10. Dave Joerger (Sacramento)
Even at the NBA level, there are some “system” coaches who are at their best teaching a specific philosophy in terms of either offense or defense. Many of these coaches can sometimes look fantastic and even compete for Coach of the Year in their very best years with a personnel that perfectly fits their style of play.
Joerger has proved himself more versatile than most coaches.
When Joerger took over as the head coach of the Grizzlies back in 2013-14, he clearly made a mistake in the beginning trying to implement a faster pace. Memphis started off the year 15-19, but what’s impressive is that they changed tremendously in-season and finished the year with 50 wins. Joerger simplified the offense, slowed down the pace and found better ways of putting his players in positions to succeed.
The Grizzlies vastly outperformed their point differential during Joerger’s career in win totals, and he was always tinkering and experimenting with rotations to get the most out of his teams.
That being said, Joerger now faces the toughest job in the NBA, which is being the head coach of the Sacramento Kings. From dealing with crazy front office decisions to keeping DeMarcus Cousins happy, Joerger has tough tasks ahead of him. But among the coaches the Kings have had recently, Joerger is the best, and has a real shot at turning the franchise around.
9. Doc Rivers (LA Clippers)
Rivers has the reputation of being a “rah-rah”-type coach who can get players to play hard and buy into his concept. As subtext, however, calling Rivers a “great motivator” or something similar is often a veiled disregard for the other parts of his coaching.
While it’s true that Rivers could have been more creative with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan (or even Chris Paul) in the rotation – something he seems committed to this season – he also runs a pretty nice offense and defense nowadays, with the flexibility to change when need be.
When Griffin missed most of the season, the Clippers quickly switched to a spread pick-and-roll offense and away from some of the high post actions Rivers had been running since his days with the Celtics. Suddenly one day, and I do literally mean one day, the Clippers had a new offense that was just as explosive without Griffin. Paul played a huge part in making that happen, but Rivers does deserve credit. Without Griffin, the Clip ranked sixth in offensive efficiency last season, and their defense actually improved from previous years, ranking fourth allowing just 100.9 points per 100 possessions.
Rivers’ defense is largely copied from Thibodeau’s concepts of overloading the strong side and running shooters off the three-point line, and even with small guards who are extremely questionable defenders (Jamal Crawford being the prime example), the Clippers were in the Top 10 in fewest three-pointers allowed last season.
8. Tom Thibodeau (Minnesota)
Thibodeau’s defensive concepts have changed the NBA significantly, and the obvious stuff about his system is pretty straightforward. Focus on defensive rebounding. Don’t foul. Deny penetration. Don’t allow three-point attempts.
Here’s a quick rundown on how those goals are achieved strategically:
- Force baseline. When recovering to a shooter or defending a side pick-and-roll, always force the drive baseline. This has the added effect of limiting the passing angles available to the offensive player and helping the weak-side big know where to rotate every time.
- Overload the strong side. This means keeping potentially all five guys on the same side of the floor shrinking driving lanes. A focus here is also to limit passing angles so that situations where defenders have to recover long distances to run players off the three-point line.
- Run opponents off the three-point line while forcing baseline. Never. Ever. Middle penetration. Don’t gamble and stay solid.
Thibodeau is a great coach, and Timberwolves fans have real reasons to be extremely excited about the possibility of success already this season. Last year, the Timberwolves ranked 11th in offensive efficiency and 26th defensively. It’s hard to imagine Thibs coaching a below-average defense, and all the offense has to do is stay the same and the Wolves will be pushing Top 10 on both sides of the court. That’s enough to start pushing 46 or 47 wins.
Thibodeau has been criticized for running his players to the ground, and the crazy minutes with Luol Deng and Joakim Noah were a legitimate problem. With the Wolves, Thibodeau has to be able to take the longer view and not try to squeeze every win available this year.
7. Brad Stevens (Boston)
Stevens is currently everyone’s favorite coach, and how the Celtics managed to rank sixth in defense playing front lines that heavily relied on Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk (and David Lee played quite a bit during his 30-game stint) is a mystery.
The value of coaching is typically first seen in the defensive numbers, since offense relies more on talent while a good defense can be built only with players buying in, trying hard and working together on a string.
Stevens has already done that part and the defense is likely to be even better with Al Horford, who is among the best team defenders in the NBA. What’s exciting to see is if this is the year Stevens’ offense takes the jump from “OK” to “somewhere approaching elite”. The Celtics already ranked fourth in assist-to-turnover ratio, and the team was in the top half in three-point rate despite being miserable in terms of percentages.
Marcus Smart was practically the worst shooter in NBA history, but was allowed to shoot and it’s possible Stevens giving him that confidence will pay off big. Horford brings extra spacing and lineups with Horford paired with Olynyk should be among the best shooting units in the NBA.
6. Steve Kerr (Golden State)
Mark Jackson deserves credit for turning the Warriors into an elite defensive team, and that required a change in mindset from the entire organization. But by the end of the 2013-14 season, it became clear Jackson wouldn’t be the right man to take the Warriors to the next level, and his stagnant offense was holding back a potentially unguardable Stephen Curry-led offense.
Overall, Kerr is a great coach and much better for Golden State. The Warriors turned around their stagnant offense quickly and with Kevin Durant in the fold are likely to be the most efficient offense in NBA history. Defensively, Kerr didn’t change what was already working and Kerr has a healthy attitude toward modern concepts about resting players.
That being said, Kerr was far from perfect in the playoffs and in the Finals against the Cavaliers last season. In Game 7, when Anderson Varejao should have clearly been excised from the rotation in favor of virtually any other option, he played eight minutes and ended up with a +/- of -9. Festus Ezeli played 10 minutes, finished 0-for-4 on shots that were at the rim, and was also a -9 in the game. The worst decision Kerr made was bringing Ezeli back in the middle of the fourth quarter for a horrible stint.
Kerr’s first instinct has been to approach situations via the traditional route, and going with Ezeli’s rim protection was the wrong move.
He is one of the best coaches in the NBA, but at the very top small margins matter. Would the Warriors have won the title if Ezeli hadn’t been subbed in? I don’t know, but it’s hard to argue that improved their win probability.
5. Terry Stotts (Portland)
Relatively quietly, considering his incredible accomplishment as the head coach of the Trail Blazers, Stotts has cemented his position among the best.
Stotts’ “Flow Offense” is the wonderful fit with multiple ballhandlers. After the initial action is run, the secondary ballhandler is put into position to attack the a scrambling defense off the dribble and this dynamic is perfect with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
Defensively, Stotts’ style has been to be extremely conservative, and the Blazers have been among the most passive defenses throughout his tenure. The Blazers never hedge on pick-and-rolls, and limit the amount the help defenders on the perimeter have to give towards the middle. This has shown itself in the statistics, and Portland ranked twice in a row as the best team limiting opponent three-point attempts from 2013-14 to 2014-15.
One under-the-radar miracle Stotts pulled out of his hat was turning Mason Plumlee into one of the best short-roll passers in the NBA.
Plumlee short roll passing
Being able to pass on the roll is incredibly valuable in the modern NBA, and the best player to do it right now is probably Draymond Green. As opponents double McCollum and Lillard on the perimeter, making that extra pass is crucial for the Blazers offense to flow. Another player who succeeded playing for Stotts is Al-Farouq Aminu, who is a perfect small-ball power forward in today’s NBA.
Stotts has exceeded expectations multiple times, and while he isn’t talked about as much as a Brad Stevens, arguably Stotts has done the better job of the two.
4. Mike Budenholzer (Atlanta)
One of the main reasons to be optimistic about Dwight Howard having a bounce-back season is Budenholzer. Howard seems committed to the idea of wanting the ball more in the post and being involved in the offense in a way that’s probably unhealthy given his limitations today, but in the Hawks’ offense there’s so much to do that Howard may feel more involved even if he doesn’t get the ball.
Unlike with the Rockets, even if you don’t score in Budenholzer’s offense, there’s a ton to do on every possession. Atlanta is going to be different this season with Dennis Schroeder running the offense and less shooting on the court, and it will be interesting to see what tactical changes happen.
Budenholzer loves shooting and puts his players in tremendous position to succeed. Just in the last few seasons, we’ve seen DeMarre Carroll, Kyle Korver and Kent Bazemore have career years on the wing, and Paul Millsap somehow managed by far his best year defensively at the age of 31. Each of these players was at the age where you wouldn’t expect massive jumps, and getting his players to another level has helped the Hawks overperform expectations.
The Hawks were a horrible rebounding team and didn’t have a traditional rim protection, yet they were one of only two teams (the Spurs being the other) to allow less than 100 points per 100 possessions. Many are expecting the Hawks to take a step back this year, and it’s possible age starts catching up to many of their starters, but Budenholzer is the main reason to think they can hold on to a playoff spot.
3. Steve Clifford (Charlotte)
For three years in a row, the Hornets have had the lowest turnover percentage in the NBA. A miraculous stat considering even teams like the Mavericks, who are always somewhere near the top, tend to move between a range of around five positions per year.
Additionally, Charlotte ranked fifth in assist-to-turnover ratio last season. First in defensive rebounding percentage, even while playing many small-ball lineups. Second in fewest points allowed off turnovers and third in fewest points allowed in the paint.
Those numbers are heavily tied to Clifford. Nicolas Batum had a career year, Jeremy Lin was among the best sixth men in the league. Marvin Williams looked like he could be out of the league two summers ago, but after a great season at power forward earned a $54.5 million contract.
Like the Hawks, there’s reason to be skeptical about whether or not the Hornets can keep up with past successes again this season. Batum was terrible in the Olympics, who knows what Williams looks like this year and the loss of Lin is tough.
Having Michael Kidd-Gilchrist back should help. Even if Kidd-Gilchrist can’t shoot, he’s a fantastic defender and the Hornets have always been at their best with him on the court. Kidd-Gilchrist has played just 62 games in the last two seasons, but in each of those years he’s been by far the best player on the team in plus/minus statistics, including being +15.2 per 100 possessions last season in 205 minutes played.
2. Rick Carlisle (Dallas)
The Dallas Mavericks currently have four point guards: Seth Curry, Deron Williams, JJ Barea and Devin Harris. Three out of four of those guys are major injury risks, and yet we can expect the Mavs’ offense to be pretty good once again. That’s a testament to the combined power of Rick Carlisle and Dirk Nowitzki to turn any point guard into an effective player in pick-and-roll.
This season, the Mavericks have a shot at playing some pretty good defensive lineups. Wesley Matthews is a full year removed from his Achilles tear, Justin Anderson should be pretty good on the wing, and despite all his faults Harrison Barnes is a great post defender and good in team schemes. If Andrew Bogut can stay effective and relatively clear from nagging injuries that have limited his effectiveness for major chunks of some seasons, Dallas can throw out a five-man unit where everyone on the court is an above-average defender.
For the offense to run smoothly the only requirement really is for Dirk not to fall off a cliff – which is a real possibility and something that many predicted already last season after a terrible Eurobasket performance. Defenses are probably slightly overreacting to Dirk’s gravity on the court nowadays, but if he can stay close to 40 percent from deep the lane will continue to open.
1. Gregg Popovich (San Antonio)
During the last few playoff runs by the Spurs, Gregg Popovich has done some questionable stuff with his rotation and has probably been a bit too conservative in moving Kawhi Leonard to power forward – despite those lineups working wonderfully.
Even with a few minor (and legitimate) questions about the decision he’s made, Popovich is the best coach in the NBA by a significant margin and would have been right to win every Coach of the Year-award over the past six or seven years.
On the floor, Popovich has coached multiple different teams, from post-up heavy to motion offenses to an interesting hybrid in-between today. Tim Duncan was the cornerstone of the Spurs for 19 years, and it speaks volumes about Duncan, Popovich and San Antonio that in his final year the Spurs won the most regular season games they ever have – a stark contrast to the final years of players like Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and other superstars.
The 2013-14 Spurs that won the title after the craziness of the year before is among the most memorable teams in modern NBA history. San Antonio won the last three games by an average of 19 points, and after being down 22-8 in Game 5, the Spurs went on a 62-27 run over the next 25 minutes of play. That stretch is the best extended run of team basketball ever.
You can find Mika Honkasalo on Twitter @mhonkasalo.