. Because here is new coach Steve Clifford’s 'non-negotiable:'
'I can’t promise you anything else about our defense, but we’re not giving up transition baskets,' Clifford said Wednesday during an Observer interview after his introductory news conference.
The Hornets didn't give up transition baskets all that often—they ranked second in the league, according to Synergy (subscription required)—and the defense as a whole was among the league's best.
Perhaps the team's most intriguing improvement under Clifford was the rebirth of Al Jefferson as a presence on defense. After admitting to Grantland's Zach Lowe before the season that pick-and-roll defense was his weakness, the center was the 13th-ranked defender on such plays in the entire league, per Synergy.
With more talent on board this season, expect Clifford's Hornets to make serious noise in a more balanced East this season.
7. Jeff Hornacek, Phoenix Suns
Career Record: 48-34
Talk about shooting up the ranks. Jeff Hornacek didn't just impress in his first season as head coach of the Suns—a team that was supposed to be tanking—he nearly took them to the playoffs in the Western Conference.
Hornacek truly impressed even before Day 1 as coach, beginning with some analytically friendly comments he made in a Q&A with Grantland's Zach Lowe in August 2013:
You guys were either no. 1 or no. 2 in midrange jumpers, and fell way below the league’s average in 3-point attempts. Do you want to change that?
Oh, yeah. We gotta get rid of that long 2. I’m not opposed to the middle jumper, in that 15- or 16-foot range. I think all but two teams that were in the playoffs, their effective field goal percentages were above 51 percent. If you can shoot 15-footers and shoot 52 percent, OK, you’re beating the average. You can’t totally discount those shots.
Between Phoenix's insanely athletic backcourt duo in Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe and other surprise improvements throughout the young roster, Phoenix was a playoff contender for about 80 games last season, which was roughly 80 games longer than anybody expected going in.
Last January, speaking with CBS Sports' Matt Moore, Hornacek explained how the team's two-guard system worked so flawlessly:
'There are times when Goran's (playing) a point guard,' he says, 'and times when Eric's a point guard. It's probably falling out that Eric's probably got the ball 40 percent of the time when they're on the floor together. But in fast break and in our offense, we swing it from one side to the other. So it may be Eric that starts out with it but it ends up in Goran's hands. That's what we're trying to accomplish on offense. It's good for us that they're both pretty similar in their stats so one guy's not saying 'Gosh, I'm not getting the ball enough.'
After missing time rehabbing from meniscus surgery, Bledsoe is back healthy for this season and locked in for the next five years, according to Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com. The team added Isaiah Thomas from Sacramento, rounding out the most electrifying backcourt rotation in the league.
As long as Hornacek sticks to what won the team 48 games last season, the Suns could very well be in the playoff mix next spring.
6. Stan Van Gundy, Detroit Pistons
Career Record: 371-208
Before you jump at Stan Van Gundy's high placement on this list after sitting out the last two seasons, remember that the only reason he was jobless in the first place was Orlando's desperate floundering to retain Dwight Howard.
After losing his second NBA job under less-than-favorable circumstances—recall Pat Riley taking back the reins to the eventual-champion 2006 Miami Heat team 21 games into the season—Van Gundy is faced with a challenge in Detroit, with a misshapen frontcourt that seemed doomed from the get-go. But if there was any unemployed coach who could figure it out, Detroit took a chance on the right guy.
He's made the postseason in every full year he's coached and led the 2009 Magic to the NBA Finals. From 2004-05 through 2009-10, Van Gundy's offenses never finished outside the top 11 in efficiency.
Grantland's Zach Lowe outlined what exactly makes Van Gundy a sneakily great fire for Detroit:
He prizes shot selection, on both ends. If you violate his rules repeatedly, you are coming out of the game. He doesn’t care about your status or salary.
And there will be rules. Van Gundy has historically stressed packing the paint on defense, protecting the 3-point line, avoiding gambles, and forcing midrange jumpers—analytically savvy tenets he implemented before analytics were cool. His teams typically force very few turnovers and clean the defensive glass; he stops scrimmages to point out when players gamble out of scheme for steals.
He’ll likely have Monroe and especially Drummond hang back near the paint, as Howard mostly did in Orlando. There will be a strict system the team uses night-to-night, with only minor tweaks for each opponent. The team will be insanely well prepared.
Lowe also notes that SVG has told the organization he'd like to make better use of analytics, for use both on the bench and in the front office.
In Andre Drummond, he has a future All-Star center in the middle to build around. In the short term, he'll need to figure out how to team him with Josh Smith and Greg Monroe in a Van Gundy offense that typically favors floor spacing. The team signed Jodie Meeks and D.J. Augustin to help add shooting along the perimeter, so how much the Pistons can turn it around in one summer is yet to be seen.
5. Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat
Career Record: 314-162
He'll now be missing his top weapon in South Beach, but with LeBron James out of the picture, the wider NBA realm should clearly realize the strides Erik Spoelstra has made as a head coach.
Being handed three of the league's brightest stars in their prime certainly didn't hurt Spoelstra's overall win-loss record, but getting the trio—all had previously been focal points on their respective teams—to mesh in fairly short order was no small task.
In their first season together, that Heat team reached the Finals, with no true point guard or center. A year later, Spoelstra acknowledged he botched his handling of LeBron James as a player in their first year together—yet the Heat still fell just two wins shy of a title.
For Sports On Earth, Elena Bergeron nailed down precisely what sets Spo apart from most of the coaching ranks' top tier: his emergence from the Heat's video department.
There's a respect for coaches who tinker well, like Spoelstra has done, because the roadmap for putting together successful stretches changes depending on who's hot and who's struggling. The mark of a good coach in today's NBA is getting players to buy into experiments—and having those experiments pay off.
What is obvious is that, in his time as head coach, Spoelstra has engendered respect that's harder to come by for a guy who wasn't a pro himself.
He's taken a path that some players could easily brush off with condescension. Instead, even the biggest egos in the Miami locker room have bought into each of Spoelstra's adjustments—whether it's a simple lineup shuffle or modeling the offense after the Oregon football team.
James won't be a part of the Heat's attack anymore, but Spo's growth from the previous era in Miami has molded a top-five NBA coach.
4. Rick Carlisle, Dallas Mavericks
Career Record: 569-399
With a relatively low profile, Rick Carlisle has established himself as one of the most consistently great coaching leaders the league has seen in recent years.
After 12 years of experience on the bench, Carlisle's teams have failed to make the postseason only twice. His head coaching career began with back-to-back 50-win seasons with the Detroit Pistons in the early 2000s, followed by a 61-win season as Indiana head man the following year.
Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN TrueHoop put it best when he said about the 54-year-old, "Give Carlisle the pieces, and he’ll find something that works." He found a way to guide the Pacers to an Eastern Conference Finals in 2004 and pieced together an ultimate team championship in 2011, with his most celebrated coaching moment. Of course, that's when his Mavs knocked off the newly formed Big Three in Miami with a NBA Finals victory in just six games.
Most recently, he guided last year's Mavs to the postseason—led by a far different cast than his 2011 champions. It led to a postseason ouster at the hands of the eventual-champion Spurs in seven games, in a series that several predicted wouldn't last longer than the mandatory four—maybe five.
This year's Mavs still have Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis held over from last season. They've reclaimed Tyson Chandler via a trade with the Knicks to man the middle and presented Chandler Parsons with an offer that Houston just couldn't match. If there's ever been a possibility for Dallas to make another run in a brutally tough Western Conference, this could be it.
3. Doc Rivers, Los Angeles Clippers
Career Record: 644-498
Over the last two decades, Doc Rivers has filled several different roles and, looking back on it all, has probably come the farthest among any NBA coach.
After retiring as a player after the '96 season, Rivers filled a broadcasting role shortly and then took control of the Orlando Magic in 1999. He posted a 273-312 coaching record through eight seasons with Orlando and Boston, with rosters seriously devoid of legitimate talent, Rivers' reputation as a coaching mind was at rock-bottom. In 2006, ESPN The Magazine's Bill Simmons penned a column with the lede: "Doc Rivers stinks as an NBA head coach."
Just a few years later, we now know that it only took a few high-profile Celtics acquisitions to catapult Rivers to the top of NBA coaching ranks.
After Boston assembled its Big Three with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joining Paul Pierce, the Celtics went 371-186. He's a master of drawing up quick scores out of timeouts and just last season led a Clippers team to a top-10 defense league-wide.
2. Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls
Career Record: 205-107
Things have never come easily for his Chicago Bulls teams, but Tom Thibodeau has gotten the very most out of his roster in each of his four NBA years as head coach—probably better than any in the league.
Thibodeau took the reins of the Bulls the same season the Miami Heat formed their illustrious, star-studded trio. Chicago answered by winning 62 games and finishing with the best regular-season record in the East. The Bulls were without Derrick Rose for much of the 66-game 2011-12 season but managed to finish on top yet again. They weren't derailed until Rose was knocked out for good in the first game of those playoffs.
While missing their star almost completely over the last two seasons, the Bulls have remained as competitive as any team in the conference. No Thibs-coached Chicago team has ever finished outside the top six in defensive efficiency, and players like D.J Augustin and Nate Robinson have cashed in with lucrative deals after one-year stints under Thibodeau.
Even if he tends to run his key players out a bit longer than recommended, Thibs is one of the very best coaching minds in the league. Even his logic behind his most publicized flaw was pretty fair, via ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell:
'And if you guys study the history of the league, which I'm sure you do, and the great Bulls teams, you'd see that Jordan, Pippen well into their 30s were playing huge minutes,' he said. 'So I'm trying to be like Phil.' ...
'I sat on that other bench," he said. 'And I was always sitting there saying, 'When's he going to take them out? When's he going to take them out?' And he never did. And you know what? That was great coaching.
While it's not the safest method to coaching, his hands have been tied over the last few seasons. With a restocked roster this upcoming season, after the re-addition of Rose, the selection of Doug McDermott and the signings of Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic, this season may be Thibodeau's most promising yet.
1. Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs
Career Record: 967-443
As if there was any sort of controversy regarding the top spot on this list. The Spurs missed out on the playoffs for Gregg Popovich's first season manning the bench in 1996-97 but have appeared in every postseason since, finishing no worse than second place over the last 17 seasons.
Aside from his inaugural season at the helm, the Spurs haven't finished with a winning percentage lower than .600 in any campaign and have won at least 50 games in every 82-game season with Popovich on the bench. They even managed to win 50 during the 66-game season in 2011-12 and finished 37-13 (.740 winning percentage) during the lockout-shortened 1998-99 league year.
All this has amounted to five championships, three Coach of the Year awards and countless examples of gathering together other teams' trash and morphing it into league-best role players.
The two closest active head coaches, in terms of win totals, are Doc Rivers and Flip Saunders, but neither comes within 100 win-percentage points of Pop.
Every September seems to be the popular time to predict the elderly Spurs' demise. But after last season, when Popovich split the team's minutes up almost beautifully, doubt them, and him, at your own risk.