What does it take to be an elite coach? Should front offices value offensive and defensive schemes? How about player development? Does a head coach allow his assistants to perform at a high level?
Creating a successful culture is a high-wire act in today’s NBA with the game changing at a rapid rate and players holding more control than ever before. It doesn’t take much for a star to force a franchise into a me-or-him situation, and history shows the coach isn’t winning that battle.
In simplified terms, there is no perfect formula. Coaches must balance a number of important factors, so we’ll try to do the same here with Sporting News’ 2018-19 NBA coach rankings. Let’s break down the tiers and hit a few notable names along the way, starting in San Antonio…
Tier 1: The elite class
1. Gregg Popovich, Spurs
Who else but Pop? The 69-year-old has won five NBA championships (tied for third-most in league history) and three Coach of the Year awards in his career. He refuses to rest on his laurels, adjusting his strategies through multiple eras and looking at how he can improve despite his status as one of the greatest coaches in sports history. (He recently took the blame for trying to turn LaMarcus Aldridge “into John Havlicek.”)
Popovich led his team to 47 wins and a playoff appearance with Kawhi Leonard out essentially the entire season. He has a new challenge ahead with DeMar DeRozan in the fold, but there’s no reason to doubt the Spurs with Pop still in charge.
2. Brad Stevens, Celtics
3. Steve Kerr, Warriors
That’s now three titles for Kerr as a coach in addition to the five he earned as a player. Yes, he is in charge of the most ridiculous collection of talent the league has ever seen, but there’s something to be said for owning the best regular season and playoff winning percentages in NBA history.
It isn’t easy to keep the Warriors motivated and fresh given the volume of games and the physical and mental toll. Kerr places an emphasis on joy and love for the game, and he doesn’t need any special attention to boost his ego. He’s the right guy to run this dynasty.
4. Rick Carlisle, Mavericks
5. Quin Snyder, Jazz
Utah blew away expectations after losing Gordon Hayward last summer. The emergence of Donovan Mitchell as a legitimate star certainly had a lot to do with that. But don’t sleep on Snyder’s coaching job in a brutal Western Conference.
While the rest of the NBA feels the need for speed, the Jazz continue to play at their pace and grind down opponents defensively. Utah nearly finished with the No. 1 overall defensive rating despite losing an elite rim protector in Rudy Gobert for 26 games. Snyder’s offensive acumen is also underrated. Just ask any scout trying to observe his signals.
Snyder had a legitimate case for Coach of the Year in 2018, and he should be near the top of the ballot once again this season.
6. Erik Spoelstra, Heat
7. Mike D’Antoni, Rockets
8. Dwane Casey, Pistons
It’s not often you see the Coach of the Year accepting the award after being fired by his team. Casey’s Raptors finished with the best record in franchise history at 59-23 before falling once again to LeBron James’ Cavs in the playoffs. It’s easy to make jokes at the expense of Casey and the Raptors, but he deserved the recognition he received.
Casey risked angering star guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan by altering their minutes and usage and focusing on ball movement and spacing within the offense. Toronto eventually finished top five in offensive rating, assist-to-turnover ratio and true shooting percentage.
Give credit to Casey’s former assistant and new Raptors coach Nick Nurse, but Casey was the one willing to throw the old ways in the trash. Can he change Detroit’s fortunes now and make the Pistons a playoff team?
9. Nate McMillan, Pacers
10. Doc Rivers, Clippers
Tier 2: The middle ground
11. Brett Brown, 76ers
Four seasons of tanking made a 52-win campaign that much more satisfying for Brown. With Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons healthy for the majority of the season, Brown was finally able to take advantage of top NBA talent.
But it wasn’t just about Embiid and Simmons. Brown developed role players like Dario Saric, Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell, making them valuable pieces in his rotation. He came out the other side of “The Process” and earned his team’s respect as a result. Expectations are much higher now, but Brown could become a steady top-10 or even top-five coach in the near future.
12. Alvin Gentry, Pelicans
13. Terry Stotts, Trail Blazers
14. Mike Budenholzer, Bucks
It wasn’t all that long ago Budenholzer’s Hawks stood atop the East with a potent offense and a defense anchored by Al Horford and Paul Millsap. Now in Milwaukee, Budenholzer will attempt to build around Giannis Antetokounmpo and help the Bucks reach their potential.
His challenge starts with the fundamentals, including simple elements like transition defense and spacing. He is also encouraging more 3-pointers from a team that finished in the bottom five in 3-point attempts last season. These tweaks may seem small, but Bud’s touch could be the difference in propelling the Bucks from No. 7 to top-four range in the East.
15. Kenny Atkinson, Nets
16. David Fizdale, Knicks
17. Billy Donovan, Thunder
18. Tyronn Lue, Cavs
This is a tough case. Lue has reached the past three NBA Finals and won a title, so his ranking appears far too low based on that alone. But how much does the LeBron James factor come into play?
Cleveland’s culture is consistently chaotic. (JR Smith threw soup at an assistant coach last season, if you happened to forget that.) Lue is a player-friendly coach, but when it comes to Xs-and-Os and lineup strategies, there are big questions.
Lue now has a chance to prove he’s more than the guy who didn’t screw up a LeBron Finals run. We will soon find out what he’s got up his sleeve.
19. Tom Thibodeau, Timberwolves
OK, Thibodeau is obviously in a nightmare situation with the Jimmy Butler trade request staring him in the face every day. But let’s take a step back and look at what he’s accomplished.
In his second season with the Timberwolves, Thibs pushed Minnesota to the playoffs for the first time since 2004, and he did it with Butler sidelined for 23 games. Karl-Anthony Towns has developed into a star and will lead the franchise for years to come, though it’s fair to point out his poor defense under a defensive-minded coach.
Thibodeau deserves his fair share of criticism for coaching and personnel decisions — Tyus Jones is nodding somewhere — but let’s not pretend he has been an all-around failure.
20. Scott Brooks, Wizards
Tier 3: The unknown and unproven
21. Luke Walton, Lakers
Los Angeles only won 35 games in 2017-18, but that represented a nine-win jump from the previous season, Walton’s rookie year. The Lakers’ net rating also jumped from a league-worst minus-7.2 to minus-1.4 as youngsters like Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma developed.
It’s time for the hard part now. Walton is running a LeBron-led operation, and that comes with certain assumptions. Lakers fans will be looking for 50 wins and a playoff appearance, and while that might not be completely realistic, the weight is on Walton’s shoulders to manage on-court responsibilities along with the media circus in LA.
22. Mike Malone, Nuggets
23. Steve Clifford, Magic
24. Fred Hoiberg, Bulls
25. Dave Joerger, Kings
26. Nick Nurse, Raptors
Nurse was often credited as the brains behind Toronto’s offensive transformation. He assisted Casey in getting the players to buy into the system, and it resulted in 59 wins and the No. 1 seed in the East. (The Raptors ran into LeBron again later, but we all know how that ends.)
With Kawhi Leonard in town and the clock running on his free agency, Nurse must forge a connection with his star forward as soon as possible. Not only that, Nurse can’t afford to lose Kyle Lowry, who reportedly dodged his calls this past summer.
This is a team with dreams of a trip to the NBA Finals — any unnecessary drama falls on Nurse to handle. That’s a lot on the plate of a first-year head coach.
27. Igor Kokoskov, Suns
28. Lloyd Pierce, Hawks
29. James Borrego, Hornets
The former Spurs assistant replaces Steve Clifford in a critical year for the franchise. All-Star point guard Kemba Walker is set to become a free agent in 2019, and he clearly wants to win now. Borrego is already taking steps to ensure that happens.
Borrego is placing an emphasis on pace and looking for openings within the first few seconds of the shot clock when defenses aren’t set, which should create scoring opportunities outside of Walker’s usual production. Charlotte also added Tony Parker in free agency to run the offense when Walker sits, and his familiarity with Borrego should make for an easy transition.
The Hornets roster looks largely the same as last season, but Borrego’s system could make a major difference for this fringe playoff squad.
30. J.B. Bickerstaff, Grizzlies