When ranking the 30 NBA general managers, I mentioned how difficult the exercise really is, given the disproportionate resources available to them and the trickiness of evaluating player acquisitions. When it comes to ranking coaches, that exercise is even more difficult. That's the caveat we're going to throw in there before we even get started with this.
While we're here, I might as well explain why ranking coaches is so tough. The truth is that the NBA is overrun with too many good coaches right now. They know more now about psychology and advanced statistics than ever before, and they are using those tools to supplement their already-outstanding understanding of the game itself. More and more coaches have become open to new methods to get the job done, and all this has caused the quality of coaching in this league to go from good to great. In doing this list, I could make an argument that every non-first time coach has enough strong qualities to vault them higher on this list.
Alas, there is good, and there is even better, so here is our attempt to separate between the two. Before we continue, though, I wanted to put out five things everyone has to keep in mind when evaluating coaches.
1. Coaching is like a box of chocolates. There's no one right way to coach in this league. Phil Jackson won 11 titles by creating a system, being calm in the face of adversity and teaching more than screaming. Gregg Popovich won four titles in nine years by acting like a drill sergeant and not making one player bigger than the team. Both styles worked. Finding an identity as a coach is more important than trying to be someone else.
2. Coaching is people management. For all the scheming done, we forget that coaches are dealing with human beings that are motivated by all sorts of things. They go through crises of confidence. They shrink or rise from the moment. They experience jealousy because someone else on the team is paid more than them. They have habits to unlearn, and some of them can't do everything you wish they could do. The trick is motivating them to be the best collective they can be while designing a way to make the most out of their individual talents. If that sounds hard, it's because it is really, really hard.
3. Coaches must delegate. Assistant coaches and advance scouts don't get nearly enough credit or blame in this game. Every single coach in this league relies on those people for his expertise. It is often their insights that make a head coach look good or bad.
4. Coaches control little in the actual flow of a game. A common refrain fans have against their head coach is "he's a bad in-game coach! He doesn't make adjustments!" Let's get one thing straight: every single possible thing a coach could do within the game has been talked out and discussed beforehand. Very little comes as a surprise to any coach within the flow of the game. If a coach doesn't look like he is making adjustments, it's because he's already accounted for that scenario in his head and is one step ahead of you. Or, sometimes, he's one step ahead of himself.
5. Coaches have all the control and none of the control. This is the key point. A coach is like a project manager at your office. He sets the agenda (style of play) for you. He runs the meetings (practices). He assigns tasks to different members of the project (playing time). The difference is that his group of people a) often make more money than him, b) are often given to him by someone higher up in the company without him being consulted, and c) may simply be less talented or, worse, more talented and unwilling to listen than the people who work for his competitor.
Under those circumstances, it's tricky to evaluate coaches on wins and losses. Sometimes, they're given bad talent. Sometimes, they're given talent that is impossible to integrate into their identity. This is context that must be included when evaluating coaches.
With all that said, let's begin with the part you all wanted to read. A heads-up: we're only ranking 29 coaches because the Timberwolves still don't have a coach.
TBD. Mark Jackson, Golden State Warriors (NR): Jackson has never been a head coach or an assistant coach, so it's impossible to rank him. Based on his public persona, we can guess that he'll be more of a motivator than a tactician, but it's just a guess. Really, nobody knows anything about him.
TBD. Kevin McHale, Houston Rockets (NR): McHale has technically coached 94 games in his career, but all of them were after he picked up the pieces from a fired coach. He actually did a pretty good job both times, posting a better winning percentage than the man he replaced, but it's impossible to really judge a coach until he has to start from an offseason and training camp. Until then, we'll stick McHale down here in the TBD section.
TBD. Tyrone Corbin, Utah Jazz (NR): The Jazz fell apart after Jerry Sloan's retirement last year, and Corbin looked in over his head a lot of the time. But I'm willing to give him a pass for that because he inherited an impossible situation, given the circumstances surrounding Sloan's retirement and Deron Williams' departure to New Jersey.
26. Vinny Del Negro, Los Angeles Clippers (24): Del Negro has become a punchline, which is kind of unfair because he has his good qualities. His tactical skills are, um, questionable, but young players do tend to improve under him and the two No. 1 overall picks (Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin) he has coached have few bad things to say about him. At a certain point, though, his inability to design a legitimate offense and his teams' struggles at executing plays down the stretch will catch up to him.
25. Paul Westphal, Sacramento Kings (20): It's tough to coach DeMarcus Cousins, much less DeMarcus Cousins on a team that lacks leadership and has probably pandered too much to one of its stars (Tyreke Evans) already. Westphal is very much in a no-win situation here, especially when his salary is among the lowest in the league for a head coach. But the Kings still do lack an identity, and at a certain point, Westphal has to come up with one that can better dictate player acquisitions.
24. Byron Scott, Cleveland Cavaliers (21): He, too, inherited a no-win situation in Cleveland, but there have been questions about his dedication to his job and the complexity of his offensive schemes in the past. On the flip side, players like playing for him, unless their name is J.J. Hickson. This was somewhat of an issue in his first stop in New Jersey, and Scott has taken measures to rectify it. I still think he's somewhat overrated though, having been blessed with Chris Paul and Jason Kidd in their primes.
23. Larry Drew, Atlanta Hawks (30): I thought Drew was handed a really difficult situation last year: a team needing a coach willing to change the team's style, yet with the same roster and one of the lowest-paid coaches in the league. In that respect, it's understandable that the Hawks sleepwalked a bit through the year, with Drew prodding them to be different and often struggling. I thought Drew regained some points by outcoaching Stan Van Gundy in the Hawks-Magic series and for keeping games competitive against the Bulls in the next round.
22. Dwane Casey, Toronto Raptors (NR): Now you see why there are so many great coaches in this league. Casey shepherded a roster of Kevin Garnett and nobody else to a .500 record in 2006-07, then later emerged as the defensive architect for a championship team in Dallas. And yet, despite this, he's 22nd. Why so low? For a couple reasons: he needs to prove he can design a good offense, and I'm a bit skeptical if his defensive magic can work as well with a Raptors roster that has very few natural defensive players. I suspect Casey will be a success in Toronto, though, which tells you what you need to know about this list.
21. Lawrence Frank, Detroit Pistons (NR): The onetime New Jersey Nets coach is back with the Detroit Pistons, and I'm curious to see what he learned from serving as Doc Rivers' lead assistant in Boston. Prior to that stint, Frank was a tireless worker and innovative thinker, but maybe didn't have the motivational skills of some of his colleagues. He will need to brush up on those in Detroit, a team with some veterans who are difficult to prod.
20. Scott Skiles, Milwaukee Bucks (17): The jury remains out on whether Skiles can have sustained success in a spot after initially producing dramatic improvement. His Bucks tenure has followed his tenures in Phoenix and Chicago, with immediate improvement (especially defensively), followed by players tuning him out after a few years. Last year was a bit of a mulligan, though, with injuries ravaging his team. Next year will be telling.
19. Alvin Gentry, Phoenix Suns (13): Again, the fact that a guy like Gentry is so low is telling with the level of talent in the league. The work he did in 2010 to lead the Suns to the Western Conference Finals was particularly noteworthy, and he's forgotten more about player-to-player psychology than I will ever know. That said, I do think the lack of development from Robin Lopez and Goran Dragic is a bit troubling for someone who is known for making the most out of an individual's talent. Also, while he's been dealt some pretty awful hands in Detroit and with the Clippers, he still only can point to one year where he coached anything close to an elite team.
18. Avery Johnson, New Jersey Nets (15): I stand by most of what I wrote about Johnson last year, since the mess that was the Nets last year really does nothing to tip the scales one way or the other. He was essentially a trumped-up Skiles in Dallas, so it'll be interesting to see how he responds coaching one of the most strong-willed point guards in the league in Deron Williams.
17. Mike D'Antoni, New York Knicks (8): It pains me to do this, because I really don't want to open the can of worms that always results when one criticizes D'Antoni. He's a brilliant, brilliant mind, and I think he's also well-versed in a players' psychology. He also was put in a truly impossible situation with the midseason trade for Carmelo Anthony, in that he both acquired a player who didn't fit his style and had his roster of players who did fit gutted. But perhaps that's part of the problem in a way. As the years go by, one has to continually wonder if D'Antoni's only real path to success is having his perfect kind of idiosyncractic team in place. As opposed to others who are higher on this list, it's an open question whether D'Antoni can adjust well to his personnel.
16. Mike Brown, Los Angeles Lakers (NR): Brown's strengths are two-fold: he delegates brilliantly, and his teams always play phenomenal defense. His offensive system, though, really needs work, and I'm concerned he's going to have trouble standing up to Kobe Bryant at a time when Kobe, more than anything, needs someone to tell him to step back and have a more limited role.
15. Flip Saunders, Washington Wizards (14): Watching Saunders try to adjust his style to fit a young and at times immature roster has been fascinating. You can tell this is not where his talents are ideally suited, but he soldiers on, always trying to look for some sort of innovative way to help his players. His persistence is a great quality, as is his constant tinkering of his identity. That said, he continues to struggle motivating players, and his non-confrontational reputation is somewhat deserved.
14. Frank Vogel, Indiana Pacers (NR): It's so hard to win and simultaneously develop young talent in this league, yet Vogel managed to do both in his half-season in Indiana last year. To advance any higher on this list, he needs to do it for more than a half a season.
13. Monty Williams, New Orleans Hornets (28): I thought Williams deserved more Coach of the Year consideration last year. The Hornets' roster was pretty bad. Chris Paul is great, but he's a notch below the Chris Paul of 2008. David West is solid, but the Hornets were equally competitive with him healthy and with Carl Landry in his place. Emeka Okafor is decent, but often undersized inside. Trevor Ariza was a defensive demon, but an offensive nightmare. Marco Belinelli started at shooting guard. Jarrett Jack was the only competent reserve. The ownership situation was beyond problematic. Somehow, Williams guided that team to 46 wins and a scare of the Lakers in the first round. It's only one year, but the defensive work he did in particular was very impressive.
12. Doug Collins, Philadelphia 76ers (22): I'm a little reluctant to put Collins this high, because a part of me feels like we've seen this movie before. It's not uncommon for Collins to provide immediate improvement to his team's roster -- he did it in Chicago and Detroit before running into problems at both spots. But something about his year in Philadelphia felt different. He seemed more even-keeled than before, which bodes well for his ability to keep it up. I particularly liked how he went out of his way to praise Elton Brand and make him feel valued, because that was a big reason why Eddie Jordan failed the year before.
11. Paul Silas, Charlotte Bobcats (NR): This might feel a bit high, but I've always liked the way Silas motivated his players while also keeping them on an even keel. I'm not sure how long he'll be doing this, but the Bobcats have the ideal coach to cultivate young talent. I strongly believe that, if given the chance to stick it out in Cleveland, Silas could have experienced similar success to Mike Brown.
10. Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City Thunder (10): Let's get one thing straight about Brooks: you don't lead a team of college-aged kids to the Western Conference Finals without knowing what you're doing. Brooks' ability to manage egos and simplify his concepts to ensure his players had clear benchmarks was genius. But as the playoffs showed, Brooks still has a ways to go when it comes to designing a cohesive offensive system. He will need to improve this area to guide Oklahoma City on its biggest step yet.
9. Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat (11): Managing great talent is as difficult as getting bad talent to win. One could argue it's even more difficult. Spoelstra's Heat didn't win the title, and they experienced many bumps along the way, but he helped guide them through all those storms and got them to within two games of winning a championship. He got LeBron James to be more coachable than he was in Cleveland, which is a big step. A few crunch-time tweaks, a little less Mike Bibby and more Mario Chalmers, and he improves even more.
8. George Karl, Denver Nuggets (9): Hands down the best motivator in the game. His success with the post-trade Nuggets was impressive, but it was impressive in a manner Karl has displayed throughout his career. His relative success holding the pre-trade Nuggets together was much more impressive to me. My only issue with Karl: it seems like he has to have a certain type to truly succeed. His current Nuggets team resembles his old Sonics teams, except without the stars. Even in Seattle, Karl was a slight notch below elite. Is his model sustainable for winning in the playoffs? Karl's playoff track record is a bit spotty there.
7. Stan Van Gundy, Orlando Magic (3): Circumstances were beyond difficult, but I thought Stan took a step back last season. His roster was gutted at midseason, to be fair, and nothing is more difficult for a coach than to have to adjust to so many new faces at once like that. But a lot of the offensive creativity departed in favor of straight post-ups for Dwight Howard, and I think that hurt Orlando at times. He was also very much outcoached by Larry Drew in the playoffs, which is troubling. Still, I'd take him over almost anyone.
6. Nate McMillan, Portland Trail Blazers (6): Another batch of injuries, another playoff berth, another legitimate scare against a truly elite team. It's pretty much a given what you're going to get from McMillan. He never lets anything be used as an excuse, truly squeezing the most out of the talent he possesses. It will be interesting to see what happens if the Blazers ever are truly fully healthy.
5. Lionel Hollins, Memphis Grizzlies (18): Vaults way up this list after his amazing coaching job the last two seasons. When he was handed the Grizzlies' roster in 2009, people figured they would be the laughingstock of the league. Instead, they are a rising young juggernaut. Hollins' pet project in 2009-10 was getting the Grizzlies to play together offensively, and he succeeded. His pet project in 2010-11 was to build them into a defensive juggernaut, and he succeeded. His work developing Marc Gasol and Mike Conley has been outstanding, and his ability to keep his team in the picture after Rudy Gay's injury was equally so. This man, folks, is the league's best rising "young" coach.
4. Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls (27): Won Coach of the Year last year, and deservedly so. Nobody outworks Thibodeau, and therefore, nobody outworks the Bulls. There's not a player on that team who has any right to complain about Thibodeau being a perfectionist, because Thibodeau expects and exerts twice as much out of him himself as he will out of any of his players. That said, it's only been one year, and the big test for a demanding coach like Thibodeau is always whether his players will continue to listen to him for the long haul.
3. Doc Rivers, Boston Celtics (7): Doc's a pretty good case study for the "box of chocolates" point discussed above. Some will inevitably point out that life is made easier by him having Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, when before those three came together, he was close to being fired. That's true, on the surface. But the reality is that Doc's motivational style was a perfect fit to coach great talent, which as mentioned, is arguably more difficult than coaching mediocre talent because of all the ego that comes with it. Doc's ability to manage all those strong personalities in the Celtics' locker room harkens back to the work the late great Chuck Daly did with the Detroit Pistons.
2. Rick Carlisle, Dallas Mavericks (16): Having been dramatically underrated by many (including me!) through his coaching career, it's nice to see Carlisle finally get props for being the brilliant tactician he is now that the Mavericks are NBA champions.
1. Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs (2): With Phil Jackson retired, Popovich takes his place atop this list. The Spurs' season ended poorly last year with the playoff loss to Memphis, but given Popovich's aging roster, it's a borderline miracle that they won 62 games in the first place. It was an incredibly bold strategy to shift his team's style of play, and it worked. There's just nothing he can do about Tim Duncan getting old.