Power Rankings: The NBA’s 10 Best Coaches
Plus, of course, the 10 best games of the week.
by Doobie Okon
This is a toughie. Only because the NBA, more than any other league, relies on its superstars to run, well, pretty much everything. A great coach is a luxury. A coach who relegates the reigns to his best player is a dime a dozen. Which coaches are just products of their stars? And which actually make an impact, truly inspire, and make a difference between victories and defeats?
In the League these days, everyone can dunk, drain threes, run the transition and blaze the offensive side of the ball. It’s the head coaches that stress defensive intensity on nightly bases that truly succeed in the end, and will win no matter what players they have. Those are the guys I have the most respect for…and with that, I give you the 10 best coaches as of right now:
10.) Nate McMillan, Portland Trailblazers
The Blazers appeared the best team in the West after a couple weeks, but have slowed down a bit after this 7-9 stretch in their last 16 games. I actually feel bad ranking McMillan this low because he remains one of the more underrated coaches in the League. The Blazers definitely have a loaded roster, but their talent level really doesn’t match up to say the Lakers, Clippers, or Thunder. However, McMillan, who was best known for his defense during his 12 years as a Seattle Supersonic, brings the same defensive preachings to the Portland squad he now guides from the sidelines. Throw in the fact that he’s also got a good mind for half-court offenses and has dealt with more ravaging injuries (Greg Oden, Brandon Roy, etc.) than any other coach and it’s no wonder McMillan is so respected by his peers. Of course, until he truly succeeds in the postseason, the rest of the country might not notice.
9.) Stan Van Gundy, Orlando Magic
Listen, let’s none of us sit here and try to analyze Van Gundy based on the personality we see on TV. Does he annoy his players and appear way too overbearing at times? Sure, but I’ll tell you what. His teams always finish close to the top of all defensive categories, and that takes more than one gigantic man inside to accomplish. And speaking of Dwight, Van Gundy gets a pass this season. He does. How can you expect to coach your team with clear eyes when your franchise player could be departing at any second? Even with all the distractions, Van Gundy still has Orlando afloat at 15-10 in the congested Southeast. And let’s not forget it was StanVan that urged and inspired Howard to become more of the defensive presence that he is today. It should be interesting to see how Van Gundy handles the Magic once the big man’s gone, but for now you can’t argue with the intensity he brings to the game and his overall winning percentage of .649 (349-189), second highest amongst any coaches on this list who’ve been at the helm at least two full seasons.
8.) Doc Rivers, Boston Celtics
I had Rivers at 10 originally but have moved him up due to this recent Boston surge. I got to respect the man…the Celtics really are old, slow and were Rondo-less for a couple weeks, yet still they’re climbing back up the division after starting 5-9 and are scaring me as a Sixers fan. I think Rivers is a hell of a coach, and rightfully deserved Coach of the Year honors in his first year (‘99-‘00) after taking an absolutely awful Orlando team to the playoffs. But let’s face the facts…the big 3 were not old and slow and Rondo-less when they won the Championship, and Rivers definitely got some help there. But I’m not taking anything away from the man, except that he does have that tendency to look at refs with the ‘oh-my-god-that-call-you-just-made-was-worse-than-OJ-verdict’ glance, hands raised high in the air and everything. You know the one.
7.) Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City Thunder
Brooks’ mission is simple now: Win a Championship. He’s already got himself Coach of the Year honors after OKC won 50 games in his second year (’09-’10), up from 23 just a season prior when taking over mid-year for P.J. Carlesimo. And sure, one could argue that he has the most talented roster in the conference, but it still takes one gem of a coach to turn such a young, horrible, new small-market team into West favorites in this short of a span. After 55 wins last year and a team that’s now on pace to win 52 (out of 66), it’s clear that Brooks’ status and future as a coach is probably the brightest since KD, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka are all under 24 years of age. To have that youth playing at such an incredible offensive level, that says something. But it also increases expectations, and now that the Thunder have cemented themselves firmly in the West, only one goal remains. Who would’ve thought this a few years ago: NBA champions — Oklahoma City.
6.) Rick Adelman, Minnesota Timberwolves
Adelman was going to be somewhere on this list simply because of his great overall resume, but now it’s a no-brainer after making Minnesota not only relevant again, but one of the most exciting teams in the league to watch. Kevin Love, to me, is a top-5 player in the NBA and Ricky Rubio has certainly proved me and thousands of other naysayers wrong, showcasing brilliant passing abilities while actually providing leadership as well. At 13-12, the T-Wolves sit in tenth place in the West, yet only 1 game behind five different teams. To a guy like Adelman who has won 955 games in his coaching career, I’m sure he’s not preaching relevance to his team anymore. He’s preaching Playoffs. With a 1-2 punch like Rubio and Love, and another rookie in Derrick Williams whose ceiling his as high as he wants it to be, Adelman’s got the pieces in place. It’s only the beginning for Minnesota, but what a good start.
5.) George Karl, Denver Nuggets
If you’re Stan Van Gundy, look to George Karl. When ‘Melo was dealt to New York just about a year ago, many thought the Nuggets would immediately suffer without the face of their franchise. Instead, they’ve now gone 33-17 dating back to the trade, while ranking first in the NBA this season in both points (104.0) and assists (23.4). Incredible. Like Adelman, Karl was going to make the list because of his longevity and career accomplishments (1051 wins), yet he deserves such a great deal of respect for what he’s done the last couple years in the wake of his battle with cancer, the ‘Melo drama and the trade. Not only are the Nuggets more fluid on offense, but now they are deep as hell too, making them incredibly dangerous at any point of the game. So again, if you’re Stan Van Gundy, follow Karl’s lead. Trade your disgruntled star for as much value as you can get, because you can still win many games without a true superstar if you have depth. Denver has dropped three in a row now and just lost Gallo for a month, so these next few weeks are a crucial stretch for Karl’s squad, who sit right on top of a logjam in the West.
4.) Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls
Some might rank the second-year coach much lower because of his short career (109 games as a head coach) and the fact that he’s got Derrick Rose running things, making life much easier for any coach. However, Thibodeau’s been paying his dues for a long, long time, gaining much recognition for his defensive-mindedness, especially after turning the 2004-2007 Rockets into one of the best defensive teams in the West as an assistant coach. DRose won the MVP last year, but Thibodeau’s Bulls were first in the league in defense as well (allowing 91.1 ppg), which also mightily helped Chicago snatch 62 victories and a trip to the ECF. More of the same this year, as the Bulls currently lead the East at 21-6 and sit less than 2 points behind the Sixers and Celtics for lowest points allowed at 88.4. While Thibodeau’s finally found a home, Chicago hopes they’ve finally found their next Jordan and Jackson.
3.) Doug Collins, Philadelphia 76ers
Every single one of Philly’s 18 wins is accredited to Doug Collins. No coach has had a greater impact the last two seasons, including, especially, this current one in which the star-less 76ers own the best defense in the League, the highest scoring margin (+10.0), and a four-game lead over second-place Boston in the Atlantic division. Collins know exactly how to use his bench, where to place his guys on the court, and inspires all of his players to go hard every possession of the game. Even though Collins did a superb job last year with the same squad to lead the Sixers to a 41-41 season, nobody expected this. And I’ll admit, even though the Sixers were pounding teams early on, I was still skeptical about their soft schedule and was looking to this current seven game stretch against Orlando, Chicago, Miami, Atlanta, San Antonio and both L.A. squads as a true measuring stick. Well now, they’ve started off these hellacious two weeks at 4-1 after creaming the Magic, Bulls and Hawks and beating the Lakers in a close game (finally) on Monday night while losing to the Heat in what was a closely contested game for three quarters. Basically, all I’m saying is it’s time people take note. If the Sixers win the division…Collins is Coach of the Year. No brainer.
2.) Rick Carlisle, Dallas Mavericks
Carlisle’s career was validated last year when he finally won his first Championship with the Mavericks. Still, he remains one of the most under-appreciated coaches in the NBA despite winning COY in his first year in Detroit, leading two of the best defensive franchises of the ‘00’s in the Pistons and Pacers, while also improving Dallas each of his three years before winning the title last year in glorious fashion. Dallas was forever known as a lethal offensive squad since Dirk arrived, but it was Carlisle’s defensive foundation that centered around Tyson Chandler, DeShawn Stevenson, and Jason Kidd that further helped the Mavs become a more complete team. Even though they lost one of their best players in Caron Butler for most of the season and all the playoffs, they still managed to beat the widely-picked Miami Heat in one of the best Finals ever. Dirk deserves most of the credit for that, but Carlisle is not far behind. Now this season, even with their age, the championship layoff, Odom disappointing, Dirk underachieving and Chandler gone, Carlisle still has his Mavs hounding the ball. They’ve allowed only 91.1 points per game so far, good for sixth in the League, while simply trying to hold on to a Playoff spot to give themselves a chance for a repeat.
1.) Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs
There’s not much to say here. Not much to argue. Sixteen years, all with one team. Four Championships. Has never finished a season lower than second in the division (except his first year in 1996-1997). An unbelievable career record of 814-392 (.675), while sporting a postseason record of 108-73 (.597). He’s helped the Spurs make wonderful draft selections year in and year out, including second-round pick Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker in the late first round. Of course, Popovich wouldn’t be here without the help of 1997 draft where the Spurs selected the best power forward of all time. But, to Pop’s credit, it takes more than just Tim Duncan to pull off this stat: When the Spurs finished the 2009-10 season ranked eighth in the League in points allowed, it was the first time in 13 straight years that San Antonio ranked below the top three in that category. Depth, Duncan, efficient offense and great guard play have always fueled the Spurs, but it’s Pop’s defense that truly carries the best organization the NBA has ever seen.