Monday , Aug , 01 , 2005 C.Y. Ellis

Ranking the NBA Head Coaches

By Paul Benedict

With the Knicks officially hiring Larry Brown and now all 30 teams having a permanent head coach, I decided that it would be an opportune time to just go ahead and rank the NBA coaches from the bottom to the top. Now before I receive a great deal of scrutiny, understand that I weighed in numerous aspects– career accomplishments, current reputation, and regular season track record among others. You’ll also notice, much like everyone did when ESPN ranked the top NBA head coaches in 2002, that African-American coaches tended to populate the low end of the rankings with Nate McMillan being the only one in the top 16. I shouldn’t have to explain why the rankings turned out this way, but if you thoroughly read through my explanations you’ll understand why I ranked each person where I did. In fact, I didn’t even realize my rankings came out like this until after I carefully figured out my list. Consider that 9 of the top 15 coaches on the list have 10+ years of experience, which means many of them received opportunities to coach back when African-Americans weren’t being hired at the same rate as they are now. And of those other 6, Scott Skiles and Nate McMillan are the only ones who aren’t direct descendents of those coaches with 10+ years of experience. If you really want to argue with me, I refer you to David Aldridge’s article from 2002 responding to the criticism ESPN was taking for its head coach rankings.

Ranking the NBA Head CoachesNR. Mike Brown, Cleveland -Brown has earned a reputation over the past few years as one of the top assistants in the game since winning a championship with the Spurs in 2003 and then joining Rick Carlisle’s staff with Indiana the last two seasons. Known for his heavy emphasis on defense and his outstanding rapport with players, Brown should be a terrific fit in Cleveland where both assets will be crucial in pushing the Cavs to the Playoffs next season.

NR. Dwane Casey, Minnesota -Casey has long been viewed as one of the NBA’s top assistant coaches while contributing heavily to the success of the Sonics since joining the staff 11 years ago. His name has been the subject of many coaching rumors over the years and largely because, like Brown, he’s known for his defensive coaching prowess and for building strong, lasting relationships with his players. And much like Cleveland, Minnesota desperately needed a coach who could carry these necessary assets to the head coaching position.

28. Mike Woodson, Atlanta (13-69, .159) -Perhaps it’s unfair to rank Woodson as the worst coach in the NBA– he actually did a solid job of developing the Hawks’ young talent last season. However, 13-69 is just an awful record no matter how you spin it. Like many of the coaches at the bottom of this list, Woodson has the capability of jumping up on the poll swiftly.

27. Terry Stotts, Milwaukee (52-85, .380) -Stotts was canned by the Hawks at the end of the 2004 season, perhaps unfairly, for not producing quality results despite inheriting a crappy team after Lon Kruger was fired. Though he hasn’t exactly done anything to detract from his reputation as a coach, Stotts has done nothing to merit applause. Senator Herb Kohl opened up his checkbook for free agents this summer, which is why he settled on a cheap option like Stotts as coach. The Bucks are hoping Stotts brings them to at least the bring of the Playoffs, then they’ll find a veteran coach who can take them above and beyond.

26. Mike Montgomery, Golden State (34-48, .415) -The former Stanford Cardinal coach was considered a puzzling choice to be the Warriors head coach coming into last season, but he showed a lot of poise and growth in his inaugural year after leading Golden State to a 18-9 record in the last two months of the season. Expectations are exceedingly high in Oakland for next season, so it’s important Montgomery sustain the same momentum right from the get-go, otherwise he might have to go-get another job.

25. Sam Mitchell, Toronto (33-49, .402) -It was a rough first season for Sam Mitchell, a guy considered by many before last year to be the brightest among all the young head coaching prospects in the NBA. He butted heads with Vince Carter early on, even benching Air Canada for the 4th quarter in a handful of games. He was involved in a much publicized dispute with maligned point guard Rafer Alston, who at one point threatened to quit basketball after he stormed into the locker room during a game when Mitchell sat him for his lackluster play. He also dealt with Jalen Rose opening his mouth about how dysfunctional the team was, Aaron and Eric Williams openly admitting that they wanted out of Toronto, and Rafael Araujo’s just humiliating rookie season. But to Mitchell’s credit, he demanded respect from his players and never backed down to them. This is how you earn respect as a young, inexperienced head coach in the NBA and I highly suspect that Mitchell will prove his worth once he’s surrounded by players that are willing to adhere to his no-nonsense style. It might not be in Toronto, but Mitchell will become a great NBA coach someday.

24. Brian Hill, Orlando (222-227, .494) -I’ve never been a fan of Brian Hill, who in 1995 rode the backs of Shaquille O’Neal and the once brilliant Penny Hardaway of the Magic to the NBA Finals. Perhaps it’s unfair to rank Hill, a 3-time 50 game winner, behind two guys that haven’t even notched a single game of head coaching experience, yet it’s difficult to forget the many games Hill botched when he was manning the sidelines for a supremely talented team. He’s also known for not being even remotely liked by his players which is what led to his 1997 firing by the Magic after Hardaway gathered together his teammates and demanded that management get rid of Hill. And oh yeah, he compiled 31-123 record in 2+ seasons as head coach of the Grizzlies.

23. Bob Weiss, Seattle (210-282, .427) -I’m really not too familiar with Weiss who has been an assistant with Seattle since his last head coaching gig with the Clippers in 1994. I do know that Weiss has been replaced by three of the NBA’s greatest coaches of all time (Larry Brown, Lenny Wilkens, Bill Fitch) at each city he’s left behind, so maybe that explains why he’s been fired 3 times and never lasted more than 3 years with any team. Or perhaps it’s because Weiss has never posted a record better than 43-39 in 6 seasons.

22. Doc Rivers, Boston (216-205, .513) -I’ve been highly critical of Rivers in his 5+ seasons as a head coach in the NBA since I’ve had the opportunity to watch a lot of Magic and Celtics games. While he’s never posted a sub .500 record in any of his 5 full seasons and he was named the 2000 NBA Coach of the Year, none of Rivers’ teams has played any defense and he’s twice completely botched Playoff series that he should have won. In 2003, his Magic stormed out to a 3-1 series lead over the Pistons before completely blowing the series without much of a fight. And this past season, Rivers almost single-handedly coached the Celtics to an embarrassing series loss to the Pacers which culminated in a pathetic Game 7 blowout defeat at home to an inferior team. To his credit, Doc is doing a good job of bringing along the young talent on the Celtics, but the leash has to be tightened going into next season after that Game 7 debacle.

21. Maurice Cheeks, Philadelphia (162-139, .538) -Mo Cheeks was unfairly fired last season in the midst of a tough season for the Blazers. Though the team was just 22-33 when they made the move, nobody claimed that Portland was underachieving and the only player that wanted Cheeks out was super idiot Darius Miles. Good guys Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Theo Ratliff even went so far as to publicly claim their disapproval of the move, yet management felt it was time to go a different direction. Cheeks is known as a true players coach and has been sought after by Allen Iverson to coach the Sixers ever since he left in 2002, so Philadelphia will be an ideal situation for the former Sixers star to resume his coaching career. But as is with all Philadelphia-based coaches, Cheeks will be thrown under the bus if the Sixers don’t perform to expectations.

20. Bernie Bickerstaff, Charlotte (355-407, .466) -Bickerstaff was hired by Bob Johnson to run the Bobcats due to his surplus of experience coaching in the NBA (11 seasons), and also because of his notable track record in developing young talent (Tom Chambers, Xavier McDaniel, Dale Ellis, Nate McMillan, Dikembe Mutumbo, Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard). Bernie did exactly that last season with Charlotte in taking part in the commendable improvement of Emeka Okafor, Primoz Brezec, and Gerald Wallace during the Bobcats’ inaugural season. While Bernie is not expected to man the sidelines for Charlotte beyond 2007, his contributions to the franchise over the next two seasons as coach as well as GM will be central to where the Bobcats are headed.

19. Avery Johnson, Dallas (16-2, .889) -Avery took over for Don Nelson late this past season after having stepped in for him several times throughout the year. With a fresh (and hilarious) voice and an emphasis on toughness, the Mavericks took off under the little guy to close the regular season and came back after losing the first two games at home to beat the Rockets in the first round of the Playoffs. While it was blatant that Avery was being outcoached in this series by Jeff Van Gundy early on, he showed a lot of poise in guiding his team back from that tough deficit and into the second round. After an ugly loss to the Suns in the next round, it appeared as though Avery had let his team get out of control and that he certainly couldn’t find a way to get the most out of a struggling Dirk Nowitzki. If he wants to take that next step up into the top echelon of NBA coaches, Avery is going to have to assume more control of his team and ensure that he gets the most out of them when it really counts.

18. Byron Scott, New Orleans (167-203, .451) -Scott was the head coach of the Nets during their back-to-back Eastern Conference title runs in 2002 and 2003, but it doesn’t mean he was well-liked by his players. Jason Kidd was outspoken about his hatred for Scott and Kenyon Martin supposedly had problems with him as well. In fact, a lot of people will tell you Eddie Jordan had as much to do, if not more, with the success of the Nets while he was an assistant there. If you want to know why Scott is ranked below his former assistants Jordan and Lawrence Frank, consider this– after Jordan left to take the head coaching job in Washington, the Nets stumbled out of the gate, going 22-20 before Scott was fired. Frank then took over as interim coach, leading New Jersey to a 25-15 record and another Atlantic Division crown. Though Scott struggled in his first season with New Orleans, nobody is laying blame on him due to the impossible circumstances he encountered– although it should be noted that Baron Davis didn’t like him. Scott needs to learn how to get along with his superstars if he ever wants to get back to the Conference Finals again.

17. Eddie Jordan, Washington (103-158, .395) -A lot of people forget that Jordan was the head coach in Sacramento before the Maloofs went out and acquired Chris Webber and then hired a more experienced coach in Rick Adelman to oversee the up-and-coming club. Jordan then landed in New Jersey as Byron Scott’s top assistant and it was there, after being dubbed the behind-the-scenes brainchild of the Nets’ consecutive Eastern Conference titles, that he created a name for himself as the NBA’s ‘it’ assistant coach. He was then hired by Washington in 2003 and in just his second season with Washington this past year, Jordan led the Wiz to their first Playoff appearance in over a decade and would have easily garnered Coach of the Year consideration had it not been an exceptional year for candidates. We should find out how good a coach Jordan really is this coming season when he deals with higher expectations and a more volatile Eastern Conference.

16. Lawrence Frank, New Jersey (67-55, .549) -Bobby Knight’s former manager at Indiana has helped the Nets turn around their seasons in each of the last two years. Though Frank lacks NBA playing experience, he has been able to achieve success thanks to tireless dedication and great relationships with his players. Having Jason Kidd on his team, who’s essentially a coach on the floor, has eased the transition for the NBA’s youngest head coach.

15. Mike Fratello, Memphis (612-491, .555) -The Czar enjoyed two long stints with the Hawks (’84-90) and the Cavaliers (’94-99) before taking over for Hubie Brown last December in Memphis. He’s not considered to be the most pleasant coach to play for, but he’s a great strategist who’s known for getting the most out of all his players on the defensive end. Fratello’s greatest accomplishment may have come in 1998– a year after the Cavs underachieved and parted ways with their top four players, the Czar led a surprise Cavs team featuring 4 rookies playing 28+ minutes to a 47-win season. Unfortunately, that team was mauled in the first round of the Playoffs as have each of Fratello’s last 6 Playoff teams. That’s a knock he’s going to have to hear a lot about until he overcomes it.

14. Mike Dunleavy, LA Clippers (463-489, .486) -Dunleavy has been the head coach of couple of elite teams– he took over for Pat Riley and led the Lakers to the Finals in 1991, and he strolled the sidelines for those nasty Trail Blazer teams of the late 90’s. Yet most people don’t remember this because Dunleavy was the coach of the NBA’s second best teams while Phil Jackson kicked off his dynasty runs with the Bulls and Lakers. Dunleavy might get some revenge next season as the Clippers promise to battle hard for a Playoff spot with Jackson’s Lakers.

13. Rick Adelman, Sacramento (708-443, .615) -Rick Adelman has to be the only coach in any sport that is considered by many to be the most underrated coach of all time, and by others to be the most overrated coach of all time. Despite twice leading Portland to the NBA Finals (’90 and ’92) and coaching typically pathetic Sacramento to 5 consecutive 50 win seasons including a berth in the 2002 Western Conference Finals, Adelman has managed to fly under the radar all these years. But while many commend him for staying out of the limelight while still winning consistently in two of the NBA’s smaller markets, others take their shots at him for failing to come up with the big wins and coaching his team to victory when they need him the most. And the truth is, Adelman has been outcoached in crucial games– just check out his 0-5 record in series-deciding games with the Kings.

12. Stan Van Gundy, Miami (101-63, .616) -It would be a damn shame if Pat Riley were to steal the coaching duties in Miami from Stan Van, who has been nothing short of outstanding in his two seasons on the bench. After spending six seasons as Riley’s top assistant, Stan Van assumed head coaching responsibilities when Riley stepped down only days before the 2003-04 season was set to begin. The Heat got off to a dreaful 0-7 start, but Stan Van quickly reversed the team’s fortune and led them to a Playoff berth where they made a dramatic run to the 2nd round. And this past season, Stan Van once again exceeded expectations by taking Miami all the way to the top of the East and only minutes (and two key injuries) away from representing the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. Bonus points for his delightful resemblance to Ron Jeremy.

11. Scott Skiles, Chicago (182-163, .528) -What Skiles’ Bulls accomplished last season after a half-decade of utter humiliation is simply astonishing. On paper, the Bulls had the look of an expansion team with their potpourri of inexperienced youngsters and aging veterans. But on the court, this Chicago team played exactly the way Skiles wanted them to– ferocious on the defensive end and cool under pressure, and the result was a 47-26 record after an 0-9 start. It’s extremely difficult for NBA coaches to get all of their players to buy into their respective roles as part of a system– Phil Jackson, Jerry Sloan, and Gregg Popovich are the best at it– Skiles could soon be joining this company.

10. Flip Saunders, Detroit (411-326, .558) Say what you want about Flip Saunders and how it took him 8 tries before he ever took Minnesota past the 1st Round of the Playoffs, but Timberwolves fans know the real truth– Saunders deserves a lot of credit for even getting the ‘Wolves that far. Flip never had anything better than a so-so supporting cast for KG up until last season when Kevin McHale added two proven winners in Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell. Then look what happened– Minnesota finished with the league’s best record and went as far as the Conference Finals. Now people are coming down on Flip after last season’s disaster in Minny, but even chief contributors to the catastrophe Spree and Cassell will tell you– it wasn’t his fault. His players love him and respect him and that’s why he’s going to succeed in Detroit, because the talent is already there.

9. Mike D’Antoni, Phoenix (97-96, .503) -The reigning NBA Coach of the Year may seem like he came out of nowhere to lead the upstart Suns to the league’s best record this season, but Mike D’Antoni has been consensusly praised as the best coach in Europe over the last 15 years. Fluent in English, Italian, and international basketball, D’Antoni won five titles in Italy and was twice voted Coach of the Year. After leading perennial Italian League stalwart Bennetton Treviso to a title in 2001-02 (with a squad that featured Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Bostjan Nachbar, Tyus Edney, and Charlie Bell), the Suns scooped up D’Antoni and named him their head coach only a year later. He electrified fans in his second season by providing a brand of basketball that had not been seen since the hey-days of the 80’s as the Suns consistently put up 120+ points and simply ran opponents out of the building. During a year in which there were a slew of Coach of the Year candidates, D’Antoni swayed the majority of voters to elect him because he proved that an exciting style of basketball that had once launched the sport into the mainstream was now back in full force.

8. Jeff Van Gundy, Houston (344-240, .589) -Defense and toughness have always been the benchmark of Knicks basketball and so when Jeff Van Gundy took over the Knicks in 1996 under much scrutiny after Don Nelson stepped down mid-season, defense and toughness are what Van Gundy promised to have his Knicks bring to the table every night out. 5 consecutive appearances beyond the first round of the Playoffs and one appearance in the NBA Finals later, and JVG had earned his reputation as one of the top coaches in the league. Now in Houston, Van Gundy realized last season that sometimes coaches have to adjust to the players before them and that’s exactly what he did in ditching his typical rugged brand of basketball for a more high-octane approach to capitalize on the offensive gifts of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming. Houston was denied entry into the Conference Semifinals for the second straight season, but hardly a soul believes anything will keep Jeff Van Gundy and the Rockets from advancing next year.

7. George Karl (736-505, .593) -You might hate him, you may love him– either way, you can’t deny that George Karl gets the job done. Much like his North Carolina pal Larry Brown, Karl has a knack for turning a team around once he arrives. Check it– Cleveland: 8 win improvement; Golden State: 12 win improvement; Seattle: 27-15 after he took over mid-season for a 20-20 team; Milwaukee: 28-22 after he took over for a 36-46 team; And this year with Denver: 28-6 after he was named the coach of a 21-27 team. Want more proof? He took Cleveland to their first Playoff-berth in 7 years during his first season. He guided Golden State to their first Playoff-berth in 10 years during his first season. In 1996, he carried the Sonics to their first NBA Finals appearance since 1979. He also led Milwaukee to their first Playoff appearance in 8 seasons his first year there, and in 2001 coached them to their first Eastern Conference Finals since 1986. And this season he helped the Nuggets win more games (49) than any other Denver team had since 1988. How many coaches not named Larry Brown can claim to have had this kind of impact on five different franchises?!

6. Nate McMillan, Portland (212-183, .537) -Nobody wanted to see Nate Dogg depart from Seattle after spending the last 19 years as a part of the Sonics organization, especially considering his last season there was his most memorable. Despite receiving no consideration as a potential Playoff team before the season began and deemed by many to be possibly the worst team in the West, McMillan gathered together a troop of free agents before the season began and got them to buy into a winning concept. He convinced them that they could sign big contracts after the season not by achieving individual accolades, but by being a part of a winning team. The Sonics went on to claim the Northwest Division title and gave the eventual champ Spurs a run for their money on the Conference Semifinals. This to me is the greatest achievment by any coach in years.

5. Rick Carlisle, Indiana (205-123, .625) -If Larry Bird is deemed the “Basketball Jesus”, then Rick Carlisle must certainly be considered one of his apostles. Bird and Carlisle have been close friends since 1985 when they played together in Boston and later renewed their friendship in Indiana when Carlisle joined Bird’s coaching staff in 1997. Carlisle was considered by many to be the wizardry behind those overachieving Pacer teams under Bird, so it wasn’t a shock when the Pistons swooped in and named him their head coach in 2001. In a sense, this was really the start of the Pacers/Pistons rivalry that is the best in the NBA as of today. Carlisle flipped Detroit’s record from 32-50 to 50-32 in his first season despite having essentially the same roster from the year before– he was not surprisingly, named NBA Coach of the Year. The next year he led the Pistons to another 50 win season and an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals, but that wasn’t enough for Joe Dumars who decided to bring in Larry Brown to give the Pistons a more experienced voice on the bench. Larry Bird didn’t mind one bit as he almost immediately named Carlisle as the Pacers head coach after his firing, and the results since speak for themselves. 61 wins and another Eastern Conference Finals berth in 2004, and an improbable run to the Conference Semifinals this past season despite a tumultuous year that probably would have driven any other coach into the ground, if they weren’t a blessed apostle like Rick Carlisle.

4. Jerry Sloan, Utah (943-617, .604) -The longest tenured coach in major US professional sports today is coming off not only his worst season as coach of the Utah Jazz, but also his only losing since since taking over for Frank Layden in 1988. But does anyone honestly believe that a little bit of losing is going to take away the fire and intensity that have typified the career of Jerry Sloan? 15 consecutive years Sloan led the Jazz to the Playoffs– 5 times to the Western Conference Finals and twice all the way to the NBA Finals. He’s even proven that the Coach of the Year Award is flawed since he’s never received it simply because he molded the Jazz into such a perennially consistent team that it was nearly impossible for them to exceed expectations. And what’s more, Sloan has had to guide this team despite playing in the most obscure market in the NBA. It’s nearly impossibly for the Jazz to contend with other teams in signing big name free agents. Yet no matter what obstacles Sloan and the Jazz face, they still go out and compete hard every single night out. That’s why fans fill up the Delta Center and that’s why Jerry Sloan is Utah Jazz basketball.

3. Larry Brown, New York (987-741, .571) -You know the numbers by now. Every single team Larry Brown has gone to he has magnificently turned around, with the exception of one– the Detroit Pistons, who he didn’t have to turn around. No, they were already a damn good team, LB just went out and won a championship with them in year one. The guy has done more cities than Debbie and he may rub you the wrong way for that reason, but how can you blame someone for seeking a challenge? If you had felt fulfilled at your job and were ready to tackle a new task, wouldn’t you look to contribute your expertise elsewhere? Well LB’s travels have led him back to his roots in New York where he’s set to take on perhaps his most difficult project yet– a roster that doesn’t suit him, very little flexibility to make personnel changes, a GM who doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing, and all the pressure in the world. But if you have even an inkling of doubt that Larry Brown is going to turn around the Knicks, allow me to say this– you’re wrong.

2. Phil Jackson, LA Lakers (832-316, .725) -9 rings. That’s really the only thing that matters when you talk about Phil Jackson. He pushed arguably the two most dominate players in NBA history over the hump as contenders and made them into champions. The Zen Master didn’t stop there–he turned championships into dynasties which as anyone will tell you, is the most difficult and greatest accomplishment in all of sports. We can stop here, but that wouldn’t be fair to Jackson who in some ways is underappreciated for what he’s achieved as a coach. People can talk all they want about how Jax rode the coattails of Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal to 9 titles, but they weren’t the ones drawing up complex offensive schemes with Tex Winter for the triangle offense. Nobody has ever been able to maximize a star player’s capabilties quite like Jackson and that’s all because he realized that to make a superstar truly unstoppable, you have to get the most out of the people surrounding him. And Jackson did just that in Chicago and LA, filling the roles necessary to make the triangle a tour de force by convincing every single one of his players to buy into a team concept. Now Phil is back in LA after a one year hiatus and for the first time ever, the odds are against him. While many believe he’s risking his legacy by taking over a team far from title contention, Jackson’s actually out to prove that he is indeed the greatest coach of all-time.

1. Gregg Popovich, San Antonio (455-233, .661) -You can easily point to the 3 championships since 1999 in a secondary Texas city as reason enough to put him at the top. You can credit him for turning nobodies like Jaren Jackson, Malik Rose, Stephen Jackson, Bruce Bowen, and Devin Brown into key contributors on title teams. You can attribute the success of his current stars Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and most notably Tim Duncan to Popovich’s teaching and mentoring since they’ve entered the league. No matter how you want to break it down– no coach out there has as much to do with his team’s success as Gregg Popovich. In essence, Pop has done exactly what Jerry Sloan was able to accomplish in Utah– build a small market team from scratch around two superstars with a supporting cast that buys into the team concept. There’s a difference between the two however– Pop has 3 rings, Sloan has none. Now while you could argue that the Spurs aren’t quite a dynasty just yet, you can’t deny that they’re an empire. By tapping their resources overseas better than any team out there, the Spurs have developed a system in San Antonio that is going to result in them being contenders for years to come– under one imperial leader, Gregg Popovich.