Early Report-Card Grades for Every New NBA Head Coach

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 13, 2021

Early Report-Card Grades for Every New NBA Head Coach

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    NBA head coaches tend to be the ones whose evaluations matter most, at least from a player's perspective. Earn a passing grade from the guy who controls your role and playing time, and you're in good shape. Come up short and, well, get acquainted with the bench.

    We're flipping the dynamic here by grading the graders, handing out early marks to coaches in their first seasons running a new team.

    Evaluating coaches from afar is tough. Watching games gives us a sense of their stylistic and lineup-construction preferences, and basic tactical acumen shows up (or doesn't) with enough study. But beyond those indicators and maybe the occasional postgame press conference, we're at an information deficit. We don't see what coaches do in practice, on the plane or in those critical one-on-one conversations that build relationships with players and staff.

    These grades will be based on how the team is performing relative to expectations, with excuses for health and other uncontrollable variables priced in. They cover only head coaches who started the season with a new team, so Alvin Gentry and his midyear takeover of the Sacramento Kings is out. The same goes for the Atlanta Hawks' Nate McMillan, who led the team for 38 games last year, plus the playoffs.

    We'll be tough but fair, just like a good coach.

Ime Udoka, Boston Celtics

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    Steve Dipaola/Associated Press

    The Boston Celtics entered play Friday at 13-13, toting the point differential of a team that ought to have a slightly better record than that. FiveThirtyEight has them finishing with a projected record of 46-36 with a 76 percent chance of making the playoffs.

    That might sound pretty solid, but the Celtics are forecast to finish tied for sixth in the East with the Miami Heat, which puts them in real danger of having to survive the play-in before the privilege of a first-round matchup against a dangerous title contender.

    Ime Udoka has so far presided over a disappointing offense that has fallen from 10th in 2020-21 to 17th this season and a defense that has climbed from 12th to eighth. Considering Boston upped its overall talent level by swapping Kemba Walker for Al Horford, adding Dennis Schroder on the cheap and taking a flyer on Josh Richardson, it's not a great sign that the team is performing right in line with last season's .500 level.

    Credit Udoka for using Boston's best regular lineup most often. Schroder, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Grant Williams and Horford own a plus-22.0 net rating in 173 possessions. That group, with Robert Williams III in Grant Williams' place, has seen the floor for the second-most possessions. It owns a minus-12.5 net rating. Maybe Udoka deserves a demerit for that.

    The whispers about Tatum's selfishness and the bouts of stagnant offense are a tough look for Udoka, but he's done well with Jaylen Brown missing so much time and Tatum struggling to find his stroke.

    Ultimately, the Celtics just don't seem all that different under Udoka. They're averaging an almost identical number of passes per game and rank 20th in pace, just like they did under Brad Stevens last season.

    When you change coaches and upgrade personnel, you're hoping for an improvement, not more of the same.

    Grade: C-

Jason Kidd, Dallas Mavericks

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    John McCoy/Associated Press

    We can't very well blame Jason Kidd for Luka Doncic's poor conditioning or the front office's failure to populate the roster with more playmakers, but some amount of responsibility for an offense that has slipped from the top 10 to the bottom 10 belongs to him.

    That said, Mavericks players seem to appreciate how Kidd has loosened the reins. Former head coach Rick Carlisle has a long history of micromanaging and dictating his team's attack with frequent play calls. Dallas operates differently now.

    "I'm just playing feeling free; I would say that's the main thing," Kristaps Porzingis told reporters in November. "I'm just feeling free to play my game, and then my teammates are trusting me, my coaches are trusting me, and I'm coming out there and just having fun."

    Tim Hardaway Jr. offered a similar sentiment this month.

    Happier players don't always perform at higher levels, but good vibes have to count for something.

    The defense has been better under Kidd, ranking higher than it has in any year since Doncic came aboard, and Dallas' increased aggression on that end is forcing turnovers at the highest clip since it led the league in that category during the 2016-17 season.

    The Mavericks have to be disappointed with a break-even record, but it'll be difficult to judge Kidd's impact until he's coaching a version of Doncic that can play more than two minutes without sucking wind.

    Bonus points for not purposely spilling anything on the floor, forcing a non-swimmer into a pool or canceling Christmas. So far.

    Grade: C

Rick Carlisle, Indiana Pacers

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    The Indiana Pacers may be on the verge of a teardown, and you have to wonder whether Rick Carlisle, an experienced and widely respected coach, would have returned to the team he led from 2003 to 2007 if he'd known a rebuild was in the offing.

    Then again, his failure to produce better results is part of the reason Indy is contemplating a reset.

    The Pacers have been atrocious in close-and-late situations, and though we often minimize the value of clutch performance because of inherently small samples and luck, Indy Cornrows' Caitlin Cooper made a compelling case that the team's struggles in pivotal moments are symptoms of deeper shortcomings. A lot of the blame for Indiana's disorganized and lackadaisical efforts in the minutes that matter most has to fall on Carlisle.

    Indiana has had a habit of slowing the game down, often sacrificing fast-break opportunities, to receive and run a play call from the sideline. The Pacers offense has performed well overall, but they rank 24th in transition frequency, basically leaving points on the table by not running more.

    Carlisle is getting more out of the Domantas Sabonis-Myles Turner tandem than any previous coach ever did, as evidenced by Indy's plus-9.7 net rating in those two-big looks. But Turner is unhappy in his role, and a roster overhaul is imminent.

    Carlisle seems likely to figure things out eventually, but this is a grade on what's happened so far this year and a reminder that leading a team is a lot harder when you don't have Luka Doncic, late-prime Dirk Nowitzki or the underrated combo of Ron Artest and Jermaine O'Neal.

    Grade: D+

Willie Green, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    There aren't many players who matter more to their teams than Zion Williamson matters to the New Orleans Pelicans. When he shifted to point guard last season, it unlocked new dimensions in the offense and put everyone else on the roster in better positions to succeed, feeding off the attention he drew as an attacker.

    Willie Green hasn't coached Williamson for a single second of game action yet, a caveat that can't be ignored when evaluating what he's done for the Pels so far.

    New Orleans is 7-20 with a minus-9.0 differential, and its defense has been particularly impotent over the last two weeks, allowing the second-most points per possession in the league. Dallas shot nearly 70 percent from the field as a team during a 32-point pummeling of the Pels on Dec. 1.

    The Pelicans are painfully young. They have precious little talent in reserve to make up for the injuries that have hampered them all year. And they have an alarming habit of no-showing against the few teams they should be able to beat, as New Orleans is a league-worst 1-9 against opponents with losing records.

    For most of a brutal season that has seen the Pels slip to last in the West, the team has played hard. Given the circumstances, effort might be the only thing Green can actually control. For what it's worth, top executive David Griffin, who put this roster together, is the one deserving of an "F."

    Green gets more benefit of the doubt than him.

    Grade: B-

Jamahl Mosley, Orlando Magic

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The Orlando Magic are terrible, but Jamahl Mosley isn't to blame.

    This is a team whose top five players in minutes per game are all exceptionally young. Mo Bamba is the senior member of the group that includes Cole Anthony, Franz Wagner, Wendell Carter Jr. and Jalen Suggs...and he's only 23.

    Shockingly, that fivesome has a plus-11.2 net rating on a team-high 341 possessions. When almost any other group takes the floor, Orlando collapses.

    Far from being disappointing or surprising, the Magic's bottom-five rankings in offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, effective field-goal percentage and turnover rate should have been the expectation. Ditto for the constant mistakes on D, and an offense that has had the aesthetic appeal of week-old roadkill.

    Carter and Bamba have both been empowered this season, though. The former is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists and true shooting percentage while transforming from a theoretical three-point threat into an actual one. The latter is one of just three players with at least 30 made threes and 50 blocked shots this season.

    It's certainly possible those two would have improved naturally, given their youth. But Carter and Bamba have grown on Mosley's watch, and like Willie Green in New Orleans, the first-year head coach in Orlando has his charges playing with more effort than you'd expect from a team that enters most games with slim chances of winning.

    Grade: B

Chauncey Billups, Portland Trail Blazers

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Much of what's gone wrong in an unraveling Portland Trail Blazers season is beyond Chauncey Billups' control.

    As far as we know, he's not the one who leaked news of Damian Lillard's unhappiness to reporters. He also didn't berate staffers to the point of being fired, like deposed GM Neil Olshey. And he certainly didn't put together a roster that, yet again, refuses to defend.

    It's becoming increasingly clear that there was rot in Portland before Billups arrived. In fact, his messy, mishandled hiring might have been the clearest sign that something was very wrong with the franchise.

    Billups isn't the problem, but the guy who replaced Terry Stotts doesn't look much like a solution either.

    Via Jason Quick of The Athletic: "What worked under Stotts doesn't work for Billups, and it's creating some uncomfortable moments for the holdovers. Stotts let guys play with freedom and rely on instinct. ... Under Billups, mistakes are no longer allowed to slide because of your salary, your tenure or your contract status. ... When the players stray from that vision, they are being called out. During play, during timeouts, in halftime speeches and in film sessions. And from the looks of it, the exchanges are not going well."

    To Billups' credit, the offense hasn't been an issue. Portland is fifth in scoring efficiency, despite straying from Stotts' heavy dose of pick-and-rolls and Lillard's shooting woes.

    The Blazers have had plenty of injuries, with CJ McCollum's collapsed lung the most recent and alarming entry on a list that includes Lillard's troublesome abdominal tendinopathy. Still, there's enough talent here to do more than hover around .500.

    And lastly, when a coach harangues his players multiple times in public, citing lack of effort and pride, it can sometimes be a sign that he's run out of constructive options and has, perhaps, already lost the team.

    Grade: D

Wes Unseld Jr., Washington Wizards

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    Luis M. Alvarez/Associated Press

    A 10-3 start fueled by surprisingly stout defense earned Wes Unseld Jr. an early spot in the running for Coach of the Year, but the Washington Wizards' ensuing 5-8 stretch proved just how quickly fortunes and awards races can turn.

    Regression aside, if someone had told Wizards fans the team would be 15-11 and in the mix for one of the East's top four playoff spots several weeks into the season, they would have happily taken it.

    Unseld has Washington running opponents off the three-point line to an extreme degree. No team allows a lower share of shots from beyond the arc. That's the key reason the Wizards permit the third-lowest effective field-goal percentage in the league.

    That tactic has created a conundrum for Unseld. Daniel Gafford is the team's lone shot-blocker, one made more valuable by a strategy that funnels offensive players toward the lane. But Washington has gotten smoked with Gafford in the game, while backup Montrezl Harrell owns the second-best on-off differential on the team.

    Playing Gafford makes sense in theory, but Harrell has been the more effective center in practice. That might be because Harrell sees more time against backups, but if Washington's slide continues, Unseld may need to prove himself as a rotation tinkerer. Thomas Bryant and Rui Hachimura are due back soon as well. More healthy bodies is a good thing, but playing-time reductions could harm the vibes, making Unseld's job harder.

    The Wizards are succeeding with Bradley Beal playing below a superstar level and Spencer Dinwiddie bricking everything. Teams that win more than expected on the strength of depth, effort and shrewd scheming reflect well on a coach.

    Grade: A-


    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through Dec. 9. Salary info via Spotrac.