Over the past few years, the NBA game has changed at a really high pace. From the increased emphasis on moving away from non-restricted area paint attempts and mid-range shots to innovations in the way teams execute switches and mix zone concepts into their man-to-man defense, it takes a really smart head coach to stay ahead of all developments.
To the credit of many organizations and head coaches, they’ve managed to adapt well into the modern game. The best example is Gregg Popovich, who has transformed his offense in a decade three times already; first a post-up oriented style with Tim Duncan as the center, and then a constant-motion offense around Tony Parker running endless pick-and-rolls, to what the Spurs have now with LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard – a kind of mix between Popovich’s former styles. Mike D’Antoni brought many of the spread pick-and-roll concepts we see today into the NBA, while Tom Thibodeau re-created defenses with an emphasis on overloading the strong side, limiting help and chasing weakside shooters away from the three-point line.
However, it hasn’t been all roses. For the 2016-17 season, 11 new head coaches were hired. With the pressure to find the next Brad Stevens, a young coach who immediately makes a positive impact, and an unprecedented scrutiny on lineup decisions, end-of-game plays and success versus expectations, there hasn’t been any patience by most organizations to let their new head coaches make mistakes and learn on the job over multiple years. There’s tremendous value in supporting a coach like Erik Spoelstra through tough times, and he’s become a better coach for it.
This three-part series ranking current NBA head coaches shouldn’t be considered a list of who’s the best coach, but more about where they currently stand in terms of what positive concepts they’ve brought (and are expected to in the short term) to their respective teams. As such, most new hires tend to be closer to the bottom, as it’s tough to judge how their past work translates over into head coaching.
30. Earl Watson (Phoenix)
Watson was hired after Jeff Hornacek was fired from the Suns’ head coaching position at the start of February, when the team had visibly quit on Hornacek. By most accounts, Watson has been well-liked by his players, but the on-court production at the end of the year remained terrible.
The Suns went 9-24 under Watson, and after the All-Star break the team was outscored by 8.2 points per 100 possessions, ranked 28th and only a hair better than the Lakers and Sixers. Both the offense and defense got worse, and starting Alex Len and Tyson Chandler together was either tanking taken to the extreme or a bad decision on Watson’s part. With the two together on the court, the Suns were outscored by 11.2 points per 100 possessions.
It seemed like Watson was trying to win, as the 21-year-old Archie Goodwin was largely removed from the rotation by the end of the year in favor of Ronnie Price. And all the while PJ Tucker was getting worked to death with a near 40-minute a night workload.
29. Fred Hoiberg (Chicago)
Hoiberg was supposed to bring a newfound sense of ball movement and spacing to the Bulls, but Chicago’s season ended up in disappointment. Hoiberg’s offense failed to pass every metric that’s supposed to describe a modern NBA offense. The Bulls had the third highest percentage of their points come from the mid-range, and they ranked fourth to last in fast-break points. All the while being in the Bottom 10 in free-throw rate and having the lowest field goal percentage in the paint.
Now, not every offense has to be a threes-and-free-throws masterpiece, but it’s impossible to have a good offense if you don’t do anything efficiently. In fact, the Bulls were lucky to win 42 games last season, considering every single player in their rotation (except for Nikola Mirotic) had a negative net rating on the court.
Both Dwyane Wade and, in particular, Rajon Rondo seem like terrible fits for Hoiberg’s offense. Wade is a smart cutter and can work both on and off the ball, but Rondo does literally nothing if he’s not handling the ball. Rondo also does whatever he wants defensively, which isn’t going to help a defense that was just middle-of-the-pack last season.
Chicago added big names during the offseason and the team, internally at the very least, expects to be quite good. Fighting for 50 wins is probably quite unrealistic for this Bulls roster, however, and Hoiberg may end up being the fall guy.
28. David Fizdale (Memphis)
For the past few years, Fizdale has been one of the most highly thought of assistant coaches in the NBA. As a first-year head coach, he has a lot to prove and not an easy situation around him, as Dave Joerger did a solid job with the Grizzlies and the roster is aging.
Chandler Parsons should be a perfect fit on the roster, and the Grizzlies were in desperate need of his shooting, ballhandling and passing. But with injuries to Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, plus an aging Zach Randolph who is probably not a starting-quality player anymore, the challenge to stay competitive in the West is a tough one.
While it’s hard to gauge what type of coach Fizdale will be, he has talked about having the team play at a faster tempo, a mistake Joerger made with the Grizzlies but one he was able to quickly correct. We’ll see if Fizdale has better luck.
27. Nate McMillan (Indiana)
Under Frank Vogel, the Pacers consistently ranked at the top of the NBA in defensive efficiency, including being third last season allowing just 100.2 points per 100 possessions – an impressive feat considering Vogel managed it first with Roy Hibbert and David West, and then again with Myles Turner and Ian Mahinmi.
With the additions of Jeff Teague and Al Jefferson to the roster, the Pacers have two new players who are clearly minus defenders into their rotation, though their third big free agency addition, Thaddeus Young, is quite good.
McMillan faces multiple challenges. The first is keeping the defense elite, and the second is finding ways to keep spacing and efficiency at a reasonable level. The offensive talent looks good on paper since the Pacers have an abundance of players who can score 16-18 points per game in the right role, but the problem is few have actually been efficient… and most need the ball to succeed.
George Hill was a wonderful fit next to Paul George since he was able to play off the ball, guard multiple positions and run an efficient pick-and-roll if required. Teague isn’t the shooter Hill is (Teague shot 40 percent from three last season, but below 30 percent on long two-pointers, and has never been above average before) and not nearly as good as a defender. Young has never developed a consistent three-pointer and has struggled to be an average player in shooting efficiency his entire career. Jefferson never gets to the free-throw line and relies almost exclusively on hook shots.
In the past, McMillan has had a reputation as a defensive coach, but in his 10 seasons as a head coach in the NBA his teams have never ranked in the Top 10 in defensive efficiency. For years, the Pacers have talked about increasing their pace of play, but McMillan’s teams have consistently been among the slowest in the league – and during a time from the early 2000’s to 2012 with the Blazers, when there was a much smaller emphasis on pace.
26. Brett Brown (Philadelphia)
It’s a pretty strange thing, but after three years as a head coach in the NBA Brown’s grade remains largely incomplete. We have almost no idea what type of coach he is, although the Sixers have focused on analytically-friendly traits in their offense and defense, such as chasing steals and high three-point rates (too bad no one on the roster has been able to make them). With Sam Hinkie out and Bryan Colangelo in, we’ll see if those tendencies change.
It’s easy to fall in love with the narrative that Brown is a genius coach and a great mentor for young guys, but since there are so many talented head coaches in the NBA it’s hard to rank Brown higher at this point.
For next year, the challenge Brown is going to face is managing the frontline rotation. The Sixers have three players who are at their best at center – Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid. And both Ben Simmons (when he returns from injury) and Dario Saric should play power forward in the modern NBA. There’s a chance Noel gets traded soon, but even so the frontline remains relatively crowded.
Brown will have lots of opportunities to experiment here – Simmons at point guard, looking for the right combination where Saric can play small forward and finding ways to play Embiid, Noel and Okafor together. Some variations will work and others won’t, but keeping all the young guys happy and motivated to develop remains the first priority.
25. Alvin Gentry (New Orleans)
The hiring of Gentry was considered a coup by NBA analysts in the summer of 2015, but since then no one has had his stock fall faster.
Injuries were a big problem all year for the Pelicans, but even so what remains most disappointing was how bad the Pelicans played defensively. Anthony Davis seemed to take a step back and was constantly either not engaged or late on rotations. Omer Asik is probably the worst offensive player in the league, but with Asik and Davis together on the court the Pelicans should have been able to sniff decency on defense. For the season, the Pelicans ranked 28th in defensive efficiency allowing 107.3 points per 100 possessions and allowed opponents to shoot 63.7 percent in the restricted area.
Moving Davis more to the perimeter and elbows was supposed to help Davis stretch his shooting out to the three-point line and extend his abilities as a passer. Davis is a great player, but he hasn’t quite taken the next step as a playmaker so that he can really be the offensive hub. Instead, Davis’ efficiency took a dip and just 29.9 percent of his attempts came from within three feet of the basket, compared to 37.6 percent in the previous years, per Basketball-Reference.com.
New Orleans brought in some interesting additions during the offseason. Solomon Hill, Langston Galloway and E’Twaun Moore can all potentially switch and guard multiple positions around Davis, and for Gentry, his main challenge will be getting the defense to an acceptable level. The offense should always be quite good with Davis at center, but the key number to follow with him will be his assists (only at 1.8 per game for his career).
24. Jason Kidd (Milwaukee)
Kidd’s three-year coaching career has been defined by extreme swings. He started off terribly with Brooklyn, but finished strong after Brook Lopez was injured for the season and Kevin Garnett moved to center.
In Kidd’s first year with the Bucks, the team outperformed expectations tremendously. Kidd’s defense built upon doubling and using length and athleticism in the passing lanes led the Bucks to the second best defensive efficiency in the NBA.
Sticking Greg Monroe and Jabari Parker on the frontline completely torpedoed the defense. Monroe just wasn’t a great fit with his lumbering style of play and Parker, like most rookies, was completely lost on virtually every possession. Khris Middleton also took a real step back defensively.
The Bucks ranked 23rd in offensive efficiency last season, and one particular frustration with Kidd was that he didn’t encourage Parker to extend his shooting range toward the three-point arc, only slightly increasing Parker’s mid-range attempts towards the end of the season. Parker showed his ability to shoot the three in college, and that’s something he definitely should do in the NBA as a mobile stretch power forward.
23. Scott Brooks (Washington)
During his time with the Thunder, Brooks was among the most polarizing coaches in the NBA. His rotation decisions (such as sticking with Kendrick Perkins in the 2012 Finals against the Heat) and simple offensive tactics have been highly criticized, while Brooks’ defenders have pointed to the loyalty and commitment Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and other players always had towards him.
The Thunder’s performance in the 2016 playoffs probably proved at least some of the criticism correct. Billy Donovan was much quicker to make crucial strategic changes from one series to another (going from big against the Spurs to small versus the Warriors). Despite Donovan’s struggles during the regular season, he did fantastically in the playoffs and the Thunder were the better team against the Warriors over the stretch of seven games. It’s hard to imagine Brooks being able to outmaneuver Steve Kerr in such a way.
Brooks is now going to be put in a different type of test than he’s ever been in during his coaching career. The Wizards had a down season in 2015-16 and are expected to bounce back, and John Wall wants to compete in the playoffs now.
It’s hard to judge how much better the Thunder could have been in the postseason with a better coach, or if they would have been better at all. But with the Wizards we should be able to get a good view of Brooks’ coaching capabilities, and whether or not the Wizards bounce back into the playoff picture will give us a pretty straightforward answer.
22. Kenny Atkinson (Brooklyn)
Atkinson is one of the most difficult guys to judge on this list since he has no prior head coaching experience. However, all the early signs point to him potentially being a breakout coach once Brooklyn is able to build a decent roster. Though there’s some risk that will take a while, and Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov has never been known as the patient type. By the time newly appointed general manager Sean Marks has built a solid foundation for the next good Nets team, who knows what will happen.
Atkinson has spent the past four years as an assistant coach for the Atlanta Hawks and was credited as being a big part of the Hawks’ player development program. In the past few years, Atlanta has done a great job of developing wing players like Kent Bazemore and DeMarre Carroll. The biggest success has been Paul Millsap, who at age 31 just had the best season of his career. Atkinson was also with the Knicks during the time of ‘Linsanity’ and Lin had high praise for him.
Atkinson may end up in a Brett Brown-esque situation where his positive impact isn’t talked about often, but he might just surprise us all.
21. Jeff Hornacek (New York)
Ironically, the fact that Hornacek did such a wonderful job in his first year as a head coach for the Suns – leading the team to an unexpected 48 wins and the second-highest point differential ever for a team that didn’t make the playoffs – may have ended up costing him his job.
Similar to Hoiberg, Hornacek faces the challenge of living up to expectations of highly-publicized signings in Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose. And similarly to Hoiberg, those players may not end up being worth the hype and fingers could be pointed at the coaching staff.
Hornacek has the potential to be a perfect mix between the triangle and modern spread pick-and-roll concepts offensively, since he ran quite a bit of the triangle action with the Suns but was able to keep the offense at a high pace. The messages from the Knicks are rather mixed on the topic, and it’s probably unreliable to focus too much on what is being said by Phil Jackson or Hornacek, but it’s something we’ll learn quickly as the season starts.
Noah should do well from the high-post action in the triangle, and Carmelo Anthony should be on the receiving end of some funky post entries that will get him room to work in isolation. On the other hand, Kristaps Porzingis and Rose are probably better off running the floor and playing in spacing.
You can find Mika Honkasalo on Twitter @mhonkasalo.