Monday , Oct , 30 , 2006 C.Y. Ellis

Ranking the NBA’s head coaches

‘Lookin’ at my Gucci, it’s about that time.’ Okay, okay, let me stop my old school Hip-Hop reminiscing, and get to the point. Once again, it’s time for my annual column ranking the NBA’s head coaches, which, believe me, is perennially one of the toughest columns I write.

I have, however, once again managed to accomplish the task at hand – although I must admit, every task gets easier when you have children to feed. Family history aside, this column is designed to rank each head coach on past performance, recent performance and overall, head coaching aptitude.

Now that I’ve gotten that long-winded explanation over with, away we go.


Ranking the NBA's head coaches

Gregg Popovich: San Antonio Spurs

   I know a lot of readers may want to rip me for not selecting a “bigger” name here like Phil Jackson or Pat Riley, but I firmly believe that Popovich is the best head coach in the game.

   Popovich gets each one of his players to check their egos at the door every year and coaches teams that are eerily similar every season although many of the San Antonio Spurs players annually change because of today’s frenetic free agency.

   Other than resident superstar, Tim Duncan, Popovich has had to mix and match numerous other players over the years, albeit, talented ones, with Duncan, to form his usual perennial championship contending teams.

    If this guy had half as much talent over the course of his career as some other coaches who populate this list, “Pop” would have more than the three championship rings he has currently pocketed. As it stands right now, I expect him to win at least one or two more rings with Duncan over the next few seasons.

Phil Jackson: Los Angeles Lakers

   I’m not a Jackson fan at all really. However, I steadfastly believe that Jackson is the game’s best “manager.” I’m not saying Jackson doesn’t know X’s and Os, but Jackson’s strength clearly lies in getting his players to believe in his system, themselves and the concept of “team unity.”

   Why else do you think Jackson managed to rein in the immense talents of Michael Jordan and get him to buy into the concept of a “team” game where he had to rely on his teammates many times?

   Let’s not forget, Jackson also managed to get egomaniacal superstars, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal to get along well enough to win three consecutive titles as well, which believe me, was no small feat with those two.

   I know each of his titles came with some of the greatest players of all-time on his roster, but then again, how many coaches could have kept the team harmony on all of those teams that the “Zen Master” did? Not many.

   Oh, and by the way, Jackson may have just finished one of his finest coaching performances ever just getting the clearly undermanned Lakes into last season’s playoffs.

Pat Riley: Miami Heat

   Like Jackson, Riley is an excellent manager of men. He also gets his players to check their respective egos at the door and buy into the team concept. Riley is also a master motivator, particularly at the defensive end of the floor, where it seems, most of his players would run their mothers over with a Mack truck for the man. The only reason I have Riley ranked third is because four of his five championship rings came with three Hall of Fame players on the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s, where I genuinely believe a very smart high school coach could have literally could have guided those same teams to titles. Personally, I think it’d be kind of hard not to win a championship when you have Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and a host of other talented players including another Hall of Famer in Bob McAdoo.

Jerry Sloan: Utah Jazz

  I know a lot of people may think this ranking is too high for Sloan who has never won a championship title in 21 seasons as a head coach, but those in the know will readily admit that Sloan is an unadulterated basketball genius. His two western conference championship teams were denied league titles by the one and only Michael Jordan, who denied a lot of players and coaches championships throughout the course of his career.

   At any rate, if you watched the under-talented, overachieving Utah Jazz last season, you’d know Sloan is a coach who knows how to get the maximum out of his players. Unfortunately for him, he hasn’t had enough great players over the course of his career to get the job done.

Mike D’Antoni: Phoenix Suns

   In only four short seasons, D’Antoni has proven himself to be one of the most knowledgeable basketball coaches on the planet. Forget the fact that his overall record sits barely above .500 at 97-96, the last two seasons, D’Antoni has almost single-handedly brought back the fast-breaking, share-the-ball style of play that nearly every team in the NBA played prior to the slow-the-ball-down and isolate one player style that characterized the 90s. Of course, it helps immensely when you have a point guard like two-time MVP Steve Nash who lives to get his teammates involved. However, I expect that D’Antoni will win an NBA championship or two before he’s done in the desert.

Avery Johnson: Dallas Mavericks

   In just his first full season as an NBA head coach, Johnson leapfrogged a lot of head coaches on his way to the NBA championship series – and in the process, epitomized himself as the perfect version of a modern NBA head coach – a former player who knows how to relate to today’s young players – and more importantly, got them to believe in his defense-first system. Of course, it helps when you have a trio like Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry and Josh Howard leading the way.

Mike Dunleavy Sr.: Los Angeles Clippers

   I’ve always liked Dunleavy, who already has one championship appearance on his resume, but never quite had enough talent on many of his teams throughout his career to make a return trip to the finals. However, Dunleavy’s drought could soon come to an end with the Los Angeles Clippers of all teams.

   Dunleavy was absolutely masterful last season in leading the Clips to their first playoff appearance in years – and will have his team right back in the thick of things this season. This “old school” coach showed he could relate to today’s “new school” players, but once again, it helps when you have outstanding players like MVP candidate, Elton Brand, and veteran guards, Sam Cassell and Cuttino Mobley, who all want to win desperately.

Scott Skiles: Chicago Bulls

   Much like Johnson, I think Skiles has shown that he may be the perfect coach for today’s younger players. The former hothead has been absolutely amazing the last couple of seasons bringing his young Chicago Bulls team back from the dead and into championship contention. Unlike many of the other head coaches ranked above Skiles on this list, he has not had a genuine all-star player the last couple of seasons, but has still managed to transform his team into one of the brightest young teams in the league. I expect Skiles’ ranking to rise with the continued success of the Bulls, who are once again, going to be legitimate eastern conference title contenders in 2006-07.

George Karl: Denver Nuggets

   I’ve got to “keep it real” here. I don’t like Karl one iota. He can be a downright overbearing jerk at times and usually either out his welcome – or wears out his players (usually both) at some point before getting bounced by management in favor of a more “player’s coach” type of head coach.

   Having said that, I’d be lying through my teeth if I said the man couldn’t coach. Karl knows the game as well as any coach in the league and generally turns each team he has coached into a perennial playoff participant.However, I genuinely believe that Karl’s overbearing ways have negated the fact that he is a fine coach – and may have stopped many of his teams from going further than they should have.And by the way, the clock is ticking in Denver now as well. If he doesn’t get the Nuggets to improve this season, it could be his last in the Rocky Mountains.

Rick Carlisle: Indiana Pacers

   Although his reputation took a little bit of a hit last season, I think Carlisle has been nothing short of spectacular in the five seasons he has been a head coach. Winning 60 percent of his games and while guiding both, the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers to the playoffs each season has shown that Carlisle knows what he’s doing. Besides, if anyone remembers the job Carlisle did two years ago after his Pacers, infamous, “Brawl with all y’all” fiasco, you’d know this man is one of the finest coaches in the game.

Don Nelson: Golden State Warriors

   I hated putting Nelson this low on my list, but I have to call it like I see it. Sure he has produced some of the most exciting offensive teams in league history, but his failure to reach NBA finals after 27 seasons as a head coach does not sit well with me. Especially since he has had plenty of talent throughout his career. I also hate to point out the fact that his successor in Dallas, Avery Johnson, took nearly the exact same team Nelson coached to the NBA finals just by getting them to play some defense. I’m sorry Nelson isn’t in the top 10, but this is where he belongs, if not lower.

Mike Fratello: Memphis Grizzlies

  Fratello is another coach who knows the game very well but has not been able to get the job done. In 16 seasons as a head coach, Fratello has guided his teams to the playoffs 11 times, but has failed to lead any of them to the NBA finals. In his defense, I will say that he hasn’t had half as much talent as Nelson throughout his career.

Byron Scott: New Orleans Hornets

   After leading the New Jersey Nets to two consecutive NBA finals, Scott got a bad rap as a coach who didn’t have as much input as many believed. To put it mildly, many of the Nets players at the time anonymously said the team was being coached by assistant, Eddie Jordan, the current head coach of the Washington Wizards. However, last season’s outstanding performance with his young Hornets team unequivocally dispelled the rumor that Scott couldn’t coach and now has him looking like one of the best young coaches in the game.

Jeff Van Gundy: Houston Rockets

   I’ve always liked Van Gundy and I think he is a fine coach, but many of his teams, including his current Rockets team, have underachieved immensely. I know he’s won nearly 60 percent of his games and guided his teams to the playoffs 8 times in 10 seasons as a head coach, including one finals appearance, but Van Gundy has never been able to get his team over the proverbial “hump” either. If the Rockets don’t make a strong playoff run this season, it could be his last in Houston, although I have to admit that I place the majority of the Rockets failures squarely at the feet of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, two talented players who have underachieved enormously themselves.

Lawrence Frank: New Jersey Nets

   In three seasons as a head coach, Frank has guided the Nets to the playoffs each season, winning nearly 57 percent of his games. However, it helps when you have three all-star caliber players in Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson and play in one of the worst divisions in all of basketball. Before I go proclaiming this guy to be the greatest thing since sliced bread, I need to see more from New Jersey the next couple of seasons.

Mike Brown: Cleveland Cavaliers

   I think Brown is going to be a fine coach for years to come and probably didn’t get enough credit for the job he did last season in leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a thrilling playoff run that ended at the hands of the defending eastern conference champion, Detroit Pistons. I guess that can happen when you have one of the game’s most exciting young players in LeBron James. However, Brown’s management of the Cavs – and his defensive coaching prowess – are well known throughout the league. The thing I liked most about Brown is that he got his team to overachieve instead of the other way around like some coaches on this list. I expect it won’t be long before Brown starts getting the national recognition he deserves.

Flip Saunders: Detroit Pistons

   Looking at his entire body of work, you can easily come to the conclusion that Saunders is a fine coach. In 11 seasons, Saunders has guided his teams to the playoffs 9 times, winning nearly 58 percent of his games. Unfortunately, Saunders has shown himself to be a coach who underachieves big time when the games matter most. Last year’s Detroit Pistons were a perfect example of Saunders inability to get his team to play at a higher level when the postseason rolls around. For a team that won 64 games in the regular season, you sure wouldn’t know it by the way the Pistons played in last year’s playoffs – making the Pistons a perfect extension of their head coach.

Bernie Bickerstaff: Charlotte Bobcats

   Bickerstaff’s career record could certainly use a spit-shine – and he may be a better general manager than head coach, but his performance the last couple of years with the Charlotte Bobcats has shown that Bickerstaff still knows how to coach the game. The Bobcats are undeniably headed in the right direction thanks to Bickerstaff’s wise general managerial moves. However, he may not be the one on the bench when this team’s young players begin to really fulfill their vast potential.

Brian Hill: Orlando Magic

   Eight seasons as a head coach and only three playoff appearances, not to mention an unimpressive winning percentage, do not an impressive resume make. However, Hill’s single championship appearance years ago as the head coach of the Orlando Magic with a young Shaq and even younger Penny Hardaway, do help slightly as does last season’s impressive finish by the Magic. However, if Hill can’t get his quickly improving team to win at least another 10 games this season, I’m dropping him back into the bottom 10.

Bob Hill: Seattle Supersonics

   I’m not a fan of this Hill either, although I will admit that his winning percentage and five playoff appearances in eight seasons don’t look too shabby. However, Hill has never guided any of his team’s to anything of consequence, which does not sit well with me – or his employers.

Isiah Thomas: New York Knicks

   Thomas’ 53 percent winning percentage looks pretty good until you remember that his talented Indiana Pacers teams flamed out faster than the one of my wife’s weak barbecue fires – and his successor, Larry Bird, took the same roster to new heights in just his first season. If Thomas doesn’t get his atrocious New York Knicks squad to at least a .500 record this season, he’s going to be out of both two jobs – and rightfully so.

Nate McMillan: Portland Trailblazers

   I don’t know what to think about McMillan and his less than stellar winning percentage. One minute, he’s leading the Seattle Supersonics to an overachieving excellent record and the next, he’s guiding the Portland Trailblazers to a horrendous season. I’m giving McMillan a pass on last season because it would take even a Hall of Fame coach a few years to straighten out the mess that the Blazers have become over the last decade.

Maurice Cheeks: Philadelphia 76ers

   I really like Maurice Cheeks as a person and vividly remember that he was an excellent player “back in the day” for my hometown 76ers. However, I hate to admit that Cheeks’ easy-going ways do not cut it with today’s NBA players who only seem to respond to a swift kick in the A double squiggle. I’m already on record as saying that the Sixers need to bring Larry Brown back if they want to return to the winning ways they experienced under him a few seasons back. Some guys just aren’t cut out to be head coaches and I think Cheeks just so happens to be one of them.

Doc Rivers: Boston Celtics

  Rivers is another coach I’m not too sure about. To be honest about it, Rivers appears to be clueless at times and is making some baffling moves with a talented young Celtics team that may be in need of a more experienced and stern head coach. If Rivers and his 49 percent winning percentage doesn’t get the Celtics to improve dramatically this season, he may be out of a job at season’s end – if not sooner.

Eddie Jordan: Washington Wizards

   I’m sorry, but I don’t think Jordan is as good of a coach as many people think he is – and his winning percentage backs that statement up. First of all, the Wizards have been one of the best offensive teams in the league the last two seasons, but play absolutely no defense whatsoever. You would think that Jordan would have corrected the problem last season after experiencing the exact same scenario the year before. If the Wizards don’t show some kind of improvement on defense this season, then I’m dropping Jordan another spot or two.


Terry Stotts: Milwaukee Bucks

   In three seasons as a head coach, Stotts got his first playoff appearance last season after the Bucks improved their roster significantly. If Stotts can get the Bucks to play as well as they did lat season then Stotts’ ranking will undoubtedly rise.

Sam Mitchell: Toronto Raptors

   I really like Mitchell’s no-nonsense approach, but it’s kind of hard to win with a roster full of head cases and minimum talent. I will say that if the Raptors don’t show significant improvement this season with Bryan Colangelo as their new GM and some more talent on their roster, Mitchell and his horrendous winning percentage could be on the outside of the Raptors’ future plans looking in.

Dwane Casey: Minnesota Timberwolves

   I hate to blame last season’s nightmare of a season on Casey because the T-Wolves have one of the weakest rosters in the entire league, but if you watched Casey at all last season, you would know that he is severely overmatched. I’m giving Casey one more season before the Wolves move in another direction. Once again, I feel terrible for Kevin Garnett.

Eric Musselman: Sacramento Kings

   I have no idea what Kings’ management was thinking by replacing longtime head coach Rick Adelman with Musselman, but they are going to quickly find out that Musselman is not, repeat, not, a good head coach. He may be a wonderful assistant, but that’s exactly what he is – an assistant. To put it mildly, Adelman could out-coach this guy in his sleep.

Mike Woodson: Atlanta Falcons

   I don’t necessarily think that Woodson is the worst head coach in the NBA, especially given what he has had to work with in his two seasons as head coach in Atlanta and his sparkling reputation one of the game’s best basketball minds, but someone has to go here and Woodson’s winning percentage is downright dismal. In Woodson’s defense, I will say that the Hawks closed out last season looking better than they had all year and have absolutely nowhere to go but up. If the Hawks don’t show some kind of improvement this season, it could – and should – be Woodson’s last.