Continuing on with the three-part series that started last week, this week I will be going through coaches who currently rank as mid-tier in terms of the positive contributions they are likely to bring to their respective teams.
While last week most of those mentioned had either never being NBA head coaches before or have had bouts of poor performance, this week we’ll already start getting to some who have been successful in one way or another.
Most of the guys on today’s list are great basketball minds and even at the NBA level can compete with anyone, but also have some questions about them that still need answering.
20. Luke Walton (LA Lakers)
Walton has put himself in a fantastic position to succeed. Next to Steve Kerr and Golden State’s other assistant, defensive savant Ron Adams, Walton has had the opportunity to learn from some of the best.
He is known as a player’s coach and a positive influence on everyone in the locker room, something that was sorely missed in the Byron Scott era. In addition to being tremendously likeable, Walton can’t possibly be worse in terms of tactics and strategy than Scott, meaning the Lakers only have upwards to go.
The Lakers have intriguing young prospects in D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, Ivica Zubac and Julius Randle, but we don’t know how good any of those guy will be yet – and it’s certain the core isn’t good enough to compete yet. Under Walton, all L.A. has to do next season is see some tangible progress from their young guys, and avoid placing any limits on their minutes by playing veterans like Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng too much in front of them.
Being a part of the relatively early phase of a team’s life cycle, hopefully on its way to contention eventually, Walton will have time to grow alongside his players.
19. Mike D’Antoni (Houston)
D’Antoni was a big-name hire by the Rockets and someone you’d expect to be higher on this list considering his half-decade experience leading teams to the best offensive rating in the league.
His 7-seconds-or-less Suns with Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire changed the way NBA offenses are run today, making D’Antoni one of the most influential basketball coaches in modern history. The Suns were always better defensively than they were given credit for as well since the league hadn’t internalized the idea of points per possession as a more valuable metric than just absolute points given up.
Although he revolutionized the NBA’s spread pick-and-roll concepts, D’Antoni being a top head coach in the league once again isn’t necessarily a sure-fire thing.
The NBA has integrated much from D’Antoni’s Suns, and the offensive advantage he used to have isn’t going to be as large anymore. It’s not that D’Antoni is worse, just that everyone else has gotten smarter.
The first challenge for D’Antoni this season will be getting the offense to the level it’s supposed to be at with James Harden running the floor and pick-and-rolls with a spread floor. Ryan Anderson may be the worst defensive big in the NBA, and Eric Gordon can’t stay in front of anyone, but both are among the most prolific shooters at their positions. Adding an extra bit of creativity to the mix should be enough to get the offense competing for the No. 2 slot after the Warriors, with the primary competition being the Clippers, Spurs and Cavaliers.
On the other end of the floor is where the Rockets can really influence their ceiling. Just getting to average would be enough to push this team easily above 50 wins. How that happens remains a mystery. Trevor Ariza is quickly falling off a cliff defensively and is coming off a horrible season for him at that end. Corey Brewer is out of position so often it’s as if he’s doing it as a matter of principle.
18. Frank Vogel (Orlando)
In his first season with the Magic, Vogel has the potential to push the team higher than anyone expects, and the main reason for it is defense. Over the past five seasons under Vogel, the Pacers ranked third, seventh, twice in a row first and 10th. Vogel is practically incapable of coaching anything other than an elite defense, and with the additions of Bismack Biyombo and Serge Ibaka you’d expect that trend to continue.
However, Vogel still has a lot to prove offensively. Indiana’s end-of-game offense for the last few years has been relatively stagnant, and many Pacers fans got fed up with watching Monta Ellis shoot endless long two-pointers after no movement.
Additionally, he has seemed to completely missed the boat on what Aaron Gordon is good at, and what could make him a potentially special player in the future. Due to Orlando’s offseason moves, Gordon will be spending time at small forward, and Vogel has already stated that he will be using Gordon “like Paul George”. This seems like a borderline insane idea, considering Gordon can potentially be the perfect power forward for the modern NBA – a great athlete who can switch ball screens and guard all five positions, a great transition runner and finisher, and an excellent passer in short-roll situations.
17. Erik Spoelstra (Miami)
Among the least controversial statements about any NBA head coach is saying Erik Spoelstra is a good one. And one major advantage Spoelstra has over most of his peers is the support he has gotten from Pat Riley, through both good and bad teams, which has allowed him to grow into his job.
Spoelstra’s teams have uniformly exceeded expectations even when he hasn’t had LeBron James, and this season will be an interesting test to see how versatile he is.
The Heat have ranked among the bottom in pace over the past five years, but with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh (health is more important than basketball, best wishes to Bosh) out of the picture, the Heat need to be faster to get the best out of their roster.
Goran Dragic’s career year came in 2013-14 when the Suns were among the fastest teams in the NBA in terms of possessions per game, and while he’s slowed down a bit as Dragic is heading into his age 30 season, he is probably still at his best running a fast team. Overall, the Heat have a relatively questionable wing rotation and second-year player Justise Winslow is probably best at power forward due to his inability to shoot, meaning the Heat have to get into the teeth of the defense before the defense can set itself to get the most out of Hassan Whiteside rolling to the rim.
16. Michael Malone (Denver)
Malone can point to two successes in his head coaching career that potentially give an indication that he can enjoy long career.
Probably the only happy era Sacramento Kings fans can point to in their franchise’s recent history were the first 14 games of the 2014-15 season, when the team started 9-5 until DeMarcus Cousins went down. The Kings lost eight of their following 10 games – as you do when by far the best player on your team is out, something Vivek Ranadive wasn’t aware of – and Malone was promptly fired.
Cousins was unhappy with the firing of Malone and it turns out for good reason. The Nuggets had a pretty good season in 2015-16, considering Wilson Chandler missed the entire year. Everything you could have hoped for from a young team, Malone provided. Denver stayed respectable throughout the year, and Malone quickly figured out how to use Nikola Jokic, who ended up being probably the best rookie after Karl-Anthony Towns.
Emmanuel Mudiay was atrocious at the start of the year and only shot 34.0 percent from the field until the All-Star break with a disastrous turnover rate. However, Malone allowed Mudiay to play through his issues and by the end of the year real progress had been made. Over the last 30 games of the season, Mudiay significantly cut his turnover rate and shot 36.4 percent on three-pointers while increasing his attempts. Mudiay got much better at everything related to NBA basketball, which was in part due to Malone being patient with him.
Gary Harris basically hadn’t played at all before Malone took over, but by the end of the year he began to look like one of the most promising shooting guards of the future – a player very similar to a Bradley Beal.
15. Billy Donovan (Oklahoma City)
Before the playoffs, it would have been hard to imagine Donovan making the top half of any head coach rankings, but by the end of the year he had more than proved his worth.
The transition for college coaches to the NBA is tough, and Donovan went through growing pains during the season trying to find lineups and different combinations that work at the NBA level. The end result were rather unimpressive regular-season statistics as the Thunder had a net rating of +6.9 ending up at 55-wins, somewhat below their best years under Scott Brooks.
However, Donovan ended up using the regular season in a smart fashion – as an experimentation ground. This paid off in the playoffs where Donovan was quick to adjust from one series to another. The Spurs and Warriors ranked as the sixth and seventh best teams in NBA history by Basketball-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System, a metric that takes into account point differential and strength of schedule (and the Top 10 still includes seven champions, even though the Spurs and Warriors didn’t win the title last season). Against San Antonio, Donovan played primarily big lineups, with the Enes Kanter-Serge Ibaka-Steven Adams trio combining to play over 90 minutes per game. Over the last three games of the Western Conference semifinals, the Thunder were the better team and had essentially figured out the Spurs.
Against the Warriors in the Conference Finals, the Thunder were up 3-1 and Donovan adjusted brilliantly to a faster opponent by essentially dropping Kanter out of the rotation. Kanter had absolutely killed the Spurs on the offensive glass, and most coaches would have felt pressure ride out that momentum, but Donovan knew he would have a tough time staying on the floor defensively against the Warriors.
Even though Oklahoma City lost the series, it’s probably safe to say they were the better team overall. In Games 6 and 7, the Thunder managed to shoot just 10-for-50 (20 percent) on three-pointers including a 3-for-23 performance in Game 6 when Klay Thompson bailed out the Warriors by making 11 by himself. The Thunder only needed to shoot reasonably well in either of the last two games to make it out of that series.
14. Stan Van Gundy (Detroit)
It’s hard to separate Van Gundy’s general manager alter ego from the head coach nowadays, considering Detroit’s roster has all the imprints of GM Van Gundy over it.
The most blatant hallmark of Van Gundy’s handiwork is the amount of mid-tier contracts the Pistons have given out recently, and the current salary cap situation the team finds itself in. For the 2016-17 season, the Pistons currently have one of the highest payrolls, which seems crazy for a team without a playoff win under his construction.
Jon Leuer, Ish Smith and Boban Marjanovic are all under contract until either the 2019 or 2020 offseason, which is nuts considering they are all projected to be backups. Van Gundy likes to pay players long-term contracts so that the team is functionally set for the future, and he can focus on coaching. However, this leads to a problem if the team doesn’t have the upside to contend and lack the flexibility to search for those final pieces to the puzzle. The frontline is incredibly crowded right now, and some of the wing shooting with Tobias Harris and Marcus Morris remains questionable.
Andre Drummond is best at rolling to the rim with the floor spread, but Van Gundy may be in trouble at finding enough space for him to do so effectively. The last two seasons, Drummond has been incredibly inefficient, posting a True Shooting Percentage of 49.9 last season (league average is 53 percent) as Van Gundy has pushed him to become a better post-up player. The Pistons are moving into a phase where they expect to compete, and we’ll see if Van Gundy still has the patience to try and extend Drummond’s game after having limited success recently.
Overall, Van Gundy is still a very good head coach, but general manager SVG may have hurt coach SVG’s chances to win COY award.
13. Tyronn Lue (Cleveland)
It’s too early to put Lue at the top of the NBA head coaching ladder in terms of strategy, ability to develop players and being versatile enough to find different ways to succeed, but he absolutely deserves a spot in the top half of the head coach ranking right now due to a simple reason… The Cavaliers wouldn’t have won the championship under David Blatt.
For all the talk about how to arrange pick-and-roll sets, running motion offenses, deciding rules for help rotations on defense – and I don’t want to dismiss Lue here, he may turn out to be a genius at those things in the long run – the most important aspect Lue got right versus what Blatt did was keeping the chemistry good. While Blatt was focused on proving what he brings to the table and how he’s a champion over in Europe, Lue allowed the Cavaliers to be themselves and install a combined leadership approach with James.
This year, Cleveland will be pushed strategically further than last year. The Celtics are now better and more versatile with the addition of Al Horford, and the Cavaliers find themselves rather thin at center and point guard. The wing rotation should be fine once JR Smith eventually re-signs (and Mike Dunleavy’s back being in OK condition should help too), and it will be up to Lue to figure out the best way to play Richard Jefferson and James at power forward without losing sight of keeping both fresh for the playoffs. For the Cavs only the postseason matters, and we’ll see how Lue positions the team to succeed once we head into spring.
12. Dwane Casey (Toronto)
Finding Casey this high in these rankings, ahead of great coaches like Van Gundy, D’Antoni and Vogel, may be a surprise, but what Casey has done over the past few seasons can’t be denied.
After trading Rudy Gay back in 2013 the Raptors have had a record of 147-81, a .645 win rate. The Raptors have ranked in the Top 10 in each of these years in point differential, the defense has been among the Top 10 twice and the offense topped out in 2014-15 as the third best in the NBA.
Toronto’s offense isn’t really anything to marvel at, and has been at times a slightly boring string of pin-down screens, but what Casey has done is put his players in positions to succeed. Masai Ujiri is one of the best general managers in the league today, and Casey’s three-year $18 million extension speaks volumes about the confidence the front office has in him.
One of the frustrating parts of last season was the Raptors’ starting frontline of Jonas Valanciunas and Luis Scola, who somehow managed to post a negative net rating while together on the court, which was beyond a miracle for the starting frontcourt of a 56-win team.
The Raptors probably lucked out in the playoffs a bit with Valanciunas’ injuries, which meant that Biyombo was forced to take on a larger role. In many ways, Biyombo is a better fit defensively in a playoffs context than Valanciunas, since Biyombo is better on switches and overall defensively. The last few years, as we’ve gone further into the playoffs series have almost uniformly become smaller, and it will be interesting to see what happens this season with Valanciunas in that regard.
For Casey, the big challenge remains the postseason. Toronto has proved to be a very good regular season team, but the goal in the East is beating the Cavaliers, and getting there will require an extra bit of creativity from Casey.
11. Quin Snyder (Utah)
Snyder is currently the most underrated NBA head coach, and there’s a ton to look forward to this season if you’re a Jazz fan.
Since the All-Star break back in 2014, the Jazz have reliably been an above 50-win team with everyone healthy, and even last season when the Jazz were missing Dante Exum for the entire year, and Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors missing major chunks of the season (partially at the same time, exacerbating the problems), the five most played lineups with Gobert were excellent, outscoring opponents by an average of 11.4 points per 100 possessions. In the modern NBA, it’s tough to run a proper offense without a good point guard and having Shelvin Mack starting wasn’t good for the team – replace Mack with Exum and George Hill and it’s a whole different look.
The Jazz have already shown the ability to be a great defensive team, ranking eighth last season in defensive rating and first the year before post-All-Star break. The question for the team is now trying to find a way to build an above-average offense, and some of the concepts Snyder has brought to the team can be seen in the numbers already, and those things should transfer over to success.
Despite playing two traditional bigs at all times, Utah ranked 12th in three-point rate on the season. Hill is a very good stand-still shooter from deep, and having Joe Johnson allows Snyder to experiment with some small-ball lineups that should be loaded with shooting threats. Tactically, Snyder’s offense is as solid as any in the league, built on constant cutting, player motion and ball movement. Utah ranked first in passes per game last year, and the team also had the second highest ratio of corner three-pointers. A key metric for the Jazz is their ratio between offensive rebounding (an advantage they want to exploit with two bigs on the court) and allowing transition points, and the team ranked among the best in both categories last year.
You can find Mika Honkasalo on Twitter @mhonkasalo.
Analytics, Billy Donovan, Coaching, Dwayne Casey, Erik Spoelstra, Frank Vogel, Luke Walton, Michael Malone, Mike D'Antoni, Quin Snyder, Stan Van Gundy, Top, Tyronn Lue, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers