Scrutinizing Every NBA Head Coach After 1 Month

Mo DakhilFeatured Columnist INovember 15, 2021

Scrutinizing Every NBA Head Coach After 1 Month

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Coaching throughout the NBA has been solid as a whole during the first full month of the 2021-22 season, but that doesn't mean every coach is doing a great job.

    Coaching can be hard to judge.

    This early in the season, there are teams with both a positive point differential and a losing record, or vice versa. To put it bluntly: some teams are just really bad and not built to win. For those coaches, success is defined as keeping the team competitive—even if winning never really enters the equation.

    Other teams are trying to move up a level, and a small tweak here or there can make the difference. There are also contenders refining their identity en route to the playoffs, rounding out the entire group of 30 franchises.

            

    Hit the comments in the B/R app. What are your first impressions of your team's head coach almost a month into the season? 

Nate McMillan, Atlanta Hawks

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    After taking over for Lloyd Pierce midseason, Nate McMillan guided the Hawks to a 27-11 record and a surprising Eastern Conference Finals run last year. The success of the previous season has not carried over.

    Atlanta is off to a slow 5-9 start, even though it has enjoyed good health and brought back essentially the same roster as last year. The Hawks had an offensive rating of 115.9 last year after McMillan took over. This season that number had dropped to 107.9 entering Sunday.

    McMillan has a problem most coaches would die for—too much talent. The Hawks are one of the deepest teams, but being that deep means figuring out who to play, when and for how long. That was not an issue last season with injuries. 

    Kevin Huerter, Danilo Gallinari and Cam Reddish have seen their minutes go down this season. McMillan needs to establish a rotation to help get the Hawks back on track.

Ime Udoka, Boston Celtics

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Ime Udoka was one of the hottest names on the coaching carousel last season. Landing his first head coaching job in Boston caused a lot of excitement. A 2-5 start muted that exuberance almost immediately. 

    The defense was a big concern in those first seven games. Since then, the Celtics have won four of their last six and held their opponents to below 90 points in three of those wins. Fans should expect the defense to get even better now that it appears they dialed back their switching everything scheme. 

    As a first-year head coach, it might take Udoka some time to get his coaching legs underneath him. There will be mistakes along the way, but if he’s willing to correct them quickly, like he did with the defensive scheme they started out with, there is a lot to like about his future in Boston.

Steve Nash, Brooklyn Nets

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    The Brooklyn Nets are not as easy to coach as it would appear. Steve Nash and his staff prepared all offseason to have their Big Three together. But Kyrie Irving has yet to suit up for Brooklyn.

    With that change, several plans have gone out the window—rotations, plays and defensive schemes all had to be altered. Despite that, the Nets have gone 9-1 since starting the season 2-3. 

    More surprising than anything else has been the defense. Brooklyn entered Sunday in the top five in defensive rating at 104.1, a massive jump from last season’s 112.5 rating. Nash proved last season he is a great empathic leader, and this season he’s showing his coaching chops.

J.B. Bickerstaff, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    J.B. Bickerstaff has done a great job developing the young Cavaliers. There were flashes early last season. This season he’s equipped with the possible Rookie of the Year in Evan Mobley. 

    In an era when most teams are playing small, Bickerstaff is zagging, pairing the 7-foot Mobley with Jarrett Allen, another 7-footer. The twin towers approach has done wonders for Cleveland’s defense. It has even allowed the Cavs to play Lauri Markkanen as a wing player to get more offense on the floor. 

    The Cavs are off to a surprising 9-5 start, and a lot of that credit has to go to Bickerstaff for bucking a trend to play his best guys.

Billy Donovan, Chicago Bulls

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    This is a big season for the Bulls after having gone all-in the offseason. With those great expectations come a lot of pressure on coach Billy Donovan. So far, he has handled it all with ease.

    Chicago is just outside the top 10 of offensive rating, which does not come as a surprise with all its weapons. The big surprise comes from the Bulls ranking in the top five in defensive rating. That was the biggest concern going into the season. Even after losing Patrick Williams, they have kept on trucking. 

    The talent upgrade makes Donovan’s job easier. However, he’s done a great job establishing a rotation and adjusting it when Williams has been out, and he has the players’ buy-in. Cannot ask for much more from a coach. 

James Borrego, Charlotte Hornets

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    James Borrego’s Charlotte Hornets are one of the league’s must-watch teams. LaMelo Ball and Miles Bridges are very exciting, and veteran presences Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier are great complements. 

    As fun as the Hornets are to watch, Borrego has the tough job of teaching shot selection to young players. In particular teaching that aspect of the game to Ball. It has already cost them a game against the Boston Celtics. 

    The Hornets started off hot, going 5-2, but a five-game losing streak brought them back to earth. They’ve responded with a three-game winning streak. Charlotte is going to need to show more intensity defensively to take the next step in its trajectory.

Jason Kidd, Dallas Mavericks

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Just by looking at the Mavericks’ record, one would think Jason Kidd is doing a great job. Dig a little deeper, and their minus-1.6 point differential is worrying. Kidd has brought with him baggage after stops in Brooklyn and Milwaukee. The big question is whether he has learned from his past mistakes. 

    Of Dallas’ eight wins this season, only one has come against a team that was in the playoffs last season. To Kidd’s credit, the Mavericks have done a better job defending, but it has come at the expense of the offense. His tweaks there, particularly running more post-up sets, has taken the team’s offensive efficiency down from where it was the last two seasons. 

    Not the best early signs for the Mavs. If they can get their offense back on track, things will get jumping rather quickly in Dallas.

Michael Malone, Denver Nuggets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Michael Malone is a very demanding coach. He has done an amazing job in Denver over the years. This season will be challenging with Jamal Murray expected to miss most, if not all, of the season.

    The Nuggets are second in defensive rating and have kept their last five opponents below 100 points.  

    The offense has taken a slight dip, but that was to be expected. If Denver consistently defends at this level, Malone should start to get some recognition as a Coach of the Year candidate.

Dwane Casey, Detroit Pistons

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    It has not been a pleasant start to the season for the Pistons. Even though expectations were low, no one thought they would be this bad. They are 3-9 and dead last in points per game at 97.6

    Quite frankly, the Pistons are not good. How much of that can fall on Dwane Casey’s shoulders is not clear. On most nights the average age of their starting lineup is 21.8. There are going to be intense growing pains with this team. 

    Cade Cunningham is off to a slow start and was hampered with ankle sprains to start the season. Killian Hayes has struggled, Saddiq Bey’s shooting has fallen off the map, and Jerami Grant is not scoring at the rate he was last season. 

    Casey has to find a way to generate more offense from this squad. Whether that is changing the offensive system or rotations, something needs to be done to get more points on the board in Detroit.

Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    If the season were to end today, Steve Kerr would be Coach of the Year. Even without Klay Thompson ready to play yet, the Warriors are 11-2. They have the best net rating by a wide margin in large part due to their stifling defense. 

    Kerr has even changed up his rotation, which has frustrated Warriors fans in the past. He has begun playing Stephen Curry in shorter shifts. In years past, Curry would play the entire first and third quarters and rest for large chunks of the second and fourth quarters. This year Kerr has switched to Curry going out in the middle of the first and third quarters and bringing him back at the end of the quarters and starting him for next the quarters. 

    The adjustment has paid dividends. The Warriors have had a favorable schedule, having had just one game outside of California entering Sunday. That being said, they are routinely taking care of business. 

Stephen Silas, Houston Rockets

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    Michael Wyke/Associated Press

    This Rockets team is bad.

    There is not much Stephen Silas can do coaching-wise to make them better. The goal for him has to be getting them to compete and play the right way. It is his responsibility to shepherd the games of rookie Jalen Green and third-year player Kevin Porter Jr. 

    So far it has been a struggle, with both players off to poor shooting starts. The team is 1-12, and there does not seem to be a lot of help coming. This makes it difficult to judge Silas as a coach.

Rick Carlisle, Indiana Pacers

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    It was a scary seven-game start to the season for the Pacers, who opened up 1-6. A lot of that horrid start could be chalked up to injuries. Malcolm Brogdon and Caris LeVert missed games while T.J. Warren has not even suited up yet. 

    Rick Carlisle was able to steady the ship, as they’ve gone 5-2 over their last seven games. In this stretch, their offense has looked more focused and their defense more sound. 

    Carlisle is one of the best coaches in the business in a new situation. He is still in the process of learning his guys and who can do what. One thing the last couple of games has shown is he’s beginning to get the feel for the squad.

Tyronn Lue, LA Clippers

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    Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

    Tyronn Lue might be the best tactician in the NBA. The one thing he does better than most coaches is recognizing when something is not working and changing it immediately. The Clippers started off 1-4, and it looked as if this could be a rough season with Kawhi Leonard out. 

    Since that slow start, the Clippers have won seven out of eight and improved to 8-5. Paul George has played at an extremely high level for L.A. But Lue’s investment in players like Terance Mann, Luke Kennard, Ivica Zubac and Isaiah Hartenstein will go a long way for the organization beyond this season. 

    Lue is an incredible coach. He gets the most out of his players. It is showing early in this season, as he has the Clippers playing a top-five level of defense.

Frank Vogel, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Lakers are a mess right now. Rob Pelinka with some input from LeBron James has put together a flawed roster. Russell Westbrook has struggled to fit in. James has been out the last six games. Fair or not, the blame will be placed on the shoulders of Frank Vogel. 

    The criticism early on has ranged from starting games with DeAndre Jordan to his guard rotations. The truth is, a lot of this is not his fault. In fact, it is a small victory that entering Sunday he had the Lakers ranked 14th in defensive rating with all the liabilities they have on the court. The offense has struggled as they continue to accommodate Westbrook’s game. 

    Once the team is completely healthy, it should begin to find its style of play. As of now, it has been a bad start for the Lakers. Apart from Carmelo Anthony’s hot shooting, nothing has looked good. 

Taylor Jenkins, Memphis Grizzlies

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    Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    Often with young teams, the focus is on player development. In Memphis, Taylor Jenkins coaching developments are just as important. He has grown just as much as his young players. 

    One issue Jenkins has to address is the team’s defense this season. The Grizzlies are last in defensive rating. They have given up 116.3 points per game during their three-game losing streak. They are allowing teams to shoot 40.3 percent from three against them. If they can correct that, they will be just fine. 

    Jenkins had the team off to a hot start at 6-4, including a win over the Warriors. Memphis has cooled off since, but Jenkins has a good feel of the pulse of his squad and should see it through this rough patch.

Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Other than the Warriors, no team was getting more buzz than the Miami Heat at the start of the season. They opened the season with big wins over the Bucks, Nets and Jazz. 

    Erik Spoelstra is having to juggle his rotation with injuries to Jimmy Butler and Markieff Morris. The team was thin to begin with. Those guys being out has made Duncan Robinson’s struggles even more noticeable. Robinson got loose against the Jazz on Saturday. That is something Spoelstra is going to need to tap in.  

    There are few coaches that have their teams as prepared as Spoelstra. Despite a recent three-game losing streak, he has the team heading in the right direction.

Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    The Milwaukee Bucks have had a rough start to their title defense. Mike Budenholzer is holding everything together with shoestrings and bubble gum. They have gotten just eight games from Jrue Holiday, six from Khris Middleton, nine from Bobby Portis and one from Brook Lopez.

    Being just two games below .500 is actually quite an accomplishment considering all the injury woes the Bucks have had. With limited capabilities, Budenholzer has leaned heavily on Giannis Antetokounmpo, who also missed a game on Friday.

    Despite all of that, Milwaukee entered Sunday 14th in offensive rating. That is a credit to Budenholzer finding opportunities to get Grayson Allen going from three. Once at full health, the Bucks should continue to rise since Budenholzer has the blueprint in hand. 

Chris Finch, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    The Minnesota Timberwolves offense experienced a jump once Chris Finch took over midseason last year. That has not carried over this season.

    The Wolves are 26th in offensive rating, and Finch has not been able to crack the Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards trio offensively. That is damning since he is considered an offensive coach. 

    The good news is that the defense has been pretty good for the Wolves. Finch has to fix the offensive issues that plague Minnesota to get to the next level.

Willie Green, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Willie Green is in an incredibly tough spot as a first-year head coach. The team has been without Zion Williamson for the whole season, and Brandon Ingram has missed seven games. With the roster built around Williamson in particular, it is tough sledding for the Pelicans.

    One player thriving in Green’s system is Nickeil Alexander-Walker. He has played all 14 games, averaging 15.8 points and flashing some of development. With the top guys out, it is an important opportunity to focus on developing their young guys.   

    Building a system around Williamson sounds great, but if he is not available, it makes it difficult to truly assess Green’s coaching. 

Tom Thibodeau, New York Knicks

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    John Munson/Associated Press

    The Knicks came back to relevance last season in Tom Thibodeau’s first year at the helm behind his defensive scheme and an All-Star season from Julius Randle. Their lack of an offensive system caught up with them in the playoffs, but the Knicks are back.

    In the offseason they beefed up their offense, bringing in Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier. By doing so they have weakened their defense. A Thibodeau team ranked 25th in defensive rating must have him very frustrated. The starting unit has yet to develop any sort of chemistry as well. 

    It is hard to be critical of the Knicks, who are 7-6 for the season, but their offense is not potent enough to carry the defense for the entire season. Thibodeau may have to adjust his starting backcourt. Walker and Fournier together are not going to bring the defensive intensity the team had last season.  

Mark Daigneault, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Michael Wyke/Associated Press

    Have to give Mark Daigneault a ton of credit for the start of the season the Thunder have had. They are 5-7 with two huge comeback wins over the Lakers. Oklahoma City even had a four-game winning streak, something it did not have last season. 

    Daigneault has gotten the team to defend with much more vigor. Although it is a small sample size, the Thunder have a defensive rating of 107.5 to start the year. That is a big jump from their 113.4 rating last season. 

    The next step for Daigneault is getting the offense on track. They are 28th in points per game and have broken 110 points only once in their first 12 games. 

Jamahl Mosley, Orlando Magic

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    Darren Abate/Associated Press

    The Orlando Magic have a very young team as they rebuild. It made sense to hire a first-time head coach, which they did in Jamahl Mosley. He will have a chance to grow as a head coach as the team grows, a very similar situation to the Grizzlies and Jenkins. 

    Even though they are just 3-10, the Magic play hard. Two of their wins have been against the Knicks and the Jazz, quality opponents. Mosley has been able to tap into Cole Anthony, who has started his sophomore campaign scorching hot. That has made up for Jalen Suggs’ slow start to the season. 

    The way to judge Mosley's work this season is not by wins but how hard the team competes and the improvement of the young guys. The early returns look pretty good. 

Doc Rivers, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    The Sixers were off to a surprising 8-2 start before COVID-19 ravished the team. They had big wins against Chicago with several key players out. Doc Rivers deserves a ton of credit for holding the team together when there is chaos circling around them. 

    Eventually all the missing players were going to catch up to Philadelphia. They have dropped their last four games, all single-digit losses. This is where Rivers has to be better. His in-game coaching leaves a lot to be desired. In their loss to the Pacers, the Sixers made no adjustments even when Indiana called the same plays over and over. 

    Rivers has done a great job navigating through the Ben Simmons drama (partly his fault) and COVID crushing the team, but he needs to do a better job of putting the team in position to win these games.

Monty Williams, Phoenix Suns

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    After a 1-3 start, the Phoenix Suns have gone on an eight-game winning streak. They have done this with Deandre Ayton mostly out, and Frank Kaminsky has played great in his absence. 

    Take out the first four games of the season, the team would have the second-best net rating and defensive rating. The schedule has not been against the stiffest competition, but half of these wins have been by double digits.

    Monty Williams has done a phenomenal job keeping the train moving forward despite all the distractions in Phoenix.

Chauncey Billups, Portland Trail Blazers

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    It has not been the best start for first-time head coach Chauncey Billups

    There are some promising signs already for the Blazers, though. The defense has improved from last season. They are mixing up coverages from drop to switching, and it is paying off. They are giving up the second-fewest points per possession to pick-and-roll ball-handlers in the NBA. Last season they were 26th

    The problem right now has been the offense, and that cannot be placed on Billups. Damian Lillard is off to a very slow start and is dealing with abdominal pain. But the early returns on the defense, especially in the pick-and-roll, have been good. 

Luke Walton, Sacramento Kings

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    It feels like Luke Walton’s seat is always lukewarm.

    The recent four-game skid certainly does not help cool that seat off at all. The lack of consistency from the Kings has been a thing since Walton took over. On one night they can get a great win against the Suns and on the next get their doors blown off against the Spurs. 

    The good news for Walton is everyone seems to be buying into their roles. Buddy Hield coming off the bench with rookie Davion Mitchell has helped to bring some balance to their rotations. 

    The Kings just need to stack up some wins in the process to keep everyone in line. 

Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Gregg Popovich is a coaching legend. This may not be his best work, as the Spurs are continuing to find their way with a total youth movement. Even though they are 4-9, there have been some promising signs from the young kids.

    San Antonio has seven players averaging double digits in scoring. DeJounte Murray is averaging 7.8 assists and just 2.2 turnovers. The team is growing and developing perfectly in Popovich’s system. 

    Despite their losing record, the Spurs play hard. That no-quit attitude stems from Popovich, who will relentlessly coach the young players to improve.

Nick Nurse, Toronto Raptors

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    The Toronto Raptors are a very tough team. Nick Nurse has a roster full of interchangeable parts that can run any kind of defense. OG Anunoby has looked like he’s ready to take a leap, Scottie Barnes has been one of the best rookies, and they just got Pascal Siakam back. 

    The problem with the Raptors is their offense. For all the accolades Nurse rightfully gets for his defense, the offense is a struggle. According to Synergy Sports Technology, they rank 24th in points per possession in the half court, and that puts more pressure on their defense to have to get stops. 

    There is a lack of offensive creativity. A lot of it is dependent on Fred VanVleet and now Siakam to set the table. Nurse has done well this season, but to get Toronto to level up, the offense has to improve.

Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Coming into the season, the Jazz had more continuity than most. So it is surprising how inconsistent the team’s effort has been. Coach Quin Snyder even commented on it after Saturday’s loss

    The Jazz are just outside the top 10 in defensive rating. Offensively, they are rolling with the second-best rating, so it might seem weird to worry about an 8-5 team. But on some nights, they do not seem as locked in as they do on other nights. They had two 15-point quarters in their loss to the Magic a week ago. 

    Snyder has to figure out how one of the most consistent teams last season focused night in and night out. Yes, this team will not be judged by what it does in the regular season, but it does not look like a title contender right now.

Wes Unseld Jr., Washington Wizards

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Raise your hand if you had the Wizards having the best record in the East 12 games into the season? Anyone? Washington has been great to start the year, and a lot of that credit needs to go to first-time coach Wes Unseld Jr. 

    The Wizards are rolling in large part because of their defense. They are in the top five of defensive rating and are getting contributions from all over the roster. He has also revived Montrezl Harrell’s game, is putting Kyle Kuzma in great positions to get open shots and has Spencer Dinwiddie ready to pounce as a second option. More impressively, they are doing this while Bradley Beal has not really gotten going,

    Unseld will be a Coach of the Year candidate if not the winner if the Wizards continue to defend at this level. 


    Mo Dakhil spent six years with the Los Angeles Clippers and two years with the San Antonio Spurs as a video coordinator, as well as three years with the Australian men's national team. Follow him on Twitter, @MoDakhil_NBA.

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